The Inverness neighborhood is located in northeast Seattle between NE 85th to 90th Streets, 45th Ave NE to Sand Point Way NE. Inverness is on a very steep hillside which had no houses or any kind of development until 1954.
Inverness is just next door/east of the Wedgwood neighborhood, adjoining at 45th Ave NE, and Inverness is north of the Sand Point Country Club & Golf Course. But there is no way to get directly from Wedgwood to Inverness because of the sharp drop-off of the terrain east of 45th Ave NE.
The geology of northeast Seattle
North of Laurelhurst on NE 45th Street/Sand Point Way NE, the arterial 35th Ave NE runs along a north-south ridge line through the neighborhoods of northeast Seattle. There is a gradual climb northward on 35th Ave NE from the arterial’s beginning point near the old railroad trestle, which is now the Burke-Gilman Trail.
East of 35th Ave NE, the cross-streets of NE 55th, 65th, 70th and 95th Streets connect with Sand Point Way NE which follows the shoreline of Lake Washington. Why are there no “through” eastbound arterials between NE 70th and 95th Streets? If you try to drive eastbound on NE 75th, 85th, or 90th Streets, you will find yourself either at the edge of a ravine or at a sharp cliff which looks out over Lake Washington. These streets don’t continue on through, because of the steep east-facing terrain.
One of the most spectacular examples of a sudden drop-off is at the Sand Point Country Club golf course which is on the edge of a cliff, looking out over the Sand Point area and Lake Washington. One northeast Seattle neighborhood name which describes this high elevation dropping sharply away to Sand Point and Lake Washington is “View Ridge,” named by developers Albert Balch and Ralph P. Jones.
Geologists believe that the ridges and cliffs of northeast Seattle, and Lake Washington itself, were created by ice masses called glaciers. Glaciers are present year-round on Mt. Rainier and we can observe that there is always water flowing out from underneath the ice. As the ice melts, water sinks to the bottom and the flowing action of the water carves out the land and creates lakes. The geology of northeast Seattle shows a north-south movement of glaciers acting like a cleaver to carve the landscape, creating drop-offs with Lake Washington below.
Pioneer land claims
Some of the earliest white settlers came to Washington Territory in 1850 after leaving the gold fields of California. One such adventurer was Samuel Coulter. Born in Virginia, Coulter left home at age 18 and in the spring of 1850 he travelled to California with a wagon train. Coulter had some moderate success with panning for gold but he soon realized that there were more riches to be gained in the untouched lands of “northern Oregon,” which would become Washington Territory in 1853. Coulter found a few other settlers at Olympia and he started out with a land claim there. Samuel Coulter’s name is listed in the earliest record book of Thurston County: in December 1853 at age 21 he was called for jury duty.
Over the next twenty years Samuel Coulter expanded his enterprises to meet growing demands for merchandise and for meat. He had a store and butcher shop in Olympia and he brought cattle from Eastern Washington to supply his meat market. By the 1870s Coulter listed his occupation as “speculator,” which meant that he was in real estate. Coulter filed land claims in seven different counties of Western Washington, looking for resources such as coal and lumber, or trying to predict where a future railroad might run and where the land would increase in value due to proximity to the railroad.
With his brother-in-law, Moses R. Tilley, in 1870 Samuel Coulter filed claim for what is now Inverness between NE 85th to 90th Streets, on the steep hillside above Sand Point Way NE — but at that time there were no roads put through. We don’t know whether Coulter & Tilley ever saw the land they had purchased in Seattle; they could have simply filed for it and paid cash at the government land office in Olympia. It is possible that they contracted with someone to cut down the trees and slide them to a sawmill on the shore of Lake Washington, but we don’t know for sure. Even if Coulter & Tilley did logging in the future Inverness site sometime between 1870 to 1900, we know that trees grew up again over the many years that the hillside remained undeveloped.
Becoming Inverness in the 1950s
The Inverness hillside was one of the last areas to be developed in northeast Seattle because of its steep terrain. The high demand for new housing in the post-World-War-Two period led one investor to give it a try. Jay E. Roberts had served in the Navy during World War Two and like many who passed through the Pacific Northwest military bases, Roberts wanted to stay in the area. He joined a real estate development firm and gained experience building homes in the Laurelhurst and Windermere neighborhoods along Lake Washington. By 1954 Roberts thought that the steep hillside above Lake Washington at NE 85th Street would make an ideal site for high-end homes.
In the 1950s Seattle had no environmental restrictions or regulations on construction and development in natural areas adjacent to ravines and creeks. Jay Roberts proceeded to cut down all the trees on his hillside development site because he intended to reveal the spectacular views of Lake Washington. The name given to the development was “Jay Roberts Country Club Estates.” The reason for the name was that the first houses were built along NE 85th Street with views of lake and mountains to the north/northeast, and adjoining to the Sand Point Country Club golf course behind the houses, to the south.
The Jay Roberts’ site was so steep that at first, there was no road built up the hillside from Sand Point Way NE. Access to the houses was from the east side along NE 95th Street, then via 45th Ave NE, then southward into the new development. Roberts gave the names Inverness Drive and Paisley Drive to the development’s two major connecting roadways. These two names referred to places near Glasgow, Scotland and were meant to convey the idea of castle-like estate properties on a high vantage point. Jay Roberts moved into one of the first new houses at 4837 NE 85th Street.
The new Inverness houses were much larger and more expensive than the ones Albert Balch had been building in nearby Wedgwood. In 1954 Balch was still building and selling three-bedroom houses in Seattle, as well as in Renton and Shoreline, for under $15,000 and within reach of war veterans with GI loans. In 1954 the new houses in Jay Roberts Country Club Estates were advertised at $35,000 to $43,000.
The eroding hillside in the new development
Within the first year all of the Jay Roberts development, work was halted because of environmental problems. The hillside was unstable because all the trees had been cut down and there was nothing to hold the soil. The new entrance road, Inverness Drive at Sand Point Way NE, had been eroded by water and some houses were in danger of being marooned because the streets around them were split by water runoff.
Water which ran down the hillside onto Sand Point Way NE caused problems for residents there. Property owners in the 8700 block of Sand Point Way NE organized legal opposition to paying any portion of a storm sewer project which the City of Seattle wanted to assess. These residents said they’d had no water-drainage problems before the Jay Roberts’ development disturbed the hillside terrain. Their opposition was so vociferous that the Seattle City Council Streets and Sewers Committee backed down. In July 1956 the Committee recommended that property owners in the Roberts development assume all of the added cost for storm sewers without assessing residents outside of the development, along the east side of Sand Point Way NE.
Jay Roberts realized that it was time to get out. Within the first year of the project, he stopped associating his name with it and he issued publicity releases that the development was now called Inverness. In 1956 Roberts sold his interest in Inverness and he moved away, taking his family to Edmonds in the suburbs of Seattle.
Sliding through the decades
The geotechnical problems at Inverness were not completely resolved in the 1950s. The files of the Seattle Municipal Archives (see source list at the end of this article) contain decade after decade of earthslide reports and attempts to stabilize the slope in Inverness.
In 1958 the City’s Streets and Sewers Committee recommended expenditure of an estimated $20,000 to halt two earthslides which were impeding the Inverness Drive paving project. The slide areas were north of NE 85th Street, one in Paisley Drive and the other nearest 54th Ave NE.
At the start of rainy autumn weather in September 1970, a report nearly identical to 1958 was given: slides caused by ground water were endangering the utilities (water, power, sewer and natural-gas lines under the streets), were threatening to cut off access to houses and could result in a mudslide down onto Sand Point Way NE below Inverness.
This time (in 1970) the City Council Streets and Sewers Committee sought $220,000 in City funding to correct a slide on Inverness Drive NE and an additional $300,000 to correct a slide on Paisley Drive NE. This seemed like a lot of money just for two streets in one neighborhood. Former Mayor of Seattle William Devin had moved to 4816 NE 85th Street in about 1955. Mayor Devin was among the Inverness residents who, in the 1960s and 1970s, petitioned City Council to fix the Inverness geotechnical problems.
Starts and stops to development
The first houses in Inverness were built on NE 85th to 86th Streets in 1955 and then there was a “pause” due to the difficulties with the unstable slope and inability to keep the roads in place. The northern part of Inverness from NE 88th to 89th Streets was not completely built up until the 1980s.
In 1977 a developer proposed to build a condominium complex on these streets, contending that “the grouping of housing units will make possible the consolidation of utility lines, conservation of materials, cost minimization, and disruption of the least soil, thus reducing slide hazards.” (page 15 of Draft Environmental Impact Statement) By that year, the City of Seattle had some environmental-review processes in place and the developer first had to get his plans approved.
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement of February 1977 was issued by the City of Seattle’s Department of Community Development, Paul E.S. Schell, Director. Schell would become Mayor of Seattle in 1997. In the review of the proposal for condos at Inverness, Schell wrote,
“Currently ground waters are causing serious soil disturbance along Paisley Drive and Inverness Drive. Surface water is limited to the small creek which follows the ravine from the south to north ends of the property and runoff which is absorbed into the soil….. development will increase the hazard of soil slippage and damage, resulting from such unstable conditions.” (Pages 1 and 10, Draft Environmental Impact Statement, February 1977, Seattle Municipal Archives file 1650-16)
A letter from the Seattle Water Department concurred, noting that “Paisley Drive NE is located on unstable ground and slides in the recent past have forced deactivation of the eight-inch water main for several months.” (page 36 of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, February 1977, Seattle Municipal Archives file 1650-16)
In May 1977 the developer withdrew his condominium proposal. In 1983 another developer replatted the northern streets of Inverness as Inverness Park, including NE 88th to 89th Streets, for individual house lots. The Inverness Park plat filing included a restriction placed by the City of Seattle that before a building permit would be issued, EACH house site had to have a geotechnical review of the site preparation, foundation design and construction (source: Engineering Dept. letter of November 15, 1983, contained in Seattle Municipal Archives file 2602-02). Despite these additional requirements and costs, construction started up again in Inverness in the 1980s.
Inverness is still hanging onto the hillside today
Today the very large homes in Inverness and Inverness Park loom up above Sand Point Way NE. The Burke-Gilman Trail runs parallel along the west side of Sand Point Way NE and crosses the base of Inverness Drive. The houses at Inverness seem to be hanging onto the hillside, so far. Time will tell whether all slope instability has been resolved.
Consultation: David B. Williams, GeologyWriter.com, action of glaciers upon land, via e-mail 9/10/2013.
Newspaper articles in chronological order:
“Well Known Pioneer is Dead in Seattle (Samuel Coulter)”, Morning Olympian newspaper, July 3, 1908, page 1.
“Inverness to Get New Entrance, Development Formerly Known as Country Club Estates.” Seattle Daily Times, March 20, 1955, page 30.
“Inverness Parade of Homes Offerings.” Seattle Daily Times, September 18, 1955, page 62.
Property Owners Opposition.” Seattle Daily Times, July 18, 1956, page 16.
“Slide Problem.” Seattle Daily Times, May 28, 1958, page 42.
“Street Oozes Away.” Seattle Daily Times, September 20, 1970, page 3.
Seattle Municipal Archives: Files accessed August 13 and September 4, 2013 at the research room, City Hall, Seattle:
File #1650-16, Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Inverness Planned Unit Development, February 1977. File #2615-01, Inverness Drive Paving, 1970. File #2602-02, Inverness Geotechnical Observations and Recommendations, November 1982 and Seattle Engineering Department letter of November 15, 1983 contained in the same file.
Samuel Coulter: biographical info obtained from Washington Digital Archives; census listings; Bureau of Land Management land claims; obituary notice of July 3, 1908 for Samuel Coulter in the Morning Olympian newspaper, accessed via America’s GenealogyBank, Seattle Public Library on-line newspaper search.