The Jefferson Park Golf Course opened in May 1915. It was the first municipally owned golf course in Seattle and the third golf course in King County. The course is located at 4101 Beacon Avenue S in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. In its first year, 26,309 people played on Jefferson Park’s 18-hole course. Today, the course measures 6,182 yards and has a driving range and 27 holes. More than 60,000 rounds of golf are played each year at the course. Since opening, the golf course has served Seattle residents and visitors of all ethnicities and income levels: from the heavyweight-boxing champion Joe Louis in 1936 to a 16-year-old Tiger Woods in 1992, from the first members of the Seattle Chinese Golf Club in the 1950s to students of the nonprofit organization First Tee today.
Early History of Jefferson Park
In the late nineteenth century, the Territory (and later State) of Washington owned the Jefferson Park site in order to support the local state university. In 1892, Seattle established an isolation hospital or “pesthouse” at Jefferson Park for those suffering from small pox or other contagious diseases. In 1898, the City of Seattle purchased 235 acres of the Jefferson Park site for $11,711. City officials hoped to build a water reservoir and cemetery. In 1903, the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm developed the Comprehensive System of Parks and Parkways for Seattle. In 1908, the Olmsted brothers supplemented their comprehensive plan to include a playfield at the Jefferson Park site.
That year, the city completed two reservoirs in the Jefferson Park area and then transferred the remaining 137 surplus acres of the property to the Parks Board. The Parks Board first created a nursery near the “pesthouse” and allowed patients to work in the nursery. On July 1, 1909, the city of Seattle opened the Municipal Workhouse and Stockage, which replaced Seattle’s chain gang, and had city prisoners clear trees for the park. The workhouse closed in 1918.
Creation of a Public Course
Golf first came to Seattle in 1895, when 12 Seattleites led by Josiah Collins, E. A. Strout, and James “Gillie” Gillium played a five-hole game in a pasture in the Wallingford (sometimes credited as Fremont) District. By 1900, Collins had established the Seattle Golf and Country Club and rented 55 acres of farmland in Laurelhurst. In 1908, Seattle’s first golf club moved to The Highlands, four miles north of Ballard, and renamed it the Seattle Golf Club.
As golf became more popular in the United States and Seattle, a group of Seattleites led by E. C. Cheasty campaigned for a public golf course that would make playing the new sport more affordable. In response, the Board of Park Commissioners modified the Olmsted plan for Jefferson Park to include an 18-hole golf course. Following the founding of the Firland Sanitarium in 1914, the Parks Board burned down Jefferson Park’s now superfluous “pesthouse.” This created more space for the new golf course. Scotsman Thomas Bendelow, an early and influential “golf architect,” designed and built the 18-hole course in 1915.
The Jefferson Park Golf Course formally opened on the afternoon of May 12, 1915. Seattle Mayor Hiram C. Gill (1866-1919) gave a dedicatory speech and had the honor of being the first to tee off with a “half-midiron” shot on the new course. Gill reportedly had never held a golf club before but managed a respectable 100-yard drive. In his address to golfing fans, Gill remembered E. C. Cheasty, who had passed away in 1913 and had spearheaded the idea for a municipal golf course in Seattle. Gill also answered critics of the park boards decision to charge for play. Gill argued that it was crucial for the health of the new golf course that it be self-sustaining. Park Commissioner George B. Lamping, who represented the parks board during the construction of the course, led a group of four in the opening game of the course.
Later that month, the Board of Park Commissioners ordered Jefferson Park to be closed to women on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. A group of women golfers immediately petitioned the board to reconsider. And on May 28, 1915, the board rescinded its order and stated that women would have the same privileges on the golf course as men at all times.
In its first year, the Jefferson Park Golf Course had 26,309 visitors.
Early Days at the Links
Professional golfer Joseph Jefferson served as Jefferson Park’s first head professional from its opening until 1944. He gave golf lessons and supervised course maintenance. The course had horse-drawn mowers and grazing animals to trim its fairways. During World War I, Army planes on a Liberty Bond tour used the fairways as a makeshift airport, as Seattle had no airport.
In 1919, a fire destroyed Jefferson Park’s clubhouse, but a larger structure soon replaced it. In the early 1920s, the Board of Park Commissioners acquired 71 acres on the south side of the course. They used this land for an additional nine holes. More than 125,000 golfers visited Jefferson Park in 1924. Parks Superintendent J. A. Jackson realized there was a need for more public courses in Seattle. In response to demand the Seattle Parks Board opened Jackson Park Golf Course in 1930 and the West Seattle Golf Course in 1940.
The golf course continued to grow during the Great Depression. In 1929, the Parks Board built the Shelter House. The Parks Board then added a cricket pitch and tennis court in 1931. However, the courts were abandoned the next year when rain damaged the clay surface. In 1936, the Works Progress Administration built a new clubhouse.
During World War II, the U.S. Army took over the nine-hole course to establish anti-aircraft batteries. In addition to the anti-aircraft batteries at Jefferson Park, the Army stationed guns, searchlights, and barrage balloons in Seattle parks to protect Boeing Field and shipyards. The Army also took over the rest of the park west of Beacon Avenue for a recreation center. Tents in the park housed up to 1,000 soldiers who enjoyed recreation facilities and a gymnasium. The site also included tent cabins for servicemen’s wives.
The Army returned the park and golf course to the city in 1946. Soon after, a new nine-hole course was constructed at the site of a lawn bowling green, which was in turn moved to another part of the park. A Veterans’ Administration Hospital replaced the old nine-hole course. In 1949, the 1929 Shelter House was remodeled into a Field House. And in 1954, the southwest corner of the park was given to the Seattle School District to construct Asa Mercer Junior High School.
“Open to Anybody”
As a public golf course, Jefferson Park was “open to anybody” (Frank S. Chin). African Americans, Asian Americans, and other minorities were welcome to play on the course. Women were also afforded the same privileges as men at the golf course. Finally, the low cost of playing 18 or nine holes meant that Seattleites of more modest income levels could afford to play. When young golf enthusiasts could not afford to play, they snuck in through holes in the fence and started playing at later holes. Professional golfer Fred Couples, who learned to play at Jefferson Park, and Seattle Cascade Golf Club historian Frank S. Chin both suggest that this was a fairly common practice.
By the end of World War II, African Americans and Asian Americans were becoming more active in the sport of golf. However, because of their race, these golfers were not welcomed into golf clubs. Though these minority golfers were allowed to play individually at public courses, they could not participate in tournaments without belonging to a club. To combat this problem, a group of 15 racially diverse men and women founded the Fir State Golf Club in 1947. It is the nation’s second-oldest African American golf club with a home golf course. But the group was banned from public King County tournaments until 1952. Even after the ban had been lifted, African American golfers were still regularly denied a chance to play in tournaments. In response, Parks Superintendent Paul V. Brown encouraged golf clubs that put on tournaments on public courses to allow all citizens, regardless of color, to play. The Fir State Golf Club primarily used Jefferson Park as its home golf course.
In 1951, a group of 16 Chinese businessmen interested in learning golf formed a group called the Seattle Chinese Golf Club. In 1954 they chartered the club at Jefferson Golf Course and renamed it the Cascade Golf Club. The club became very popular and, as time went on, increasingly ethnically diverse. Both the Seattle Cascade Golf Club and the Fir State Golf Club gave minority citizens a chance to play golf competitively. Today both clubs still regularly play at the Jefferson Park Golf Course, a course that continues to serve a very diverse crowd.
Course Improvements and Management Changes
In 1970, Seattle Parks completed a new clubhouse at Jefferson Park after received funding through the 1968 Forward Thrust bonds. Two years later, the Field House was expanded and converted into a Community Center.
In the 1970s, the Seattle Parks Department offered a concession contract to whoever wanted to run its public golf courses. A concessionaire managed the operations of the courses, while the Parks Department paid for maintenance and improvements. The concessionaire received a percentage of the greens playing fee and made money from restaurants. In 1978, Joe Thiel won a concession contract for Jefferson Park and later for the other public golf courses (Jackson Park and West Seattle). In 1989, an organization called Greentrees took over Thiel’s contract. Though the municipal courses were extremely popular, the city was losing money on the courses, because the concessionaires did not pass along enough of their revenue to the city to make the golf courses self-sustainable. In 1993, the city reported a $105,000 loss on the courses despite more than $4 million in revenue. When the Greentrees contract was up in 1995, the Parks Department began to look at other options.
On July 1, 1995, the city turned the management of its three golf courses, including Jefferson Park, over to the nonprofit agency Municipal Golf of Seattle. However, the golf courses lost money due to decreased play from a wet winter and spring. Still, the golf course conditions were markedly improved during the tenure of Municipal Golf of Seattle. The group set out to improve the course, including regularly mowing the fairways and painting the clubhouse. The courses also sported new golf carts. In 1998, Jefferson Park’s newly renovated driving range reopened. With a 10 percent drop in rounds played as well as other financial problems, the Municipal Golf of Seattle lost its operations agreement in mid-2003. The city then hired as an interim organization Premier Golf to operate its courses. In 2005, the city permanently hired Premier Golf for its golf management after a competitive bidding process.
Future Golfers and the Future of Jefferson Park
In 2001, First Tee of Greater Seattle or the Seattle Junior Golf Foundation formed. And in 2003, it began programming at the Jefferson Park Golf Course for 224 youth. The nonprofit organization aims to get kids excited about golf. First Tee offers scholarships for those cannot afford classes.
In May 2009, Seattle Parks & Recreation stated in its master plan that its chief priority was to update the Jefferson Park clubhouse, which was constructed by the WPA in the 1930s. The “green fee” for golfing at Jefferson Park has increased since 1915, but it remains a relatively inexpensive place to play golf. Jefferson Park’s tradition of welcoming anybody to its golf course continues today, and it continues to be enjoyed by a diverse group of Seattleites who share a love of golfing.