Seattle Neighborhoods: Leschi -- Thumbnail History

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 7/11/2001
  • Essay 3434
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Seattle's Leschi neighborhood is located along Lake Washington directly east of Pioneer Square. It was a neighborhood served by a cable car that went from Pioneer Square to Lake Washington along Yesler Way. Leschi lies south of Madrona Park and north of the Mount Baker neighborhood (the I-90 corridor). It is a place of steep hillsides and ravines, one of the scenic neighborhoods along the Lake Washington Boulevard.

The Leschi neighborhood, like others facing Lake Washington, has a landscape formed by ancient glaciers. Earthquakes, landslides, and tsunamis have shaped these areas -- and the gullies, ravines, and steep hillsides of Leschi dramatically reveal nature's unpredictability.

A Duwamish Settlement

Today's Leschi, especially its shoreline, had long been a seasonal Duwamish settlement. Hunting and fishing parties used the cove and protective hillside as a base. Social events were held here and trails radiated from the site to Elliott Bay, Lake Union, and to points south and north.

Frederick J. Grant, local historian and president of the Leschi cable car company, named the neighborhood "Leschi." Nisqually Chief Leschi (1808-1858) was known to visit this location and was a well-known and controversial presence in Western Washington during the 1850s.

Chief Leschi

Leschi was Chief of the Nisqually nation, near today's Olympia. He had been friendly to American settlement, but he signed the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 under protest (and some claim that the X beside his name was not put there by him), objecting to the two-square-mile reservation with no access to the Nisqually River that the treaty assigned to this tribe, which had lived and fished on the river for many generations.

Chief Leschi became involved in the "Battle of Seattle" on January 26, 1856. Indians used the old Indian trail from Leschi to the outskirts of Seattle, attacking and burning settler homes en route. Shots were fired from the woods, causing Seattle villagers to seek refuge in a two-story blockhouse and stockade. The U.S. sloop-of-war Decatur, at anchor in Elliott Bay, returned fire against the hillsides back of the town. By nightfall the Indians had disappeared and all was quiet.

For one of the deaths that occurred during these tense months, Chief Leschi was hanged on February 19, 1858, unjustly in the view of many pioneers.

New Arrivals

Following the excitement of the Battle of Seattle, Indians continued to occupy the aboriginal settlement at Leschi. White settlers derided the Lake Washington village as "fleaburg." White visitors found the old Indian trail and began to enjoy the waters of Lake Washington.

Several new arrivals built lean-tos or cabins on the Leschi hills or along the shore. William Meydenbauer, owner of Seattle's famous Eureka Bakery, built a house at Leschi. He and his family used the site to launch their exploration of the lake's eastside. The Meydenbauers eventually settled on the east side of Lake Washington, on today's Meydenbauer Bay, the genesis of Bellevue, Washington.

Other reasons to explore Leschi ravines were hunting (once a large cougar was killed), fishing, boating, picnics, and nature excursions. Those rough, informal events were precursors to the eventual development of Leschi Park in the 1890s as a preeminent local vacation and entertainment center.

Henry Yesler (1810-1892) and others found Leschi's sturdy Douglas fir and Western hemlock trees perfect for their mills. When it became impracticable to haul logs up the steep inclines and over the high ridges to downtown Seattle, sawing and planing mills were built along the Lake Washington shoreline.

Logging activity helped improve the old Indian trail from Leschi to Seattle. That trail was probably the Lake Dell path, a hollow once used by the Indians to portage canoes to Elliott Bay. Lake Dell was later utilized as a sawmill site. Eastside settlers also used the route to transport farm products to downtown Seattle. Eventually the trail became a rough -- very rough -- wagon road.

After entrepreneurs such as Henry Yesler, David Denny (1832-1903), John J. McGilvra (1827-1903), and Thomas Burke (1849-1925) bought or staked claims to portions of the lakefront, including Leschi, others decided that the eastern perimeter of Seattle might be a good place for settlement.

Soaring Trestles Over the Ravines

The Seattle Railroad Company in 1884 identified the Seattle-Leschi wagon road as a prime cable car route. By the late 1880s, the cable car line became a reality under the ownership of the Seattle Construction Company. The soaring trestles used to bridge Leschi's wonderful ravines were engineering marvels. Many Seattleites noted, however, that in order to save money, the trestles had not been built like the Egyptian pyramids. A little wind caused them to sway. The rattling cars boasted stained glass and oil lamps. Power was provided by a steam engine and the cables ran noisily between the rails. The conveyance resembled a Toonerville Trolley, but the public enthusiastically swarmed aboard.

Henry Seaborn established a marina just north of Leschi Park in 1905. His business would become the cornerstone of Leschi's small waterfront commercial activity, remnants of which remain today in the form of a boat basin, restaurants, offices, and shops.

The Leschi cable car ride was enhanced when it passed Frink Park at the top of the hill. John M. Frink donated the land to the city. Frink and his family lived in a nearby mansion at 31st Avenue and Jackson Street. Frink was a member of the Seattle Park Board, had been a state senator, and was founder of Washington Iron Works. In anticipation of the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (held on the University of Washington campus) Frink Park received a bridge over a large ravine, pools, paths, and benches. This scenic overlook has since returned to a verdant jungle.

Refining Seattle's hodge-podge of parks was the job of the Olmsted Brothers who were hired by the city in 1903 to coordinate a park and boulevard system. A principal link in the Olmsted plan was Leschi Park and its hillsides. Fear of landslides in Leschi's steep ravines caused Lake Washington Boulevard to be routed away from the shoreline and across the slopes -- a major beauty spot for drivers and bicyclists today.

Also in 1909, Leschi Elementary School was constructed on a portion of Henry Yesler's Donation Land Claim. The building cost $30,285 and was an eight-room brick structure with a sweeping view of Lake Washington. The old school has been re-built and enlarged and has a peek-a-boo view.

Bicycle Paths

Bicycle paths had their day in the old Leschi neighborhood. Between 1895 and the early 1900s bicyclists were everywhere. George Cotterill (1865-1958), Seattle City Engineer (later mayor) helped develop bicycle paths throughout Seattle, with Leschi a popular destination on the trails. About 10 bicycle miles from downtown Seattle, riders came to a hillside fork in the road and descended to Leschi Park and beach. Early photographs reveal Leschi's cindered, meandering bicycle paths. Those photos make the case that the trip was arduous, rewarded by wide-angle views and the pleasures of Leschi Park's amusements.

The shaky, exciting Yesler-Leschi cable car, built to attract land buyers, became a recreational route to one of Lake Washington's favorite sites. Facilities were erected to take advantage of this traffic -- a bandstand, boathouse with eight gables and ornate tower, Shield's Vaudeville, casino (later called the Leschi Pavilion), docking facilities for private use and for Captain John Anderson's Lake Washington "mosquito fleet," a zoo (which featured black bears, a South American puma, sea lions, and birds), tennis courts, and formal gardens.

In later years a hotel/restaurant was established at the Leschi terminal. Paul Dorpat notes in Seattle: Now & Then that the hotel's rooms may occasionally have been used for trysts, as "Leschi was a hot spot for romping, mixing, and romantic recreation."

A Master Gardener

Leschi's gardens were in part the creation of a "Johnny Appleseed" named Jacob Umlauff. The Seattle Railway Company hired the German-born Umlauff as Leschi's chief gardener. His specialty was planting giant sequoia trees (redwoods) in the park and across the hillsides of Leschi/Madrona, many of which stand in majestic grandeur today. Jacob Umlauff became Seattle's Park Superintendent, retiring in 1941, long past the city's official retirement age.

Boats on Lake Washington had a profound effect on Leschi. The 74-foot sternwheeler Chehalis began operating on the lake as a coal-hauler in 1872. Others included the Addie, the Minnie Mae, and the Squak, perhaps the lake's first passenger ship. During the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, the Lake Washington Steamship Company, later called the Anderson Steamship Company, provided 15-minute service between Leschi, Madrona, Madison Park and the AYP fair grounds on the University of Washington campus. Cost: one dime per passenger per trip. If a passenger wanted a 25-mile scenic tour, the fare rose to 25 cents.

After 1913, and just before the lake was lowered nine feet by the Montlake Cut in 1916, Captain John Anderson was struggling to compete with tax-supported boats operated by the Seattle Port Commission. Leschi was Captain Anderson's headquarters for his lake fleet.

The sternwheeler Leschi, an auto ferry -- cars had entered the Seattle scene in 1900 and were seen everywhere an Olmsted boulevard was built -- made regular runs to the eastside. The ferry company published a pamphlet, which stated that the new Leschi could carry 400 passengers and "40 teams of autos." The Leschi was the last Lake Washington ferry, serving the Medina-Kirkland-Bellevue area even after completion of the 1940 Lake Washington floating bridge.

In 1914, Seattle Port Commissioner General Hiram M. Chittenden, who would later design the Ballard Locks, proposed that a half-million-dollar tunnel be built underneath Leschi's hills -- probably at the Lake Dell ravine -- to accommodate Bellevue produce farmers. Chittenden, a man with an inexhaustible supply of ideas, also suggested an improved Leschi terminal with a "beacon light."

The Floating Bridge

Instead, Captain Anderson sold his last ferries to the Seattle Port Commission and plans were laid (in the 1920s) to build the first Lake Washington floating bridge. That famous bridge was opened in 1940 to great hoopla and named Lacey V. Murrow, for the director of the Washington State Highway Department. (Murrow was brother to Edward R. Murrow of CBS radio fame.)

The 1940 opening of the first floating bridge would change commercial and social dynamics of Lake Washingon communities almost as much as did the lowering of the lake in 1916 after the Montlake cut. And by the early 1940s, Leschi had become a settled hillside community with a small commercial zone, an active marina, and some of Seattle's best views.

Modern Times

The neighborhood issues were now traffic, education, playgrounds, sanitation, crime, and housing conditions. In 1958, a few neighborhood meetings were held to discuss formation of a community council. The result, in 1959, was the first general meeting of the Leschi Improvement Council. Powell Barnett (1883-1971), an African American community activist and longtime Leschi resident, was elected president. Later, the organization was re-named the Leschi Community Council.

During the 1960s and 1970s, a time of social foment in Seattle and across the nation, the Leschi community met these challenges with success. Leschi today remains a scenic hillside neighborhood with an unusual history.

In 1975, Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority hired consultant/architects Folke Nyberg (1934-2010) and Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985)  to do an inventory of buildings in Leschi and nearby communities. The consultants noted a broad spectrum of age, style, and size homes. They cited among the housing types Victorian, bungalow, colonial, Tudor cottage, California cottage, ranch house, medieval mansion, early northwest regionalism, and contemporary. Two categories were striking: 1) "popular houses" built by speculative house builders from standard plans for middle-income families, and 2) "High Style" houses designed by architects, usually with some eclectic or International Style treatment.


Wade Vaughan, Seattle Leschi Diary (Seattle: The Leschi Improvement Council, 1982); Bill Schaefer, Living it up in Leschi ed. by Wade Vaughan (Seattle: Leschi Community Council, 1996); Jim Faber, Steamer's Wake (Seattle: Enetai Press, 1985); Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide: Seattle (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998); Murray Morgan, Skid Road (New York: The Viking Press, 1951); Dorothy Fay Gould, Beyond the Shining Mountains (Portland, Ore: Binfords & Mort, Publishers, 1938); George A. Frykman, Seattle's Historian and Promoter: The Life of Edmond Stephen Meany (Pullman, WA; Washington State University Press, 1998); Brandt Morgan, Enjoying Seattle's Parks (Seattle: Greenwood Publications, 1979); Paul Dorpat, Seattle: Now & Then, Vols. I, II, III (Seattle: Tartu Publications, 1984-1990); C.H. Hanford, Seattle and Environs: 1852-1924 (Chicago & Seattle: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1924); Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County, Washington (Chicago-Seattle: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1929); Junius Rochester, "The Last Electric Trolley: Madrona and Denny-Blaine: Seattle, Washington Neighborhoods," typescript dated 2001 in possession of Junius Rochester; Leschi File Folder, Seattle Public Library, Madrona-Sally Goldmark Branch, Seattle, Washington.

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