On September 5, 1875, settler Erasmus M. Smithers files a plat for a Town of Renton with the King County Assessor. He has lived and farmed in the Black River area for some 20 years, and, together with his wife, Diana Tobin Smithers, claimed land donation patents of nearly 500 acres. Two years prior to the plat filing, Smithers and perhaps others uncovered a seam of coal on a hillside (later named Renton Hill) providing the economic underpinnings to the small community south of Seattle. The events of Smithers family history took place during a time of scant record-keeping. Many facts and dates are questionable.
Virginia-born Erasmus Smithers (ca.1829-1905) arrived in the Seattle area in 1853 after journeying with a wagon train from the Midwest to Oregon. This was only two years following the traditional founding of Seattle by the Denny party and the same year that Washington became a territory separate from Oregon. Significantly for the history of Renton, it was also the year that coal was first discovered in the Black River valley, south of Seattle. That seam, opened and worked by a Dr. Bigelow and his partners, lasted only a short time, in part, due to the Treaty Wars of 1855-56. Young Smithers proved his worth to the community by hauling logs to Fort Madison and volunteering in the militia during the conflict.
Diana Gilman married her first husband, Henry Tobin, in Maine in 1851. She had a son, Charles, in 1852. However, by that time it seems her husband had left to explore Oregon Country. Utilizing the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, he claimed 318 acres in the Black River valley, close to the upper limit for a married couple. He fell ill and died in 1856 shortly after his wife and child had arrived to join him.
Meanwhile, Erasmus Smithers took out a claim for 160 acres just south of the Tobin claim. It is unclear which man made the first claim. In any case, circumstances led to a hasty courtship and marriage between Erasmus and the widow Tobin.
Without discounting affection between Erasmus and Diana, the marriage was very much one of convenience. While some narratives like to portray Diana as penniless, in fact she was a landed widow, one of very few single white women in the district. Erasmus was an ambitious, capable man, willing to take on the care of the widow and her young son. By joining forces, the couple became the biggest landholder in the Black River district.
The Smitherses built a rudimentary house on their property and began farming. According to the memories of their daughter, Ada Thorne (1857-1940), the farm raised potatoes, grain, and hay, presumably for cattle. Other accounts indicate that it was, at least in part, a dairy farm. Erasmus and Diana had three children, Ada, Edmund, and Fred, in addition to Diana’s son, Charles.
Although there were few settlers in the area, the Smitherses were far from alone. Early maps show an Indian village smack in the middle of the Smithers land claim. In fact, daughter Ada wrote later that, "Our little house was built on the only cleared place available, an Indian potato patch. Indians well fed, had potato seed from Hudson Bay people" (Thorne, Notes).
Erasmus Smithers is generally given credit for discovering (or re-discovering) coal in the Renton area in 1873, a find that would shape the community for decades. Historical records are vague and secondary sources differ on exactly who was present at the momentous find on Renton Hill. Some have Smithers stumbling upon lumps of coal in a stream while hunting (either alone or with companions). Others tell of men deliberately seeking out evidence of coal. Names mentioned include James (Jimmie) Moses, a Duwamish man, and a Mr. Crane. Yet another telling leaves Smithers out of it entirely, with the discovery credited to the nearly blind Captain William Renton (1818-1891) guided by James Moses.
In any event, Smithers was a founding member of the Renton Coal Company, set up with financial backing from Captain Renton, a wealthy investor. Smithers did not hold onto his share of the concern for long, selling it within a year to the manager of the newly-opened mine. With the proceeds he was able to embark on his next venture: turning his landholdings into a town.
On September 5, 1875, Smithers filed the first plat map for a Town of Renton, laying out a grid of streets and building parcels. He then proceeded to list properties for sale. The town occupied much of the eastern side of the Smithers's land. T. B. Morris and C. B. Shattuck, Smithers's partners in the mine company, also had a hand in planning the town. They chose to name it for their "angel," Captain Renton.
The original town plan encompassed approximately 20 blocks and a street grid. A diagonal right of way called Walla Walla Avenue (now Houser Way South) was established for what was to become tracks of the Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad. (The train arrived in 1877.) Later additions to the town included parallel streets named for all three founders: Smithers, Morris, and Shattuck. The original plat covered what is now Renton’s downtown core.
The Smitherses and the First Inhabitants
As mentioned above, Erasmus and Diana Smithers claimed land that was home to a large Native American village. Exact counts are impossible to obtain, but there may have been dozens of Duwamish families in permanent residence on the banks of the Black River. Anecdotes that have come down to us speak of warm relations between the family and the natives. Most accounts indicate that the Smithers allowed the Duwamish to remain on the property, rather than pushing them off as often occurred elsewhere. Ada Smithers credited her father with teaching the Indians agriculture. Certainly, he employed them to work his farm.
One story tells of Diana Smithers chasing off government agents who had arrived to escort the Indians off the land and onto reservations. Other anecdotes relate to the Duwamish Moses family, which had close contact with the Smithers family. Several generations of the family figure into Renton history. As mentioned above, one James or Jimmie Moses (ca.1847-1915) was an acquaintance and perhaps friend of the Smithers. He married a woman called Jennie (ca.1850-1937) and together they raised a family very near the Smithers residence. Upon his death in 1905, Erasmus Smithers willed an acre of his property to Jennie, a widow by that time, and she continued to live in her family home adjacent to Renton High School until her death in 1937. The irony of a white settler deeding land back to an Indian family no doubt escaped the citizenry of the time.
A Man of Property
Erasmus Smithers leveraged his land claims into a profitable real estate venture. Shortly after selling his coal interests, he built a fine home for his family, began hobnobbing with Seattle’s elites, and joined in enterprises such as the Lake Washington Improvement Company, which built the first "cuts" at Fremont and Montlake starting in 1883, and the South Prairie Coal Company in Pierce County. He served one year as a King County Commissioner (1874-75). At some point he was appointed to the board of regents of the territorial university, today’s University of Washington.
Although the Smithers's fortunes increased tremendously beginning in the 1870s due to land speculation, census records indicate that they continued farming activities, as well. The 1880 farm schedule lists the Smithers agricultural assets as 100 acres of tilled farmland, crop production of 90 tons of hay, 300 bushels of oats, and 3,000 bushels of potatoes, farm property, equipment, and livestock worth $22,100, including 30 milk cows and three horses. A newspaper farm report from 1884 describes the dairy farm as having 43 cows and one 3-year old Shorthorn bull. According to historian Morda Slauson, the Smithers Dairy continued operation under family ownership (though likely leased operations) until 1920 when it was sold to an H. P. Nielsen.
That same year the original Renton coal mine discovered by Smithers closed. Coal mining continued in various locations throughout eastern King County until 1974 when the last mine in the county, at Ravensdale, closed.
Renton, the town founded by Erasmus Smithers and others, continues to thrive with the addition of large-scale aircraft and automotive manufacturing and health care services. In 2019, grateful citizens named a public art installation, a huge dragon perched on a downtown rooftop, Erasmus.