Seattle Neighborhoods: Rainier Beach -- Thumbnail History

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 3/21/2001
  • Essay 3116
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Rainier Beach is located in the southeast corner of Seattle on the shore of Lake Washington, just inside the Seattle city limits and not far from Renton at the south end of the lake.  Dubbed Atlantic City by Clarence D. Hillman (1870-1935), who developed much of the area in the 1890s, the Rainier Beach neighborhood also includes nearby communities such as Pritchard Island, once home to a Duwamish village, and Dunlap, named for the pioneer family that homesteaded the area and logged the huge timber.  Like Hillman, the Dunlaps platted their land and sold home lots, taking advantage of the real estate boom that followed when the streetcar line from Seattle reached Rainier Beach in 1894.  Trolley service ended in 1937, but the neighborhood boomed again during and after World War II.  Rainier Beach Junior-Senior High School opened in 1960 to accommodate the post-war baby boom.  Seward Park Estates, built to house war workers, became a low-income complex and saw substantial decline over the years.  A high crime rate and deteriorating properties kept home prices in the area lower than in other parts of Seattle, making Rainier Beach home to a wide range of ethnic groups and nationalities.  Eventually, a public-private partnership helped transform the housing project and the neighborhood enjoyed a dramatic drop in crime and resurgence in prosperity.

Lake People and Homesteaders

When Euro Americans arrived in the Puget Sound country, Native Americans made their homes along the salt water, along the rivers, and on the edges of lakes. On Lake Washington, several groups of the Duwamish tribe had established permanent winter villages of large cedar longhouses. Each structure could accommodate 20 to 30 members of extended families. The people who gathered their food in and around Lake Washington called themselves hah-chu-ahbsh or "lake people." On the southwest shore of the lake was an island with a settlement called tleelh-chus ("little island"). The island sat at the beginning of a trail through a valley that led northwest to the salt water at Elliott Bay. The land was covered with tall stands of fir, hemlock, and cedar. Settlers renamed tleelh-chus as Pritchard Island and called the valley Rainier Valley. The trail became an electric railway, then Rainier Avenue S.

The first homesteader in the area was Joseph Dunlap (d. 1893) who built a cabin at S Henderson Street and 50th Avenue S. Dunlap brought his family from Iowa by wagon (reportedly drawn by one white horse and one mule) over the Oregon Trail in September 1869. On Beacon Hill, he instructed his son, George to climb a tree and report what he saw. George described a flat valley with several creeks flowing into a large lake. Another account has Dunlap finding the canyon between the Duwamish River valley and Lake Washington while deer hunting. Between the Dunlap claim and the lake was a low swampy area called Dunlap Slough. Dunlap built a corral for farmers driving stock to Seattle along the old Native American trail and his log cabin became a frame home with two stories.

Those who settled south of the Dunlaps and close to the lake called their community Rainier Beach. Dunlap harvested cedar trees from his claim, skidded the logs down to the lake along S Henderson Street, and then rafted them to Dorr Forbes's sawmill in Juanita.

In 1880, Schleswig-Holsteiner Jurgen "John" Matthiesen purchased 80 acres north of the Dunlap property. He transported the lumber (payment for back wages as a sawyer) for his home from Port Madison on a boat, by way of Lake Union and Portage Bay. In 1883, Andrew B. Young bought the island where the lake people had lived. It was called Young's island until Alfred James Pritchard acquired it about 1900 and renamed it after himself.

The Interurban

Communication with Seattle was either by means of the trail through the forest or down the lake to the Black and Duwamish rivers. Residents often rowed boats to communities on the east side of Lake Washington to trade and to socialize.

In 1894, the rails and overhead wires of the Seattle and Rainier Beach Railway linked Seattle with Rainier Beach. The line reached Renton two years later. The trip to Seattle that had taken all day or longer now required two hours and 10 cents. Local residents paid a nickel. This line later became the Seattle, Renton and Southern and the neighborhoods of the Rainier Valley grew up around stations named Fairview, Island Switch, and Palmer's Crossing.

Real estate boom

Real estate opportunities beckoned and the pioneer Dunlap family subdivided their claim into tracts. They donated a school site in 1904 to replace the 1898 log cabin school house. The Dunlaps attached family names to streets. Henderson honored Catherine (Henderson) Dunlap, Fontenelle recalled the hometown in Iowa, and Pearl was the given name of several women in the family. The community came to be called Dunlap and a nearby development became Matthiesen.

Beginning in 1896, Clarence Hillman and his Hillman Investment Co. platted and developed many neighborhoods in and around Seattle including Green Lake, Hillman City, and Kennydale. In 1905, Hillman purchased one of the Dunlap tracts and designated it the Atlantic City Addition. He chose to name the development after the resort in New Jersey and he included a park area on the cove. The company built a pier, a bath house, a boat house, and picnic areas. Buyers were attracted to these amenities and snapped up lots.

Hillman was a sharp operator. When he got around to filing the plats with the city, the plan did not include the park. He had sold that property to other buyers. The original buyers sued and won. The property was returned to park purposes. In 1912, Hillman went to jail for mail fraud behind another scheme north of Everett.

In May 1903, the Seattle Mail and Herald reported,

Among the more remote, none seem to be taking on a more healthy growth than those which live south of town. Rainier Beach is perhaps the most desirable owing to its splendid scenic location where the Renton car line first touches Lake Washington.

In 1907, Seattle annexed into the city the communities of the Rainier Valley including Rainier Beach. Title to the park area passed to the city parks board. The city operated a boat house with rentals and offered light refreshments from a concession stand.

Dry land

In 1917, the level of the lake dropped nine feet when the Lake Washington Ship Canal was cut through to Puget Sound. The Black River disappeared and Pritchard Island became a peninsula. Dunlap Sough went dry. Clay tennis courts came in that year, but the beach was not used because of the proximity of a sewer outfall. Pritchard Island to the north and Atlantic City to the south were developed as bathing beaches in 1934, with the help of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Although the community was known as Rainier Beach, Atlantic City stuck as the name of the park.

In 1937, trolley service ended and the tracks down the middle of Rainier Avenue S were removed. Rainier Avenue S was the main highway from Seattle to Renton and Snoqualmie Pass until 1940 when the new floating bridge across Lake Washington at Mount Baker was opened.

In 1960, Rainier Beach Junior-Senior High School was completed to handle the post-war baby boom in southeast Seattle. Residents of Rainier Beach were also avid patrons of the Seattle Public Library system. In 1947, when the neighborhood was served only by a bookmobile, the Rainier Beach stop was the busiest in the city. Ultimately two bookmobiles were needed to slake the literary thirst of readers. In 1966, the library established a small branch in a storefront on Rainier Avenue S. The operation moved to a vacant bank in 1971. In 1980, Rainier Beach moved to 9021 Rainier Avenue S, and became the largest branch in the system.

In 1977, Seattle established a Sister City relationship with the desert city of Be'ersheva, Israel. The city selected Atlantic City Park for renaming as Be'ersheva Park to honor that link, and to acknowledge the many Jews who had moved to the area. The process of renaming the park did not please all citizens though and the Parks Superintendent decided to keep Atlantic City as the name of the boat ramp and keep Be'ersheva for the park.

Decline and Rebirth

During World War II, the Seattle Housing Authority constructed Seward Park Estates to house war workers and, after the war, low-income residents. In the decades following the war, crime began to afflict the neighborhood. Businesses in the neighborhood closed. In 1997, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed:

"Seward Park Estates is the sorriest looking apartment complex in Seattle, a run-down reminder of the poverty and crime that once lurked behind a chain-link fence in the heart of Rainier Beach. Life there was so bad a former manager carried a shotgun. Neighbors called it "New Jack City," after the 1991 movie starring Wesley Snipes as a Harlem drug dealer."

A $22 million partnership of public and private agencies combined to transform the slum into homes for 800 to 1,000 working-class residents. Years of high crime in the area allowed new home buyers to acquire reasonably priced properties that had deteriorated. In 2001, the neighborhood was a mixture of ethnic and national groups. Between 1993 and 1997, serious crime dropped dramatically. The census of 1990 showed that the neighborhood was almost evenly balanced between white, black, and Asian Pacific Islander populations. Community leaders attracted businesses back to the area to occupy vacant properties.


Don Sherwood, "Atlantic City Park," Interpretive Essays on the History of Seattle Parks, Handwritten bound manuscript dated 1977, Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library; Don Sherwood, "Beer Sheva Park," Ibid.; 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; Lucille McDonald, "Old-Timers of Rainier Beach Area," The Seattle Sunday Times, January 1, 1956, Magazine, 8; Lucile McDonald, "Early Developments In Southeast Seattle," Ibid., January 15, 1956, 8; Mark Higgins, "Diverse Population Makes for a Unique Feel," > Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 7, 1997, (; Mark Higgins, "Off The Beaten Path, Rejuvenation Takes Shape," > Ibid.; Mark Higgins, "Residents Unhappy With Focus On Negative," Ibid.; Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle, (New York: Preservation Press, 1998), 218-221; "Rainier Beach Library: Our History," Seattle Public Library Website, (; Paul Dorpat, "Rainier Beach Station," Seattle Now and Then, Vol. III (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1992).
Note: This essay was revised on November 3, 2011.

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