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Denny, Orion O. (1853-1916)

HistoryLink.org Essay 4026 : Printer-Friendly Format

Orion Denny, the first white boy born in Seattle, made careers both on the water and on the land. The son of Seattle pioneers Arthur Denny (1822-1899) and Mary (Boren) Denny (1822-1912), Orion worked as chief engineer aboard the historic steamer Eliza Anderson and later became president of the Denny Clay Company. An avid yachtsman and outdoorsman, he is memorialized by his country estate north of Kirkland, which now bears his name -- O. O. Denny Park.

Pioneer Baby

Orion O. Denny was born on July 17, 1853, making him the first white boy born in Seattle. The first white child born was Eugenie McConaha, daughter of George and Ursula McConaha. She came into this world on September 18, 1852.

Orion’s parents were Arthur and Mary Denny, pioneer settlers and founders of Seattle. The Dennys and 20 other members of their party landed at Alki Point on November 13, 1851. At the time, Arthur and Mary had three children, Louisa (Kate), 7, Margaret Lenora, 4, and Rolland. Rolland was 6 weeks old when the party landed in the cold November rain.

The party first lived in a crude cabin at Alki Point, but the next year many of them decided to settle on the eastern side of Elliott Bay where there was deeper water and an abundance of timber. On the corner of what is now 1st Avenue and Marion Street, Arthur Denny built a cabin that also served as the city’s first post office. It was in this structure that Orion Denny was born.

Love of the Water

Since there were no cows in the region, legend has it that Orion and Rolland were nourished on clam chowder. They attended the first school in Seattle in the home of Reverend David Blaine and his wife Catharine Paine Blaine, who taught the pupils. Later Orion and Rolland became some of the earliest students at the Territorial University.

Orion graduated as a marine engineer, and became chief engineer of one of his father’s boats, the Libby, one of the first vessels to travel between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. Also working aboard the steamer, as fireman, was a young Robert Moran, who went on to start his own shipbuilding company and become mayor of Seattle.

After Arthur Denny sold the Libby in 1874, Orion became chief engineer of the Eliza Anderson, a job he held for 20 years. The grand 140-foot side-wheeler was one of the more memorable boats of Puget Sound’s Mosquito Fleet. It had its own steam calliope that could be heard up and down the waterways.

The same year he came aboard the Eliza, Orion married Eva Flowers Coulter, his second cousin. Eva was an accomplished musician who wrote the libretto for the opera Marquise de Pompadour by Luchesi, performed by the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Orion and Eva had two daughters, but their marriage ended in divorce a few years later.

Ship to Shore

After the divorce, Orion dedicated his time to his maritime career. Somewhere along the way, he met schoolteacher Narcissa Latimer. They fell in love and were married in Arthur Denny’s home on March 31, 1889. Narcissa was active in the Plymouth Congregational Church.

Orion left his job as a maritime engineer to pursue a more “down-to-earth” career -- clay production. Following the Great Fire of 1889, local builders preferred brick construction instead of wood, and the exploitation of local clay beds expanded. In 1892, Orion's father Arthur bought out the Puget Sound Fire Clay Company, and renamed it the Denny Clay Company.

Orion became vice-president of the company, and later, when Arthur died in 1899, president. Besides brick production, he became interested in construction and built the Seattle Athletic Club. Denny was also a member of the Rainier Club, Nile Temple, Knights of Pythias, and many other fraternal and civic organizations.

Busy as he was in his business life, Orion Denny never lost his enjoyment for travel and open water. The Dennys bought a 46-acre tract along Lake Washington north of Kirkland, to which they enjoyed escorting guests aboard the S. S. Orion. The Dennys named their country estate Klahanie, Chinook for “out of doors.”

Retirement

Narcissa Latimer Denny died of peritonitis in 1900, and Orion later married Helen V. Stewart Cole. They built an ornate stucco mansion at 1204 Boren Avenue, but continued to spend time at Klahanie during the summer.

In 1905, the Denny Clay Company merged with the Renton Clay Company to become the Denny-Renton Clay Company. The incorporation resulted in a $1 million stock sale. Orion retired in 1906 at the age of 53, a wealthy man. He and Helen traveled extensively during the next few years, visiting Mexico and South America.

In Seattle, they became members of the Seattle Yacht Club when Orion had the yacht Halori built for his and Helen’s enjoyment. At the time, the 100-foot vessel was the largest private motor yacht on the Pacific coast.

Memorial Park

Orion Denny passed away on February 26, 1916, leaving an estate valued at $450,000. Then, his first wife Eva, now married to Frank Richmond, reappeared on the scene and demanded $100,000 in alimony back payments. The suit was in litigation until Mrs. Richmond suddenly passed away in 1919.

During this time, Helen Denny willed Klahanie to the City of Seattle to become a public park named in memory of her husband. During its early years, O. O. Denny Park was a campground for Seattle children “who need to experience life in the green forest -- an almost forgotten experience for city children.” Years later, maintenance of the park was given over to the county.

In 1919, Helen V. Denny married Dr. Leonard Wyeth, but divorced soon after. She went to court to change her name back to Helen Denny. In 1921, she moved to Los Angeles, where she became lonely and despondent. In 1922, while lying in bed, she ended her life with a bullet to the heart.

Sources:
“Sold -- The Steamer J. B. Libby,” The Pacific Tribune June 26, 1874, p. 1; “Death of Mrs. O. O. Denny,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer February 10, 1900, p. 10; “Orion O. Denny is Called by Death,” The Seattle Times February 26, 1916, p. 1; “Orion Denny, First White Boy Born Here, Dead,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer February 27, 1916, p. 11; “Mrs. H. Denny is Suicide in Southern City,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer March 10, 1922, pp. 1, 2; “Suicide in California,” The Seattle Times March 10, 1922, p. 3; Don Sherwood, "O. O. Denny Park," in "Interpretive Essays of the Histories of Seattle's Parks and Playfields," Handwritten bound manuscript dated 1977, Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library, Seattle, Washington; Thomas W. Prosch, "A Chronological History of Seattle From 1850 to 1897," typescript dated 1900-1901, Northwest Collection, University of Washington Library, Seattle, pp. 31-43.


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Orion O. Denny, first white male and second white child born in Seattle
Courtesy A.A. Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound


Roland H. Denny and Orion O. Denny
Courtesy A.A. Denny, Pioneer Days on Puget Sound


Steamer Eliza Anderson
Courtesy Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society


Denny Renton Clay and Coal Co. vitrifying plant at Renton, August 18, 1910
Courtesy UW Special Collections (Neg. A. Curtis 19555-1)


O. O. Denny Park, January 2003
Photo by Alan Stein


Denny Creek at O. O. Denny Park, January 2003
Photo by Alan Stein


 
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