The vision of a city in the place where Seattle now stands was born in the heart of Arthur Denny, a 29-year-old surveyor in Knox County, Illinois in 1851. As a surveyor Denny knew that in unexplored regions, early-arriving settlers would have the best chance at getting the best land. He believed that the as-yet-undeveloped Pacific Northwest had great potential as a seaport and as a hub of railroad routes. Two years after his decision to head Out West, Arthur Denny helped found the City of Seattle and name its first streets.
On April 10th, 1851, the Denny Party, an interrelated group of eleven adults and four children, started out from Illinois by wagon train and arrived in Portland, Oregon on August 22nd. Some of the party remained there, but the families of Arthur Denny, his brother David Denny and his brother-in-law Carson Boren joined in with two other families they had met in Portland who also wanted to continue on to Puget Sound.
Some of the men left Portland and went ahead to get set up at Alki Point (West Seattle.) The other families traveled on the schooner Exact (a sailing ship with two masts) from Portland to Puget Sound and arrived at Alki Point on November 13, 1851. When the ship arrived at Alki and the women disembarked, it was raining and they found that there were no cabins built yet. This is the source of the founding-of-Seattle story about the women weeping in the rain upon landing at Alki. Twelve adults and twelve children huddled in one shelter until cabins could be built.
After explorations of Elliott Bay that winter, most of the settlers decided to move over to what is now downtown Seattle because of its advantageous location on a harbor. This date, February 15, 1852, can be considered the official founding of the City of Seattle. Everything took time, however, and many years passed until Seattle began to look anything like a city.
Claiming, settling, platting, naming
In April 1852 Carson Boren was the first to complete a cabin for his family, located at the northwest corner of Second & Cherry in downtown Seattle where the site is now marked by a commemorative plaque.
The early settlers, including Arthur Denny and Carson Boren, acquired land via homestead claims. With confident vision on May 23, 1853, Denny & Boren filed the first plat of the Town of Seattle.
To file a plat means to survey a section of land and lay out a plan for it, including lot sizes and markings of where the streets will be. A plat filing means that a person is going to develop the land themselves or sell lots for houses, but it does not mean that the streets are already put through; sometimes they are only “on paper.”
The first street of Seattle was called First Street or Front Street and is now First Avenue as it runs north and south. Front Street was intersected by Mill Street (now Yesler Way), the east-west route which led directly to the Yesler Mill on the waterfront at what is now Pioneer Square.
The Town of Seattle plat map of 1853, shown below, is turned so that Mill Street (Yesler Way), the southern boundary of the plat, is on the right. The streets, named from south to north, are Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison and Spring.
In second and third plat filings in later years, the alliterative pairs of street names were completed with Seneca, University, Union, Pike and Pine.
Meaning of the street names
When a person files a plat, they are not required to give the reason for the plat name or street names. More than seventy years after the first plat filing of the Town of Seattle, two of Arthur Denny’s granddaughters remembered the source of some of the street names with certainty, but for others they could only give their best guess.
In the 1930s Roberta Frye Watt and Sophie Frye Bass began to write down their memories and the stories told to them by Catherine, their mother, who was Arthur Denny’s eldest daughter. Roberta (born in Seattle in 1875) wrote Four Wagons West, the Story of Seattle, which tells of events from the wagon train journey of 1851 up to the beginning of the railroad era in 1874, which she defined as the end of the pioneer years of Seattle.
Sophie (born in Seattle in 1867) wrote Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle, telling of her growing-up memories and associations with each street. Sophie could say with certainty that Spring Street was so named because there was a spring of water there, and for some other streets she offered the most likely explanations for their naming. She knew that one of the Denny brothers, James Marion Denny, had died in Portland, so she thought that the Seattle streets of James and Marion were named in honor of him. Cherry Street may refer to Cherry Grove, Illinois, where the Denny family came from.
Jackson, Jefferson, Madison and Washington Streets were named for US Presidents. Seneca Street may be a tribute to Seneca Falls, New York, the hometown of Rev. David Blaine, one of the first ministers in Seattle. Seneca could also be in tribute to the birthplace of Dexter Horton, Seattle’s first banker. Dexter Horton was born in Seneca Lake, New York, though he had been living in Illinois when he started Out West via wagon train with a group of people including the Mercer family.
University Street at Fourth Avenue was the original site of the University of Washington, where there is now the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. Columbia Street may refer to the river, but Columbia was also the name which was chosen by the first convention in October 1852, attended by Arthur Denny, when settlers petitioned Congress to form a territorial government separate from Oregon. But in April 1853 Congress chose the name “Washington Territory” rather than Columbia.
Seneca, University and Union Streets were in the second plat filed by Arthur Denny. The Second Plat of Seattle was filed in November 1861 after the Civil War had broken out, so Union Street may be a reference to that event, since the opposing sides in the Civil War were the Union and Confederate armies.
For his 1869 filing of a third plat, Arthur Denny added one last alliterative pair of street names to the downtown scheme. The last two were Pike and Pine Streets. John Pike had assisted in building the university at Fourth & University in May 1861. After naming Pike Street for him, it seems that Denny then could only think of Pine to go with Pike. In Four Wagons West, author Roberta Frye Watt wrote, “Why Mr. Denny named the streets in alliterative pairs, no one knows.” (page 107.)
“Olive, Virginia and Lenora (streets) were named for three little girls who came to Alki with their parents in the schooner Exact in 1851. The little playmates enjoyed the novelty of Indians and the beach, and were fearless and happy during those trying days; they had no realization of the perils and hardships which harassed their parents. These little girls and the other children of the Seattle landing party were the first white children to play on the Alki beach where today thousands play during the summer months. Olive and Virginia were daughters of William Bell. Lenora was one of the daughters of Arthur Denny. Olive became the wife of Joseph H. Stewart for whom Stewart Street was named.” (Quote from page 88, Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle.)
This plat which later became known as Belltown, was Arthur Denny’s Sixth Addition to Seattle, filed in 1873. He gave the names, including Bell Street, in honor of the Bell family because the land had once belonged to them. From south to north, the streets are Olive, Stewart, Virginia, Lenora, Blanchard and Bell. The witness to this plat filing was John M. Blanchard, a local official.
South of Yesler Way (today’s Pioneer Square) the streets were named by Dr. David Maynard. Washington, Main, Jackson and King Streets were named for presidents (George Washington) or for prominent Democrats of the 1850s. Weller Street was named for the governor of California, and Lane Street for a pioneer of Oregon, Joseph Lane. (Source: page 107 of Four Wagons West.)
An interesting exception to “naming” traditions is Post Alley in downtown Seattle, which seemed to have derived from use. In the 1880s on Yesler Way at the corner of the alley, there was an office of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, and a post office right next to it. The name of the alley could have derived from either of these.
Forgotten streets, name changes
In Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle, author Sophie Frye Bass wrote a lament for Seattle’s “Forgotten Streets.” Within her lifetime some street names which had been significant to Seattle’s pioneer families, were replaced by new street names.
A very important experience in early days, the Battle of Seattle on January 26, 1856 during the Puget Sound Indian War, had been remembered by streets named to honor the warship Decatur and its officers. Sophie wrote that “the relief that my mother, an eleven-year-old girl, felt at the coming of the Decatur stayed with her all her life….”(page 175, Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle) Those commemorative street names no longer exist, except for a tiny fragment of Decatur which dead-ends into the freeway.
Sophie Frye Bass wrote that “each man who opened an addition (plat) named the streets according to his fancy. One old map shows some man had a penchant for authors and named streets for Pope and Poe, Burns and Bryant…. Another man had a feeling for flowers and like a whiff from an old garden comes Rose and Lily, Carnation and Clover…Others evidently thinking of sweethearts and wives had Elaine and Estelle, Clara and Fannie… There were presidential streets and historic streets; streets named for shrubs and trees; streets for rivers and streets that showed loyalty to ideals such as Prohibition and Temperance…” (page 177, Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle.)
Here is a list of the Seattle art project highlighting streets, as in the photo above of the downtown grid done on hatch covers (manholes).
The tradition of plat filing continued as Seattle grew in the 1880s, with each plat owner/developer choosing the names of streets in their plat. There is no “resource list” for the names of streets, so I wrote another article on this blog, “Searching for the Origins of Seattle Street Names.” I have told of some ways of trying to figure out the reasons for street names outside of the downtown area. In that article on this blog, the example of Aloha Street was used, in answer to a reader’s question (see comments at the end of this article).
As the City of Seattle grew, many people understood the advantages of a street numbering system to prevent confusing or duplicated street names in different parts of the city. It became necessary to give a street just one name continuously along its entire length. In her lament for the Forgotten Streets, Sophie Frye Bass complained that a street named for her uncle Rolland Denny, had its name changed. What she did not mention was that each segment of the street had had a different name given by different plat filers. As decreed by a city ordinance in 1895, that street name along its entire length was changed to Westlake.
Seattle’s street system
One of the most pivotal events in Seattle history was the Great Fire of June 6, 1889. Seattle had had fires before, and there would be fires after, but the Great Fire was the turning point which gave the city a new start.
In the 1880s the City of Walla Walla in eastern Washington had more population than Seattle, and it was yet unclear if Seattle would ever amount to anything. All that changed when thirty-three blocks of downtown Seattle were consumed by fire on June 6, 1889. Far from destroying the life of the city, Seattle got an enormous boost in rebuilding with more than two thousand new people per month flowing in from 1889 to 1890. Ever after, Seattle has been the largest city in the State of Washington.
The explosive growth of Seattle after the Fire in 1889 led to changes to help manage expansion of the street system. Immediately after the Fire, city leaders seized the opportunity for a do-over to improve Seattle’s street grid, but this had to do mainly with widening, straightening, and regrading, not for renaming. Then in 1895 the city passed an ordinance for more than three hundred streets to be renamed. East-west thoroughfares came to be called streets, and north-south routes were called avenues, so that Front Street became First Avenue.
In 1895, Ordinance 4044 sought to fix the problem of street names which were different in each plat filing. Extension of the names of the original downtown streets was ordered by the ordinance for streets that extended eastward, so that, for example, “the names of Willow Street and Milwaukie Street from Broadway to Lake Washington are hereby changed to East Cherry Street.” (quoted from Ordinance 4044.)
Here is a link to a searchable table of the street name changes as of Ordinance 4044 of the year 1895, by Seattle historian Rob Ketcherside.
As Seattle grew there were several other attempts to systematize the naming of streets. A major effort to get organized came in the period of 1906 to 1910, which began to have an effect on streets in northeast Seattle. In that time period Seattle started a city-wide clean-up campaign to get ready for the world’s fair to be held on the new northeast Seattle campus of the University of Washington: the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition.
Wallingford, Green Lake, Brooklyn and part of Ravenna had come into the city limits in 1891, and the university had moved to its present site in northeast Seattle in 1895 but the campus had not been developed. The neighboring residential district was known as the Village of Brooklyn, its plat name. It was decided to mark some streets so that streetcar riders could find their destinations more easily. The streetcar stop called University, supplanted the street name of 14th Ave NE and then the whole district eventually became University.
During the civic clean-up both before and after the AYP Exposition, some neighborhoods were annexed to the City of Seattle for development purposes and they lost their original street names. Laurelhurst, for example, had been platted in 1906 by a real estate company which wanted to develop the area with “estates.” They had given the streets grand names such as Crown of Laurelhurst Court, Crest Place and Cascade View Drive, which were replaced with numbers when Laurelhurst was annexed to Seattle in 1910.
Ballard was a shingle-mill community which had grown vigorously since 1890 when it was incorporated as a separate city. The citizens of Ballard voted to be annexed to Seattle in 1907, mainly because of the need for a municipal water source. A numbered street system went in as of Ballard’s absorption into the City of Seattle. Some of the old street names of Ballard have been commemorated with sidewalk tiles.
Northeast Seattle: street numbers, not many names
Some housing developments of northeast Seattle do have named streets, such as the Sand Point County Club with its Ridge Drive, Sunrise Vista, Crown Place and others. The Hawthorne Hills neighborhood has its University Circle with streets named Ann Arbor, Oberlin, Princeton, Pullman, Purdue, Stanford, Tulane, Vassar, and Wellesley.
Even though some plats were filed in the Wedgwood neighborhood of northeast Seattle in 1890, the original street names in these plats did not “stick.” Several would-be developers found that lots did not sell due to Wedgwood’s remote location and lack of transportation by water or by railroad. Their plat maps, such as Mary J. Chandler, Manhattan Heights, Pontiac, Oneida Gardens and State Park, had named streets which existed only on paper and were never put through.
Mary J. Chandler, whose land was at the present site of the Picardo P-Patch, was from Maine and she gave the streets in her plat, filed in 1890, the names of coastal towns of Bar Harbor. The center street in her plat, today’s NE 82nd Street, was named Chandler.
The State Park plat from NE 75th to 80th Streets, 30th to 35th Avenues NE, was also filed in 1890 and its streets were named for the investors, Mr. Charles Baker, with Jennings, Stixrud and Wood. Before the 1930s some people used the old street names when listing their address in the city directory, such as Mr. Boulden who lived at “NE 80th Street and Charles Avenue” (31st Ave NE.)
The Wedgwood area in northeast Seattle was thinly populated until the 1940s, and this may be one reason why the 1890s plat-filed street names never really took hold. Some of the streets of northeast Seattle were not actually put through until the 1950s and by then the system of numbered streets and avenues predominated. All of northeast Seattle finally came into the Seattle City Limits in 1954, when the north city limit was set at 145th Street as it remains today. Today Wedgwood in northeast Seattle is a neighborhood which has only numbered streets, and no named streets. Some nearby areas such as the residential area at the Sand Point Golf Course, do have named streets.
Plat maps – available on-line at the King County Parcel Viewer.
Searchable table of street name changes in Ordinance 4044 of the year 1895, by Seattle historian Rob Ketcherside.
Seattle Annexation Map — neighborhoods as they came into the city limits.
Seattle Municipal Archives – files on city street ordinances.
Other background info from HistoryLink essays:
#2026 Plats filed for Town of Seattle
#5392 Denny Party Lands at Alki Point
#5393 Denny, Boren and Bell Select Claims
#7875 Finding Cherry Grove
A History of Laurelhurst, by Christine Barrett, 1981/revised 1989. The author traces how Laurelhurst developed from its first homesteader, Joe Surber, up through the impact of a sawmill village, a railroad, the Ship Canal and the real estate developers who invented the name Laurelhurst.
Paul Dorpat: A Seattle historian whose column is in the Sunday edition of The Seattle Times newspaper, and additional material for each article appears on his blog, usually on Thursday ahead of the newspaper edition. In his research and writing Mr. Dorpat has provided a great deal of information about streets in Seattle. Although Mr. Dorpat retired in 2019, his column is being maintained by other writers. Info about Post Alley was derived from the column of June 25, 2020, by Jean Sherrard.
Four Wagons West, by Roberta Frye Watt, 1931, and Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle, by Sophie Frye Bass, 1937. There are reserved copies of these books at the downtown Seattle Public Library’s 9th floor History Department or 10th floor Seattle Room. The King County Library system has copies which can be checked out. The University Bookstore has reprinted editions which you can buy.
Native Seattle, by Coll Thrush, 2007. This is the best book available about the relationship between Seattle’s early white settlers, the native population which they encountered, and how the two groups interacted. While the book Native Seattle is not about streets, I mention it here because of the descriptions of places in Seattle’s natural environment which were filled in, straightened, regraded or otherwise obliterated to become city streets.
Too High and Too Steep, by David B. Williams, 2015. Unlike Seattle street naming which was mostly organic, there definitely were city ordinances for the regrading of streets. Author David B. Williams writes:
“The Front Street project began on June 8, 1876, when the city council passed Ordinance No. 112…..The regrading of Front Street was a critical point in Seattle history. Not only was it the first official effort at rebalancing the terrain in favor of the citizenry, but it also exemplifies the many relatively small-scale street regrading projects to follow, which can be felt throughout Seattle. Look at any street in the city and you can assume that some sort of engineering took place…..” (page 45, Too High and Too Steep.)