Neighborhoods of Seattle: comparing the origins of Fremont and Wedgwood

How does the history and development of Wedgwood compare to that of other neighborhoods in Seattle?

The Burke-Gilman Trail runs east-west parallel to the Ship Canal through the Fremont neighborhood.

The Burke-Gilman Trail runs east-west parallel to the north side of the Ship Canal through the Fremont neighborhood. Looking east here, we see the Aurora Bridge.

Fremont was one of the earliest neighborhoods of Seattle as it began to be populated by some of the first arrivals of white settlers in the 1850s.  Many aspects of Fremont today can be traced back to an especially strong period of development in the 1880s.

Active Seattleite Henry Yesler headed the Lake Washington Improvement Company and in 1883 he bought some of William Strickler’s former homestead claim in Fremont for a place to create a canal at the northwest corner of Lake Union. That same year Judge Thomas Burke bought some of the Fremont land for the right-of-way of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad. The railroad route has come down to us today as the Burke-Gilman Trail.

In contrast, Wedgwood is a neighborhood which slept quietly until well after the year 1900, with no roads, railroads or other through-routes such as canals.  Property records show ownership of land but with no one in residence in Wedgwood except for a period of homestead claims in the 1870s.  The neighborhood really began to grow after 1923-1926 when water and electric utilities became available in Wedgwood.  The biggest growth period in Wedgwood and the formation of the neighborhood identity finally came in 1945-1960 with the post-World-War-Two housing boom in north Seattle.

Among the hardy adventurers who came to Seattle in the 1850s was William A. Strickler.  In 1855 Strickler applied to the US Government Land Office to do a survey, meaning that the land in the Seattle area would be marked into sections so that it could be claimed.  The story of the survey party’s summer visit to Sand Point is told in HistoryLink Essay 2215 by Greg Lange, Seattle history and property research expert.  The six-man survey team included two ax men who helped make way by chopping through branches and underbrush.  There were two chain men who carried a measuring chain something like the goal measuring tool used in a football game.  One man held the compass to guide the survey along straight lines.

Ne 85th Street is Wedgwood's major business intersection.

NE 85th Street, with RiteAid on the north side and QFC on the south side, is Wedgwood’s major business intersection along the arterial 35th Ave NE.

The surveyors walked in grid patterns to mark out sections so that homesteaders could file land claims.  This first survey in Seattle was designated as Township 25 and extended from downtown Seattle to NE 85th Street, which today is in the heart of Wedgwood.  The surveyors kept field notes, recording any landmarks or features such as lakes.  Green Lake acquired its name from this 1855 survey which noted that the color of the water was green.  It is disappointing that for the Wedgwood area, the surveyors did not remark upon any features except for a steep drop-off as they walked east on what is now NE 85th Street.  We can visualize the survey party starting at Wedgwood’s main commercial intersection of NE 85th Street on 35th Avenue NE, present site of Rite-Aid and QFC, and walking east until they came to the Maple Creek Ravine.

Because 85th Street was the northern limit of Township 25, for nearly one hundred years 85th Street was considered to be as far as Seattle would ever grow.  Finally in 1954 the city limits were set at 145th Street.  Today the southern half of Wedgwood is in Township 25, up to NE 85th Street, and the northern half is in Township 26. That is why Wedgwood houses north of NE 85th Street have curbside mailboxes, because Township 26 had been a rural delivery route instead of the door-to-door walking route of mail for houses south of NE 85th Street.

Shorey House circa 1890 UW photo 4415

Shorey House at 3400 Fremont Ave N circa 1890, UW Special Collections photo 4415. Built in 1888, this boarding house was for Fremont’s mill workers and it was a clean, respectable place to live. E.C. Kilbourne, Fremont promoter, married Shorey’s daughter Leilla.

The Fremont neighborhood grew up with the city of Seattle, and its early development was largely due to its advantageous geographical position: Fremont is located north of downtown at the northwest corner of Lake Union.  It was an ideal setting for water-dependent industry such as sawmills, and people could commute across Lake Union to downtown via boats from this early suburb.  Fremont acquired its name in 1888 when it was platted by two men from Fremont, Nebraska, along with local investor Edward Corliss Kilbourne who had arrived in Seattle in 1883 from Illinois.  But long before acquiring its name, the Fremont area had already attracted the interest of Seattle’s earliest white settlers.

The early Fremont Bridge was a wooden trestle. This 1903 view to the north as we cross the bridge into Fremont shows the lumber mill in the foreground and B.F. Day School on the horizon. Photo courtesy of HistoryLink Essay 3309.

The early Fremont Bridge was a wooden trestle. This 1903 view to the north as we cross the bridge into Fremont shows the lumber mill in the foreground and B.F. Day School on the horizon. Photo courtesy of HistoryLink Essay 3309.

After all of the territory that William Strickler had seen during the land survey of the summer of 1855, he chose for himself a claim in what is now the commercial district of Fremont, from North 34th to 39th Streets.  There William Strickler’s survey party noted that they stepped across a small stream.  This stream was at the northwest corner of Lake Union.  In the 1880s the stream was widened and was called The Outlet, and a gated “splash dam” was built at The Outlet so that water could be released with enough force to float logs from Lake Union, toward Fremont and then eventually toward Ballard.  Beginning in the 1850s Seattleites saw that it would be possible to cut a canal and that is how Lake Union got its name: the thought was to go through and unite a waterway from Puget Sound to Lake Washington.  But Seattle’s pioneer canal-planners were ahead of their time; the Ship Canal would not be completed until 1916.

Fremont is easily reached from downtown Seattle by traveling along the west shore of Lake Union.

Fremont is easily reached from downtown Seattle by traveling along the west shore of Lake Union.

The Fremont sawmill was only the first of many activities which made Fremont a hub of business and transportation radiating out to other neighborhoods.  Since E.C. Kilbourne was a co-owner of land in Fremont he directed electric streetcar lines towards Fremont and advertised it as a convenient place to live, so that he could sell house lots.  He was an investor in boat service over to Fremont from what is now the park, maritime and museum site at South Lake Union.  Because of its convenience, good connections and development of industry, Fremont grew with housing for mill workers and all the amenities of a neighborhood such as grocery stores, schools and churches.  Fremont’s long line of historical heritage is still evident in present times, such as in B.F. Day Elementary, the oldest continuously operating school in the Seattle system.

Another early resident of the Fremont area was John Ross, who is considered to be the first white settler in Fremont because he filed a homestead claim in 1853.  The Ross claim included land on both sides of what is now the Ship Canal and the site of Seattle Pacific University.  On the north side of the Canal, Ross Playground at 4320 4th Ave NW is the former site of the Ross School which started in 1883.  The school was not on Ross property but was nearby and was built in cooperation with neighbors.

All Seattle-area homesteaders fled their claims during the Puget Sound Indian War of October 1855 to January 1856, and John Ross’s cabin on north Queen Anne, at about 6th Ave W. at W. Nickerson Street, was burned down by the Indians during the conflict.  Ross did not return to his claim property for more than fifteen years.  By that time he had a wife and children and the fear of attack by Indians was in the past.

The Wedgwood neighborhood did not have any residents or land claimants until the 1870s.  The earliest Wedgwood residents were Civil War veterans of the Union Army who came to Seattle from other states of the USA, about ten years after the  end of the Civil War.  These settlers came to start new lives “out West.”  Because of the availability of land in Washington Territory, veterans could receive free land in credit for time served in the war.

Capt. DeWitt C. Kenyon served in the Civil War for Michigan. He came to Seattle in the 1870's and filed a homestead claim in Wedgwood.

Capt. DeWitt C. Kenyon served in the Civil War for Michigan. He came to Seattle in the 1870’s and filed a homestead claim in Wedgwood.

In the 1870s the Weedins from Missouri and the Kenyons from Michigan (all Civil War veterans) filed homestead claims in Wedgwood.  Land in Wedgwood was still available twenty years after William Strickler’s survey of 1855; no other white settlers had yet claimed it.  This shows how “far out” Wedgwood was, and that because it was not located on or near a body of water, the neighborhood did not develop as an early business and transportation hub like Fremont.

Wedgwood’s homesteaders of the 1870s stayed about a dozen years and then moved on, and property records show the sales transactions of their claim properties.  The Wedgwood Rock tract was purchased by the Miller family who held it undeveloped for sixty years, finally selling in the 1940s to Albert Balch, the developer of Wedgwood.  All of Capt. DeWitt C. Kenyon’s land was bought by Charles H. Baker and a group of investors in 1888.  But property records do not show anyone living on the Baker investment land in Wedgwood until after 1900.

Unlike Fremont’s early development which parallels the founding and growth of Seattle beginning in the 1850s, Wedgwood did not really get going as a neighborhood until the 1920s, when neighbors began organizing schools, clubs, churches and a private bus service.  Fremont was one of the earliest recipients of electric streetcar service in 1889, though electricity wasn’t available in private homes in Seattle until after 1900.  Wedgwood didn’t have electricity of any kind until 1923.  Wedgwood finally acquired an identity during the residential housing boom following World War Two in the 1940s.  Fremont received its name in 1888 and had a post office in 1890.  In 1891, with a population of 5,000 people, Fremont was annexed to Seattle.  Wedgwood finally got into the city limits in 1954 and got a post office in 1965.

For further reference:

HistoryLink has a number of essays about the Fremont neighborhood, including a Thumbnail History in Essay #1320.  Wedgwood’s Thumbnail History is Essay #3462.  Essay #10221 about the Montlake Cut by HistoryLink writer Jennifer Ott gives an excellent overview of Seattle’s efforts to dig canals for the transport of raw materials, including Fremont’s Outlet.

Seattle School histories can be found at this link in an alphabetical list.

Seattle Department of Neighborhoods has mini-history articles listed as “context statements.”  The Fremont context statement was done as part of a survey of historic housing in Fremont in 2009, in which I participated.

The original, handwritten 1855 Land Status & Cadastral Survey Field Notes, Bureau of Land Management, can be read on-line.  In the search form, enter Township 25 North, Range 4 East for Wedgwood south of NE 85th Street; Township 26 North, Range 4 East for Wedgwood north of NE 85th Street.

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer history writer for northeast neighborhoods in Seattle, Washington.
This entry was posted in Fremont neighborhood in Seattle, Land records and surveys, Neighborhood features and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Neighborhoods of Seattle: comparing the origins of Fremont and Wedgwood

  1. Paul says:

    It’s difficult for me to think of two more different Seattle neighborhoods. The most apparent similarity I see is that they both seem to missing an “e” in their names.

    Thank you for these interesting comparisons and contrasts.

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