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Seattle Neighborhoods: Lake City -- Thumbnail History
HistoryLink.org Essay 3449
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Lake City is a northeastern Seattle neighborhood located between Interstate 5 and Lake Washington, and stretching from NE 85th Street to the Seattle City line at NE 145th Street. The automobile defined Lake City. Instead of small communities growing up around trolley stops such as in the Rainier Valley, Lake City grew in a line. Businesses popped up along the roadside, with no particular point becoming the center. The community did not lack focus, however, and it proved itself capable of responding to its needs, whether it was to build a library, buy an ambulance, create a business district, or protect the environment.
Native Americans of the Duwamish tribe were the first residents of the area. Duwamish is an English version of the Salish word for "inside people." They lived in permanent settlements along the shore of Lake Washington where they fished, hunted, and gathered wild wapato bulbs and cattails. During the wintertime, the tribes lived in large cedar long houses, each home to 25 to 30 members of family groups. During summers, the families scattered to collect food, living in temporary shelters woven from reeds. The residents called themselves hah-chu-ahbsh, or lake people. Where Thornton Creek entered the lake at the northeast corner, the people called tu-hoo-beed. Local mythology held that thunderbirds dwelled in the tall trees inland and that in the lake, monsters called jug-wahs took people away.
Exploration and Settlement
The first American to visit the area was probably Isaac Ebey (1818-1857). He explored the lake by canoe in 1850 and he called it Lake Geneva. He paddled on to the north and settled on Whidbey Island. The Duwamish lost their rights to the lake and the land in the Treaty of Point Elliot in 1854 and the area was thrown open to settlement. The Puget Mill Co. bought much of the land in the 1850s and began pulling logs out of the thick forest.
In 1870, German butcher Charles Becker acquired land at the confluence of the forks of Thornton Creek, where Nathan Hale High School would later be built. Several of his countrymen were attracted to the area and the neighborhood became known as Little Germany. After loggers took what trees they needed, farmers were able to move in. They used a crude wagon road to haul their produce to Seattle or to Bothell. The bogs along the creek bottoms were drained and crops planted.
As with the rest of the city, development of northeast Seattle was determined by transportation. The only reliable method of transport was by water, so settlement and logging were confined to the edge of the lake. Travel and the movement of goods was by water. In 1887, Daniel Hunt Gilman (1845-1913) and other investors built the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad north along the shore enroute to the coal mines at Gilman (later Issaquah). A station was established north of the brick factory at Sand Point. Someone posted a sign on a shed that read, "Lake."
The Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern (later part of the Northern Pacific) hauled mostly coal and lumber, and passengers were just an additional revenue source. The SLS&E hugged the shoreline, limiting settlement to one side of the tracks at the mouths of creeks. In the 1890s, an electric trolley line reached Ravenna to the south, opening that area to residential development, but the area to the north remained farmland.
At the turn of the twentieth century, D. H. and R. H. Lee purchased the land around Lake station from the Puget Mill Co. In 1906, they platted the area between 35th Avenue NE and the lake, and between NE 160th Street and NE 117th Street, and called it Lake City.
The next technological development in transportation -- the automobile -- opened Lake City. King County improved the Bothell Road in 1911 by paving it with Warrenite (a bituminous wearing surface laid upon a concrete or crushed rock base). The tendency of the surface to become a sticky goo on a hot day forced the county to repave with sand and in 1918, with brick. Asphalt (a mix of coal tar and stone or bitumen and stone) came in 1928. In 1924, Bothel Road was renamed Victory Way. The name returned to Bothell Way and finally became Lake City Way NE.
As Seattle acquired the automobile, commerce developed along the road rather than around a cluster of activity such as a trolley stop. The year 1916 saw an upswing in commercial activity. That year, Washington prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Unincorporated areas of King County accessible by auto became popular locations for speakeasies selling illegal liquor and purveying prostitution and gambling.
Joe's Hot Lunches had no lunch counter. Joe hid his bootleg whiskey in stumps in the yard. Clubs such as The Plantation, The Jungle, The Temple, French's Inn, Willard's, Tusco's Tavern (three stories, a main dance floor, private rooms upstairs) sprouted up with parking a part of the design. The China Castle, later the Jolly Roger, had a tower from which a watchman signaled the approach of police. In the event of a raid, patrons and employees could leave via a tunnel under the highway.
The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 allowed nightlife to flourish openly. The Triple XXX Inn, also called The Barrel, opened in 1933, after Washington approved the repeal, but before it was ratified nationwide.
Tourist cabins and later, motels, provided lodging for travelers. Safety was a real problem. After a series of serious auto accidents on Halloween 1924, the road was called "the worst highway in the state" (Sherwood).
Developers took advantage of the new mobility to acquire the farms and subdivide them to communities such as Victory Heights, Cedar Park (1923), Chelsea, Pinehurst, and Kenwood (1913). In the 1930s, the area retained its agricultural flavor and was home to six riding academies and 600 horses. After World War II, the area was flooded with young families eager to build homes in the suburbs.
Post-War Growth and Changes
In 1949, when Lake City incorporated as a township, the area had more than 40,000 residents, making it the fourth largest community in the state. Lake City remained outside Seattle until January 1954 when the area from NE 85th Street to NE 145th Street was annexed into the city. The polo fields of the Olympic Riding and Driving Club became the Jackson Golf Course in 1966 and the stables closed.
The diffuse nature of the neighborhood did not prevent it from coming together. Residents formed a school district in 1912 and classes were held in a house donated by H. L. Hilman. In March 1916, the Sunshine Educational Club organized to get a library. This group became an auxiliary of the American Red Cross during World War I.
Beginning in 1941, the newly formed Lake City Lions Club campaigned for a community center to meet the recreational needs of the citizens and to provide a place for receiving government services. In October 1957, the Lions and 32 other organizations were able to dedicate the Lake City Community Center on NE 125th Street, a block west of Lake City Way. The center became the site of a new branch library in 1965 and a little city hall in 1974. Lake City lumber dealer J.D. "Dorm" Braman (1901-1980) was elected to the Seattle City Council in the 1950s and in 1964 he was elected Seattle Mayor.
In 1971, Lake City bought its own aid car and gave it to the Fire Department. In 1979, after the unit wore out and was placed in reserve, the community protested and demanded a state audit of the Medic One program.
The economy of Lake City has fallen and risen because of highways. In 1927, when Aurora Avenue N became the main highway to Everett, business slumped until NE 130th Street was cut through to the west three years later. The opening of the Northgate Shopping Center in 1950 and Interstate-5 in 1967 pulled customers away from the neighborhood. Retail space remained vacant and older buildings fell to ruin. Tourists no longer patronized motels.
In March 1976, the Lake City Development Association organized to raise money to renovate the area along Lake City Way NE at 125th Street. Sidewalks and tree plantings made the area more friendly to pedestrians. In 1979, "Gateway" a sculpture in several parts, was added to the median as part of the Urban Spaces II program. In the words of artist Michael Sweeney, the work defined "the center of a neighborhood that had no center" (The Seattle Times).
Environmental concerns have affected Lake City in the last part of the twentieth century. As development crowded in on the two branches of Thornton Creek, the stream was channeled into storm sewers to control flooding. The Northgate Shopping Center covered a wetland and the creek in 1950. A sewage treatment plant was built in 1952 to discharge into the creek as it flowed into Lake Washington. Interstate-5 covered the headwaters of the north branch in 1967.
Beginning in 1970, residents worked to oppose permits that would cause further destruction. In 1989, an open-space bond issue allowed the city to purchase some of the creek as park land. Since that time wildlife habitat has been restored all over the watershed. In 1998, the sewage treatment plant (made redundant by the regional sewer system) was converted back to a pond and wetland.
David Buerge, "Seattle Before Seattle," The Weekly, December 17, 1980, p. 26; David Buerge, "Indian Lake Washington," Ibid., August 1, 1984, pp. 29-32; Paul Dorpat, "History Lives At Lake City Speakeasy," The Seattle Times, March 12, 1979; Jane Cartwright, "Lake City's Death Sentence May Be Commuted," Ibid., March 1, 1977; Clipping, "Q & A," Ibid., October 29, 1997, Lake City Library; George Foster, "Lake City, Washington: A City Within A City," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 2, 1974, Northwest, 3; Mark Higgins, "Community Seeks Balance As Population Changes," Ibid., March 29, 1997, (seattlep-i.nwsource.com); Clipping, Scott Olson, "Resident Digs Into Bawdy Past," The Lake City Star, n.d., Lake City Library, Lake City History File; Frank Bishop, Community Motivation, (Seattle: The Craftsman Press, 1968); "Lake City Community Information in Seattle Public Library," typescript, Lake City Library; Steven Jay Abrams, "Lake City: From Rags to Riches to Rags to Riches," typescript dated 1980, Seattle Public Library; "Meadowbrook Pond," Seattle Public Utilities Website, (www.ci.seattle.wa.us/util/planning/meadowbrook/history1.htm); "Thornton Creek Watershed," Report Presented by Landscape Architecture Studio 504, Regional Landscape Planning, Professor Kristina Hill, University of Washington, Fall 2000 (online.caup.washington.edu/courses/LArch504); Don Sherwood, "Burke-Gilman Trail," in "Interpretive Essays of the Histories of Seattle's Parks and Playfields," Handwritten bound manuscript dated 1977, Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library; Gail Lee Dubrow, Maren Van Nostrand, Cathy Tuttle, Northbrook Community History (Seattle: Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, 1995).
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Map showing location of Lake City neighborhood of Seattle
Map by Chris Goodman, Courtesy HistoryLink
Lake City, 1894
Courtesy The Seattle Public Library
Bothell Road, King County, 1912
Courtesy UW Special Collections, Webster & Stevens Collection
Warrenite surface of Bothell Road on hot day, May 8, 1912
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. W&S)
1924 Automobile Club map of county
Menu for Jolly Roger restaurant
Beacon Light Tavern, NE 125th Streeet and Lake City Way NE, ca. 1942
Courtesy UW Special Collections
Lake City Way NE, ca. 1942
Courtesy UW Special Collections
Portion of public sculpture Gateway (Michael Sweeney, 1979) in Lake City, 2001
Photo by David Wilma
Lake City Way NE, 2001
Photo by David Wilma