Seattle Neighborhoods: Green Lake -- Thumbnail History

  • By Louis Fiset, Green Lake Park Alliance
  • Posted 3/14/2000
  • Essay 2227
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In September 1855, surveyor David Phillips hacked his way through bushes to the muddy banks of a small lake north of Seattle's Lake Union, and found a tired, postglacial lake. His team entered the name Green Lake into their field logs, which eventually reached their employer, the Surveyor General of the United States. Their late summer visit coincided with the appearance of seasonal algae blooms and may explain the name they entered on the survey map. Area visitors have been talking about the foul smelling green stuff for the past 80 years.

The Green Lake neighborhood is contained within four of the one square mile sections surveyed by Phillips, with the Lake occupying a centerfold significance. Bounded on the west by the east slope of Phinney Ridge, on the north by N 85 Street, on the east by the I-5 corridor, and with a southern extension to N 50th Street, many of its 16,000 residents occupy 1920s-era houses originally owned by working class residents. The area had humble beginnings.

Green Lake John

In 1869, Erhart Seifried (1832-1899), a bachelor German immigrant, paddled across the Lake to the northeast shore and sank his shovel into a 132-acre homestead claim, becoming the first white settler in the area. He became known as Green Lake John. "Green Lake John" and later his wife Eltien mingled with Indians who had known the area for generations. The couple cleared a dense stand of trees and planted an orchard.

Other homesteaders arrived to claim and to prove up on the free land made available by the Homestead Act of 1862. Speculators, with more money than brawn, took up much of the land. An eastern businessman, Charles Waters, for example, held a 179 acre stand of timber at the southwest corner of the lake, which Guy Phinney (1852-1893) would purchase in 1889 and transform into a menagerie he called Woodlands, or Woodland Park (in 2000, Woodland Park Zoo).

The Choicest Suburb

Although the original land grab was over by the mid-1870s, population growth did not start until Seattle’s population boom in the late 1880s forced a northward and southward expansion beyond the city limits. Green Lake, like so many suburbs, owes its start to the cross-town trolley that enabled people to easily get to the area. In 1891, entrepreneurs E. C. Kilbourne (1856-1958) and future Seattle mayor William D. Wood (1858-1917) extended the trolley line from Fremont around the eastern shore of the lake to a terminus at the northwestern shore, near the present (2000) Bathhouse Theater. Not surprisingly, both men owned large tracts of raw land, which they logged, platted, and sold off as individual 30 x 100 foot lots at prices ranging from $50 to $200. Display advertising appeared in Seattle newspapers promising, “Green Lake will be Seattle’s choicest suburb.”

That same year, 1891, Green Lake annexed itself to the city. Wood had bought out Seifried’s holdings in 1887 for $15,000 and moved into the farmer’s unadorned, pioneer style home. Kilbourne and other business associates chose more lofty sites on which to build expensive homes, above the southeast end of the lake.

The Olmsted Touch

The panic of 1893 temporarily halted development of what was now the Green Lake neighborhood of Seattle. Four years later, gold was discovered in the Klondike, bringing renewed prosperity to the region and a new growth cycle to Green Lake. With city coffers full again, Seattle visionaries hired the Olmsted Brothers, an eastern landscape architecture firm, to design a 20-mile long necklace of parks and boulevards traversing the city. Green Lake was to become one of the pearls. However, by 1903, the year the Olmsted master plan was approved by the Seattle City Council, settlement had reached to the shoreline, providing little opportunity to expand the park. Therefore, in 1911 John Olmsted called for a lowering of the Lake, which added 100 acres of dry land. Olmsted also designed zoological gardens for Phinney’s estate, which the city had purchased from the Scotsman’s widow in 1899.

In the mid-1910s, weekend excursions to Green Lake were popular among Seattleites who wanted to escape the stifling air of the city. With such exposure, by 1920 little real estate remained undeveloped. The area boasted five elementary schools, a Carnegie library, churches, and a well-established business district. The Green Lake neighborhood had become a place in which to live, to work, and to play.

Algae and Itch

But civilization was taking its toll on the lake itself. Tree cutting, homesteading, elimination of the natural flushing of the Lake, and other human activities during the past century have hastened Green Lake’s natural geological succession to a bog and then meadowland. Lake goers have intervened in this process for the past 80 years. Verdant algae blooms, foul odors, and swimmers’ itch have plagued residents and visitors since the time of Olmsted’s vision. In 1921, Seattle’s health department closed the beaches and ordered water to be diverted into the Lake from two nearby reservoirs. Another closure five years later inspired creative, but ultimately rejected plans to convert Green Lake to a salt water lake, to drain the Lake and scrape away the millennia of muck bottom, or to strategically place an enormous aerating fountain. Instead, more reservoir water poured from the reservoirs into the Lake, and chemical algae retardants made their first appearance. A depression era dredging operation and yet more chemicals followed. Despite these efforts, algae and more recently, milfoil weed, continue to thrive.

Motor Boats and Fireworks

Although the Lake has been abused, it has also proven irresistible to people and their water born activities. Outboard motor racing became a national sport in the 1930s, and its small size and placid waters made Green Lake an ideal race course. But as speeds increased with larger engines, so did the noise and the crowds. In the 1980s, Green Lake residents had finally had enough and convinced the Park Board to ban hydroplane racing altogether. The same fate befell an annual 4th of July fireworks celebration, as well as the Bite of Seattle, a popular eating and entertainment event that, after three years, was banished from the ball fields south of the community center.

Quieter activities have prevailed. A seasonal ballet of shells and oarsmen has sliced the calm Green Lake waters since the 1940s, bringing regattas to Seattle that decide national championships in both women’s and men’s competitions.

The Aqua Theatre

In 1950, an open air stadium, the Aqua Theatre, opened on the Lake’s south shore to sellout crowds who came to see the Aqua Follies and Summer Opera Company productions such as Oklahoma, Annie Get Your Gun, and South Pacific. Seattle fell in love with national luminaries such as Bob Hope, Bert Parks, and Gizele MacKenzie, who performed there under the stars (and under the rain clouds). The love affair with the Aqua Theatre lasted into the mid-1960s.

Seattle’s recent population growth has placed an increasing burden on Green Lake Park, now the busiest in the state at more than one million visitors a year. Walkers, joggers, skateboarders, in-line skaters, and bicyclists began to make competing demands on the narrow trail circling the Lake that was first asphalted in 1970. The new “speedway” brought increasing complaints and liability claims against the city as speedsters and heads-in-the-trees walkers clashed and crashed into one another. This led to a plan to widen and revamp the trail and to introduce a courtesy code. A boondoggle to many, the $2.6 million project was completed in 1997, improving safety, usability, and courtesy by Seattle citizens.

Coots, Widgeons, Willows

For many, Green Lake represents the soul of the surrounding neighborhood. The loss of a tree to disease or to the wind becomes a personal event. Threats to resident waterfowl bring vocal outrage. And efforts by area residents and friends to keep the ancient lake from dying remain ongoing. A spectacular late summer blue-green algae bloom in 1999 closed the Lake once again, bringing people together to discuss old solutions and propose new ones.

Despite many studies, biologists do not yet completely understand the complex, nutrient-rich ecosystem, which increasingly strains under human-influenced conditions. But like a dying matriarch, which often draws a family closer together, an aging Green Lake, born during the final retreat of the massive Vashon ice sheet eleven millennia ago, binds together the North Seattle community that is loving it to death.


Board of Park Commissioners, Annual Report (Seattle: Board of Park Commissioners, 1903); Don Sherwood file (unpublished histories of Seattle parks), Seattle Public Library; Cadestral survey field notes and plats for Oregon and Washington (Micofiche M-3066), University of Washington Library, Seattle; Green Lake News, November 26, 1903; Sidney Berland, "The Aqua Theater," Columbia, (Fall 1997), pp. 14-17; Seattle Parks and Recreation Archives, Seattle Municipal Archives.

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