Seattle Neighborhoods: Beacon Hill -- Thumbnail History

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 2/21/2001
  • Essay 3004
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Beacon Hill overlooks downtown Seattle from the southeast and is distinguished by the 16-story Pacific Medical Center that rises from its northern end. The ridge extends southeast from First Hill between the Duwamish River and the Rainier Valley and rises to 350 feet in elevation. As close as Beacon Hill appears to downtown Seattle, geography has worked to keep the neighborhood distinct.  The ridge saw scattered settlement as early as the 1850s, but remained largely undeveloped for several more decades.  Union Army veteran and real estate developer M. Harwood Young (1846-1913) named the hill in 1889 for Boston's historic Beacon Hill and built a streetcar line connecting the neighborhood to downtown.  Regrades along Jackson and Dearborn streets cut through the ridge to provide access from downtown to the Rainier Valley, requiring a bridge to Beacon Hill on 12th Avenue S.  Reservoirs for the city's Cedar River water system were built atop the ridge (where a small reservoir had earlier held Lake Washington water), and adjacent land became Jefferson Park Golf Course.  The U.S. Marine Hospital (later Pacific Medical Center) was built in the 1930s.  After World War II, a large veterans hospital was built south of Jefferson Park at the hill's highest point.  Interstate 5 was cut into the west slope of Beacon Hill in the 1960s.

Before 1850, the Duwamish tribe had built a village called Tal-tal-kus at what later became Airport Way S and S Spokane Street at the foot of the hill. Extended families lived in five medium-sized, cedar longhouses (each about 48 by 96 feet). They took salmon and steelhead from the river, gathered shellfish, and raised potatoes. At plus tides, the Duwamish River reached the lower slopes of the long ridge that rose to the east.

Early Settlement

The first white settler along Beacon Hill was Henry Van Asselt (1817-1902), who, in 1851, staked a 360-acre claim on the south end including land that now is home to Boeing Field. Jacob Maple (or Mapel) (1798-1884) and Samuel Maple (or Mapel) (1827-1880), filed claims to the north. The Maples gave their name to the hill.

Two years later, pioneers John Cornelius Holgate (1828-1868) (often erroneously credited with being Seattle's first white settler), and his brothers-in-law Edward and John Hanford made claims to the north end of Maple Hill. They harvested timber in the area until Native Americans drove them away and destroyed their buildings during the Indian War of 1855-1856. One result of the Indian War was the construction of Military Road in 1860. It ran from Seattle to Olympia and climbed Maple Hill at what became Columbian Way. Charles Plummer (d. 1866) platted Beacon Hill and gave his name to the Plummer's Addition to Seattle, but the area remained largely undeveloped for the next 40 years.  The hill did become home to a reservoir, built in the 1880s by a private water company to hold water pumped from Lake Washington.

Beacon Hill and Beacon Hill

In 1889, Union Army veteran M. Harwood Young, a representative of the New England and Northwest Investment Co. of Boston, moved into the area with a view to real estate development. He is credited with naming Seattle's Beacon Hill after the historic Beacon Hill in Boston. (Boston's Beacon Hill, built in colonial days, is home to Massachusetts' gold-domed state capitol.)

Judge E. A. Turner is credited with building the first home on Seattle's Beacon Hill on five acres near what became Jefferson Park. That building was sold in 1923 to the Jefferson Park Ladies Improvement Club (founded 1912). Young built a home for himself at the north end of the hill, with a view of Seattle and Elliott Bay. He named Massachusetts Street after his home state.

In 1895, former territorial governor Eugene Semple (1840-1908) proposed an ambitious plan of public works, which included digging a canal from Elliott Bay through Beacon Hill to Lake Washington. In 1901, Semple began his canal. Dirt from Beacon Hill was sluiced into the tideflats. Work stopped on the project due to cave-ins, but filling the wetlands continued with soil from other regrades in Seattle. The Lake Washington Ship Canal was ultimately completed by connecting Lake Washington, Lake Union, Salmon Bay, and Puget Sound.

The digging did not stop though. The area between First Hill and Beacon Hill presented a barrier between Seattle and the Rainier Valley. Under the leadership of Seattle City Engineer Reginald H. Thomson (1856-1949), Jackson Street and Dearborn Streets were regraded. Streets, homes, and even a school were demolished or moved. The regrade required a bridge to the hill at 12th Avenue S.

A Park on the Hill

In 1892, the city opened an isolation hospital, called a "pesthouse," on Beacon Hill for smallpox patients. It was located in a densely wooded property set aside for the support of the state university. In 1898, the City of Seattle purchased 235 acres from the state for a reservoir and a cemetery. In 1909, the city established a stockade to house city jail inmates serving short sentences. Inmates worked off their sentences by clearing the land set aside for Jefferson Park. The smallpox patients moved out in 1914 and went to the Firlands Sanitarium north of Seattle.

In 1911, two large new reservoirs for drinking water from the Cedar River were completed atop the ridge. The cemetery was not constructed and the property was designated a park, named after Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third U.S. President. In 1915, the city began developing Jefferson Park as a golf course with inmates from the stockade providing labor. The stockade closed in 1918. In 1918, a fleet of U.S. Army warplanes visited Seattle on a Liberty Bond tour. Seattle had no airfield and the planes landed at Jefferson Park. This spurred city and county leaders to begin planning for a proper airport. Boeing field was completed in the bottomland west of Beacon Hill in 1928.

Farmers and Workers

Among Harwood Young's business interests was the streetcar line that linked downtown to Beacon Hill. It ran on Beacon Avenue only as far as S Snoqualmie Street since there were only farms south of there. Real Estate developers often had to establish their own streetcar companies to make their developments attractive to buyers. Italian immigrants, mostly of rural origin, made their homes on the hill and in the neighboring Rainier Valley. They planted large gardens and were joined by Japanese immigrants who also farmed. They sold their produce in Seattle.

One measure of the area's growth was the completion of Cleveland High School in 1927. Perched on the edge of Beacon Hill overlooking Georgetown and the Duwamish valley, the school housed grades 7 through 12 and drew students from Beacon Hill, Georgetown, and South Park.

The Home Front

When World War II began in 1941, Jefferson Park was turned over to the U.S. Army Coast Artillery. The property was well suited for anti-aircraft batteries protecting Boeing Field and the vital Boeing Airplane Co. A four-gun battery of 3-inch guns and barrage balloons were sited there as part of a defensive network that took over many Seattle parks. As the threat of air attack waned, the Army used the park as a recreation center for servicemen and women in transit to and from overseas assignments. Tents for more than 1,000 men covered the fairways. A few tent cabins accommodated servicemen's wives for short stays. The Army returned the property to the city in 1946.

Public Housing

During World War I, Liberty Courts Housing was built on Beacon Avenue at 14th Avenue S for shipyard workers who crowded into Seattle. Builders worked 24-hours a day to complete the project in 90 days.

Shortly before America entered World War II as a combatant, Beacon Hill was chosen as the site of housing built for defense-industry workers, paid for by the federal government. Named Holly Park, the development was completed in April 1943 and was the second-largest such project in the city, with 900 units. In 1953, after the end of the Korean War, it was transferred to the Seattle Housing Authority at no cost and converted to low-income housing. Over the decades, due to a variety of issues including the deterioration of housing built quickly during wartime, an unfortunate site plan, and increasing segregation, Holly Park became an isolated ghetto with a soaring crime rate.

Beginning in 1996, the Seattle Housing Authority converted Holly Park into NewHolly, a $139 million, mixed-income community. New homes were rented to the very poor, to the working poor, and to tenants paying market rates. All the income groups were commingled in the same neighborhood. Some of the units were sold to homeowners.

A Veterans' Hospital and El Centro

At the end of World War I, the government had announced plans to build a hospital for veterans suffering from venereal disease. Opposition from the community blocked the project. After World War II, the city deeded 44 acres at the south end of Jefferson Park to the U.S. Government as a veteran's hospital, which was constructed at the highest point on Beacon Hill.

Interstate-5 was completed between Seattle and Tacoma in 1967, cutting along the west slope of the hill. The number of school-age children in the neighborhood began to drop and the Seattle School District closed Beacon Hill School. In 1972, Chicano activists occupied the empty building to protest the defunding of an adult basic education program at South Seattle Community College. They established El Centro de la Raza, a social service and civil rights organization that serves the Chicano/Latino community of Seattle and King County. The City of Seattle rented the unused property to El Centro for $1.00 a year and later at market rates. In 1999, El Centro purchased the property for $1 million.

Public Health

In 1933, the U.S. Public Health Service opened the U.S. Marine Hospital at the north end of the hill, where M. Harwood Young had built his home. The facility replaced a Marine Hospital in Port Townsend. The Public Health Service (called the Marine Hospital Service until 1912) was responsible for public health including the care of servicemen and seamen, and the examination of newly arrived immigrants. After World War I, the service cared for injured and disabled veterans.

The 16-story, art deco tower at the crown of the hill was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. The government closed the hospital in 1981 and the public development authority that owns the building later leased most of it to a developer to sublease to private companies.  Online retailer occupied 12 stories of the building for more than a decade before moving out in 2011.


Duwamish Diary (Seattle: Cleveland High School, 1949), 90-109; Greg Lange, "King County's First White Settlers," Cyberpedia Library, Website (; Alan J. Stein, "Beacon Hill Library and its Neighborhood," Ibid.; David Wilma, "Sand Point Naval Air Station: 1920-1970," Ibid., "Seattle's first military road is completed in 1860," Timeline Library, Ibid.; "Seattle pesthouse shelters 27 smallpox patients on December 26, 1892," Ibid.; "Interstate 5 completed from Everett to Tacoma on January 31, 1967," Ibid.; "Chicano activists occupy abandoned school that becomes El Centro on October 11, 1972," Ibid.; Clarence Bagley, The History of Seattle, (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916), 357-363; James Bush, "Prickly Holly," The Weekly, March 11-17, 1999, (; "Pac Med: Looking Back," Pacific Medical Centers Website (; Nina Shapiro, "Dressing up the Projects," Ibid., December 23-29, 1999; Don Sherwood, "Jefferson Park Golf Course," Interpretive Essays on Seattle Parks, Vol. 3, (Seattle: Seattle Parks and Recreation Department, 1974); J. Martin McOmber, "Amazon Searches for Big Office Digs," The Seattle Times, February 8, 2005 (; Eric Pryne, " Wright Runstad Faces Foreclosure on Former Amazon HQ," Ibid., September 27, 2011.
Note: This essay was corrected (date of the U.S. Marine Hospital) on June 29, 2007, and was updated and revised on October 31, 2011; it was again corrected on January 13, 2012.

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