Names in the Neighborhood: from Decatur to Thornton Creek

Seattle historian Dr. Lorraine McConaghy wrote this book about the USS Decatur, the ship that saved Seattle.

Seattle historian Dr. Lorraine McConaghy wrote this book about the USS Decatur, the ship that saved Seattle.

Author’s note: This article is about the name of a school in the Wedgwood neighborhood.  If you are looking for the creek named after John Thornton, go here.   For an outline of the history of the Thornton Creek watershed and The Confluence at Meadowbrook, go here.

The US Navy sloop-of-war Decatur became known as “the ship that saved Seattle” on January 26, 1856.  At dawn that day Seattle’s less-than-two-hundred white settlers huddled in a blockhouse at the present site of First & Cherry Streets while gunfire came from unseen attackers behind the tree line along Third Avenue.  Seattle had been in existence only a little more than four years and the dense forest had been cut back only that far.

In 1855-56 the rapid, forceful, unfair process of treaty-making with Indian tribes resulted in turmoil which was later called the Puget Sound Indian War. Tension and fear increased when word came of killings in the White River Valley (Auburn.)  Those who had escaped fled to Seattle for protection.  In preparation for a possible attack, Seattle’s settlers built two defensive structures called blockhouses, and these were collectively named Fort Decatur in honor of the ship.

The USS Decatur was a large sailing vessel, 117 feet long, outfitted with heavy cannons.  Launched in 1838, the ship was named for Commodore Stephen Decatur, the US Navy’s greatest hero, who lived 1779 to 1820.  The ship was built in New York and commissioned to protect American interests along the Atlantic coastline, then was ordered to the Pacific Squadron to serve from 1854 to 1859.  The Decatur’s mission was to enforce treaties and protect coastal commerce.

Battle of Seattle marker in rock as of 2015In January 1856 the captain of the Decatur obtained information that masses of Indian warriors from eastern Washington were crossing Lake Washington via canoe, on their way to attack the settlement at today’s downtown Seattle.  The Decatur had been summoned to protect the little settlement at Seattle and the timing was providential, as the ship was there and ready on the day of the actual attack.  Return fire from the ship’s cannon reached up and over Third Avenue into the forest, and the Indians retreated.

In the 1930s two granddaughters of Seattle founder Arthur Denny began writing down the stories they had been told as they were growing up.  The Battle of Seattle was always told to them as one of the most critical days of early times even though the battle only lasted one day.  Most of the settlers had to stay in the blockhouse for the rest of the winter because their cabins had been burned down and food supplies destroyed.  In the blockhouse in March 1856, David Denny’s wife Louisa gave birth to their second daughter, whom they named Madge Decatur.

Seattle settlers took refuge in a blockhouse on January 26, 1856.  Painting by Emily Inez Denny courtesy of MOHAI.

Seattle settlers took refuge in a blockhouse on January 26, 1856. Painting by Emily Inez Denny courtesy of MOHAI.

Seattle’s pioneer families never lost their appreciation for the USS Decatur, writing that “but for the presence of the Decatur Seattle might have been wiped off the map.”  (p. 243, Four Wagons West.)  When Arthur Denny’s daughter Catherine married George, who had served with the citizens militia during the war months, they named their homesite “Decatur.” (p. 175, Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle.)  In the 1890s David and Louisa Denny had a house on Queen Anne hill, and they named their home Decatur Terrace.  (p. 105, Westward to Alki.)

Today, the only street-name remembrance of the USS Decatur is tiny South Decatur Place, crumpled up next to the freeway off of 10th Ave South, near the Veterans Hospital.  A bedraggled marker at Third & Jefferson Streets, in the City Hall Park on the south side of the King County Courthouse, commemorates one of the blockhouse sites, the Battle of Seattle and the role of the USS Decatur on January 26, 1856.

The Mutual Life Building (at left) is in Pioneer Square on the former site of Yesler's Cookhouse where marines were stationed during the Battle of Seattle.

Before there were any buildings in Pioneer Square, it was the site of the Battle of Seattle in 1856. Seattle pioneer families took refuge in a blockhouse at today’s 1st & Cherry Streets. The building at left is on the site of Yesler’s cookhouse where soldiers ate and slept between duty shifts.

In their writings the two granddaughters of Arthur Denny told of the sources of Seattle street names.   One book, Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle, has an essay about each street in what is now downtown Seattle, and the author’s memories of growing up in the 1870s and 1880s.

It was Arthur Denny who named the alliterative pairs of downtown Seattle streets: Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca, University, Union, Pike and Pine.  It is believed that Jefferson and Madison were named for US presidents; Cherry might be for the name of the place that the Dennys came from, Cherry Grove, Illinois.

One of the Denny brothers who came out West with the family group but who stayed in the Portland area, was James Marion Denny.  Columbia was the name for “northern Oregon” that the settlers wanted but the name Washington Territory was chosen by US Congress.

There was a spring of water at Spring Street, and Seneca might be for Seneca Falls, New York, the hometown of Rev. David Blaine, a minister who joined the militia of men defending the blockhouse on January 26, 1856.  When the battle began, Rev. Blaine’s wife and six-day-old baby boy were taken aboard the Decatur.   Other women ran from their homes to the blockhouse at the first sound of gunfire and had to wait out the battle there.

Decatur School as it looked in 1963, before Shearwater barracks buildings were cleared from the site and an addition built in 1966. The front door of the school building is on NE 43rd Street at the top of the photo. Courtesy of the Seattle Public Schools Archives #287-1.

Decatur School as it looked in 1963, before Shearwater barracks buildings were cleared from the site and an addition built in 1966.  The front door of the school building is on 43rd Ave NE at the top of the photo.  Courtesy of Seattle Public Schools Archives #287-1.

Like the Seattle street names whose origins we are not familiar with, over time place names can lose their meaning when we don’t know their history.  I have had the experience of being told that the Burke-Gilman Trail is named for Suzie Burke, a landowner in Fremont, but this is not so; the Trail is named in honor of the two men who founded a railroad in 1887 along the present trail route.  After I posted my blog article about the Burke-Gilman Trail I was surprised that a number of people told me they’d never heard the story and they didn’t know who the Trail was named for.

So it may be also, with the Decatur Elementary School in Wedgwood at the intersection of 40th Ave NE and NE 77th Street, that the name “Decatur” no longer has meaning in the neighborhood.  When the school opened in September 1961 it was surrounded by Navy housing called Shearwater.  The name Decatur was chosen in tribute to the Navy hero Stephen Decatur, to the warship Decatur which saved Seattle in 1856, and in honor of the community of Navy families whose children were the first to attend this school.  (Source: Seattle School Histories listing for Decatur School.)

“Stephen Decatur” is written beside the front entrance of the old Decatur School building, but partially obscured by shrubbery.

In the spring of 2008 signs went up on the fencing at Decatur School that the new name was “Thornton Creek School at Decatur.”  This angered some neighbors who wondered why the school was allowed to change its name without notifying the neighborhood and taking input.  Part of the explanation is that the school has an alternative program, so Thornton Creek is the name of the program while the building itself is still called Decatur.  Other people in the community felt that the school name change was a politically-correct attempt to downplay militarism, since the name Decatur has war associations.  For those in the school who were involved in the name change, it was a sincere attempt to define the program emphasis on environmental learning and give an association of something in the community which the children had seen personally, knew and could identify with, the Thornton Creek Watershed.

Comparison:  the naming of Wedgwood School
Wedgwood School front

Wedgwood School, located on NE 85th Street at 30th Ave NE, opened in September 1953 and was officially named in the spring of 1954, even though the school was all-portables and the building hadn’t been built yet.  By that year, the name Wedgwood had definitely become the name for the neighborhood, not officially designated but the name spread informally from the first housing development built by Albert Balch. Phone book listings show that by the end of the 1940s there were already a number of businesses which called themselves Wedgwood, and it seemed that was the most natural and appropriate name for the new elementary school.

The Wedgewood Estates Apartments is one of the few businesses in the neighborhood which still uses the extra

The Wedgewood Estates Apartments is one of the few businesses in the neighborhood which still uses the extra “e” in the name. The rental office is at 3716 NE 75th Street, in one of the original brick fourplexes built in 1949.

On the east side of 35th Ave NE in Wedgwood there has not been any strong historical neighborhood name use other than the Shearwater Navy housing.  In the 1940s there was a community club called Eastwood, before its merger into one club for all of Wedgwood.  One of the eastern-Wedgwood plat names is Oneida Gardens, which was the original name for today’s Wedgewood Estates apartment complex.  Without any commercial district, long-running institutions or landmarks in Wedgwood on the east side of 35th Ave NE, there aren’t any historical name associations which are meaningful to current residents.

The name of Decatur School fades away

In September 2016 a new Thornton Creek School building opened at 7712 40th Ave NE, with the designation “at Decatur” no longer being used.  It seems that like the other references to Decatur, including Seattle pioneer residences and street names, the name of Decatur School no longer has resonance in modern experience.  Unlike the designation of “Wedgwood” which spread to use in business names and then to the whole neighborhood, the name “Decatur” has faded.

As of 2017 the old Decatur school building which faces 43rd Ave NE is being retrofitted and the Seattle School District has not yet announced what the building will be used for.  It remains to be seen whether it will be called Decatur.

Thornton Creek School at 7712 40th Ave NE

Thornton Creek School at 7712 40th Ave NE

Sources:

Four Wagons West: The Story of Seattle, Roberta Frye Watt, 1931. Seattle Public Library, 979.7772.

Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle, Sophie Frye Bass, 1937. Seattle Public Library, 917.972.

Warship Under Sail: The USS Decatur, 2009. Lorraine McConaghy, Seattle Public Library 359.322 D3557M.

Westward to Alki, Gordon Newell, 1977. Seattle Public Library, 979.777.

When Seattle was a Village, Sophie Frye Bass, 1947. Seattle Public Library, 917.972.

About Wedgwood in Seattle History

Valarie is a volunteer history writer for the Wedgwood neighborhood in Seattle, Washington.
This entry was posted in name of the neighborhood, Neighborhood features, Plat names, School histories, Shearwater and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Names in the Neighborhood: from Decatur to Thornton Creek

  1. Paul says:

    What a funny little street to be named after such an important ship!

    This is yet another Seattle story I was unaware of. Thank you for the continuing education.

  2. alesiablogs says:

    As a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, I was proud to see that last photo. Thank you as always for sharing a part of Seattle’s history that so many folks do not know.

  3. Steve A says:

    It’ll always be Decatur School to me.

  4. Andrew Chiu says:

    Thank you for the enlightening post Valarie! I have shared it to the Decatur Elementary School Alumni (Seattle) Facebook public group page along with pictures I took yesterday.

  5. And thank you, Andrew, for the wonderful photos and posts you are doing on Facebook about Decatur and Maple Leaf Schools. I am sure the alumni are having fun with this!

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