Seattle Neighborhoods: Eastlake -- Thumbnail History

  • By Louis Fiset
  • Posted 5/05/2001
  • Essay 3255
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Peering down from a Cessna floatplane circling for a landing on Seattle's Lake Union, the airborne person can easily see the wedge shape of the Eastlake neighborhood through the clouds. Bounded on the west and north by the L-shaped Lake Union, on the east by the I-5 freeway and on the south by the Mercer Street corridor, the neighborhood sports neat rows of houseboats nine and 10 deep fingering out into the lake. The houseboats are neighbors to low rise office buildings, trendy restaurants, biotechnology firms, and the remnants of a century old history of lakefront industry. Luxurious upland townhouses rub gutters and garden gates with Victorian houses, the apartment buildings that followed them in the 1920s, and other, modest single-family dwellings. Thirty-six hundred residents currently (2001) live in Seattle's Eastlake neighborhood.

The Eastlake neighborhood took on its identity as a streetcar suburb in 1885, when the first horse-drawn streetcar reached the eastern shore of Lake Union. Until then, single families pioneered their way around the lake in meager shelters on land surveyed in 1855, but not platted until the 1870s when Seattle’s population had scarcely reached 1,000.

Work for Many Hands

Most breadwinners in these homes worked on the lake, which quickly came to be seen as a natural corridor between the coalfields of Newcastle, located east of Lake Washington, and Elliott Bay. The Seattle Coal and Transportation Company constructed a transport system that moved coal on rails to Lake Washington, loaded it onto barges and floated it across the lake, then off-loaded it and carried it by portage tram across an isthmus on Harvey Pike’s claim separating Union Bay from Lake Union. The black diamond cargoes were then reloaded and barged to the southern shore of the Lake, then hauled overland to bunkers at the foot of Pike Street on Elliott Bay. Coal was handled 11 times from mine to bunker, producing work for many hands.

Two decades earlier, Thomas Mercer (1813-1898), envisioning a connection between Lake Washington and Elliott Bay, proposed naming this natural water corridor (known then as tenas Chuck, or "Little Waters") Lake Union. In 1885, his dream came closer to reality with completion (largely by Chinese labor) of a government canal, directly linking Lake Washington with the part of Lake Union we now call Portage Bay.

Lumber, not coal, however, dominated the Seattle economy until the twentieth century, resulting in numerous sawmill operations along Lake Union’s shoreline. Furniture manufacturers, box and barrel makers, and board and paper processors followed in their wake, establishing Lake Union as a true working lake.

With the arrival of the transcontinental railroad to the region, Seattle’s exploding population needed new real estate. Developers expanded operations northward (and southward) into the cedar and Douglas Fir forests that were being cut down as fast as the mills could process the logs. By the end of 1890, electrified trolleys transported potential home buyers northward beyond the city limits at East Lynn Street along Eastlake Avenue to the Brooklyn draw bridge (later the University Bridge) and into the hinterlands that would be annexed to the city in 1891. The Eastlake neighborhood grew rapidly, with the finer homes being built at the north end on land platted by the Denny and Fuhrman families.

Seward Elementary School

The Denny-Fuhrman School (the future Seward Elementary School) appeared at Boyleston Avenue in 1893, facing Louisa Street. A second, eight-room addition followed in 1905 when the school was renamed, after William Henry Seward, who orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867. A third addition followed in 1917. The historic buildings were renovated in 1997-1998 and reopened in September 1999. The school located at 2500 Franklin Avenue E is now (2001) a K-8 school called the Options Program at Seward (or TOPS at Seward.)

Houseboats on Lake Union

As Eastlake's upland community expanded through the turn of the century, an off-shore houseboat colony got started when federal funds started trickling in to build a ship canal to connect Lake Union with Puget Sound. In 1911, when construction on the canal began in earnest, migrant workers seeking temporary, cheap housing in a tight housing market and an escape from the miserable conditions of city living began to erect floating shanties, which they tied up to existing pilings or wherever they could secure a line.

Upland property owners, forced to purchase underwater lots considered their own prior to the Shore Lands Sale of 1907, charged rents while awaiting completion of the canal they were certain would increase the value of their properties. But with the economic stagnation that followed World War I, few opportunities arose to develop these properties, and the houseboats stayed. By 1920, more houseboats bobbed on Lake Union and on Portage Bay (as well as at the mouth of the Duwamish River on Elliott Bay) than exist today.

Completion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917 on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War I sealed Lake Union’s longterm future as an industrial lake, which was also influencing the shape of the neighborhoods that bordered it. Earlier, in 1912, the Seattle Light Department, responding to the city’s growth and increasing reliance on electricity, built the Lake Union Water Power Auxiliary Plant on Eastlake Avenue to supplement existing powerhouse output. Turbines in this mission style structure generated 1,500 kilowatts, utilizing overflow from the High Reservoir at Volunteer Park.

This addition soon proved inadequate. In 1914, the Building and Light Departments constructed the Lake Union Auxiliary Steam Electric Plant, with two additions in 1917 and 1921, eventually generating nearly 40,000 kilowatts. This troika of steam power generators, fed by foul smelling and pollutant rich oil, which exhausted through seven smoke stacks visible from many vistas in the city, served Seattle's electricity dependent maw until 1938, when hydroelectric power from dams on the Skagit River finally rendered them obsolete.

During this period, when much of Fairview Avenue N was a trestle and the southern portion of Eastlake Avenue rested on pilings, Lake Union's industrial base grew, while the lake itself shrank. Developers brought in fill to develop the waterways, resulting in a softening of the lake's contour lines. Architect, John Graham Sr., who would later design the Frederick & Nelson Department Store building, The Bon Marche, and other major Seattle buildings that survive today, designed the Ford Motor Company Assembly Building, built in 1913 at the southeast corner of Lake Union for local assembly of the Model T. Further north, Lake Union Dry Dock and Machine Works opened in 1919, with the U.S. government soon its best customer. Smaller boatyards designed to build wooden pleasure boats sprang up in the 1920s, such as Blanchard’s, Jensen’s, McKinney Brothers, and Howard and Sons.

Seaplanes and Ships

In 1916, William E. Boeing built a hanger at the foot of Roanoke street and tested his seaplanes -- which he later sold to the government -- on the mile-and-a-half long water tarmac. Following an economic slowdown during the Depression, which slowed development on the lake, World War II brought an explosion of shipbuilding at Seattle shipyards, including Lake Union Drydock, in Eastlake, whose workers built 16 minesweepers for the Navy, using wooden hulls that could elude the magnetic fuses of marine mines.

After World War II the shipbuilding boom ended, and the lakefront began to shift from an industrial to a services lake. Offices, restaurants, marinas, fishing boat moorage, boat repair, and apartment buildings lined up next to one another in the same neighborhood. Eastlake's houseboat colony persisted throughout these decades, although reduced in number as the lake’s edges were filled in. The Coast and Geodetic Survey Base, later housing NOAA ships, was built on fill in 1962, causing 73 moorages to disappear.

Houseboaters Join Forces

With the move away from heavy industry along the shoreline came cries to clean up the decades of pollution that accompanied it. Houseboats and houseboaters had long been a thorn in the eye to uplanders who wanted to be rid of the unsightly and unsavory presence along the Eastlake shoreline. But the crisis brought on by the proposed Coast and Geodetic Survey Base raised the ire of houseboater activists who formed The Floating Homes Association. The Floating Homes Association would go on to help control and shape the changing face of Lake Union and the lower Eastlake neighborhood. Completion of a sewer system around the lake in 1965, to which off-shore home owners were required to hook up, assured the long term survival of this eclectic and often quirky community.

The new sewer line introduced another problem, however, since it would make feasible over-the-water apartments and office buildings that would threaten the integrity of the working lake. In 1969, a five-story apartment building was built on pilings on Fairview Avenue N, sparking a conflict between property owners/developers, and community activists about the future of the lake. Architect Victor Steinbrueck wrote: “Lake Union as a civic asset in the heart of the city is destroyed. Lake Union will become a puddle in the middle of a concrete jungle” (Seattle Weekly, December 9, 1987).

As if to prove Steinbrueck's point, in 1971 developers began construction on a 112-unit condominium complex over the water at the foot of Roanoke Street, known as the "Roanoke Reef." It began with the bulldozing of the historic Boeing hanger. The Floating Homes Association joined a suit with the Eastlake Community Council to stop construction, but not before the pilings, platform, and part of the first story were built. The project was never completed. Another ally of the citizenry dedicated to assuring control of development affecting Lake Union’s environment was The Shorelines Management Act, passed by the state electorate in 1972, making local governments responsible for drafting guidelines for shorelines management, subject to state approval.

From Smoke to Smoked Salmon

Since then, Lake Union’s collection of marine commercial enterprises have largely given way to marinas, upscale restaurants, and more gentrified business activities. The St. Vincent de Paul site at the foot of Yale Street has become a complex of restaurants and retail spaces. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has moved into the neighborhood, joining the biotech firm, ZymoGenetics, which made a $20 million conversion of the historic steam plants, complete with replacement of the rusting smoke stacks. The Marriott Residence Inn provides 234 rooms at Fairview Avenue N at the southern entrance to the Eastlake neighborhood, at Valley Street. Restaurants with names like Cucina Cucina, Benjamins, Victoria Station, and the Rusty Pelican have dotted the recent landscape.

For some residents of Eastlake, despite greater public access to Lake Union, through a string-of-pearls chain of parks, recent changes have brought more traffic, less parking, and the yuppification of a working lake. Many newcomers who live in the neighborhood’s expensive condominiums and eat at the area’s trendy restaurants know little about Lake Union’s grit and grime working past. Only a handful of industrial companies, including the 82-year-old Lake Union Drydock Company, survive today. Eastlake neighborhood and its front yard pool, once home to sawmills, wood manufacturers, steam plants, a St. Vincent de Paul thrift store, and Boeing’s first factory, are finding a new identity.


Howard Droker, Seattle's Unsinkable Houseboats (Seattle: Watermark Press, 1977); David Buerge, Seattle in the 1880s (Seattle: The Historical Society of Seattle and King County, 1986); Seattle Sun, August 16, 1978; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 12, 1992; Seattle Weekly, July 11, 1984; Ibid., December 9, 1987; The Seattle Times, November 1, 1987; Ibid., July 14, 1991; Ibid., July 5, 1993; Ibid., May 1, 1994; Ibid., March 8, 1998; Ibid., July 25, 1999; The Town Crier, December 18, 1915.

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