Henry Yesler's steam-powered Seattle sawmill cuts its first lumber in late March 1853.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 8/01/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 760
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In late March 1853, a steam-powered sawmill built by pioneer Henry L. Yesler (1810?-1892) is fired up for the first time, fed by logs taken from the heavily wooded areas surrounding the then-tiny settlement of Seattle. The mill is located on the eastern shore of Elliott Bay adjacent to what is today Yesler Avenue, part of an area known to the region's indigenous people as "Little Crossing-Over Place." Yesler, who will at one time or another employ nearly every one of the settlement's few white males, relies to a large extent on Native American workers, gaining among them a reputation for fairness. The mill's lumber is used to build the young city and is exported to California, Hawaii, and other markets. Although the sawmill is Seattle's first industry and crucial to its early growth, it proves an unreliable source of income, and Yesler's later great wealth will come from his extensive land holdings in the city's commercial core.

A Middle-Aged Man

Henry Leiter Yesler was not a young man when he arrived at the little settlement of Seattle (then called Duwamps) in the drizzly fall of 1852. He was born in Leitersburg, Maryland, and moved to Massillon, Ohio, in 1832, where he met and in 1839 married Sarah Burgert (1822-1887). After nearly 20 years of reasonable success working as a carpenter and millwright, Yesler was drawn by the lure of the West and headed for California in 1851, leaving Sarah behind. He sailed to Panama from New York, crossed the isthmus, and caught a steamer to San Francisco. Historians differ on the precise details of the next year or so, and Yesler in a brief autobiographical statement differed from most of them on at least some points. Even his wife lost track of him and sent copies of letters to different locations, hoping one would find its way to her vagabond husband.

Yesler's account indicates that he went to Portland, Oregon, and took work in a sawmill. He saw there was money to be made and, through John E. McClain, a friend and financial backer in Ohio, ordered the equipment necessary to build his own steam-powered mill. Before it arrived in California, Yesler had decided against Portland as a site because the bar of the Columbia River was too difficult for ships to cross. He then went to San Francisco and considered building a mill near Marysville, California, but soured on that plan as well. All sources agree that it was in San Francisco that Yesler met a sea captain who had sailed in the Northwest and who told him of the forests carpeting the land around Puget Sound and the deep-water harbor at Elliott Bay.

Yesler headed down the Columbia River from Portland, then up the Cowlitz River, passing through Olympia and paddling up Puget Sound by canoe, arriving in October 1852 at "New York-Alki" (now West Seattle) at the entrance to Elliott Bay. After considering and rejecting that as a site for a mill, Yesler went east across Elliott Bay to a place where a few rough cabins had been built by William Bell (1817-1887), Arthur (1822-1899) and David (1832-1903) Denny, Carson Boren (1824-1912), and David S. "Doc" Maynard (1808-1873). A sixth man, George N. McConaha (1820-?), arrived with his wife just a few months later. Of this group, all but the McConahas had relocated from Alki the previous spring. These men and their families constituted the entire non-Native population when Yesler first came to the place where he would help build a city.

Yesler wanted his mill on the eastern shore of Elliott Bay, but those who came before had claimed all available land there. When he told them that he had already purchased the equipment and would build a mill to the south near the mouth of the Duwamish River, the settlers, knowing what a boon a sawmill would be, offered to surrender parts of their claims to Yesler if he would locate the mill farther north. Since their claims had not been formally filed at Oregon City, the capital of Oregon Territory, this could be done without undue legal complication.

The place Yesler chose was near a small peninsula of land (an island during very high tides) that was the site of most of the settlers' cabins. It jutted south near the boundary between Maynard's claim and that of Boren, facing on Elliott Bay to the west and separated from the mainland by a marshy tidal lagoon to the east. The Duwamish and Suquamish residents of the region called the spot "Little Crossing-Over Place" (Thrush, 14), a reference to a trail that started there and led inland. It had once been the site of several large cedar longhouses, but by the time the first settlers arrived only the remains of one small hut were visible, although many Duwamish and Suquamish families still lived along the nearby shores.

Boren and Maynard agreed to cede Yesler a nearly 500-foot-wide strip between their claims. He would build his mill on the north side of the western end of this strip, which ran inland and formed a panhandle to the 320-acre Donation Land claim that he had made for himself and his wife on what is today First Hill. Part of the strip would be used to skid logs from the heavily wooded hillsides down to the mill; it was known variously as Mill Street, Skid Road, and, finally, Yesler Way.

The Mill

Having secured a site, Yesler sent to San Francisco for his equipment. According to his account, when it arrived by ship, "we had to throw it all into the water & let it float ashore. The boiler was floated in this way, but the engine was placed on a raft" ("Henry Yesler and the Founding of Seattle"). He continued:

"My mill was the first steam saw mill put up on the Sound. Lumber sold for $35 a thousand then; now [1878] for $10. As there was no wharf the lumber had to be rafted from the mill to the vessels ... . After the establishment of the mill which was commenced in '52, the town grew rapidly. We commenced sawing wood under a shed in March '53 -- the saw dust we filled swamps with, and the slabs we built a wharf with ("Henry Yesler and the Founding of Seattle").

Before the mill opened, Yesler built a log cookhouse across Skid Road to the south, which became the site of the tiny community's social and civic activities and Yesler's home until he was joined by Sarah in 1858. In 1854 he began construction of a wharf, a makeshift affair at first that would eventually extend nearly 1,000 feet into Elliott Bay.

When the mill was ready to cut its first lumber in late March 1853, the logs came from Doc Maynard's claim. Yesler's operation was the first and for a short time the only steam-powered mill on Puget Sound, but even by the standards of the time it was not much. It produced less than 14,000 board feet of rough lumber a day, and Yesler would admit in later years that much of it was of poor quality. It would not be too long before larger mills, many financed with money from beyond Washington Territory, were built at other places on Puget Sound. But most of those later mills gave rise to company towns and when the mills reduced production or closed the towns diminished or disappeared. In Seattle, although it was just a collection of rough huts in 1852, the town came first and Yesler's mill second. It is indisputable that the mill was crucial to the town's early growth, but it was not its sole raison d'etre.

A census taken in late 1853 showed only 170 non-Indians in all of King County, and a count four years later, after the Indian Wars, showed only 152, including 86 adult males. Of these, 59 were either farmers or engaged in other activities, leaving at most 27 male settlers who might have worked for Yesler. Many of these lived outside tiny Seattle, so since there were virtually no roads even fewer were actually available for the mill. While it seems Yesler gave preference in hiring to his fellow settlers, he also employed significant numbers of Native Americans, and they worked in nearly all capacities at the mill. Yesler treated them fairly and paid them fairly well, and without their labor the mill could not have survived, and the city's growth would have been greatly retarded.

Some of the first lumber produced by Yesler was used by Bell, the Dennys, Boren, and Maynard to replace their rudimentary cabins. Soon most of the few holdouts of the original settlers still at Alki threw in the towel, moved to Seattle, and built homes as well. Almost all the male settlers worked in the mill or supplied Yesler with logs, so nearly everyone benefitted from his presence in one way or another. As one historian of the city wrote:

"Yesler's mill did not create the town, yet it did more than any one thing to fix the seat of the place. As the first steam mill, and the first mill of any capacity, it gave a temporary advantage to the town, placing the means of building decent houses and establishing pleasant homes within the reach of the people. The effect of this in fixing the people here was very great" (History of Seattle, Washington, 243).

Despite his mill's importance to the city's early development, Yesler never got rich from it. But fortune smiled on him nonetheless, and in later years his sizable property holdings in what became Seattle's commercial core made him wealthy beyond any expectations he may have had when he first set eyes on a handful of little log cabins on the shore of Elliott Bay.


John R. Finger, "Henry L. Yesler's Seattle Years, 1852-1892," (Ph.D. Diss., University of Washington, 1968), 1-17, 24-27; History of Seattle, Washington ed. by Frederic James Grant (New York: American Publishing and Engraving Co., 1891), 74, 82, 243-245; Welford Beaton, The City That Made Itself (Seattle: Terminal Publishing Company, 1914), 22-24; Arthur Armstong Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound (Seattle: Alice Harriman, 1904), 39, 57, 102; Harvey K. Hines, An Illustrated History of the State of Washington (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1894), 252-254; Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Washington, Idaho, and Montana (San Francisco, The History Company, 1890), 24; Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916), 25-27, 30; "Henry Yesler and the Founding of Seattle," The Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 4 (Oct. 1951), 271-276; "Yesler, Henry L., Sawmill, Cook House, Pioneer Square, Seattle, WA," Pacific Coast Architecture Database accessed May 18, 2014 (https://digital.lib.washington.edu/architect/structures/14066/); John R. Finger, "Seattle's First Sawmill, 1853-1869," Forest History Newsletter, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Jan. 1972), 24-31; "Early Settlers of Seattle. Henry L. Yesler," Magazine of Western History, Illustrated, Vol. 11 (November 1889-April 1890), 611-613; Thomas Prosch, "Seattle and the Indians of Puget Sound," The Washington Historical Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 4 (July 1908), 303-308; James R. Warren, "Ten Who Shaped Seattle: Henry Yesler Struck Gold in Lumber and Real Estate," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 24, 2001 (http://www.seattlepi.com/).
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