Born on October 4, 1850, in Penobscot County, Maine, John McGraw arrived in Seattle in 1876 broke and friendless. While growing up in Maine, McGraw's father drowned, his mother remarried, and he found himself running a general store at age 17. That early management experience helped get him a job as clerk in Seattle's old Occidental Hotel. From there he joined the tiny Seattle police force.
John McGraw's Seattle police job was occasionally exciting. Those young years, in a bachelor, wide-open town, saw the toleration of a certain level of lawlessness. On January 17, 1882, businessman George B. Reynolds was threatened by two armed men as he walked down the street. Reynolds refused to cooperate with the robbers and was fatally shot in the chest. Reynold's murder aroused Seattleites who caught the suspects and turned them over to authorities.
A mob formed, demanding custody of the accused. Seattle Chief of Police McGraw and King County sheriff Lewis Wykoff (1828-1882), both of whom were armed, held firm, but the next morning at the preliminary hearing the mob grabbed the prisoners and hanged them from two maple trees in Occidental (Pioneer) Square. Then they returned to the jail, extracted another prisoner, and hanged him as well. (Wykoff died suddenly of heart disease two days later.)
The 1886 Anti-Chinese Riots
After serving as police chief, McGraw was elected King County sheriff. The great events of that period of service were the anti-Chinese riots. Chinese men had built the railroads of the West, and at first their labor was appreciated. However, by the 1880s, anti-Chinese agitators felt threatened by their cheap labor, and cast their anger in racist terms. Chinese laborers had been murdered in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and in King County's Issaquah Valley. Chinese had been threatened and driven out of Tacoma.
On Sunday morning, February 7, 1886, an anti-Chinese committee drove Seattle's Chinese community to the dock at the foot of Main Street with the intention of loading them on the steamship Queen. Governor Watson Squire issued a proclamation ordering the mob to desist and disperse, which was ignored. The Home Guard was called out the next day and meetings of substantial citizens were held, including Sheriff McGraw, to quell the growing lawlessness.
When a posse was formed, Sheriff McGraw and others took charge. Deputies fired shots into the mob, and one man died of his wounds. Nearly 200 Chinese were forced to leave on the steamship for San Francisco, and another 150 departed the following week.
George Kinnear, who participated in the events as a captain of the Home Guards, wrote that "Sheriff John H. McGraw was present during the whole affair and no officer ever performed his duties more faithfully and efficiently."
Law and Politics
Following three terms as King County Sheriff, John McGraw undertook the study of law. In 1887, he entered into a law partnership with Roger S. Green and C. H. Hanford. With public service in his veins, he ran successfully as an ardent Republican for governor and was elected in 1892. A key issue of that campaign was the "Lake Washington Canal project (i.e. Ballard locks)" which McGraw favored. Nard Jones, in, Evergreen Land, writes that "The general boom across Lake Washington began when John McGraw ran for governor with the slogan "Build the Lake Washington Canal and Build it for 1893." (Ground was broken for the canal in 1911 and it opened for navigation on May 8, 1917.)
During his term as governor, McGraw was considered "a zealous friend of the university [of Washington]," leading the effort to purchase a tract of land for $28,313.75 that became catalyst for the future campus. The cornerstone of the first building was laid during ceremonies on July 4, 1894. That structure was called the Administration Building, soon changed to Denny Hall.
With an eye on Seattle's business, which he would join late in life, Governor McGraw signed a bill authorizing the filling of the Duwamish tideflats, present site of Seattle's busy Harbor Island.
Similar to many Pacific Northwesterners, McGraw was bitten by the "gold bug" following the July 17, 1897, arrival from Alaska of the steamship Portland with its "ton of gold." Following his term as governor, and a spell of ill health, McGraw headed north as a first class passenger aboard the famous Portland on her return trip to Alaska. In 1900, he returned without striking it rich, but wiser and in better health.
Forming a general fire and real estate firm called McGraw, Kittinger and Case, John McGraw became a player within Seattle's business establishment. He served as president of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and was the first president of the organized association of commercial bodies of Pacific Coast cities.
During this period, McGraw also showed an interest in regional history by financially supporting his friend Edmond S. Meany's project to write an abridged version of Captain George Vancouver's voyage along the Pacific Northwest coast. (Meany had been one of McGraw's proteges in the Republican Party.)
In late September 1909, during Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition ceremonies, Governor McGraw rode in a Winton car beside the large -- 300 pounds -- presence of United States President William Howard Taft (1857-1930). The exposition was held on the University of Washington campus during the summer of 1909. It was Seattle's first world's fair, and drew more than three and a half million visitors.
John McGraw died in 1910. After his death, a bronze statue of him, made in Paris by sculptor Richard E. Brooks, was erected in Seattle's Times Square. He is buried on Queen Anne Hill in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery near pioneers David Blaine and Daniel Bagley.