Seattle Neighborhoods: Madison Park -- Thumbnail History

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 11/16/2000
  • Essay 2808
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The Madison Park neighborhood of Seattle is situated on the western shore of Lake Washington. The Duwamish peoples who originally inhabited it called it "Where One Chops." The Duwamish shared the forested banks, swamps, and inlets with bear, deer, otter, and mink. After Seattle was founded in the 1850s, Madison Park became a favorite picnic and recreational area. Judge John J. McGilvra (1827-1903), the area's first developer, purchased land and opened Madison Street at his own expense in 1864-1865. Today Madison Park is an affluent, end-of-the-carline residential district on Lake Washington which has a small, elegant shopping area.

At Home in 'Laurel Shade'

Judge John J. McGilvra was a transplanted Illinois resident who once practiced law in association with Abraham Lincoln. He acquired 420 acres of land at Madison Park in the 1860s. He bought his lakeshore property for $5 an acre when sections of school land were sold to finance the University of Washington.

To reach his land, in 1864-1865 McGilvra cut a straight-line road through the forest from downtown Seattle to Madison Park. Today his road is known as Madison Street. It was named after U.S. President James Madison, and is the only direct route in Seattle between salt water (Puget Sound) and fresh water (Lake Washington).

McGilvra built "Laurel Shade," his family home at 1500 42nd Avenue. Until 1880, the McGilvras were the only residents of Madison Park. Either loneliness or commercial prospects -- perhaps both -- impelled McGilvra to plat most of his property for sale, stipulating that only "cottages" could be built on the lots. Judge McGilvra set aside 24 acres for public use, hence the name "Madison Park."

Within a decade Seattleites found their way to the Park. It became the site of summer outings and a "tent city," buttressed by Wagner's band playing Gilbert and Sullivan pieces and Sousa marches on a barge. A baseball team -- the first professional champions in the Pacific Northwest -- practiced on a crude diamond build in 1890, Seattle's first ballpark. John Anderson's Mosquito Fleet boats made regular stops at Madison Park. An ornate boathouse was built, along with piers, a wooden promenade, twin bandstands, and shoreline seating (for, it was said, a thousand spectators) for Vaudeville acts and other entertainment. The adults drank beer and the kids drank sarsaparilla.

Prismatics and Electric Effects

A cablecar route formed by Judge McGilvra and friends (the Madison Street Cable Railway Company) eased access and crowds grew. In summer the cars ran every two minutes. In winter removable glass panels protected passengers and motormen from Northwest rain. The cablecars were emblazoned with advertisements, one poster inviting the public to enjoy "Bruns & Nina, character mimes, assisted by The Great Diana in her beautiful chameleon dance, including prismatics and electric effects."

In 1902-1903, when Seattle hired the famed Olmsted brothers to develop a Seattle park system, they bypassed Madison Park because it had few park-like "amenities." It more closely resembled a Tivoli amusement center.

The big change came in 1917. The Lake Washington Ship Canal, which connects Lake Washington, Lake Union, and Puget Sound, was opened. The water level of Lake Washington dropped nine feet, and a new, extended shoreline appeared. Two years later, a bathhouse was built at Madison Park. In 1922, the shore area, bathhouse, and surrounding greenery were transferred to the Seattle Parks Department. From then on, the quiet, glen-like waterfront playground with tennis courts and the neighborly shopping strip began to resemble the Madison Park we know today.


Paul Dorpat, Seattle Now & Then (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1984); C. H. Hanford, Seattle and Environs, 1852-1924 (Chicago and Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924); Brandt Morgan, Enjoying Seattle's Parks (Seattle: Greenwood Publications, 1979).

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