For almost 20 years beginning in 1896, Clarence Hillman was one of the most prominent businessmen and real estate developers in Seattle. His aggressive and even fraudulent sales of vacant land laid out communities such as Mountlake Terrace, Hillman City, and Kennydale, but also landed him in jail.
From Rags to Real Estate
C. D. Hillman hailed from a farm near Birmingham, Michigan. He lost his father at age five and his mother at age nine. His formal education ended in the second grade and family tradition had him selling newspapers with his brother in Chicago. He and his brother sought their fortunes in California in 1891. Hillman reportedly overheard a conversation on a passenger train as they passed a house. A businessman commented that he would buy the house for $20,000. Hillman got off the train at the next stop, offered the owner of the house $15,000, tracked down the businessman, and sold him the property for $20,000. C. D. Hillman found his calling in real estate.
Hillman arrived in Seattle in 1896 as the city and the nation struggled out of the Panic of 1893. He platted a subdivision around Green Lake, then many miles north of the city. His timing was excellent. In 1897, the discovery of gold in the Klondike put Seattle on the road to recovery and to boom times.
The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of
Hillman's pattern was to take logged-off land, believed to be of little value, and sub divide it into individual building lots. He then promoted the property with claims about the fertility of the soil and the suitability for industrial sites or vacation resorts. He ran special excursions for potential buyers to show them the undeveloped land. His advertising was so successful, that sometimes fights erupted between men anxious to get in on his deals. Some developments sold in hours.
By 1902, Hillman had sold 7,000 lots in subdivisions such as Hillman's Schoolhouse Division, Greenlake Division, Kilbourne Division, Lake Front Division near Seward Park, South Shore Addition, Woodland Park Addition, Stinson's Addition, and Evan's Addition. Hillman did not limit himself to Seattle. He went into unincorporated areas such as the Rainier Valley where he platted Hillman City. He also laid out Kennydale (named for his wife, the former Bessie Kenny) and Hillman's Mountlake Terrace. The Green Lake project alone brought him $300,000. He built a lavish home on Green Lake for his wife and three children.
Is Everybody Happy?
In 1903, Hillman was numbered among the most prominent of Seattle's businessmen and visionaries. Not all would agree with that assessment though. His typical customer was a recent arrival in the Northwest with limited resources, but unlimited ambitions.
Other people purchased lots, sight unseen, by mail. He stated that he had, "rendered all assistance possible to people of limited means, who were deserving, to enable them to secure and pay for a a home of their own" (Buse). He often sold lots to more than one person, made false promises about stations planned by the Great Northern Railway, and moved boundary stakes after a sale. He was as puzzled as any when farmers failed produce wheat "twelve feet high" or "strawberries as big as teacups" (Buse). Some buyers found their lots at the bottom of Green Lake.
Step Right Up
It was Hillman's grandest scheme that failed him though. He purchased 4,000 acres of logged-off land on Port Susan north of Everett. He planted Himalaya Blackberries and elephant grass to hide the slash left behind by loggers. On June 12, 1910, Hillman ran ads in all three of Seattle's daily newspapers announcing a "Grand Free Excursion" to the "New city of Birmingham." He bolstered the print campaign with banners on a steam calliope pulled by draft horses through Seattle. He advertised for buyers and also required salesmen, only "honest reliable men." Lots were offered for $65 to $150 an acre. Ads mentioned fish-filled lakes, beaches, and free transportation of household goods.
On Tuesday, June 14, 1910, buyers crowded Pier 6 at the foot of University Street to get a free seat on the steamer Venus. Passengers were entertained by a brass band and provided a picnic lunch. The sales pitches started as soon as the ship left touting Birmingham as "where rail meets sail." Gamblers also plied the crowd.
When the Venus arrived in Birmingham, buyers saw three impressive docks. A huge sign welcomed the buyers and a boardwalk extended along the beach for two miles. A department store, two general stores, a sawmill, a church, and a school showed the visitors the amenities that awaited those fortunate enough to acquire lots. The Birmingham Railroad took passengers to more distant parts of the development. Baskets of fresh fruit from "the abundant fruit orchards in Birmingham" were offered by Hillman himself.
The reality of Birmingham was something else. The stores were staffed by actors hired for the excursions. The sawmill was just a collection of machinery that did not fit together. The railroad was the logging line of the old Port Susan Logging Co. The fruits and vegetables were fresh from the Pike Place Market in Seattle. There were no orchards and no businesses. Hillman even misrepresented the weather, claiming that the sun shone 276 days per year. Within 60 days of opening sales, Hillman would claim that he had sold 5,000 acres in 5-acre tracts.
The Seattle Star ran articles about buyers who felt cheated and Hillman sued the paper for libel. U.S. District Attorney Elmer E. Todd was not fooled though. He tracked Hillman's activities, until Hillman began to use the U.S. Mail to defraud his customers. Mail fraud was a federal offense and Hillman was indicted in August 1910.
The January 1911 trial was covered extensively by The Star. A jury convicted Hillman of 13 counts of mail fraud and he was sentenced to 2½ years in prison. Hillman appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which upheld the conviction and sentence in 1912. Hillman served 18 months at McNeil Island. His family waited for him in the opulent Hotel Coronado in San Diego.
After his sentence, Hillman resumed development activities in Paso Robles, San Diego, and Pasadena, California, while maintaining a home in Seattle. His wife filed for divorce three times in California, but they remained married.
Hillman died in 1935 on a visit to his ranch in California. He was buried in Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, but his family never got around to marking the grave or moving the remains back to Paso Robles where a plot awaited him next to his wife Bessie.