Columbia City, a historic neighborhood in southeast Seattle, began as a townsite developed by promoter J. K. Edmiston, who built an electric rail line from downtown Seattle through the Rainier Valley along the route now followed by Rainier Avenue. It was incorporated as an independent town in 1893 and was annexed into Seattle in 1907. Manufacturers such as the Hitt Fireworks Company and Heater Glove Company sustained the local economy until World War II, when the neighborhood became home to defense workers and Hitt Fireworks switched to military production. Columbia City saw declines in the post-war years, reaching a nadir in the late 1970s when crime was a major concern and many storefronts were empty. In subsequent decades, a combination of public and private efforts helped revitalize the area. The local business community won Landmark District status for Columbia City in 1978, helping to preserve the neighborhood's historic ambience. Once-empty storefronts have become restaurants, offices, an art gallery, and other businesses.
Forests and Marshes
The area that became Columbia City was still heavily timbered with old-growth forests in 1889 when J. K. Edmiston began building an electric railway south from downtown Seattle into the Rainier Valley. The railway served the dual purpose of opening the valley to development while providing access to new sources of lumber, which was in great demand after the Great Fire that had destroyed most of Seattle’s business district earlier that year. Edmiston and his partners bought 40 acres of land near the railway’s first planned station, logged it, cleared it, and launched a vigorous advertising campaign promoting the new town of Columbia.
The townsite consisted of dense forest bordered by swampy marshland. Native Americans who called themselves hah-chu-AHBSH ("lake people") had cut a few trails through the area, but there had been no inhabitants until the arrival of a few farmers to the north and south in the late 1870s. It took two years to lay seven miles of track from downtown Seattle to the townsite, along the route that would become Rainier Avenue S. On the heels of the railway came the first commercial enterprise in Columbia City, a lumber mill built on the northwest corner of what is now Rainier and S Brandon Street. The mill processed newly felled logs that were five to six feet in diameter.
Columbia City was born “a child of ambitious plans and printer’s ink,” as one writer put it in 1916 (Banta). The promoters linked their town to greatness by naming it in honor of Christopher Columbus. Expanding on that theme, they named major streets after other famous explorers: Ferdinand (Magellan); (Henry) Hudson; Americus (Vespucci). They boosted the town with broadsides, brochures, and newspaper advertisements, using large type that could be read at a glance.
The ads promised “elegant lots” with rich soil and free wood and water, for either $300 ($10 down and $1 a week for 300 weeks) or $750 (same down payment, $1.50 a week). The first lots were sold from a canvas tent set up at what is now Rainier Avenue S and S Ferdinand Street on April 4, 1891, shortly after the inauguration of regular railway service. Sightseers and prospective buyers crowded onto four covered streetcars and two flatcars to travel out to the newly cleared townsite. The cars were draped with banners trumpeting the town’s slogan: “Columbia, Watch It Grow!”
“Watch It Grow”
By 1892, the town boasted 40 to 50 residences, a town hall, a handsome Knights of Pythias lodge hall, a school with 75 students, a post office, two churches, a gravitation water system, a park, numerous stores, and service to Seattle every half hour on the Rainier Avenue Electric Railway. Part of the power for the railway came from the mill, which generated a little electricity in addition to manufacturing lumber and other wood products.
Columbia was incorporated as a town in January 1893, after 66 citizens (including Edmiston) filed the necessary petition with the King County Board of County Commissioners. In keeping with its new status, the Town Council promptly changed the name from the modest “Columbia” to the grander “Columbia City.”
By the end of the year, Edmiston had lost control of his railway and his finances (a victim of the Panic of 1893). He was forced to relocate to “some spot on the earth’s surface kept secret from all former acquaintances” (Banta). However, the town he had planted continued to grow. The lumber mill and two nearby shingle mills attracted workers, as did the railway. Businesses moved in to meet the needs of the workers. By 1900, Columbia City was a full-service community as well as “downtown” for the nearby settlements of Hillman, Brighton, and Rainier Beach.
Meanwhile, grand schemes continued to surface, including one to turn the landlocked town into a seaport. The plan, initiated in 1895 by former Territorial Governor Eugene Semple, involved cutting a canal through Beacon Hill to Lake Washington. Columbia City was still a long way from water, but running north and then east of the town was a deep ravine that became a marshy swamp, named Wetmore Slough after its owner. Town boosters hoped the canal would make the slough navigable. However, the completion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917 lowered the level of the lake by nine feet, drying up the slough and pulling the plug on Columbia City’s maritime future.
Still, the town prospered. It was reincorporated as a “City of the Third Class” (an upgrade from the previous incorporation as a “Town of the Fourth Class”) in 1905, when its population reached the required 1,500. Residents rejected a move for annexation to Seattle at that time, arguing that Columbia City could enjoy lower taxes and more local control, particularly on the issue of saloons, as an independent entity. The town prided itself on never having had a saloon within its corporate limits, and many citizens feared that annexation would unleash the forces of Demon Rum.
By 1907, however, the mood had changed. The tax base proved to be too small to maintain a growing municipality. The voters approved annexation on March 5, with 109 in favor and only three opposed. Columbia City officially became part of Seattle when the election results were filed with the secretary of state, on May 3, 1907.
The town remained a business hub after annexation. Among the major employers were the Hitt Fireworks Company, founded in 1905, one of the largest manufacturers of fireworks in the United States; and the Heater Glove Company, established in 1916, which manufactured leather jackets, hats, and other articles in addition to gloves. When Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927, he wore a soft leather aviator hat made by Heater. In addition to producing fireworks displays all across the country, Hitt orchestrated fire and battle scenes for several Hollywood blockbuster movies, including “What Price Glory” and “Gone With the Wind.”
Both these companies survived the Great Depression of the 1930s, but the streetcar line -- the original lifeline of the community -- failed. Reorganized in 1912 as the Seattle & Rainier Valley Railway, the company had suffered from inept management for years. It had also alienated residents and city officials by refusing to allow the city to pave Rainier Avenue between the streetcar tracks, creating hazardous conditions for drivers and pedestrians. In retaliation, the Seattle City Council revoked the line’s franchise in 1934. Two years later, the city ordered the company to rip up its lines so Rainier Avenue could be widened and resurfaced for automobiles.
The last Rainier Avenue interurban car finished its run at 1:45 a.m. January 1, 1937, ending forever 46 years of private streetcar service to Rainier Valley. The railway was the valley’s largest employer, and its demise on top of the Depression hurt the district badly.
The entry of the United States into World War II in 1941 ushered in a new period of growth and change for Columbia City. Government contractors built temporary housing for defense workers in fields on the west side of town. Hitt Fireworks switched to military production, manufacturing parachute flares and other products for the armed forces. The company also created an aerial smoke screen that was used to help camouflage the naval shipyard at Bremerton. At its peak in the 1940s, Hitt was employing 200 workers in its manufacturing sheds, on “Hitt’s Hill” on 37th Avenue S between Brandon and Dawson streets.
Weathering the Storm
Columbia City has weathered a number of economic cycles since its founding, beginning with the Panic of 1893, which bankrupted Edmiston and his electric railway. The nadir came in the late 1970s, when the business district was pocked with empty storefronts and the community became associated with crime and gang violence. “People started moving out, and crime started moving in,” says Buzz Anderson, retired owner of Grayson Brown Hardware & Furniture Company and president of the Rainier Valley Historical Society (Anderson Interview).
Since then, a combination of public and private efforts has helped revitalize the area. The Forward Thrust civic improvement campaign of 1968 provided funds to stabilize a garbage dump at the former Wetmore Slough and turn it into a park. The slough had been purchased by the City in 1941 for use as a park but had been used instead as a landfill. Although dumping had officially ended in 1963, the area remained an eyesore and a health hazard until the completion of what is now a park that extends roughly a mile from Columbia City to Lake Washington.
Columbia City’s business community turned to its past in an effort to protect its future, winning status as a Landmark District in 1978. The designation provides tax breaks for owners who rehabilitate historic buildings. City funds have been used to pave the sidewalks with brick and plant street trees. As a result of these and other efforts, Columbia City today has a renewed feeling of vitality, while retaining much of the look of a turn-of-the-century milltown.
The pedestrian-friendly neighborhood includes more than 40 historic commercial and residential buildings. At the center is a “village green” with a stately Andrew Carnegie library. Once boarded up storefronts have been turned into restaurants, offices, an art gallery, and other businesses. The streetcar tracks are gone, but Metro’s Number 7 still links Columbia City to its past, providing service to downtown through the power of electricity. The trolleys run every half hour, the same schedule as the streetcars on the old electric railway.