Seattle Neighborhoods: Magnolia -- Thumbnail History

  • By Louis Fiset
  • Posted 6/30/2001
  • Essay 3415
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Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood, a peninsula situated at the northern entrance to Elliott Bay, is home to pairs of nesting eagles as well as 20,000 human residents (in 2001) dependent upon bridges to gain access to the rest of the city. Magnolia consists of two hills once blanketed by forests and separated by a natural meadow. The area's development started in 1853 with a dreamer's vision of a transcontinental railroad, which arrived four decades later. Also at home in Magnolia's four square miles is the oldest lighthouse on Puget Sound, Discovery Park (Fort Lawton), a state-of-the-art water treatment plant largely hidden by foot paths and creative landscaping, and Fishermen's Terminal, which berths much of Puget Sound's fishing fleet.

First People

Before federal surveyors arrived on Magnolia's hills in 1855, likely the first white men to leave their footprints there, the area was home to semi-nomadic Duwamish people, whose territory extended south along the Duwamish River to Renton and north to the Sammamish River. Archeological vestiges uncovered at West Point during construction of the water treatment plant reveal a presence as far back as 4,000 years.

The Shilshole Duwamish had permanent settlements along the south shore of Salmon Bay. They and their Duwamish visitors fished, gathered, and traded with other tribes. According to Magnolia: Memories and Milestones, "...traditional indigenous life on Magnolia ended in 1916 with completion of the Hiram Chittendon Locks and the dredging of Salmon Bay." This construction, helping link Puget Sound with Seattle’s inland waters, occurred 63 years after the arrival of Magnolia’s first pioneer, 22-year-old, Dr. Henry Allen Smith (1830-1915).

Smith's Vision and Smith Cove

Henry Smith, physician, botanist, farmer, and territorial legislator, came west in 1851 with sufficient medical knowledge to help reduce the death toll to cholera along the wagon trail. He landed in the gold country of California, with mother and sister in tow. News that the railroad was planning an extension to the Puget Sound country prompted the family to head north to cash in on the economic growth potential in the all-but-virgin Pacific Northwest.

Upon his arrival in late 1852, and after extensive study, Smith staked a donation land claim of 160 acres in a deep water cove (Smith Cove) on Elliott Bay’s north side, at the southern end of a valley running between Elliott Bay and the inner harbor of Salmon Bay. This valley would become known as Interbay. Smith envisioned the railroad emptying out of this valley, and saw that his cove would be ideal for shipping docks and a terminus for a transcontinental railroad he and his peers believed would one day link the Puget Sound region with the rest of the country.

Smith's vision would take almost 40 years to be realized. During his four-decade wait, the entrepreneur established a medical practice in Interbay at Grand Boulevard (Dravus Street) and 15th Avenue W, and soon gained respect as a healer among both white settlers and the area's few remaining Duwamish, whose customs and language he embraced. All the while, he proved up on his ever-increasing land holdings purchased from discouraged settlers who moved out, often hiring cash-strapped patients to work off their medical bills. By the time the Seattle, Lakeshore & Eastern Railway Company arrived in 1887, the physician-farmer had accumulated nearly 1,000 acres, which he subsequently sold for $75,000.

In 1893, James J. Hill brought the Great Northern Railway to Seattle and to Smith Cove, and until 1940, the docks, now part of the Port of Seattle, handled cargo and the rich silk trade with Asia, as well as immigration from Japan. With this access to trans-oceanic shipping, cargo-laden railroad cars would no longer have to return empty to the East. Hill's profits dramatically increased.

In 1942, shortly after the introduction of nylon ended the silk trade, Smith Cove went to war. For the use of the cove, the Navy paid the City of Seattle a $3 million condemnation fee. The Vietnam War would end (in 1975) before Seattle got it back.

Fort Lawton

Magnolia's intimacy with the military goes back to the late nineteenth century. In 1896, boosters, once they learned the Army was looking to the rolling plateau as a suitable place to house and train soldiers, became eager to attract a military post on the western head of the peninsula. They began to buy up parcels of land from the early settlers, which the City Council then deeded to the federal government at no cost.

Built on 700 acres, Fort Lawton became a permanent Army garrison post in 1898. The post would have been 30 acres larger had Christian Scheuerman not withheld a portion of his land overlooking Salmon Bay, today's micro-community of Lawton Wood. The new reservation was subsequently named after Major General Henry Ware Lawton, who had stared down Geronimo in 1886, commanded a division in Cuba in 1898, and died in the Philippines with his sword drawn, in 1899. The Army hired Port Townsend civil engineer Ambrose Kiehl to survey and clear the new site and to oversee construction. The first seven buildings were occupied by 1900, with another 18 permanent structures, including a hospital, eventually ringing the oval parade ground.

During World War I, Fort Lawton served as a training post for troops bound for Europe. During the isolationist period that followed the Great War, the Army saw little need for keeping the installation active and in 1938 attempted to surplus it to the city. The city council declined the offer because Seattle's meager, depression-era coffers were insufficient to pay for maintenance of the grounds.

Had the city accepted, the Army would no doubt have revoked the gift a few years later, following America's entry into World War II. Soon 450 new buildings appeared, which no doubt would have amazed Ambrose Kiehl. During that war and the Korean War that followed, the post's principal function was to support troop embarkation at Seattle. More than a million fresh soldiers passed through Fort Lawton in World War II. At its peak, 20,000 soldiers were stationed there. During the Korean War, Fort Lawton served both as an embarkation and debarkation station. During the early 1950s, 10,000 replacement troops a day were readied for transport to Korea. Today (2001) the Army has retained 11 acres on the bucolic grounds to house headquarters for reserve units in the Western states.

Even before the war years, Fort Lawton helped stimulate settlement and stability in the Magnolia area. The troops themselves were good consumers and provided an infusion of cash into the commercial district growing along Grand Boulevard. The Fort Lawton trolley, which first rolled onto the Magnolia peninsula in mid-1905 as an extension of the Ballard trolley line, snaked along Grand Boulevard, 20th Avenue W, Gilman Avenue, Commodore Way, and eventually terminated on the grounds of Fort Lawton. The new route eased access to the area.

Urban Vision, with Cows

Early plat maps filed in the 1880s reveal a vision for the future of Magnolia as an urban neighborhood, with traditional, mostly rectangular residential lots laid out neatly on paper. But with economic hard times the norm in the 1890s, lots were slow to sell. Most of the cleared acreage continued to be tilled or set aside for pasture. One area of dense agriculture was in Pleasant Valley, a cleavage of natural meadow running north and south between Magnolia's two hills. So hidden that pioneer Arthur Denny (1822-1899) could not find it even with the help of Indians, later arrivals were relieved to be spared having to clear the land of stumps before planting seed.

Dairy farms were established on Magnolia as early as 1900. John Hanson started Magnolia Merrymount Farm in 1909 and did not move his West Point Dairy out of the area until 1936. Seattle's soggy climate and Magnolia's thin top soil prevented most farms from profitability, however, and many discouraged souls sold out early to people like Henry Smith who was deeply rooted in the area. Although the railroad that ran through Interbay brought a transition from farming to urban development, dairy farming persisted well into the 1930s. Truck farms and small subsistence plots lasted through World War II.

Trestles and Bridges

Magnolia’s peninsula geography limits access to the area. With the rail bed imposing itself on the sole land connection, residents and visitors have been dependent upon trestles and bridges since the nineteenth century. Before construction of the 4,000-foot-long reinforced concrete Garfield Street Bridge in 1930 (renamed Magnolia Bridge in 1960), no fewer than eight wooden trestles connected Magnolia to the "mainland" of Seattle. The Garfield Street Bridge opened six years after fire destroyed the West Wheeler Street trestle, spanning the head of Smith Cove, the rail tracks, and the high water tides that lapped beyond Garfield Street into Interbay.

In 1931, the Dravus Street Bridge opened to traffic, which provided access into the heart of the neighborhood. With this infrastructure in place, the early vision of the area as an urban, residential district slowly started to take greater form. Magnolia began to grow in the 1930s.

Early home builders were at work in Pleasant Valley and on the bluff as early as the turn of the century, and a few upscale homes appeared on the bluff overlooking Elliott Bay and Puget Sound. However, most of the early settlement on Magnolia was to be found in Interbay, as far west as 24th Avenue W. Most of the land was platted by 1908, but scattered parcels of 30 to 80 acres still remained unknown to city bureaucrats.

By 1920 most of these tracts were platted, although the last few pockets of acreage south and east of Fort Lawton were not inked into the record for another decade. Developers bought up large parcels of land and built similar houses in their developments. When World War II ended and servicemen returned home on the GI Bill, demand for modest and affordable homes escalated. Builders responded. Later, during the 1960s, the demand for upscale homes increased.

With steady growth on Magnolia, a tiny commercial area on W McGraw Street, which had four businesses in 1925, expanded in the 1940s and became known as the Village. Soon it became the primary commercial center in the area.

A Snug Harbor

An even more important commercial activity, on Magnolia's north end, had humble beginnings, as well. Construction of Fishermen’s Terminal on Salmon Bay began in 1913 as a small dock and a single building, at a time when the population in the area was in the hundreds and work on the Hiram Chittenden Locks to the west was just under way.

The purpose of the terminal was to provide "snug harbor" for Puget Sound’s fishing fleet of several hundred boats. Funding came from Port of Seattle funds, the new owner of Smith Cove. The terminal was expanded several times during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1953, improved moorage, dry docking, boat and engine repair, maintenance, and supply facilities were added. The most recent expansion of Fishermen’s Terminal came in 1987. Today the terminal occupies 76 acres, contains 400 berths, 2,500 linear feet of loading dock space, 124,000 square feet of office space, and provides 6,800 jobs.

Discovery Park

In 1964, Magnolia was handed yet a new opportunity for development when the federal government declared 85 percent of Fort Lawton to be surplus property. But the transfer of federal property to municipalities was more complicated than in 1938, when the post was offered to Seattle for a dollar. Federal legislation was now required before excess federal land could be transferred to cities for park and recreation uses for less than 50 percent of fair market value. Washington's junior senator, Henry M. Jackson (1912-1983), introduced the "Fort Lawton Bill" to pave the way, inserting a provision stipulating that "if the municipality had given the property to the federal government it shall be returned without cost." This assured that Seattle, so generous with its land gift to the federal government in 1896, would be reciprocated seven decades later. More than 700 cities throughout the United States eventually received surplus federal property for parks worth, more than $1 billion, as a result of Jackson's efforts.

Discovery Park and Magnuson Park, in Seattle's northeast section bordering Lake Washington, both came into existence as a result of this legislation. The 1974 master plan for Fort Lawton Park (Discovery Park) called for the park "to provide an open space of quiet and tranquility for the citizens of this city." Today this natural refuge consists of a ménage of meadows, forests, birds, wildflowers, tidal beaches, and smooth sands. It exists in peaceful co-existence with an Indian Cultural Center that rests on 19 acres of the reclaimed land, first leased from the City in 1974. The lease required the Center to be "Indian in spirit, simple, and honest in design, to enrich and be in harmony with the natural setting and uses of a city park at Fort Lawton."

With the return of Fort Lawton to civilian control, renewed access to the oldest lighthouse on Puget Sound was now possible. Magnolia’s West Point lighthouse was built in 1881 on a geographic point of land named in 1841 by members of the Wilkes scientific expedition who surveyed and explored the interior of the Oregon country, including Puget Sound. But West Point has additional, if smelly, history.

In 1911, workers under the direction of city engineer R. H. Thomson (1856-1949) completed a 12-foot diameter brick-lined sewage tunnel to bring untreated wastewater from central Seattle to an outfall off West Point. Fifty-five years would pass before primary treatment to separate sewage solids from water would be incorporated at West Point. Another 29 years would pass before secondary treatment with a bacterial treatment process was added at the treatment plant in compliance with the National Clean Water Act. Today, METRO (Metropolitan King County) has worked to hide the plant from view, to restore public use to the shoreline, to undertake beach restoration, and to provide a lagoon for nature studies.

Magnolia's out-of-the-way location often presents a challenge to drivers finding their way from eastern parts of the city. And Magnolia residents continue their dependence upon bridges to take them into the city. They were recently reminded of their vulnerability during 1996's unusually wet year when on January 2, 1997, land slides damaged the east end of the Magnolia Bridge causing its temporary closure for four months. Then, on February 28, 2001, a strong earthquake once again closed the bridge temporarily. But the vagaries of geography and nature's fickleness may be protective of the quietude of Magnolia, which seems to resist the noisy and anxiety ridden rapid pace of modern city living. Magnolia remains an oasis within the concrete confines of a major metropolitan city.


Joy Carpine, John Hendron, Rob Hitchings, Bob Kildall, Rick Malsed, Gail Martini-Peterson, Joan Santucci, Patti Small, Scott Smith, Sam Sutherland, Hal Will, Monica Wooton, and Nancy Worssam, Magnolia: Memories & Milestones (Seattle: The Magnolia Community Club), 2000; The Seattle Times, April 17, 1983, p. 26; Ibid., January 29, 1984, p. 12; Ibid. October 5, 1986, p. 24; Ibid., January 4, 1986, p. 11; Ibid., March 24, 1991, p. 30; Ibid., September 29, 1991, p. 6; Ibid., January 7, 2001, p. 18; G.W. Baist, et al. Baist's Real Estate Atlas of Surveys of Seattle, Washington, (Philadelphia: G. W. Baist), 1905, 1908, 1912; Kroll's Atlas of Seattle, Washington (Seattle: Kroll Map Company, Inc.), 1920, 1928, 1950.

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