Seattle Neighborhoods: Laurelhurst -- Thumbnail History

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 6/09/2001
  • Essay 3345
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Seattle's Laurelhurst neighborhood, located on the Seattle (western) shore of Lake Washington, is a peninsula that extends into the Union Bay part of the lake. Laurelhurst's western boundary is University Village and the University of Washington campus. Union Bay forms the southern boundary, Lake Washington the eastern boundary, and Sand Point and Windermere the northern boundary. It was once a seasonal campground of Duwamish Indians. During the 1860s, King County's first sheriff built a homestead there, and Henry Yesler (1810-1892) built a sawmill. By 1887, the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad (on a route followed today by the Burke-Gilman trail) had reached Laurelhurst. Seattle annexed Laurelhurst in 1910, and today it is a high-end community close to the University of Washington with easy access to downtown. It is also the home of the Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, which moved to the neighborhood in 1953.

First People

Similar to many of Seattle's Lake Washington neighborhoods, today's Laurelhurst was once a Duwamish Indian seasonal campground. The Duwamish ("Inside People") campsite on the Laurelhurst peninsula was within hailing distance of an Indian burial site on Foster Island, today's Arboretum. After signing the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty most of the Duwamish people were removed to the Suquamish Indian Reservation on the Kitsap Peninsula. The Duwamish people at Laurelhurst called their location "Sahlouwil."

In early days, thick woods across the Laurelhurst peninsula overlooked a wild marsh within a teardrop-shaped bay. Centuries ago this habitat was an aboriginal hunting and fishing paradise. Today, by some miracle, a large portion of this urban enclave remains productive and alive with native plants and animals. Harry W. Higman and Earl J. Larrison, in their Union Bay: The Life of a City Marsh, write that Union Bay vegetation has been "self introduced" and the influence of humans relatively limited.

Wildlife has managed to adjust to the inexorable shore activity -- UW stadium traffic, digging of canals, construction of bridges and ramps, dredging, and boating. Higman and Larrison note the variety of Union Bay wildlife: "Winter transients and regulars, spring migrants, summer residents, fall visitors, and all-season guests provide a constant and impressive change of population." That watery scene is the southern gateway to Laurelhurst.

White Settlement

White settlement in Laurelhurst had ties to the early 1860s development of Madison Park, Judge John J. McGilvra's property directly across Union Bay. Picnickers and summer residents of Madison Park liked to row around the Bay and explore the wooded peninsula to the north. Oars and paddles would later be replaced (early 1900s) by the scheduled route of the Laurelhurst Launch, a small ferry operated by the Herzog brothers, who dressed in nautical blue as they piloted their wooden craft.

Also beginning in the l860s, portions of the Laurelhurst peninsula were claimed by Henry Nathan, Jr., John Hildebrand, John S. Maggs, James and Alex Elder, Fletcher J. Hawley, John J. Jordan, John Nichlas, Terresa Feltofer, C.M. Scammon, William H. Surber, and others. It was not until 1906, however, that this pristine, wooded peninsula was named "Laurelhurst." That botanical name was of course coined by real estate developers.

Uncle Joe

Laurelhurst's most colorful pioneer, William H. "Uncle Joe" Surber, soon after his 1859 arrival in the hamlet of Seattle, went into the pile driving business. That activity made him an early builder of Seattle's downtown wharves, and later, contractor for the city's railroad trestles. He served as King County's first sheriff and at one time was a federal marshal. After living a few years in a house at 5th Avenue and Main Street, he moved to his distant homestead on Union Bay, i.e. Laurelhurst. He enjoyed working and hunting on his land. In fact, Surber was such a successful hunter that for years he supplied fresh meat - mostly venison and bear - to early Seattleites. Surber Avenue on the edge of Laurelhurst memorializes "Uncle Joe's" name.

In November 1871, a road was cut through the woods from McGilvra's primitive trail northward to Union City, also known as the Montlake Cut or Portage. A horse trail proceeded a few miles north of that junction. This rustic avenue opened up an optional route -- for the hardy traveler -- to burgeoning Laurelhurst. The Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad was organized by Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925) and Daniel J. Gilman in 1885 (today's Burke-Gilman trail). By 1887 it reached Union Bay, Laurelhurst's western boundary. The railroad served the Town of Yesler, the tiny Laurelhurst community, and villages along the route to Bothell. By 1889, this busy track was taking workers to Issaquah coalmines and tourists to Snoqualmie Falls.

Yesler's Town of Yesler

Henry Yesler's downtown sawmill (and the sale of wood to bolster San Francisco's building boom) helped transform 1850s-1870s Seattle from a sleepy burg to a bustling town. Yesler bought logs from surrounding neighborhoods, including First Hill. Looking for new opportunities, in 1888 he founded The Town of Yesler on land he purchased from "Uncle Joe" Surber in Laurelhurst. He built a sawmill there, perfectly placed for clearing the tree-lined shores of Lake Washington. Although a fire razed the mill after only five years of production, a shingle mill was erected in its place. The site of The Town of Yesler is today's Union Bay Place, the southwestern border of Laurelhurst.

Yesler's removal of Laurelhurst trees opened the rolling hills to the planting of orchards and development of farms. These agricultural activities would be short-lived, but they helped advertise the remote area as an accessible Seattle suburb. Remnants of the orchards were in evidence for decades after many permanent homes had been established.

From Cow Pasture to Country Club

Scotsman Josiah Collins, who had developed a Wallingford cow pasture into a three-hole golf course, decided in 1900 that a 40-acre hilltop Laurelhurst site was perfect for establishing The Seattle Golf and Country Club. Lasting eight years, the course was split by a deep ravine. Apple and cherry trees surrounded an old three-story clubhouse.

After watching Madison Park, Madrona, and Leschi come to life with shoreline parks and swaying trolley cars, developers took a closer look at Laurelhurst. In 1906, Joseph R. McLaughlin, Paul C. Murphy, and Frank F. Mead pressed ahead with development. Realtors affixed enticing names to their peninsula developments. Besides "Laurelhurst," there was "Laurelhurst Heights," "The Palisades," "McLaughlin's Lawn Acres," and "Scottish Heights."

One of the earliest developments was caused by the deeding of John S. Maggs's homestead to Henry A. Webster of Port Townsend. Upon Webster's death in 1883, his wife Mary sold that scenic 35 acres to Ellen Leanora Little. Little's uncles, Wilbur and Hobart McNeill, built a splendid manse on the property, which they named "Colonsay" for the Scottish island where their mother was born. The great house had hardly been lived in when it was sold in 1906. Historian Lucile McDonald writes in The Lake Washington Story that "The McNeill residence and its gardens were photographed from various angles, to give the impression of several different homes, and these pictures were used to illustrate the company's brochure." Colonsay stands today on Webster Point, surrounded by modern and traditional homes of later years.

After real estate sales caught on, many families subdivided their large lots. Others purchased property and moved into garages, stables, tents, or outbuildings, intending to build large homes. Simultaneously, developers dedicated waterfront lots to public use as boat-launching facilities, hoping to attract investors with nautical interests.

Becoming a Seattle Neighborhood

By 1910, the City of Seattle decided that there were enough Laurelhurst residents to justify annexation. Christine Barrett notes with sadness in her History of Laurelhurst, that formal annexation resulted in the city introducing uniform street names and a numbering system. Barrett states that homeowners nevertheless used the original names for years after annexation. "Gone forever," Barrett writes, "are Midland Terrace, Thornell, Front, Peerless Place, and St. Helens."

Despite annexation and land sales, Laurelhurst in the mid-1900s was about as far away from "city life" as any outlying neighborhood. The Laurelhurst Launch and other boats remained the primary link to Madison Park and downtown. Groceries, block ice, and newspapers were usually delivered to the door by tradespeople. If one attended the opera, symphony, or a dinner party "in town" it was necessary to catch the last 11:00 p.m. Launch back to the peninsula or sleep on the beach at Madison Park.

The 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (held on the University of Washington campus directly west of Laurelhurst) opened opportunities to build and connect new streets. A new trolley ran on 23rd Avenue to the expanded University of Washington campus. About the same time a wooden trestle was constructed above the Ravenna marsh to the north. Still feeling isolated, Laurelhurst residents bought a large Ford to provide jitney bus service between the University district and the community.

Montlake Cuts

The realization of an old dream caused great change to Lake Washington's waterfront, including the Laurelhurst peninsula. In 1883, David Denny (1832-1903), Judge Thomas Burke, and others hired Chinese laborers to dig a canal across the Montlake isthmus, an ancient Indian portage. The idea was to create a flume that allowed Lake Washington logs egress to Lake Union. This first "cut" was later widened, providing a swift water canoe ride for adventuresome boaters. Construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal -- and the second Montlake "cut" -- resulted in Lake Washington dropping by nine feet.

By 1917, new waterfront property bordered the great lake, providing private property owners and local municipalities a problem and an opportunity. In Laurelhurst, docks were left high and dry; sewage lines were exposed; bogs appeared where thriving marshes once teemed with life. Property owners, once they became accustomed to the water level, rebuilt docks, developed new land routes, and were generally pleased with their added beachfront.

The principal early Laurelhurst institutions were:

  • A small Lutheran seminary founded in 1913. It rarely served more than 10 students and three staff members;
  • Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart, under the leadership of Mother Frances Cabrini, purchased a 24-acre tract from Charles T. Conover, and built an orphanage in 1924-1927;
  • Yesler School in the Town of Yesler on Union Bay was opened in the early 1890s. Closed in 1917, it was supplanted by Laurelhurst and Bryant schools;
  • St. Stephens Episcopal Church began as a neighborhood mission in 1919, and became a church in the mid-1920s.

Laurelhurst Improvement Club

Nurtured by Laurelhurst's distance from the city center, organizations were formed where decisions could be made on matters of common concern. The most important of these, the Laurelhurst Improvement Club, was founded in 1920. It later changed its name to the Laurelhurst Community Club. Transportation issues were high on the Club's agenda until the Montlake Bridge was completed in 1925, a project that more or less solved the major egress problem to Laurelhurst.

After a successful Local Improvement District campaign, the Club purchased land for a playfield on what was called "Scottish Heights." A fieldhouse was added in the 1940s. In 1926, the Club purchased waterfront property for a community beach, but differences arose about its use. In 1928, the Laurelhurst Beach Club, Inc. broke away from the community organization and became private.

In subsequent years the Club faced a number of issues, many of longterm importance, some frivolous and parochial. Among the latter: Complaints were heard about animal restraints; a meeting was delayed so that attendees could hear the Amos 'n Andy radio program; a motion was introduced to restrict the neighborhood to "Caucasian" families; a motion was made to ask that residents "refrain from giving food at the door at the request of Trick or Treat."

Land issues, however, remained high on the Club's agenda. Large institutions such as Battelle Memorial Institute, Pacific Theological Seminary, and Children's Orthopedic Hospital made incursions into the neighborhood. After World War II, returning veterans needed housing, some of it built along Union Bay Place and on the site of the old Yesler mill acreage.

A Pioneering Institution

Children's Orthopedic Hospital, founded in 1907 by Anna Herr Clise (1866-1936) and other women, moved to the Laurelhurst neighborhood in 1953. The hospital was one of first to provide healthcare specifically for children, with an atmosphere appropriate to childhood.

The prominent Seattle businesswoman Dorothy Stimson Bullitt (1892-1989) chaired the relocation committee that moved this pioneering institution from Queen Anne to Laurelhurst. The hospital was founded by women and to this day retains an all-woman Board of Trustees. The hospital, now known as Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, took over the derelict and deserted Pacific Theological Seminary grounds.

Today's Laurelhurst is a vital, high-end community of mostly large homes, many with eye-filling view of Mt. Rainier and Lake Washington. The neighborhood's proximity to the University of Washington, good shopping, and public transport, have made it one of Seattle's most attractive places in which to live.


Christine Barrett, A History of Laurelhurst (Seattle, WA: Laurelhurst Community Club, 1981, revised 1989); Paul Dorpat, Seattle: Now & Then, Vols. II and III (Seattle, WA: Tartu Publications, 1984 and 1989); Lucile McDonald, The Lake Washington Story, (Seattle, WA: Superior Publishing Co., 1979); Brandt Morgan, Enjoying Seattle's Parks (Seattle, WA: Greenwood Publications, 1979); Harry W. Higman and Earl J. Larrison, Union Bay: The Life of a City Marsh, (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1951); J. Willis Sayre, This City of Ours (Seattle, WA: Seattle School District No. 1, 1936); Sophie Frye Bass, Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle (Portland, OR: Binfords & Mort, 1937); Roger Sale, Seattle: Past to Present (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1976).
Note: This essay was revised on November 20, 2002.

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