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Bellevue -- Thumbnail History
HistoryLink.org Essay 313
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The City of Bellevue is a modern, metropolitan community dotted with skyscrapers. Although it didn't incorporate until 1953 and has experienced most of its rapid growth since then, its history goes back many decades, as a farming center, inland port, and milling center.
The first homesteaders in the Bellevue area were William Meydenbauer (1832-1906) and Aaron Mercer (1824-1902), who both arrived in 1869. Meydenbauer, a Seattle baker, settled alongside the sheltered bay which now bears his name. South of Meydenbauer Bay, Mercer farmed along what is now known as the Mercer Slough. Once their land became profitable, they sold their claims and moved on, leaving only their names.
In 1882, Isaac Bechtel Sr. bought land near the present downtown area. For the next few years he and sons logged and cleared the land. Other settlers followed, and by 1890 a sawmill, shingle mills, and farms dotted the area. The growing community also had a school and a few businesses.
The first postmaster in the area was Mathew S. Sharpe, who had moved to the area with his brothers from Bellevue, Indiana. Since Bellevue means "beautiful view" in French, he found the name to be just as applicable for his new home, which had sweeping vistas of Lake Washington to the west and the Cascade mountains to the east.
The 1900 census counted 400 persons in Bellevue. These residents lived in the following areas:
- 100 persons living on Meydenbauer Bay;
- 200 persons living in Medina, The Points (Hunts Point and Yarrow Point), and Clyde Hill;
- 100 persons living in Killarney (approximately Southeast 25th Street of present-day Bellevue).
Bellevue was platted in 1904. By this time it was the center for berry growing in King County, and was also a retreat for many wealthy Seattle families. The Medina neighborhood along the shores of the lake had been known as the Gold Coast since the 1890s, when landowners bought farmland and converted it into sprawling estates.
The Beaux Arts community, to the south, was formed in 1908 as an artists' colony. Plans were in the works for studios and instruction in such fields as sculpting, ironwork, weaving, and photography. The project never completely panned out; yet some of the houses built during this time remain standing today.
By 1910 the populations had grown to nearly 1,500. Some of the growth was due to the Hewitt Lumber Company of Tacoma, which employed hundreds of men to log timber from Wilburton (located on the 1999 Bellevue site of 116th Avenue SE and SE 8th Street) west to Lake Sammamish and south to Kennydale. The logs were hauled overland and floated down Mercer Slough.
Ship Canal Brings New Business
Access to Seattle from Bellevue was by ferryboat. In 1917, the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal permitted access to Puget Sound. This brought new business to Bellevue when local resident William Schupp, head of the American Pacific Whaling Fleet, decided to move his corporate headquarters to Bellevue. Storing his whaling ships in Meydenbauer Bay during the off season was both convenient and beneficial; the fresh water of the lake helped kill off the barnacles and worms that damaged most salt-water vessels.
Still, the most productive industry in the community was farming. Many early farmers were Japanese, but anti-alien legislation in the 1920s prohibited most of them from leasing land, and many moved away. The few who remained lost much of their land during World War II, when local Japanese were forced into internment camps for the duration of the war.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, Bellevue maintained its rural lifestyle. Their annual Strawberry Festival was always a big success, both for selling produce and for luring new residents who wanted to live in a country environment, yet still be able to commute to their Seattle jobs.
First Bridge Spans Lake Washington
The construction of the first bridge across Lake Washington in 1939 was instrumental in changing Bellevue from a farming community into a bustling suburb. Before the bridge, the city of Kirkland, to the north, was the predominant location for most ferry commuters. The new bridge, built on the shores south of Bellevue, made Bellevue a more desirable location for auto commuters. After World War II, more and more people began moving to Bellevue. Real estate ads billed the community as being "15 minutes to your home in the country," yet the country feel would soon disappear.
In 1946, developer Kemper Freeman (1910-1982) opened the first shopping mall on the Eastside, Bellevue Square, in downtown Bellevue, where strawberry farms had been just a few years earlier. This caused unprecedented business growth nearby, which has continued unabated into the 1990s.
In 1953, the city incorporated. From the start, city planners looked to Bellevue's future as a thriving city, not as a sleepy town. Some streets were designed to have six lanes, unheard of at the time in most nearby communities. Businesses were required to provide plenty of parking, for the many cars that would soon come. Two years after incorporation, Bellevue was named All-America City by the National Municipal League and Look magazine.
In 1963, the opening of the second cross-lake bridge solidified Bellevue's role as the central hub in Seattle's eastern suburbs. Whereas the first bridge was on the city's southern boundary, the Evergreen Point Bridge led to Bellevue's northern neighborhoods. With easy access to Seattle, Bellevue had nowhere to go but up, which it did.
Soon, skyscrapers filled the central business district. Many banks moved their corporate headquarters to Bellevue, making it one of the richest cities in the state. In the 1980s, Bellevue Square greatly expanded, continuing its role as one of the premiere shopping centers in King County.
Bellevue is still a desirable place for commuters, although many of the residents have no need to go to Seattle. The growth of Bellevue has brought a large number of successful businesses right into their own backyards. In the 1990s, high-tech firms, led by Microsoft in nearby Redmond, have made Bellevue and the surrounding communities a world-class center for new technology and business.
Of all the cities on the Eastside, Bellevue has seen the most growth in the shortest amount of time. There are those who still remember harpoon boats in Meydenbauer Bay, riding the ferries, and eating fresh strawberries right off the vine. The Gold Coast still exists, though, as the home to some of Puget Sound's wealthiest individuals.
Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co, 1929) Vol. I, 847-855; Lucille McDonald, Bellevue: Its First 100 Years (Bellevue, WA: Friends of the Bellevue Library, 1984); Bellevue Chronicle (Bellevue: City of Bellevue, 1987), 2. See also: Alan J. Stein and the HistoryLink staff, Bellevue Timeline The Story of Washington’s Leading Edge City from Homesteads to High Rises, 1863-2003 (Bellevue: City of Bellevue, 2004).
Note: This essay was expanded slightly on May 10, 2010.
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