Seattle Neighborhoods: Cascade and South Lake Union -- Thumbnail History

  • By Louis Fiset
  • Posted 4/09/2001
  • Essay 3178
See Additional Media

Seattle's Cascade neighborhood, resting at southern end of Lake Union and bounded by Fairview Avenue N, Eastlake Avenue E, and E Denny Way, has its roots in blue-collar people who lived and worked in one of the first industrial and transportation areas of the city. The neighborhood has slowly but persistently transformed from a mixed residence/commercial community to a neighborhood where today (2001) its 500 largely low-income renters mix or don't mix with 3,000 workers who toil at the Seattle Times, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and a growing number of high tech and biotech enterprises. This transformation was most dramatically illustrated in 1995, when the 74 year old St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church, (abandoned by parishioners in 1963 when the congregation moved to the Montlake neighborhood), was razed to partially accommodate REI’s new flagship store. The area's development as "Seattle Commons" was rejected in 1995 and 1996, but Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (1953-2018) has accumulated a critical mass of properties for the area's potential transformation into a major biotech and residential complex.

Little Lake

The Cascade Neighborhood's beginnings date back to the 1860s when David Denny and Thomas Mercer first laid claim to portions of the heavily forested slopes descending to the shores of the Duwamish people's "little lake," meman hartshu, or "tenas chuck" in Chinook trading jargon. On July 4, 1854, Mercer proposed renaming it Lake Union in anticipation of a ship canal to link Salmon Bay and Lake Washington -- whose completion lay many decades in the future.

Meanwhile, coal was discovered near Issaquah and barged across Lake Washington to Portage Bay, where it was transferred to wagons and then reloaded on barges to cross Lake Union. Track for a narrow-gauge railroad was laid in 1872 from the foot of modern-day Westlake Avenue to Pike Street, where a giant coal dock was built to load ships bound for California and Hawaii.

When the rail line, Seattle's first, was abandoned in 1877, Mayor Gideon Weed proposed paving it as a wagon road, but it remained an overgrown trail for another decade. Development accelerated after David Denny built the Western Mill in 1882, near the site of today’s Naval Reserve Center, and cut a weir at Montlake to float logs between the lakes. Homes soon began to appear on the Lake Union’s south shore, ranging from the ornate Queen Anne-style mansion built by Margaret Pontius in 1889 (which later served as the original “Mother Ryther Home” for orphans) to humble workmen’s cottages.

By the 1880s, as Seattle sought breathing room from the explosion of population to the area, the land at the south shore of Lake Union had been platted and the lumberman’s axe began to clear away an ecosystem that had harbored wildlife and provided sustenance for native peoples. Mills sprung up along the shores to process the giant cedar and Douglas fir stands that fell and were dragged or floated there in the name of progress from the hilly slopes abutting the lake and beyond. Soon coal was discovered east of the city. It was brought by portage into Lake Union from Lake Washington and hauled to Elliott Bay through Lake Union Town for transshipment to San Francisco.

The Cascade neighborhood thus stands as one of the first industrial and transportation parts of the city. Located at the geographic center of Seattle, it was situated on an efficient waterway connecting the extractive resources north of the city and the Seattle waterfront.

Migrants and Immigrants

Seattle was a ménage of migrants and immigrants who arrived from all over Europe and Scandinavia, who provided the sweat for the mills, the marine related businesses, and other commercial enterprises that served a growing city. The Cascade neighborhood was no exception. Russians, Swedes, Norwegians, and Greeks lived, worked, worshiped, and went to school in the area, where they found affordable, if modest and average quality single-family houses and apartment buildings, as well as proximity to the lake, to jobs, and to the downtown area.

Thanks to the introduction of privately operated cable cars and electric streetcars in the 1880s, Seattle’s population began to push northward to Lake Union and beyond. Eager to link downtown Seattle to the burgeoning towns and suburbs north of Lake Union, the city held a “build off” in October 1890 between companies competing for the coveted rail transit franchise.

While cable car operators opted to follow the established street grid, entrepreneur L. H. Griffith quietly bought up the route of the old Lake Union coal railroad. His electric streetcars were running along future Westlake Avenue just five days after construction began. What was then called Rollin Street was finally paved for wagon and auto traffic in 1906.

In 1894, the Cascade School opened in the heart of the neighborhood that took its name, and with its nearby play field, soon became its soul. Two hundred children attended classes that first year. Two additions to the building brought 24 rooms to the school by 1904. A still increasing population demanded portables be added in 1908.

Famed landscape designer John C. Olmsted (1852-1920) examined the area after he was hired to plan Seattle's park system in 1903 and proposed a small park on the lake's south shore. He recognized the area as best suited for industrial development, as did Virgil G. Bogue (1846-1916), who prepared Seattle's first comprehensive plan in 1910 and 1911.

The "Bogue Plan" proposed locating a giant "Central Station" on Lake Union's south shore, connected with piers for ferries and steamers from Puget Sound and Lake Washington (in anticipation of the ship canal) and a proposed "rapid transit" tunnel linking south Lake Union with Kirkland. Bogue's bold ideas were too much for downtown property owners (who disliked shifting the city's center northward) and wary taxpayers, and voters rejected his plan in 1912.

Five years later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under the leadership of Hiram M. Chittenden, completed the "government locks" at Salmon Bay and breached Montlake to open Lake Union to shipping between Puget Sound and Lake Washington. Chittenden's solution to the decades-long canal debate preserved Lake Union's historic level while raising and lowering boats 20 feet at Salmon Bay and lowering Lake Washington by nine feet. The locks opened on July 4, 1917, and the entire canal with its bascule drawbridges at Ballard, Fremont, University, and Montlake, was officially declared complete in 1934 -- 80 years after Thomas Mercer first proposed the idea.

The new canal opened Lake Union to more intensive maritime use and industry. Several large laundries and smaller machine shops and auto dealerships also located in the area. Robert C. Reamer (1873-1938) designed a handsome new Art Moderne home for the Seattle Times on Fairview Avenue N in 1930. Completion of the "Aurora Speedway"(now Highway 99) in 1932 transformed the area into a major gateway for for motorists and commuters from the north (the Battery Street Tunnel connection to the Alaskan Way Viaduct was not completed until 1954).

The Cascade Neighborhood's Great Depression

The depletion of natural resources near Seattle and the onset of the Great Depression caused the neighborhood to begin to decline in the 1930s. Jobs that relied on an extractive economy disappeared, and those that could be found involved shipbuilding and other marine activities. The approach of World War II slowed the decline, and the U.S. Navy commandeered the site of David Denny's mill for its reserve center.

Following the war, the industrial base shrank and the population declined steeply. On April 13, 1949, an earthquake caused such structural damage to the Cascade School that the building was condemned. Rather than rebuild, the school district placed a warehouse on the grounds, both mirroring and contributing to the decline in population and the increase in commercial development.

That same year, the Washington Teachers Credit Union was established and moved into modest quarters on Eastlake Avenue. Later it became Washington School Employees Credit Union (1963), which today is part of PEMCO Financial Services based in the Cascade Neighborhood.

Opening of the Battery Street Tunnel in 1954 sent much of Aurora's traffic underground, reducing trade for retailers and eateries. Residential uses in the neighborhood continued to disappear throughout the 1950s as the unattended to housing stock aged, and commercial and light-manufacturing activities moved into the area. Previously a commercial zone that allowed residential use and construction, a new zoning ordinance in 1957 converted the Cascade Neighborhood to a manufacturing zone that forbade any new residential uses. In the early 1960s more than seven blocks of residences and retail businesses were eliminated to make room for the new Interstate 5, which cut off the neighborhood from its interface with both Lake Union and the western slope of Capitol Hill.

The 1962 Seattle World's Fair helped create the Seattle Center to the west of the Cascade Neighborhood, raising land values as well as traffic through the neighborhood. Increases in land values and new, restrictive code ordinances made improvements to housing stock costly and profit margins meager. Bottom lines became healthier with conversion to low-density manufacturing and commercial uses. The Seattle Times, on the western edge of the Neighborhood, purchased acres of homes and razed them for parking lots and future development opportunities.

Neighbors for the Neighborhood

Despite all odds, the neighborhood refused to die. When plans were revealed in late 1969 for a proposed elevated freeway to connect I-5 with Seattle Center and Aurora Avenue, residents organized to oppose this construction, which would have created a "Chinese Wall" that cut off the neighborhood from the Lake. Voters killed the plan in 1972.

In the late 1980s, the area's cheap land began to attract new biotech enterprises such as the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. A quiet renaissance began, but residents "circled the wagons" with the unfurling of plans for the Seattle Commons, a 74 acre park west of the community near the south end of Lake Union that would be surrounded by a new community of 15,000 residents. Gentrification of the area and rising property values were seen as a threat to the very existence of the low rent Cascade area. The project, branded a "yuppie ghetto" by some opponents, was defeated twice, in 1995 and in 1996.

Nevertheless, the project drew attention to the Cascade Neighborhood and put it back on the map. In 1994, as project plans developed, the Committee for the Seattle Commons purchased the 35-unit Brewster Apartments, renovating it as part of an effort to improve affordable housing units in the area and mute some of the criticism. In 1999 the Cascade Children's Corner, a daycare and preschool program partially subsidized by The Seattle Times, moved into new quarters in a whimsical conversion of an old warehouse. Other children attend the nearby private primary school, The Spruce Street School. The same year the Compass Cascade Women's Facility opened nearby to provide interim shelter for 32 women.

New Plans for an Old Neighborhood

Uncertainty remains for Cascade neighborhood's survival as a residential community with affordable housing. In the aftermath of the failure of the Commons project, the City of Seattle and community negotiated a new Neighborhood Plan, which still contemplates significant future development of research and biotech facilities. Paul Allen's Vulcan Northwest group has quietly accumulated 50 acres and drafted preliminary plans for coordinated development of new residential and commercial structures. The Parks Department is finalizing a new plan for South Lake Union Park and Maritime Heritage Center, and Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) has proposed restoring streetcar service to Westlake Avenue after a six-decade absence.

While these proposals and ideas percolate, Immanuel Lutheran Church and St. Spiridon Cathedral continue to hold weekly services, and the shouts and laughter of children testify that the Cascade Neighborhood remains a living, breathing community.


The Seattle Times, January 28, 1990; Ibid., April 4, 1991; Ibid., April 11, 1991; Ibid., August 11, 1994; Ibid., September 15, 1995; Ibid., April 4, 1997; Ibid., June 22, 1999; Ibid., April 23, 2000; Cascade Neighborhood Council and U.S. Center for Sustainable Communities, "The Cascade Neighborhood Sustainable Community Profile," Summer 1995 [Seattle Public Library]; Seattle Department of Community Development, "Housing in Cascade," 1977.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You