Chautauqua comes to Vashon Island on August 3, 1885.

  • By David Wilma
  • Posted 4/01/2000
  • Essay 2260

On August 3, 1885, the first Chautauqua on Puget Sound is held at Dilworth Point on Vashon Island. Named after Chautauqua, New York, where it was founded in 1874, the movement is a summertime presentation of lectures, discussions, and cultural activities lasting several days to a week in a resort atmosphere.

Pithy Speeches, Music...

Organizers promised that the event would begin with "short, pithy speeches by all who come" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer). The program offered devotional services, Sunday school, German language instruction, roundtable discussions, and music. Round trip fare to and from Seattle on the steamer Zephyr cost 75 cents.

Seattle banker Dexter Horton (1825-1904) is said to be the first Seattle graduate of a Chautauqua literary correspondence course and he helped organized the Rainier Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle through the Young People's Literary Society of the First Baptist Church of Seattle. The group first met on September 23, 1884, in the parlors of the First Baptist Church at 4th Avenue and Cherry Street. The following week they began to pursue an evening course of study.

An Escape From Noxious Vapors

The next two seasons, the week-long assemblies met at Gardiner's Beach just south of Alki Point. In August 1887, the Puget Sound Chautauqua incorporated and in 1888 the group selected Tramp Harbor on Vashon Island for a permanent home. The site grew to 600 acres with two miles of scenic shoreline, a hotel, dozens of cottages on two miles of streets, parks, viewpoints, a steamer dock, and a 1200 seat pavilion. Advertisements promised that "families may escape the noxious vapors and the immoral influences of a crowded city and combine health, instruction and pleasure" (Portage).

In 1889, organizers offered campfires, excursion cruises, clambakes, concerts, and art instruction in addition to Biblical sermons and lectures on zoology of the Bible, Greek customs, temperance, and the natural history of mollusks, clams, and mussels.

A Most American Thing

President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) called Chautauqua, "the most American thing in America" (Portage). Nationally, the movement reached 5,000 cities and towns a year by the first years of the twentieth century. During the 1910s, 20 million people a year attended assemblies.

Traveling programs arranged by national booking agents began to eclipse local assemblies and in 1909 the Vashon group found it necessary to reorganize. In 1912, the Vashon location was renamed Ellisport, but the annual meetings there never managed to regain the popularity of earlier years. Chautauqua vanished from Puget Sound and from the nation during the 1920s. There have been several Chautauqua revivals in recent decades.

Summer schools, correspondence and continuing education courses, and civic, fraternal and youth organizations across the country can trace their origins to the Chautauqua Movement.


Charles Payton, "The Spirit of Chautauqua," Portage, Vol. 3 (Spring 1982), pp. 22-23; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 19, 1884, p. 1; Ibid., September 25, 1884, p. 2; Ibid., July 18, 1886, p. 1.

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