Seattle Neighborhoods: Madrona -- Thumbnail History

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 1/10/1999
  • Essay 2235
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Seattle's Madrona neighborhood overlooks Lake Washington from the eastern rim of the city. Madrona's hilly origins arise from the Vashon Glacier, which melted 40,000 years ago, leaving flood waters and ice to shape Lake Washington and other Pacific Northwest landmarks. Its first life was as a Native American hunting and fishing ground. Seattle was founded (in 1851), and from the 1880s to 1900, Madrona was overrun by loggers, stump farmers, berry pickers, and realtors. The beginning of the Madrona we know today was the introduction of the Union Trunk Line, which ran from the top of the hill at 34th Avenue and Union Street to Madrona Park and beach.

The First People

The "Inside People" were Duwamish peoples who first explored and lived in Madrona. Wild game, including bear, deer, otter, ducks, and mink were plentiful. Because of the early river systems, which have since been blocked or rerouted, migrating salmon were also caught in the great lake. Evidence of tsunamis (enormous tidal waves) have been found near Madrona, which may have obliterated nearby islands which existed according to Indian legend.

Following the 1851 founding of Seattle, loggers, picknickers, stump farmers, and realtors began to explore and then exploit the beachlands and hillsides of Madrona. Platted by real estate investors as the Cascade Addition in 1889, the Madrona lakefront became an attraction, and some visitors camped in the park for the entire summer.

In 1890, Dr. Georg H. Randell and his wife Emma and their four children homesteaded on Madrona's highest point, near the present-day (2000) 34th Avenue and Union Street junction. The Randell Additions later became the core of Madrona hill properties. Their barn was used as the first neighborhood public school.

A Scenic Route

Also in 1890, a lead company headed by J. D. Lowman and others introduced a more ambitious lakeside park and an electric trolley line (Yesler and Madison were cablecar lines). The rattling carline, first called Union Truck, was known as "one of the most scenic trolley rides to be had in the city." The route began at 34th Avenue and Union Street, moved north to Howell where it turned right (east), then meandered along several small roadways and began its dramatic descent through a forest to Madrona Park. In 1908, that private trolley line was sold to the city.

Lakeside Fun

John Ayer named the beachside park after the ubiquitous Madrona (arbutus) trees in the area. Ayer had contributed a parcel of land for the park and was a partner in the land company. To attract lot buyers, the partners build or encouraged others to build a boat dock, a dance pavilion, hotel, Japanese tea house, bath houses, wooden swings, rustic benches, and walking paths, bridges, and shelters along the lake and through the wooded hillside. The park became a regular stop for Captain John Anderson's Mosquito Fleet of lake steamers.

Soon after the lakeside fun was under way, the Seattle City Council noted in its 1893 letter to the Board of Park Commissioners that consideration should be given to "building a roadway or boulevard along Washington lake from Yesler Avenue (Leschi)" northward, which would include Madrona Park and beach.

In anticipation of the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, the city hired the Olmsted Brothers, a famous Boston landscaping firm, to design a system of city parks and boulevards. Most of Seattle's Olmsted parks and connecting boulevards were built by 1908. The Olmsted plan incorporated previous proposals such as the ambitious 1892 ideas of City Parks Superintendent E. O. Schwagerl and the 1890s bicycle trails of City Engineer (later mayor) George Cotterill. The only Olmsted "priority" park not built was along the bluff above Lake Washington between the Leschi neighborhood and Denny-Blaine, i.e., Madrona.

Grand homes as well as working-class residences were built on a large scale in the early 1900s. The first Madrona "Great Homes" were erected where lake views abound on 35th Avenue on the top of the hill. Other beautiful homes were constructed along Madrona hillsides above the beach. The community was attracting notable professionals, artists, writers, and "old Seattle" families.

Racial Tension

Since its inception, virtually all Madrona residents were white. Following World War I (1917-1919) and then World War II (1941-1945), the racial and ethnic character of Madrona began to change. Chinese people, whose forebears had come to build railroads and dig coal in the 1870s and 1880s, began to use Madrona beach and to ride the exciting electric trolleys. African Americans who had migrated north for wartime defense jobs moved with their families into the smaller Madrona homes. At first, these changes went unnoticed, but in tighter economic times, racial prejudice surfaced.

Following the U. S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, a public school desegregation case, civil rights battles began. Madrona, a community of racial and economic diversity, found itself in the middle of these issues. For example, an early community organization had a "Caucasian" race clause in its bylaws; several realtors and bankers "redlined" the neighborhood, defying non-whites to move east of 34th Avenue; some "white flight" to the suburbs was underway; a legislator's home was bombed; the Black Panthers, a civil rights group that had advocated violence in some instances, headquartered in Madrona and drilled on Madrona Playfield.

Time, patience, an enlightened Seattle School Board, the intervention of Seattle mayors and of the governor, and the involvement of community leaders brought most of these matters to peaceful resolution. By the 1970s, Madrona was once again considered a perfect neighborhood for young and old. The community's racial, religious, and ethnic diversity was well known and well accepted.

During the 1990s, Madrona settled into its role as a neighborhood of views and green space, with a lakeside park, a small but flourishing business district, and convenient access to Seattle's downtown with all its amenities.


Junius Rochester, "The Last Electric Trolley," typescript in possession of author, 1999. Also see: Brandt Morgan, Enjoying Seattle's Parks (Seattle: Greenwood Publications, 1979).

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