Seattle Neighborhoods: Ballard -- Thumbnail History

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 3/31/1999
  • Essay 983
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The Seattle neighborhood of Ballard is a "city within a city" with a decidedly Scandinavian accent. Located in the northwest part of the city, it is a maritime center. Salmon and Shilshole bays on Puget Sound form its southern and western boundaries, and Phinney Ridge rises to the east. Ballard incorporated as a city in 1890, and its citizens voted to annex to Seattle in November 1906. Today sightseers visit the Hiram Chittenden Locks on the Ship Canal to watch salmon begin their spawning journey or they tour historic Ballard Avenue. Ballard's increasingly diverse residents enjoy the district's small town pace and easy access to downtown.

A Duwamish Community

In 1852, Ira Wilcox Utter (1825-1875) filed the first homestead claim in the future Ballard. Although he settled several miles north of the existing Seattle, he was not alone. A Duwamish community called the Xacho-absh or "Lake People" had long populated the area. They maintained villages on the shores of the Shilshole and Salmon bays long after other Indians relocated across the Sound under the terms of the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty.

Settlers logged and built the area at a fair pace. Seattle's growth spurt during the 1880s prompted Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925) to purchase 720 acres north of Salmon Bay, which he platted as the "Farmdale Homestead." He and his railroad partner, Daniel H. Gilman (1845-1913), knew that the Great Northern Railroad planned to enter Seattle from the north, and in 1888 the two men joined with John Leary (1837-1905) and others to form the West Coast Improvement Company. They had a spur along Salmon Bay for their Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad (which crossed the canal at Fremont) and named their new district "Gilman Park."

At about the same time, William Rankin Ballard (1847-1929), master of the Puget Sound stern-wheeler Zephyr, lost a coin toss with a business partner and took possession of 160 acres of supposedly worthless timberland adjoining Farmdale in payment of a business debt. He then met Midwestern timber magnate Charles Douglas Stimson (1857-1928) and persuaded him to buy a defunct sawmill on Salmon Bay. Ballard later joined forces with Leary, Burke, and Gilman, and his "losing" bet yielded a cool $1,000 per acre.

Captain Ballard managed Gilman Park and lent his name to the new city when it incorporated in 1890. A census that year enumerated 1,636 residents living between Salmon Bay and the future NW 65th Street. The area grew rapidly as railroad and streetcar service expanded in the 1890s. Developers pushed the rails out to Golden Gardens at the northwest edge of Ballard and built an amusement park (now long gone) to attract home buyers. Another line served Loyal Heights on the bluff above. Private ferries offered passage from Ballard to nearby towns on Puget Sound.

Ballard built itself a handsome city hall in 1899 and the town supposedly decreed a perfect balance between vice and virtue by limiting saloon licenses to the number of the city's churches (although there is no evidence of such an ordinance). In 1901, Fred Sander (1854-1921) began building an interurban street railway north toward Everett. By 1907, he had laid 12 miles of track. (Stone & Webster bought the line the following year and rerouted it through Fremont to Seattle.)

Snoose Junction

Meanwhile, 6,000 miles to the east, in Scandinavia, tensions between various states and fears of Bismarck's Germany combined with famine and unrest in Norway to spark a mass migration to the United States. Jobs in Puget Sound mills and fisheries attracted thousands to cross the continent to the Northwest's frontier, and many settled in the new town of Ballard.

Although Scandinavians never constituted more than a third of Ballard's population, they imprinted their strong ethnic identity on the entire community, and the preference of some for snuff and chewing tobacco soon earned it the nickname "Snoose Junction."

Ballard's Dead Horse

Nearing the turn of the century, Ballard, declaring itself the "Shingle Capital of the World," produced 322 million wooden shingles in 1898 alone. The city also eagerly awaited the construction of the long-debated Ship Canal, which would connect Puget Sound with Lake Union and Lake Washington.

But, Ballard's municipal services could not keep up with growth. Chronic deficiencies in the water supply, including the rumor of a discovery of a dead horse in a reservoir, persuaded Ballardites it was time to join Seattle.

The vote to annex passed by 996 to 874 on November 6, 1906. The City of Ballard ceased to exist on May 29, 1907. On that day Ballard City Hall was draped in black crepe, and the flag on the city flagpole hung at half mast.

This was a time of consolidation for Seattle, with many annexations taking place within a few years. Ballard, like West Seattle, which also joined Seattle that year, was never fully absorbed and has maintained its unique cultural and civic character over the ensuing 90 years.

The Ship Canal and the Locks

After many delays, construction of the Ship Canal commenced in November 1911. It went slowly at first with many engineering challenges to be overcome. It was not completed until 1917. In that year, the Hiram Chittenden Locks on Ballard's southwest boundary, named for the engineer who guided their construction, opened for business. On July 4, 1917, the USS Roosevelt led a marine parade through the locks. Although once envisioned as an access point to a new Naval base, the project had been so long delayed that the base had already been built across Puget Sound in Bremerton. In any case, naval ships soon became too broad across the beam to enter the larger of the two locks.

Royal Personages

Ballard's main business district along Market Street developed largely between 1913 and the 1930s, as retail activity shifted away from the older Ballard Avenue, which intersects it diagonally. The Market Street district strongly resembles a small Midwestern town and one could quickly forget that it lies in the middle of a larger metropolis. Bergen Park, a small plaza along Market Street, honors Seattle's second sister city, Bergen, Norway. In 1975, Norwegian King Olav V dedicated the park.

Another royal personage, King Carl XVI Gustav of Sweden, read the official proclamation establishing the Ballard Avenue Historical District on April 11, 1976. He also dedicated the small park with its bell tower that stands on the site of Ballard's old city hall. The bell tower supports the original bell from that building.

Today Ballard continues to bear its Scandinavian flavor, although the population has become more diverse. The Nordic Heritage Museum celebrates Scandinavian culture and history at 3014 NW 67th Street, while some traditionally Norse gathering places have been converted to the likes of Irish pubs and Indian bistros.


Walt Crowley, National Trust Guide Seattle (New York: Preservation Press, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998); Passport to Ballard (Seattle: Ballard News Tribune, 1988). Note: This entry was revised on June 23, 2001 and corrected on March 4, 2003.

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