Seattle Neighborhoods: First Hill -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paul Dorpat
  • Posted 3/14/2001
  • Essay 3095
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Seattle's First Hill rises to the east of Pioneer Square. It has been, in successive years since 1852, forest, timber for Henry Yesler's sawmill, hill of mansions and high society, Profanity Hill, and Pill Hill -- a cluster of hospitals.

The Hill

Not First Hill. In the beginning it was the hill.

When the Dennys, Bells, and Borens approached the east shore of Elliott Bay in 1852, their future home from shoreline to summit was one continuous dark incline. The obvious exception to this almost impenetrable grade was the small low-lying peninsula that hung like a mudflap into the tidelands southwest of the hill. Eleven years earlier the U.S. Navy surveyor Lt. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) named it Piners Point. The Point became the center of local civilization long before anyone attempted carrying commerce, religion, bed frames, or nostalgic poetry up the hill.

Yesler's Hill

Anyone, that is, except the mill owner Henry Yesler (1810-1892) who, after first feeding his saws with easy timber cut near the shoreline, climbed the hill and helped clear it. He dispatched the harvest directly down Mill Street (Yesler Way) to his steam sawmill over a pavement of greased logs called a "skid road." This enterprise so dominated the early life of the hill that pioneers referred to the southern part of First Hill,­ the part of it at the head of the skid road, ­ as Yesler's Hill. Yesler built his road somewhat in line with the Indian path that the first pioneers soon learned was the direct inland route for determining how many other hills there were beyond their First Hill. The answer was two -- Second hill aka Renton Hill, and the ridge above Lake Washington.

Except as it provided timber for sale to Yesler and Californians (rebuilding San Francisco after a large fire in June 1851), the settlers generally did not like the dark forest that covered the ridges. Those feelings may have been intensified in 1856 when, during the conflict precipitated by Indian unhappiness with treaties imposed on tribes by Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), attackers used the forested ridge for cover during what came to be called the "Battle of Seattle." The first detailed map of Seattle, drawn by Navy Lieutenant Phelps at the time of the conflict, shows Indian forces on the hill. Phelps and his sailors shot exploding cannonballs at them and, more than a century later, intact duds of this artillery were discovered during the digging of the Interstate-5 Expressway across the face of First Hill.

The Bubbling Forest

One quality that attracted the first settlers to their hill was that it bubbled. They moved over from the exposed Alki Point in 1852 both for the protected harbor of Elliott Bay and for the springs on First Hill. Even before his heroic clear-cutting of the hill, Seattle's first industrialist tapped its fresh water. Yesler collected the flow in a large cistern near the present site of City Hall Park. From there the hill's hydraulics was delivered along an elevated flume to his mill and to the few homes collected around Pioneer Place.

In 1875 -- years after Yesler had cleared First Hill of its forest -- the bridge builder Charles Coppin dug a six-foot wide well 135 deep at the southeast corner of 9th Avenue and Columbia Street. The spring Coppin tapped was capable of giving 900,000 gallons of "the finest quality water" every 24 hours. It was a prudent tap, for no one as yet needed 900,0000 gallons. When new, Coppin's pumping tower looked down on stump fields.

With a population considerably less than 3,000, Seattle in 1875 was still in shock over the rejection by the Northern Pacific Railroad, two years earlier, of Elliott Bay as the Puget Sound terminus of its transcontinental line. When the rails from Chicago did at last span the West in 1883, Seattle -- not the Northern Pacific's chosen terminus Tacoma -- was the largest town on the sound. The hitherto largely empty lots on the summit of First Hill and below Coppin's landmark tower were developing with gardens and a few modest residences. Soon the homes would become larger and more ornate.

High Hill Culture

We may choose the year 1883 as the beginning of the brief but still splendid era of First Hill as the first retreat of its "first families." Escaping from what was rapidly becoming a boomtown of strangers, many of the city's leaders joined to separate their families in a utopic neighborhood of often mansion-sized homes and clubs. Colonel Granville Haller, a veteran of campaigns against Northwest tribes, and his wife Henrietta led the way to the northeast corner of James Street and Minor Avenue where they built a three-story high-ceiling home with a central tower they named "Castlemount." The Haller mansion and Coppin's tower were of about equal height and they looked across at each other over blocks that through the next quarter century filled in for the most part with the big homes of familiar families.

Morgan and Emily Carkeek soon followed the Hallers. While the English stonemason and contractor built many of the region's most substantial buildings (including the Dexter Horton Bank and the Federal Post Office), his wife became the grande dame of First Hill culture and their towering home at the southeast corner of Madison Street and Boren Avenue its center. Ultimately more than a salon for concerts, dress dinners, and card parties, here Emily Carkeek also founded the enduring Seattle Historical Society.

Other higher-culture institutions settled on the hill as well. The Seattle Tennis Club built courts behind the Stacy Mansion across Madison Street from the Carkeeks. The club held its first invitational tournaments in what is now (2001) the parking lot for a McDonalds restaurant. Eventually, the sprawling Stacy mansion at the northeast corner of Madison and Boren was purchased for the University Men's Club. Three blocks north on Boren at University Street, the women of the Sunset Club built their Georgian Revival Style clubhouse. In 2001, both clubs still operate in these First Hill quarters.

Among those joining the Hallers and Carkeeks were the Lowmans, the Hanfords, the Burkes, the Rankes, the Collins, the Minors, the Stimsons, the Stacy's, the Blethens (briefly before moving to Queen Anne), and many Dennys. "Auntie's Hill" is what Arthur and Mary Denny's granddaughter Sophie Frye Bass called it. Five of the author's aunts lived on the hill at one time on lots that were part of A. A. Denny's Broadway Addition.

Many of these First Hill families were served fresh water from Coppin's deep well, through the nearly five miles of bored-log pipes he had laid across the hill. After the city bought his antiquated system in 1899, Coppin's tower was razed and replaced by another mansion, this one for the meat packers Charles and Emma Frye. Eventually the Fryes attached a large sky-lighted room to the south wall of their home for the exhibit of their large collection of paintings collected during European tours. Thus began the seed for another of First Hill's abiding cultural institutions: The Frye Art Museum opened in 1952 at the northeast corner of Terry Avenue and Cherry Street, near the Frye home site. The museum was rebuilt on the same corner in the late 1990s.

Street Railways and Democracy

Between 1888 and 1891, three street railways were rapidly built to cross First Hill (and every other hill or ridge between it and the commercial parks developed on the west shore of Lake Washington). The cable railway along Mill Street (later Yesler Way) to Leschi Park was first. Soon cable cars also climbed James and Madison streets to Broadway Avenue. Beyond Broadway they headed east through a patchwork of forests and stump fields --­ the latter surmounted by real estate signs promoting the convenience of cleared lots placed so close to the tracks. A fourth electric line ran north and south along Broadway connecting the three hills ­ north to south, Capitol, First, and Beacon --­ topographically three sisters in the same ice-age ridge.

The street railways made First Hill more convenient to everyone. The mix of this new convenience with Seattle's booming growth meant that the years of the Hill's exclusivity were few even as the majority of the 40 or so mansions that defined it were still being planned or constructed. The reality of nearly every other burgeoning American city was fulfilled on First Hill. Its highbrow culture steadily slipped to mid-brow. Business districts prefer modest workers residences and services near downtown and First Hill got its share. In this line Madison Street quickly developed as the hill's commercial strip, offering services like shoe repair, cigars, and confections. (In time the diversity of this middle-class culture would itself shrink when hill space, including that facing Madison Street, was increasingly covered with hospitals and clinics.)

Profanity Hill

A few duplexes and row houses were mixed in with the big homes even before the streetcars arrived. However most of these were developed east of Broadway Avenue and also towards the south where First Hill fell beyond Yesler Way to the low ridge connecting it with Beacon Hill.

Since 1890, this more modest neighborhood developed in the shadow of the monumental King County Court House at 8th Avenue and Terrace Street. In 1931, after the last of the county's prisoners were moved off the hill to the City-County Building on 4th Avenue, the courthouse was razed. The building of another south hill landmark was then underway and within a year Harbor View Hospital opened just east of the old courthouse site. It threw an even longer shadow.

Other institutional anchors for this part of First Hill were Pacific School (1892) on East Jefferson, Fire Station No. 3 (1903) on Terry Avenue, and in 1941, the Seattle Housing Authority's Yesler Terrace. This southern stretch of First Hill gained its own nickname --­ Profanity Hill. The label was inspired by the cursing of attorneys and litigants who were required to climb the steepest part of First Hill to either attend court or court some King County bureaucrat. (As noted above, this section of First Hill was early on called Yesler Hill, after the pioneer who by many reports was himself familiar with profanity.)

The name stayed appropriate when the more modest residences at this profane end of First Hill developed during the 1930s into a low-rent and low-maintenance neighborhood for the low-down and almost-out. The majority of these structures were cleared for the construction of Yesler Terrace --­ one of the rare instances where the elimination of First Hill homes increased the total housing stock.

From High Homes to High Hotels -- and Pill Hill

The symbolic first surrender of First Hill's high culture to high-rises came with the sale of Judge Cornelius Hanford's home at the southwest corner of Boren Avenue and Madison Street --­ at the heart of the hill and across the street from the Carkeeks. The big Hanford home was razed in 1907 and replaced with the multi-story Perry hotel.

Nearby St. James Cathedral was also dedicated in 1907 and the following year the plush Sorrento Hotel opened one block west on Madison Street. As it developed, the most fortuitous development of 1908 was the founding that year of Swedish Hospital. Soon another of First Hill's eventually six hospitals figured in the old Hanford home site. When the Perry Hotel was itself converted into the Columbia/Cabrini Hospital, the southwest corner of Madison and Boren may be said thereby to have piled on its symbols of First Hill changes. Whether as hotel or hospital, the Perry was the first of the multi-story structures like the later Gainsborow Apartments that now cover much of First Hill real estate.

And although recently destroyed, the Hanford/Perry/Cabrini site is slated for another high-rise --­ this a "residential community for active seniors" a living facility consisting of apartments, a restaurant, an Olympic swimming pool, and a health club, with healthcare and other services to be supplied as needed by outside, nearby providers. In 2001, two hospitals ­-- Virginia Mason and Swedish -- steer the institutional life of First Hill. In the early 1970s, not counting clinics, there were four more hospitals operating on the hill as well. They were Doctors, Seattle General, Harborview, and St. Francis Xavier Cabrini, a presence sufficient to lend the hill its modern nickname, Pill Hill.

The Castlemount Collapse

In its own way the fall of Haller's Castlemount, the original big home on the hill, tells the story of First Hill's generational changes. With his parents deceased, their trim 53-year-old businessman son Theodore married in 1917 a woman 30 years his junior.

For 10 years the Hallers lived together in the house in which the frugal Theo had grown up, until Constance rebelled. Included in her list of divorce-court complaints was the hardship of having to live in "that great ghost house." The judge, former Seattle Mayor James T. Ronald, agreed, concluding that although the mansion was "once the finest in Seattle ... it was not pleasant for a young woman to be alone in that house day after day with nothing to look forward to but a game of dominoes in the evening."

With a $30,000 settlement, Constance Haller's divorce was granted and within two years Theodore was dead. Eventually razed, the Haller home site was leased during World War II by the Federal Government which quickly constructed thereon wartime housing for 40 families in five buildings. Later the Haller lot was developed as part of the spreading Swedish Hospital Campus.


Of all the First Hill big homes and their homeowners, Henry Yesler's cousin James Lowman and his residence at Boren Avenue and Marion Streets may be noted for faithful perseverance -- although ultimately not for preservation. The sportsman entrepreneur held on in his home until 1947, when the then 91-year-old pillar of First Hill club life and worldly travels died. James Lowman had lived at his First Hill corner for 66 years. Like much else on First Hill including the Hallers and Carkeek home lots, the Lowman corner is now covered by the Swedish Hospital sprawl.

The few important remnants of First Hill high culture that survive add enormously to the neighborhood's sometimes tense companionship of commercial, institutional, and residential structures. The Dearborn house has also been preserved and is now home to Historic Seattle. Kitty-corner across Minor Avenue and Seneca Street, the Stimson-Green mansion was saved in the mid-1970s by a combined effort of Historic Seattle and Patsy Collins, the Stimson family descendent and local philanthropist.

More recently Collins purchased from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Institute as it prepared to move to its new Lake Union campus the lots immediately to the east of the Stimson Green mansion. Calling on the expertise of the non-profit Seattle Housing Resources Group and additional charitable contributions from Jim Nordstrom, Patsy Collins guided the construction of Cascade. The court's one hundred new units of low-end income housing allow workers who could otherwise not afford to live on the hill live near where they actually work. The typical alternative for the Hutch site would have been another 14-story highrise of expensive condominiums.

Drawing First Hill Borders

Through the length of this thumbnail treatment of First Hill history, we have avoided the perennial puzzle of where First Hill begins and ends --­ the question of its borders. For the majority of Seattle hills that are ridges ­ like this one -- borders are defined not by topography alone but also by politics, which in contemporary Seattle is ordinarily some combination of demographics and Democrats often with connections to neighborhood block grants.

As noted above, First Hill is really part of a ridge that runs continuously from Portage Bay to Renton. By at least one description, the survey of First Hill made in the mid 1970s by an alliance of Historic Seattle and the Junior League, First Hill's southern limits end at the Dearborn Cut. I would rather put it at Yesler Way and describe Yesler Terrace as sitting on the cusp between First Hill and the International District with parts of it in each neighborhood. For the east border I choose 12th Avenue -- much of it runs along the trough between First and Second Hills. To the north I prefer Pike Street, and I split the street in two. The north side I give to Capitol Hill and the south side to First Hill.

In the mid-1960s, the long ambiguous western border of First Hill (as well as Capitol and Beacon hills) was at last defined by the Washington State Department of Highways with the construction of the Seattle Freeway. Before the Freeway made its mark, what could be confidently called the western border of First Hill was determined by whatever landmark stood on the horizon. As the young settlement pushed the curtain of old-growth timber east while rolling their community up the hill, they were also pushing the hill back. When the Territorial University was first built on Denny's knoll in 1861, it was considered by locals to be on the hill although it faced 4th Avenue at Seneca Street. When Central School was constructed in 1883 on Madison Street between 6th and 7th avenues, it too was seen from below as clearly on the hill although like the University it was far from the summit.

One of the reasons for this moving identity comes with the second endearing quality (after the bubbling springs) of First Hill that the original settlers understood --­ it is generally easy to climb and so also develop. Except at Terrace Street on the south and near Union Street on the north, the hill was readily negotiable first by hikers and later by street graders and trolley tracks. For someone in good shape it may seem like no hill at all and indeed photographs of its profile from Denny Hill (since razed) make it seem hardly a hill. Perhaps for such a modest 344-foot-high prospect, the fine points of its limits and definitions should be shaped or merely sensed by some variable combination of taste, experience, and that universal Adamic urge to ascribe names like First, Yesler, Profanity, and Pill.


Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916); Sophie F. Bass, When Seattle Was a Village; Murray Morgan, Skid Road (New York: The Viking Press, 1951); Sophie Frye Bass, Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle (Portland, Oregon: Binfords & Mort, Publishers, 1937); Paul Dorpat, Seattle Now and Then, Vols. 1, 2, and 3 (Seattle: Tartu Publications); Roger Sale, Seattle Past to Present (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976); Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority, First Hill, An Inventory of Buildings and Urban Design Resources Consultants Folke Nyberg & Victor Steinbrueck (Seattle: Historic Seattle Preservation and Development Authority); Paul Dorpat Interview with Patsy Collins, March 14, 2001, Seattle, Washington; Biographical Pamphlets, University of Washington, Northwest Collection.
Note: This essay was revised on April 17, 2013, and corrected on May 15 and September 18, 2014.

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