Seattle Neighborhoods: Interbay -- Thumbnail History

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 7/02/2001
  • Essay 3418
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Once a salt marsh between two extensions of Elliott Bay, the Interbay neighborhood is home to businesses and industries representing the wide sweep of Seattle's history. A transcontinental railroad, first completed in the nineteenth century, runs next to the home of a twenty-first century biotechnology company. A food bank, a fishing fleet, and a golf course round out the wide variety of activities where once deranged hermits hid from society.

At First ...

Scoured out of the earth by the Vashon Glacier 13,500 years ago, Interbay was a marshy area between what would come to be called Salmon Bay and Smith's Cove. Native Americans of the Shilshole tribe made their permanent home on the north side of Salmon Bay, a salt water extension of Puget Sound. The settlement consisted of cedar long houses that sheltered several dozen people during winters. Summers, the family groups scattered and camped along the shores and in the uplands fishing and hunting. The Interbay area was a rich source of shellfish and waterfowl.

When Euro-Americans arrived on Puget Sound in the nineteenth century, Interbay consisted of tide flats and a salt marsh. David Denny (1832-1903), Arthur Denny (1822-1899), and William Bell (1817-1887), members of the Denny Party that first arrived on Alki Point in 1851, explored Interbay in December 1852. Later that winter, they showed the cove between two hills to Dr. Henry Smith (1830-1915) and to other settlers.

Smith and his Cove

Dr. Smith traveled in a wagon train to the Oregon Territory from Wooster, Ohio, with his wife, his mother and his sister. He picked the cove for his claim and built a cabin there in the spring of 1853. He thought the spot was a good location for docks and that the flat area was a natural for a transcontinental railroad terminus. He and his family planted potatoes. His mother, Abigail Teaff Smith (b. 1792) staked out the next claim north. Smith cut a trail through the woods, three miles to Seattle as an alternative to the canoe route. Another settler, Edmund Carr, laid claim to the south side of Salmon Bay, having explored the north side of Queen Anne Hill and The Outlet, the creek connecting Lake Union and the salt water.

Many newcomers felt that Smith's Cove was the logical site for a city on Elliott Bay. The ground there was level and the hills to each side were ideal as residential districts. More settlers arrived and filed claims. They made their livings farming and logging.

During the Indian War of 1855-1856, the settlers fled their claims for the safety of block houses in Seattle. When they returned after hostilities, they found their homes burned and their stock gone. Dr. Smith's first cabin was spared, apparently a tribute to his good relations with his Native American neighbors. Smith would later be the source for a widely circulated account of the speech of Chief Seattle during an 1854 visit of Washington Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862).

The Hermits of Interbay

Several of the earliest settlers of Interbay came to a bad end. Ira Utter (1824-1876) worked hard to prove up his claim on the south shore of Salmon Bay. By 1869, he was the largest landowner in North Seattle. Utter lived alone and rarely visited his neighbors or Seattle. In 1870, his neighbor John Ross took him into custody because of his insanity. Utter died in an asylum in the East in 1876.

Osmine Frost (b. 1809) worked his claim west of the Smith property until his neighbors placed him in a mental institution in Portland. After eight years, he returned and dug up an iron box containing his claim papers. He took up residence in a cave, alert to imagined assassination attempts by the Rev. Daniel Bagley, Henry Yesler, and David Denny. In 1887, a brother-in-law removed Frost to an asylum in the East. As Dr. Smith later wrote, "Verily it is not good for a man to live alone" (Reinertz).

David Stanley built a cabin on the south side of Salmon Bay in 1854, which was routinely looted by his Native American neighbors. He often showed up at a neighbor's in need of food or shelter. He died as an old man in someone else's home.

From Interbay to Asia

The 1880s saw Dr. Smith's dream of a rail become reality. The Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern built its line to the coal fields of Newcastle and Issaquah through the cove, following the shore of The Outlet, Lake Union, and Lake Washington. In 1892, the Great Northern Railway came to Seattle from the north, down the shore of Puget Sound, across Salmon Bay and Interbay, to Seattle. The Great Northern's first depot was at Smith's Cove before moving to Railroad Avenue downtown. The Great Northern built piers at Smith's cove to complete the railroad's connection with Asia, and a yard to make up transcontinental trains.

The city of Ballard grew up on the north side of Salmon Bay. After The Great Fire of 1889, many sawmills relocated from Seattle to Salmon Bay. In 1917, the bay changed dramatically when the Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks were completed. The water level was raised to that of Lake Union and it became a freshwater harbor where destructive saltwater organisms on ships' hulls would die. The wetlands were filled with soil from regrade operations and with garbage.

In 1891, the community of Boulevard received a post office, the name to be changed to Interbay three years later. The flat area collected industries that could take advantage of transportation. The hillsides became home to workers. Slavic and Finnish immigrants employed in nearby mills established a community there.

During the Maritime Strike of 1934, Smith's Cove became the scene of violence. When Seattle police moved to break up striking Longshoremen who were blocking access to a pier, one man died when a tear gas canister struck him in the head.

World War II saw a tremendous increase of activity in Interbay. Piers 90 and 91 became the focus of the Seattle Port of Embarkation and tens of thousands of troops passed through there enroute to combat in the Pacific. This role continued through the Korean War. Seattle became known nationally for the warmth of its welcome for returning servicemen.

The Navy surplussed Pier 91 in the 1960s and it was turned over to the Port of Seattle.

The Fleet

The Port of Seattle constructed the base for the North Pacific Fishing Fleet in Salmon Bay. Fishermen's Terminal serves more than 700 boats a year with 369 slips and moorage and surrounding businesses. The Port also developed a 152-acre facility for automobile imports and exports through Terminal 91.

Fill areas were transformed by the city of Seattle into playfields and a 9-hole golf course. In 2001, the Interbay railroad yards of the Burlington Northern/Santa Fe line still served as the western terminus of the transcontinental route through Stevens Pass in the Cascades.

Northwest Harvest, an agency for distributing surplus foodstuffs to the needy through 280 neighborhood food banks, distributes more than 14 million pounds of nutrition from Interbay.

The Immunex Corporation (acquired by Amgen, Inc. in 2000) chose Interbay for its Helix Project, an immense research and technology center.


Kay Frances Reinartz, Queen Anne: Community On The Hill (Seattle: Queen Anne Historical Society, 1993); "Fishermen's Terminal," Port of Seattle Website (; "Longshoremen and maritime workers strike West Coast and Seattle on May 9, 1934," Historylink Timeline Library (; "Statewide Services," Northwest Harvest Website, (; "The Helix Project," Immunex Website, (

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