Seward Park encompasses an entire peninsula that juts into Lake Washington from southeast Seattle, plus its isthmus and some mainland acreage along the shore. The 300-acre site includes 120 acres of undeveloped native forest -- the largest stand of old-growth timber in the city. The peninsula's potential as a park was recognized in the early 1890s. It was a key element in the plan proposed for Seattle's park system by the famed Olmsted Brothers in 1903. After the city acquired the land, in 1911, the Olmsted firm designed Seward Park as the anchor of a scenic boulevard system that runs north for several miles along the lake. Today, the park is an urban refuge that supports a wide range of flora and fauna, from bald eagles to the Garry Oak, Washington's only native oak. Its amenities include miles of hiking trails, a 2.4 shoreline biking/walking path, a bathing beach, amphitheater, art studio, and an environmental center operated in a partnership between the National Audubon Society and the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department -- in addition to magnificent views of Mount Rainier.
Lushootseed-speaking Salish peoples lived in the area around Seward Park for at least 4,000 years and probably much longer before the first non-Natives arrived in the 1850s. They called themselves the xachua’bsh (hah-chu-AHBSH), or "lake people." Their neighbors, the txwduwa'bsh (dkhw-duw-AHBSH), or "inside people," lived along nearby rivers. Their name became anglicized as "Duwamish" and was eventually applied to all the original inhabitants of the Seattle area.
Until modern times, the isthmus connecting the peninsula to the mainland was only a few hundred feet wide and flooded seasonally, turning the peninsula into an island. A large marsh occupied the area north of the isthmus, draining into Andrews Bay. The lake, bay, and peninsula offered abundant natural resources, including fish, shellfish, deer, elk, waterfowl, berries, and wapato ("Indian potatoes"). Evidence of several winter villages has been found in the area. The largest was on what new settlers called Pritchard’s Island (now Pritchard Beach: the island joined the rest of Seattle, geographically, in 1917 when the Lake Washington Ship Canal lowered the level of the lake). Although there apparently were no permanent Indian settlements on the peninsula itself, hunting, fishing, and gathering parties undoubtedly would have visited it.
In 1854 and 1855, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) convinced representatives of the Lushootseed Salish to sign treaties agreeing to move to reservations in exchange for certain rights and guarantees. The lake and river people who had become known as the Duwamish were ordered to go to a reservation set aside for the Suquamish tribes at Port Madison, in northern Kitsap County. Most refused to go. White settlers opposed a proposal to establish a Duwamish reservation in the Renton area. The Duwamish were never granted a reservation or other treaty rights; they continue (as of 2010) to fight for federal recognition as a tribe.
The first Euro-American to see what is now Seward Park was probably Isaac Ebey (1818-1857), who explored Lake Washington in a canoe, with Lushootseed guides, in 1850. The first settlers were John Harvey (1828-1892) and Edward A. Clark (ca. 1828-1860), who staked adjoining claims on the peninsula in 1852. The two shared a cabin that spanned the common boundary of their claims. The cabin was burned during the "Battle of Seattle" in January 1856, when Indians attacked the village of Seattle in a protest over the treaties negotiated by Stevens. Harvey relocated, eventually becoming one of the founding citizens of Snohomish. Clark, Seattle’s first photographer and one of its first schoolteachers, sold his claim to David Graham, another teacher, on December 28, 1858. A week later, on January 6, 1859, Harvey also sold his claim to Graham.
A land survey done in the 1861 survey refers to the peninsula as "Andrews' Peninsula" and the bay as "Andrews' Bay," after W. R. Andrews, who had filed a homestead claim on the adjacent mainland. The bay retains Andrews’ name, but the peninsula eventually became known as Bailey Peninsula, after William E. Bailey, a Pennsylvania investor, who bought most of it for $26,000 in 1889. Bailey invested heavily in local real estate after the Great Seattle Fire of June 1889. He also purchased the Seattle Press-Times, a precursor to The Seattle Times. He returned to Pennsylvania after the Panic of 1893. According to Seattle parks engineer and historian Donald N. Sherwood, both Andrews and Bailey served as parks commissioners in the early 1890s.
Plans for a Park
Seattle Superintendent of Parks Edward O. Schwagerl (1842-1910) was among the first to recognize the potential of Bailey Peninsula as parkland. He recommended that the city buy it in 1892. But the financial panic of the next year and the ensuing recession put all plans for park development on hold. It was not until the early 1900s, when the city was riding a wave of prosperity triggered by the Klondike gold rush, that Seattle began to consider its parks again.
In 1903, the city hired the Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, the most prestigious landscape firm in the country, to design a "Comprehensive System of Parks and Boulevards" for Seattle. John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920), nephew and stepson of the firm’s founder, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), was in charge of the project. First on his list of recommendations was that the city purchase Bailey Peninsula. The land lay outside the city limits at the time, but Olmsted expected that it would soon be annexed. He urged the city to move quickly to buy the peninsula and other key parcels in order to create an "emerald necklace" of parks and playgrounds, linked by winding, landscaped boulevards. The "primary aim," he said, should be "to secure and preserve for the use of the people as much as possible of these advantages of water and mountain views and of woodlands, well distributed and conveniently located" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 2003).
The City Council adopted the Olmsted plan on October 19, 1903. However, it wasn’t until 1908 that the Bailey family agreed to sell the peninsula, and then at an asking price ($430,000, or $2,000 an acre) that the city considered exorbitant. The city finally acquired Bailey Peninsula in 1911, after condemning the land and paying the family $322,000, based on a fair-market value of $1,500 an acre.
The Olmsted Brothers were awarded the contract to design the park, which was named after William H. Seward (1801-1872), Secretary of State under President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), who arranged for the purchase of Alaska in 1867. The plan, prepared in 1912, laid out the general concepts for the park that exists today: a mix of shoreline, meadows, picnic areas, and playfields, ringing what Olmsted called the "Magnificent Forest."
The forest remains the park’s crown jewel. "While old trees can be found in a few other parks in Seattle, the Magnificent Forest, covering about 120 acres of the northern two-thirds of the Bailey Peninsula, is the largest stand of old trees in the city," note the Friends of Seward Park (www.sewardpark.org). The forest’s size and diversity make Seward Park "Seattle’s best park for trees," says local tree expert Arthur Lee Jacobson (www.arthurleej.com).
"The Pride of Rainier Valley"
The new Seward Park remained largely undeveloped for several years. By 1915, only a picnic area and a few trails had been built. Still, the Rainier Valley Citizen boasted that "Seward Park is already a favorite resort for those picknickers who want to get fartherst [sic] away from the turmoil of city life in the shortest possible distance, for this park is a veritable wooded wilderness." The paper noted that thousands came to the park for the first annual Rainier Valley Fiesta, a citywide picnic held on June 25, 1915. The park was "the pride of Rainier Valley," a wonderland so vast that "no charm of hill or vale, water or sky, wood or meadow is missing" (Rainier Valley Citizen, 1915).
In 1917, the completion of the ship canal linking Lake Washington with Puget Sound lowered the level of the lake by nine feet. This increased the size of the isthmus that connected Bailey Peninsula to the mainland and made the park more accessible to automobiles. Boat docks were added in 1919. Andrews Bay became a popular boating destination. Still a favorite with boaters, it is one of the few spots on Lake Washington where overnight mooring is allowed.
In 1927, the city built two restrooms with locker facilities at the bathing beach. The restrooms were replaced by a bathhouse financed by the federal Works Progress Administration in 1940. The bathhouse included changing rooms, lockers, and showers for men and women, along with a large first-aid and lifeguard station. As times changed, and it became more acceptable to wear swim suits under (or in place of) street clothes, the bathhouse was used less and less. In 1970, a skylight was added and it was converted to an arts and crafts studio.
Also constructed in 1927 was the two-story Seward Park Inn. A Tudor-style building near the entrance to the park, it was privately built by J. Frank and Catherine C. Redfield as a concession stand, offering fountain and sandwich service. Catherine Redfield operated the concessions on the ground floor; she and her husband lived on the second floor with their two daughters. Business slowed during the Depression in the 1930s. Catherine applied for a permit to sell beer after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933. She was granted a license, but local opposition to liquor sales in the park forced her to stop after a few months. She added chicken and steak dinners to the menu. Still, the business continued to struggle and the Redfields gave it up in 1943.
The building remained in use as a concession stand for some years. The park foreman used the second floor as a residence until 1968. The building has since been designated a historic landmark. It is now operated as a nature education center by the Audubon Society in partnership with the city.
Wildlife and Cherry Blossoms
As the Audubon Society points out, Seward Park has always been a haven for wildlife. Deer migrated to the park from Mercer Island by swimming until 1953, when the state Fish and Game Department captured the last three. More than 100 species of birds have been seen in the park. The star attractions are the bald eagles that nest in two aeries, which have been used and reused for years. The forest, meadows, and shoreline support many other species of native animals and reptiles, including mountain beavers, deer mice, muskrats, river otters, red-eared turtles, and many kinds of fish and waterfowl. In addition, a small group of exotic parakeets -- escaped pets and their offspring -- has inhabited the park since sometime in the mid-1990s.
A fish hatchery with 20 rearing ponds was built in 1935 as part of an effort to make Lake Washington a "fisherman’s paradise." By the 1940s, the hatchery was releasing 250,000 trout annually. Its negative impact on the natural ecology of the lake led to its closure in 1978. The hatchery was used as an educational research lab by the University of Washington's Department of Fisheries until 1997, when it was shut down altogether. Most of the ponds were removed, but five were retained as historical artifacts, along with the stone bridge over a now-dry waterfall and a pumphouse on the shore.
The park’s signature structure is an eight-ton Taiko Gata stone lantern, at the main entrance. The lantern, installed in 1930, was a gift from the city of Yokohama, Japan, in thanks for Seattle’s assistance after a 1923 earthquake that devastated Yokohama and Tokyo. The city of Seattle then sent 1,000 rose bushes to Yokohama. Descendants of those roses can still be found in the Yokohama Municipal Children’s Botanical Garden. The perimeter of Seward Park, meanwhile, is graced with ornamental cherry trees donated at various times as gestures of friendship between Seattle and Japan. Some of the trees are offspring of ones planted as early as 1929. They still greet the spring, symbols of "life's splendor and fragility" (The Seattle Times, 2005).