Seattle Neighborhoods: Phinney -- Thumbnail History

  • By Louis Fiset
  • Posted 8/29/2001
  • Essay 3526
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Seattle's Phinney neighborhood lies mostly on a high ridge that rises from the western shore of Green Lake. It owes its name to Guy Phinney (1852-1893), a wealthy immigrant from Nova Scotia who developed a private estate that became Woodland Park (later Woodland Park Zoo). The neighborhood is largely a bedroom community that on the east spills off the spine of Phinney Ridge down to Green Lake's shores, and on the west runs to the edge of Ballard at 8th Avenue NW. The ice age moraine runs north from N 50th Street and peters out somewhere south of N 80th Street, where Phinney and Greenwood community residents disagree over sovereign rights. Phinney residents also lay claim to Woodland Park Zoo and its four-footed residents, but this birthright is contested by the Wallingford and Green Lake neighborhoods.

Trees and a Trolley

By 1879, the four square miles of land encapsulating Green Lake was in the hands of speculators and a few homesteaders. The population of the entire area was in the hundreds. With the arrival of the electric trolley in 1890, growth of the area began in earnest, especially along Green Lake's eastern shoreline.

In 1900, most of Phinney Ridge was still forested. But within three years the eastern slope had surrendered its Doug-fir and cedar to Parker's saw mill at the east end of Green Lake, and 1,500 residents now lived on the balding ridge above the lake's western shore.

That thousands more did not call the high slope home may be due to the electric trolley line that ran up the other side of the lake (the east side) and stopped at the pleasure resort and picnic grounds at the northwest corner, near today's Bathhouse Theater. In contrast to the sparsely settled Phinney Ridge on the west, east Green Lake was home to nearly 10,000 residents.

The pattern of growth of the Phinney neighborhood thus followed the laying of rails for the electric trolley lines in the area. By 1900, nearly all the land in the future Green Lake, Phinney, and Greenwood neighborhoods was platted. But development on the western slope of the ridge (facing Ballard) lagged behind the eastern slope (facing the lake).

To Entice the Homebuyer...

In 1902, the Green Lake line was extended completely around Green Lake and passed through Woodland Park on its return downtown. In addition to providing one of the most scenic and pastoral trolley routes in the city, bringing weekend and holiday sightseers to the area, the Green Lake line now brought potential property and home buyers to realtors C. D. Hillman and Wiliam F. Hanbury on the west side of the lake.

Guy Phinney himself helped bring people to the hinterlands north of Fremont by running a private trolley line from Fremont to the entrance of his Woodlands estate (Woodland Park), located at the south end of Phinney Ridge. This line was active from 1890 to 1897.

Getting There and Living There

In 1903, a growing number of new residents on the east side of the ridge enjoyed the vistas of Green Lake and the Cascade range beyond, but growth on the west side of the ridge (facing Ballard) was still hampered by lack of access. This changed in 1906 when the Phinney Avenue line (originally Fremont Avenue line) began service from Fremont to N 50th Street. In 1907 the terminus was pushed north to N 68th Street, where Phinney Avenue turned into Greenwood Avenue, and the name of the line was changed. The next year the terminus was moved out to N 75th Street, and in 1909 to the city limits at N 85th Street. Then, in 1910 the Seattle-Everett Interurban was routed through the Greenwood and Phinney neighborhoods along Phinney and Greenwood avenues.

The commercial district of Phinney and Greenwood paralleled the tracks on both sides of the right of way. By the 1930s, the business district of Greenwood was well established, and many of the brick and mortar buildings of the period remain in use today just beyond the Phinney neighborhood's northern reach. By 1940, Greenwood boosters had created a "Miracle Mile" along the main arterial running south to the Allen Elementary School, near N 67th Street.

Although residential development continued to concentrate on the eastern slope of the ridge and on the crest of the ridge, by 1912 a new track now dog-legged along 6th Avenue NW and 5th Avenue NW toward a W 65th Street terminus. With this addition, access to the western slopes of Phinney ridge was complete and real estate lots began to sell. Later, with the demand for public transportation on the rise, the line was moved west onto 8th Avenue NW, which routed the trolley from Leary Way to the city line along a single broad, straight street.

Bungalows in a Boom Town

After the turn of the century, along with the construction of bungalows and box houses came families seeking fresh air and elbow room that was increasingly difficult to find in a Seattle that found itself a boom town in the wake of the Klondike gold rush of 1897 and after. The presence of families meant school children.

By 1900 Green Lake's sole school of four rooms on the east side was bulging. The Green Lake Improvement Club pressed for two public schools in its neighborhood. Seattle School District architect, James Stephens, designed both the Green Lake School, which opened on the east side of the lake for Grades One to Eight in 1901, and the John B. Allen School, which was built atop Phinney Ridge and opened four years later.

As in many neighborhoods the new school replaced a group of portable buildings on the site. The enrollment at the clapboard Allen School gradually increased from 278 at the end of its first year to 473 in 1918. With the addition of a detached, two-story brick building in 1917, enrollment increased, peaking at 758 in 1933.

Shortening the Distance for Short Legs

Meanwhile, on the western slope of Phinney Ridge the West Woodland School opened in 1910 at W 58th Street and 5th Avenue NW, replacing a portable known as the Ross School annex. The new school took the burden off youngsters who until then had to walk a mile or more to the Ross School, the B. F. Day School, the Whittier School, or make the trek up the hill to the Allen School. These were long distances for short legs.

Designed for expansion, the Jacobean style brick building got two additions. By 1930, West Woodland was the largest elementary school in Seattle.

The Phinney Neighborhood Center

Today, the glue that holds the Phinney neighborhood together may be the Phinney Neighborhood Center that since 1981 has been housed in the original Allen School building. Started with federal Block Grant money, the Center has hosted family oriented events ranging from puppet shows to art exhibits to fitness classes for seniors to classes on retrofitting homes for earthquakes.

Today, with the federal subsidy long gone, the Association has a staff of more than two dozen. Its annual budget exceeding $750,000 is generated by room rentals, membership fees, and fund raising. The Association prides itself on eschewing public money.

An Internationally Acclaimed Neighborhood Zoo

But it is the Woodland Park Zoo that draws people to the area. The hoofed beasts that graze the Savannah and the big cats help draw more than a million visitors to the neighborhood each year. Its newest resident as of November 2000, Hansa, the baby Asian elephant born at the zoo, has trumpeted her way into the hearts of Seattleites who arrive in droves to delight in her child-like antics.

With its natural vistas of mountains and lakes, a well established community center that produces a warm community spirit, and an award winning animal habitat, the Phinney neighborhood, with its 25,000 residents, has long been one of the most appealing neighborhoods in the city.


Leslie Blanchard, The Street Railway Era in Seattle: A Chronicle of Six Decades (Forty Fort, PA: Harold E. Cox, 1968); Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority, Seattle School Histories, 1869-1974 (Seattle: Seattle Public Schools, 1990); Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 5, 1997 (; Kroll's Atlas of Seattle, Washington (Seattle: Kroll Map Company, Inc., 1912, 1920); Official Recorded Plat, King County, Washington, (Seattle: Microfilm & Plat Service, Inc., Seattle), 1964; Howard Finny Sr., Finney/Phinney Families in America: Descendents of John Finney of Plymouth and Barnstable, Mass. and Bristol, R.I., of Samuel Finney of Philadelphia, Pa., and of Robert Finney of New London, Pa. (Richmond: The William Byrd Press, Inc., 1957).
Note: This essay was updated on November 10, 2004.

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