Colman, James Murray (1832-1906)

  • By James R. Warren
  • Posted 9/20/1999
  • Essay 1680
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Scottish-born James Murray Colman arrived in Seattle in 1872 at the age of 40 to lease and operate Yesler's sawmill. Colman was a prime mover in organizing the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad after the Northern Pacific decided to make Tacoma its Western terminus. He built Colman's Dock (today Pier 52, the terminal for the Washington State Ferries), which became a thriving hub of maritime commerce during and after the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897.


Born in 1832 in Scotland, James Colman headed to the western United States at 29. He wound up in San Francisco, and from there was hired to run the Port Madison sawmill on the Kitsap Peninsula on Puget Sound. Three years later, he bought a run-down mill at Port Orchard. Just after he had remodeled it, in 1869, it burned down and he found himself bankrupt. In 1872, Colman moved to Seattle where, with San Francisco backers, leased and operated Yesler's Mill at the foot of Yesler Way, now Pioneer Square. The great Seattle fire of 1889 destroyed Colman's properties. He immediately built a larger four-story brick Colman Building that still stands on 1st Avenue and built another building on Main Street.

The Northern Pacific Fiasco

In 1873, Northern Pacific shocked Seattle by picking Tacoma as its railroad terminus. Colman led Seattle in building its own railroad, the Seattle & Walla Walla, in response. He hoped to reach Walla Walla to hook up with the first transcontinental line to reach the Cascades. Eastern capitalists declined to finance the venture, so Colman put up $20,000 if others would put up $40,000. As the rails neared Renton, a coal-mining company that initially had pledged to ship coal on the line to the waterfront shifted its operations to Newcastle. So Colman built over to Newcastle. Eventually Colman put up most of the $350,000 cost. After Colman turned a profit running the Seattle & Walla Walla, Northern Pacific bought it and extended a spur line to Tacoma.

Colman built the original Colman Dock (now Pier 52, the terminal for Washington State Ferries on the downtown Seattle waterfront). He built it as a 40 x 60-foot shipping dock in 1882, but the 1889 fire destroyed that. He rebuilt it, and the ensuing Klondike Gold Rush (1897) made it a thriving hub. He also built the Colman Creosoting Plant in 1883 where Union Station now stands south of Pioneer Square. He was quarter-owner of the steam tug Vigilant and with his sons built three yachts.

Colman died in 1906. His name survives with his namesake dock, his downtown office building, and Colman Park, designed by John C. Olmsted in 1910.


"A Century of Business," Puget Sound Business Journal, September 17, 1999; Junior Achievement of Greater Puget Sound Hall of Fame Series.

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