Yesler Mill on Union Bay

  • By Eleanor Boba
  • Posted 6/27/2016
  • Essay 11244
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In this People's History, Eleanor Boba explores the history of Yesler, an early settlement on the north shore of Union Bay on Seattle's Lake Washington shoreline. The town was platted in 1888 to support the lumber mill that Henry Yesler (1810-1892) built on the lake that year to replace his famous mill on Elliott Bay in downtown Seattle. The original Union Bay mill burned in 1895; it was followed by other mills that operated into the 1920s. The surrounding community of Yesler thrived both before and after its 1910 annexation into the city of Seattle. The following is a condensed version of an essay originally published on the author's blog, Remnants.

Mill Village

On New Year's Day 1890, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an article touting the benefits of purchasing property at Ravenna Park, north of what were then the city limits. To bolster the argument, the article pointed to the settlement of Yesler as a neighboring thriving community:

"Yesler Mill, a settlement of some sixty houses, with ice factory, church and stores -- just a little east from the Park -- is doing a flourishing business and affords us lumber at $1 per thousand [board feet] cheaper than other mills."

Since the town of Yesler had only been platted two years earlier, it is doubtful that all "sixty houses," church, and stores were in evidence at that date. In fact, the Kroll Map of 1920, 30 years later, shows only 32 homes built, one-third of the available parcels. The community, variously known as the Town of Yesler, Yesler Mill, Yesler Junction, or simply Yesler, was laid out in 1888 as something like a company town to support Henry Yesler's second mill, located on the north shore of Union Bay, an indentation on the western shore of Lake Washington between the present-day University of Washington campus to the west and the Laurelhurst peninsula to the east. The town father himself passed away in 1892 and had little to do with the mill operations.

The Union Bay mill never had anywhere near the prominence of the first Yesler Mill, located on Elliott Bay in what is now downtown Seattle, which was a key element in the development of the city. The researcher finds scant resources to sketch out the history of the second Yesler Mill. Much of what follows relies on deductions from a handful of references in newspapers, property records, and secondary accounts.


The 12 blocks that made up the Town of Yesler are directly west of the Belvoir Addition to Laurelhurst. The community lay between what are now NE 45th Street and NE 41st Street, bounded to the west by the University of Washington's Laurel Village family housing and to the east by the Talaris Conference Center. A number of homes now standing in the plat date to the period before annexation by Seattle; a few appear unaltered!

The Yesler Mill was built on the north shore of Union Bay on Lake Washington on the property that is now the University of Washington's Urban Horticulture Center and the adjacent Yesler Swamp. Equipment was probably transferred to the location from the original Yesler Mill in Seattle which had burned down in 1887. Yesler and his associates seem to have anticipated the devastation wrought two years later by the Great Seattle Fire.

Like other lake sawmills, the Yesler Mill took timber harvested in the hinterlands and processed it into lumber for both local use and export. Longtime area resident Jim Thompson remembered hearing about the logistics: "Logs were towed from the log boom where the apartments are now on the north side of Madison [Park] and then positioned in the mill run for the recut at the mill. These were four to five feet in diameter or larger and sometimes 100 feet-plus long. Thus they were very difficult to maneuver" (Jim Thompson email, 2010).

Soon after the mill was established, a spur railroad line was put in to connect the mill to the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern line, now the Burke-Gilman Trail. An 1893 photo of the mill from the collection of the Seattle Public Library shows a rail bed extending out over the waters of the bay, a large mill building with smokestack, and a number of small structures, including a church, on the hillside. A plume of smoke shows the route of an outbound train.

A train connection allowed the mill to ship lumber to eastern markets, which were greedy for Pacific Northwest timber. A newspaper article from August 1895 details the junket of a group of Wisconsin lumbermen to Seattle: "The party was tendered the use of the steamer Enigma by the Great Western Lumber and Supply Company. A trip was taken around the lake and a stop made at Yesler to inspect the lumber mill there" ("Lumbermen Seeing the City").

Maps of the day are not always reliable; however, we see the railway spur on maps from 1890 (O.P. Anderson and Co., "Seattle and Environs") and 1895 (Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Company, "Guide Map to Seattle"), but the Baist Maps, beginning in 1905, show no spur. The apparent loss of direct rail transportation for lumber up to the main line is one indication that things did not always run smoothly at Yesler Mill.

Fire and Ice

Fire was the enemy of all sawmills. A catastrophic fire of unknown cause devastated the mill in 1895, only seven years after it was established. A lengthy article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on September 17 of that year described the chaos:

"YESLER MILL BURNED. Devouring Flames consume the Plant and Lumber Yard. The Town Narrowly Escapes. Employes [sic] Can Do Nothing but Watch Mill and Lumber Burn.
"The entire plant of the Yesler mill at the town of Yesler, on a spur of the Lake Shore road, was destroyed by fire last night, together with nearly the whole stock of lumber, the wharf and eight cars of the Lake Shore road. The fire burned so fiercely that the flames were visible throughout the city and for miles around and it was thought that the whole town of Yesler had been destroyed ... Fire was discovered at 11 o'clock by the night watchman in the dry kiln. The watchman blew the whistle and in a few minutes a large crowd had gathered, but the fire spread with wonderful rapidity, and in a few minutes the entire mill was in flames."

The reporters on the scene were able to give a rip-roaring first-person account of the conflagration:

"About this time a wind from the south sprang up, driving the men away from the lumber back among the houses on the hill. The timbers began to fall and broke the water pipe, leaving the men helpless. The flames at this point were leaping into the air full seventy-five feet and the heat was terrific. Standing on the tracks were six logging cars and two box cars belonging to the Lake Shore road, two of which were loaded ready to ship East: one had logs aboard and the others were empty. As the flooring timbers were burned away these eight cars crashed down into the lake. About the same time the boilers and engine were heard to fall.

"In about thirty minutes there was nothing left of the mill but a few smoking timbers. The fire confined itself then to the immense piles of lumber, and gradually ate its way toward the office.

"So rapid was the progress of the fire that one of the men, H. Butler, at work on the wharf was cut off from escape and had to jump into the water. He seized a boom chain and hung on until he was rescued."

The report goes on to relate how the fire eventually burned itself out "chiefly for lack of further food," and how water from the neighboring ice plant saved some lumber piles and the mill post-office building.

Reporting in the days following the fire focused on the untangling of insurance claims and the burning question: would the mill be rebuilt?

It is clear from the newspaper accounts that there was more than one going concern on the mill property at the time of the fire. This was not a company town in the traditional sense. Portions of the mill property were leased to the Great Western Lumber and Supply Company, while the ice company also appeared to be an independent entity. Other claims were less clear: "There appears to be some doubt as to the proprietorship of the wharf and dock burned, and it will probably be some days before a full adjustment of the losses can be reached ("Burning of the Yesler Mill"). A bulletin in the same paper three weeks later reports that "A. H. Ruelle, of Ruelle Bros., lessees of the Yesler mill, at Yesler, recently destroyed by fire, is now in the East closing accounts of the firm. He expects to make arrangements before his return to erect a new mill, probably on the site of the old ("To Rebuild Yesler Mill").

The receivers of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railway also suffered losses, as described in a P-I article on September 18, 1895. In addition to the train cars lost, it is likely that a good portion of the spur line was damaged or destroyed. Since the spur line disappears from maps soon after this date, it is tempting to conclude that the line was neve rebuilt.

Various sources refer to the Seattle Ice Company, Union Ice Company, or Lake Union Ice Company sharing quarters with the Yesler Mill. In the days before home refrigeration, companies that delivered blocks of ice to your door were an indispensable part of the community.

A section of the Sanborn Fire Insurance map for 1893, two years before the fire, shows several structures of the Union Ice Company, including freezing tanks, ice storage, and oil storage. The Sanborn map provides intimate details of the workings of the ice company. It had the capacity to produce 20 tons of ice per day, pumping water directly from Lake Washington into 7,500-gallon tanks, 16 feet tall. The plant was in operation day and night in summer; closed in the winter. Being a fire map, Sanborn goes on to tell us, somewhat prophetically, "The station pump [will] supply sawmill with pressure in case of fire." The Sanborn notes conclude that the building is "substantial, premises tidy" (Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, Seattle, 1893, Vol. 2, Sheet 55a).

This small snippet of map may be the best depiction we have of the mill property in the few years it was active before the 1895 conflagration. The diagram also shows the route of the railroad spur, a "Yessler [sic] W. C. & L. Co. boarding hotel," lumber runs, planked roadbeds, and a combination office and post office.

The lengthy article describing the fire in the P-I also gives a snapshot look at operations at the mill:

"[The mill] had a capacity of 75,000 feet in 12 hours and employs 36 men. It was a two-story structure with the sawmill on the upper floor and planing mill and engine room on the lower floor. It contained two double circular saws, an Allis edger, two large wood planers, a sticker, a shingle machine and a lath machine, a Corliss engine and a Noyle engine, two large boilers, an Alis steam setwork with twin engine ... Of the 1,000,000 feet of lumber in the yard, only 15,000 to 20,000 was saved" ("Yesler Mill Burned").

Decades of Change

The years between 1895 and 1912 are somewhat hazy. All sources agree that at some point a shingle mill was constructed on the property that was referred to as the Yesler Mill. One encounters the term "Yesler Mill" in newspaper articles as late as 1918. Whether the mill was ever operated by the Yesler Logging Company or an affiliate during this period is not clear. It is possible that the term "Yesler Mill" was just a comfortable moniker.

Beginning in 1912 the researcher finds references to a Two Lakes Mill that manufactured shingles at Yesler Station and maintained an office in the downtown Henry Building. Articles of Incorporation for the Two Lakes Mill were filed August 24, 1912. Newspaper ads include the following:

"Wanted: shingle bolts and stumpage near Lake Washington at once. Two Lakes Mill Co." (1912)

"Wanted: to let contract for hauling several hundred cords shingle bolts, Two Lakes Mill Co." (1913)

"Shingle your house all over with shingles made in Seattle. Inquire about our four grades and prices. Two Lakes Mill Co." (1916)

The 1918 Polk City Directory contains a bolded listing for Two Lakes Mill: "Mnfrs of High Grade Premium Red Cedar Shingles." However, the very next year the listing had been reduced to two words -- "wholesale shingles" -- perhaps indicating a downturn in the business.

Any doubt that we are talking about the same property where the Yesler Mill stood is laid to rest by an annotated diagram in the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map for 1919 showing the workings of "Union Bay Shingle Co./Two Lakes Mill Co.'s Shingle Mill." Notes on the diagram indicate that the mill had a capacity of 105,000 shingles in eight hours, that there was a night watchman, and that water was taken from Union Bay.

The question of corporate names does not die easily. In 1917 the University District Herald, under the headline "Yesler Mill Running," reported "This mill has been idle for some time and it is indeed good to see the wheels turning again. It furnishes work for a bunch of men who are causing their earning to benefit Yesler in general" (The Herald, July 27, 1917). On April 26, 1918, The Seattle Times reported that a shed had been destroyed by fire at the Yesler Mill Company plant, but that the mill itself was saved by the fire department.

The mill may have dodged this bullet in 1918 but most sources agree that the mill buildings succumbed to fire sometime in the 1920s. There would be no rebuilding this time. It is likely that the cutting of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1916, and the subsequent lowering of Lake Washington, made it just that much harder to run a lumber mill of any kind at that location.

As the lake waters receded, they left the mill wharf high and somewhat dry and the mill pond only slightly damp. At some point an attempt was made to dredge a channel into the bay in order to make the mill run viable again. This last ditch effort must have had only limited success because by the mid-1920s the mill was gone. While some lake mills may have benefited from access to the big steamers that the cut afforded, the Yesler Mill, on a shallow bay, was already too low in the water to make that leap. The mill's loss was the U Dub's gain. All the mill acreage, as well as most of the newly exposed wetlands at Union Bay, were acquired by the university with new uses in mind. 

Memories of Youth

In 1971 not-yet-famous author Ivan Doig (1939-2015) wrote a piece for The Seattle Times based on the recollections of his neighbor in the area known as Exposition Heights overlooking the University Village shopping center. Bill Lozott, Doig's informant, described going down to the dredged mill channel to swim after a hard day's work in the mid-1920s.

In 2010, Jim Thompson shared memories with the Friends of the Yesler Swamp and in 2016 spoke with this author. Both Lozott and Thompson recalled sawdust piles on the old mill site that would smoke and occasionally combust on hot days. Thompson remembered that the mill run "was dug deep enough to accommodate a tug;" he and his pals kept a very small sailboat, "the tar baby," in the mill run.

"My friend John found this old boat in the swamp. At that time they were building 43rd NE. Part of what they were doing to build it -- they had tar. So John and I went up and secured the tar, brought it down, melted it, and used it to caulk the boat somewhat. It was just a little throwaway. About a 10- or 14-foot little sailboat. So we went sailing. I was in my very best clothes -- and we tipped over! So I'm swimming in a brand new suit of woolen clothes. I had to throw them away, of course" (Jim Thompson interview, 2016).

The dredged mill run can be clearly seen in aerial photographs from 1937. Even after the mill closed, neighbors attempted to keep the run open for boat launches. The channel eventually was abandoned to the encroaching wetland now known as Yesler Swamp.

The Town Survives

While the mill at Yesler struggled, the town originally platted to support mill operations thrived. As the City of Seattle grew up around the small community, lines were blurred and inevitably the 12 blocks that made up Yesler were annexed to the city in 1910. Institutions that had been established during frontier days became part of the urban fabric. One of these was the Yesler School.

The Yesler School was the only school in the appropriately named Yesler School District. Building for Learning, the published history of the Seattle School District, tells us that the structure was a one-room schoolhouse designed by John Parkinson, later expanded to two rooms.

In Ivan Doig's 1971 article, he recounts Bill Lozott's memories of attending the school:

"From his hillside, the schoolboy trudged down to class in the village of Yesler. He went by one wagon road; the team and stage bringing his classmates from Sand Point clattered along another. Across the street from the Yesler School sometimes he saw the blacksmith shoeing horses, working the old hand bellows to heat the metal into a magical soft brightness."

Doig's prose makes Lozott's commute to school sound formidable; in fact, it was probably less than five minutes each way. However, other students, as Doig remarks, came by wagon road from as far away as the Pontiac community on the Sand Point peninsula. Still others followed the train tracks from Laurelhurst/Hawthorne Hills or hiked through Calvary Cemetery from the Ravenna neighborhood.

The school closed in 1918 and students moved to the new Bryant School a half-mile north. However the Yesler School continues to appear in Polk Directories through 1927, after which it was torn down. Its use, if any, during these intervening years remains to be uncovered.

Moving the Mail

A community's post office was a critical nerve center in those days. The community of Yesler was officially granted a substation by the Seattle Post Office in 1898, although a station had existed since 1890. The Yesler post office continued in operation until 1917, although not in the same place. Because the mail was carried by train, the post office had by necessity to be located close to the rails. With information gleaned from the Polk City Directories and from the publication Postmarked Washington: King County, we can roughly trace the journey of the Yesler post office, from a mill boarding house in 1890 (probably the boarding hotel on the Sanborn map) to the mill property itself in 1893 (also on the Sanborn map) to a candy store run by Julietta Harden on [N]E 43rd Street two blocks north of the mill in 1903, to its final location at the corner of 36th [N]E and 45th Street, just a stone's throw from the main line of the railroad, now the Burke Gilman Trail. It appears that once the spur line to the mill was demolished, the post office moved ever closer to the main line.

The last Yesler postmaster was Ellen Donnelly, who also ran a store called "Dry Goods and Notions" in Polk and referred to as a "small knick knack shop" by Postmarked Washington. Donnelly's tenure as postmaster seems to have run approximately 1910 to 1917. The address given for her shop, 4510 36th [N]E, no longer exists. However the building at 4500 36th NE, on the corner immediately across from the railroad bed, stills stands. Built in 1900 according to King County property records, the building was clearly used as a shop. It is tempting to identify this as the site of Donnelly's shop and post office.

Postmarked Washington tells us that Donnelly and her husband had "a dog trained to retrieve and bring back the mail sack" from what must have been a whistle stop on the railroad. "Mail was tossed from the moving trains and dispatch mail picked up at a trackside crane. This happened twice a day as the train went north and on the southbound trip."


Christine Barrett, A History of Laurelhurst (Seattle: The Laurelhurst Community Club, 1981), 13-15, 40-43; Lucile McDonald, The Lake Washington Story (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1979), 38-42; Nile Thompson and Carolyn J. Marr, Building for Learning: Seattle Public School Histories, 1862-2000 (Seattle: Seattle Public Schools, 2002), 39-43; Guy Reed Ramsey, Postmarked Washington: King County (self-published, 1966); Carol Arnold, "Yesler Swamp History," Friends of Yesler Swamp website accessed February 29, 2016 (; Valerie Bunn, "From Yesler to Wedgwood," Wedgwood in Seattle History website accessed December 29, 2015 (; "Yesler Mill Running," [University District] Herald, July 27, 1917, p. 1; "Yesler Mill Burned," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 17, 1895, p. 2; "Burning of the Yesler Mill," Ibid, September 18, 1895, p. 8; "Yesler Junction-Mill," Ibid. October 30, 1890, p. 12; "To Rebuild Yesler Mill," Ibid., October 6, 1895, p. 8; "Lumbermen seeing the City," Ibid., August 20, 1895, p. 8; "Ravenna Park: The Spot Most Richly Endowed by Nature in the Northwest," Ibid., January 1, 1890, p. 18; Ivan Doig, "The Home-town Boy," The Seattle Times, April 18, 1971; "Firemen Save Mill," Ibid., April 26, 1918, p. 3; Jim Thompson, email to Jean Colley, January 1, 2010, copy in possession of Eleanor Boba, Seattle, Washington; Eleanor Boba interview with Jim Thompson, May 23, 2016, audiotape and notes in possession of Eleanor Boba; Eleanor Boba, "Mill Village: Yesler on Union Bay," Remnants blog accessed June 24, 2016 (

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