Rainier Valley -- Thumbnail History

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 3/13/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3092
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Seattle's Rainier Valley is both a neighborhood and a geographical feature. The valley, which is not a watercourse but the low land between two ridges, extends some seven miles southeast from downtown Seattle to Lake Washington. As a neighborhood, "Rainier Valley" most frequently refers to the northern and central portions of the valley, but the name is sometimes used for the entire length of the valley including neighborhoods such as Columbia City and Rainier Beach. Coast Salish residents had a long-established trail through the valley and several permanent large cedar longhouses on the lake shore.  The first non-Indian settlers arrived in the 1850s but settlement was slow until the valley's great stands of timber were cut and milled in local sawmills. The Rainier Avenue Electric Railway, built along the present-day route of Rainier Avenue S, opened the valley to suburban and eventually urban development.  The rail line reached Columbia City in 1891 and Renton in 1896 and was a critical link until it went out of business in 1937. Rainier Valley has long been home to many immigrants, with Italian Americans and Japanese Americans predominating prior to World War II (which saw the internment of Japanese American citizens). Boom times during and after the war brought many more residents. African Americans moved from other states and from Seattle's Central Area. More recently, new waves of immigrants from Latin America and southeast Asia have made Rainier Valley home.

Native Americans

Puget Sound's Native American residents established a foot trail along the valley long before the arrival of Europeans. The valley is not a river course, but rather a depression between two ridges and it ends at the shore of Lake Washington. The hah-chu-absch or "lake people" established winter camps of cedar longhouses along the southwest shore of Lake Washington. Each permanent cedar dwelling was as much as 50 feet wide and several hundred feet long and sheltered extended families of 20 to 25 individuals. At Bryn Mawr was a camp called sukh-TEE-chib ("wading place"). At Brighton Beach was hah-HAO-hlch ("forbidden place"). At Pritchard Island was TLEELH-chus ("little island").

The residents gathered fish, waterfowl, and game from the lake and its shore. During the summer, they left the permanent camps and lived in portable huts woven from cattails. The Salish people of the Puget Sound region practiced exogamy in which women marry outside the tribe. This resulted in close ties among the people and little in the way of conflict and warfare. Travel between the salt water of Elliott Bay and Lake Washington was either by foot, along trails that generally follow today's Yesler Way and Rainier Avenue S, or by canoe up the Duwamish River and then the Black River (which no longer exists) to the lake.


In 1850, Isaac Ebey (1818-1857) traveled the lake by canoe and he called it Lake Geneva. In the 1850s, settlers from the United States arrived. The first were Edward A. Clark (d. 1860) and John Harvey (1820-1892) who filed claims in 1853 at the future Brighton Beach, just south of Bailey Peninsula. They built their cabins along the common boundary of their properties to provide some sense of community. Clark's claim included Clark's prairie at the base of the peninsula. Harvey left after the Indian War of 1855-56. Clark traded away his claim to David Graham who later sold 100 acres to Asa Mercer (1839-1917). Mercer arranged for marriageable women from New England to come to the Northwest (the Mercer Girls or Mercer's Maidens) and David Graham married one of them, Katherine Stickney, in 1864.

Settlement of the valley was slow because until the great stands of fir and hemlock were harvested, farming was difficult. Logs had to be skidded overland or floated down river. In the 1880s, Guy Phinney built a large sawmill at the foot of Charles Street. It later expanded to include a planing mill higher up the hill. The mill was capable of producing 75,000 board feet of lumber a day. A tramline connected the two facilities. Workers' homes dotted the hillside. In 1898, 75 acres of the hill slid 100 feet toward the lake, taking with it some homes, but the mill continued to operate until 1910.

Here Comes the Train

The story of the opening of the Rainier Valley is the story of the interurban. Seattle boomed in the 1880s, multiplying 10 times in population during the decade. Developers looked to areas like the Rainier Valley for profit. One of the first steps to attracting buyers of newly platted communities was transportation.

Banker J. K. Edmiston received a franchise from the city of Seattle to build the Rainier Avenue Electric Railway. He was authorized to use city streets to build his line from downtown Seattle, up the steep grade of Washington Street, south on 16th Street (14th Avenue S), west again on Jackson Street and then south on Rainier Avenue. The steep hill on Washington Street was conquered by means of a unique counterbalance and pneumatic cylinder system. It was powered by electricity, something else businessmen wanted to sell. By 1891, the line reached seven miles to a collection of stores called Columbia City and was the spark for the development of the valley. Produce, lumber, and people could reach a Seattle hungry for all three. Tall trees still lined the right of way and passengers sometimes reported seeing bears in the old-growth forest.

Edmiston lost control of the line (and became a fugitive from justice) after the Panic of 1893. Under the guidance of a receiver, it reached Rainier Beach. Passengers paid five cents to travel from Rainier Beach to Columbia City and five more cents from Columbia City to Seattle, the first experiment in zone fares. Trains ran every 45 minutes. The line emerged from bankruptcy in 1895 as the Seattle and Rainier Beach Railway. The line reached Renton in 1896 and freight, passengers, and produce flowed up the valley to Seattle. Between 1890 and 1900, Seattle had almost doubled in population. In 1903, it became the Seattle, Renton and Southern Railway. By that time, the two-hour trip cost 25 cents. In 1903, bad man Harry Tracy managed to rob one train.

New Communities, New Residents

Developers bought up logged off land and homesteads, and laid out communities such as Hillman City, Atlantic City, Lake View, Genesee, and Dunlap. Some developments were aggressively and even fraudulently pushed. Clarence D. Hillman (1870-1935) built Hillman City and was frequently accused of selling the same lot twice and moving boundary stakes after a sale. Buyers flooded in nevertheless and the valley grew. The pricier lots ran along the lake shore and up the ridge above it in Mount Baker, Lakewood, and Atlantic City. Less expensive property was available over the hill in the valley.

Coal mining jobs attracted Italians to the Seattle area. The valley offered cheap land, then outside the city of Seattle. Many Italians were of rural origins and they planted large, productive gardens. They found a ready market for their produce in Seattle and the Rainier Valley became known as "garlic gulch." Some Japanese immigrants, Issei (first generation), also bought plots in the valley. In 1907, the city of Seattle annexed the valley to Lake Washington and south past Rainier Beach.

In 1909, a group of citizens formed the Ridgewood Improvement Club and voted to change the name of Brighton Beach, Wildwood, Matthieson, Orchard Beach, and Kildarton to Ridgewood. The name did not stick.

Albert Rosellini (1910-2011), who was raised in the valley, went on to be a state legislator and governor (1957-1964).

In 1911, Seattle exercised eminent domain and condemned Bailey Peninsula as Seward Park. In 1915, The Rainier Valley Citizen printed, "The cheap garrulous boomer has been eliminated and superseded by the more quiet and conservative citizen." With the coming of the automobile, Rainier Avenue S became part of the highway that reached out to Snoqualmie Falls, Snoqualmie Pass, and Eastern Washington. In 1940, the highway cut across the upper end of the valley to connect through a tunnel under Mount Baker to the new Lacey Murrow Floating Bridge across Lake Washington.

Baseball in the Valley

On September 9, 1913, Daniel E. Dugdale, owner of the Seattle Braves baseball team, opened a 10,000-seat stadium on Rainier Avenue S at S McClellan Street. The wooden structure hosted professional baseball by the Braves and later by the Seattle Indians until it burned down in 1932. In 1938, brewer Emil Sick (1894-1964) built Sicks' Seattle Stadium on the site as home for his Seattle Rainiers. The Rainiers were followed by the Seattle Angels in 1965 and by the major league Seattle Pilots (for one year) in 1969. The stadium was razed in 1979.

End of Interurban

Despite the critical role that the interurban rail line played in the development of the Rainier Valley, it earned a poor reputation for service. Tracks ran down the middle of Rainier Avenue and even though the conditions of the franchise required them to be paved, they were not. Passengers complained of badly maintained equipment and undependable schedules. The city refused to renew the franchise and the line went out of business in 1937. By that time, the Rainier Valley was a neighborhood, actually many neighborhoods. Automobiles, buses, and trackless trolleys took over for the interurban.

War and the Crisis in Housing

The time between the world wars (1918-1941) saw little change in the Rainier Valley. The communities remained static and they retained their ethnic characteristics. Historian Roger Sale states, "Fixity of landscape leads to fixity of neighborhood."

World War II changed everything. The Japanese American residents of Seattle, the largest non-white group in the city and the second largest Japanese community on the West Coast, were evacuated to internment camps. Tens of thousands of war workers crowded into Seattle to work at the Boeing Company or in the shipyards or in the port of embarkation. Housing was critically short and the U.S. Government constructed thousands of low-cost temporary units at Rainier Vista and Stadium Homes and Holly Park. The once stable neighborhoods of the valley were awash in strangers.

After the war, the housing shortage continued and there were new pressures. The automobile and suburban developments took residents out of the neighborhood. African Americans had traditionally resided in the Central Area. Discrimination by real estate agents and restrictive covenants prevented them from moving in any direction except to the south, into the Rainier Valley. Housing became a major source of discontent among ethnic minorities. In 1964, Seattle voters rejected an open housing ordinance. Racial tension often expressed itself in conflicts between whites and blacks in the Rainier Valley. Empire Way S was renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Way S to honor the civil rights leader.

Cultural Diversity

The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 saw the arrival of refugees from Indochina. Hispanics from Latin America took advantage of good property values and Rainier Avenue became multicultural and multilingual. Along with the vestiges of the neighborhood's Italian heritage such as Oberto Meats and Borrachini's Bakery are Mexican bodegas and Vietnamese restaurants offering phò.


Mabel Abbot, "History of Rainier Valley, Like That of Its Railway, Complicated and Checkered," undated newsclipping, Dubuar Scrapbook No. 116, p. 44, Microfilm A2946, University of Washington Special Collections; "Seattle South," USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle map, 1983; Carey Summers, compiler, Centennial History, Columbia City, Rainier Valley: 1853-1991, (Seattle: The Author, 1991); David Buerge, "The Native American Presence in the Rainier Valley Area," typescript, undated, Rainier Valley Historical Society, Seattle; David Buerge, "Indian Lake Washington," The Weekly, August 1-August 7, 1984, pp. 29-33; Leslie Blanchard, A History of the Seattle Street Railway System: 1884-1919, (Seattle: Puget Sound Railroader, 1960), pp. 42-45; Lucile McDonald, "Old-Timers Tell More of Early Days Around Lake," The Seattle Sunday Times, February 26, 1956, Magazine Section, 8; "Adopt One Name for the Valley," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 6, 1909; The Citizen Christmas Annual, (Seattle: The Rainier Valley Citizen, 1915); Lucile McDonald, "Big Landslide in 1898 Closed Pioneer Sawmill," The Seattle Sunday Times, January 22, 1956, Magazine Section 10; Roger Sale, Seattle Past to Present, (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Albert Dean Rosellini" (by Walt Crowley), http//:www.historylink.org/ (accessed March 2001). Note: This essay was revised on October 27, 2011.

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