Mercer Island's Calkins Hotel burns to the ground on July 2, 1908.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 3/17/2002
  • Essay 3729
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On July 2, 1908, the Calkins Hotel, located on the northern shore of Mercer Island, burns to the ground. The lavish storybook structure, built by C. C. Calkins in the late 1880s, was the centerpiece of the town of East Seattle, also platted by Calkins. Although it served as a hotel for only a few years, the grand building was a source of pride for many early Mercer Islanders.

Rags to Riches

C. C. Calkins, trained in law at the University of Wisconsin, came to Seattle in 1887. Fresh off the boat, he had only $300 to his name, but within 10 days bought 21,000 acres of land on $19,000 credit. Taking advantage of the land boom then underway, he immediately sold 700 of those acres to pay off the debt, and ended up with property worth more than $170,000.

Much of his property was on northern Mercer Island, where he envisioned a non-industrial, non-commercial residential community named East Seattle. The centerpiece of the town would be the Calkins Hotel, and his hopes were that the village would become the pre-eminent place for prospective homeowners wishing to live in a suburban environment.

While the Calkins Hotel was under construction, Calkins commissioned the building of a passenger steamer named the C. C. Calkins. Calkins also built a home for his family on the island, along with a barn and a six-sided potting shed. He built an ornate birdhouse for the home that was made to look exactly like his turreted hotel.

Riches to Rags

The Calkins Hotel was three stories tall, ringed by large verandas and topped with turrets and towers. A large reception room filled much of the main floor, along with a vast dining room and kitchen. The upper floors contained 24 guest rooms and parlors, each with elaborate furnishings.

President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) stayed at the hotel during his 1891 visit to Seattle, giving Calkins’ venture some notoriety. Homes were built for his planned community, and soon a church and college were on the drawing boards. Elaborate gardens and a large boathouse with slips for 100 boats were already in place.

Things were looking up for Calkins, but he was hit by a rapid succession of setbacks and disasters. The Panic of 1893, a nationwide economic depression, severely hurt his business. Soon after, The Calkins' lost a newborn child. Mrs. Calkins and her daughter then went on vacation to recuperate, but while doing so, the young girl accidentally fell from a hotel window and was killed. In transit back to Mercer Island, their home burned down. Mrs. Calkins died soon after.

C. C. Calkins left Mercer Island under a tremendous cloud of grief.

Odd Uses

Before he left, Calkins mortgaged off everything he owned for $120,000. The hotel stood empty for years, although neighboring children were known to climb in through the windows and play for hours within the grand empty palace. In 1902, Eugene Lawson bought the building and surrounding property.

Lawson leased the building to Major Cicero Newell for use as a school for delinquent boys, but East Seattle residents objected to seeing boys chained to fences, so Newell built a new school on other property leased by Lawson. The school later became the Luther Burbank Parental School for Boys.

Lawson sold the hotel to a Dr. Murray, who then operated it as the Seattle Sanitarium. The facility treated narcotics addicts through use of the Keeley Cure, which involved withdrawing the patient from drug addiction by administering a great many enemas and laxatives. The sanitarium wasn’t in business for very long.

Rags to Ashes

By 1907, the building was back in use as a summer hotel. Just as next year's season was underway, the building burned to the ground on July 2, 1908. Blame was ascribed to a Japanese houseboy upset over a scolding he had received. In retaliation, he had stuffed the chimney with oily rags to cause a big smoke.

That it did, and the wooden building quickly caught fire. Neighbors rushed to the scene to help rescue guests and their belongings. The inferno was too great to save anything else, and within hours the Calkins hotel was reduced to smoldering ruins.

Its centerpiece now gone, East Seattle nevertheless thrived. Mercer Island’s first church, library, post office, telephone system, and many other services took root in the community. It wasn't until 1940, when the Lake Washington Floating Bridge opened, that the business district moved to its present location in the north-central part of the island.


Lucile McDonald, Lake Washington Story (Seattle: S.J. Superior Publishing Co., 1979), pp. 71-73; Judy Gellatly, Mercer Island Heritage (Mercer Island: Mercer Island Historical Society, 1989), pp. 17-20.

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