Fremont is one of Seattle’s most art-filled neighborhoods, with many murals, sculptures and other indoor and outdoor artworks. As written on the webpage of the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, “Where else will you find a troll, a drawbridge, a rocket, dinosaurs, art you can dress up, and a Lenin statue…???”
One of Fremont’s art installations is called The Guidepost, supporting the claim of Fremont as The Center of the Universe. The story is that back in the 1990s the claim of Center of the Universe was first made by Fremont’s artistic community, the Artistic Republic of Fremont. But actually, the claim of Fremont as the center of Seattle life goes back much farther, to the early years of the neighborhood.
Fremont is established in 1888
The Fremont neighborhood of Seattle is unique in many ways, including the story of its founding. The area of what is now the main business district of Fremont was acquired by one of Seattle’s first white settlers, William A. Strickler, in a land claim in 1854. The property was at an advantageous location at one corner of Lake Union, where timber could be floated to area sawmills.
Other settlers of the 1850s, like Arthur Denny, held onto their land claims and became rich through selling or developing the properties gradually over the years of the growth of Seattle. William Strickler might have done the same, selling lots for development, but he did not live to see the growth of Seattle and the fulfillment of the potential of his land claim.
William Strickler disappeared in 1861 and no one ever found out what happened to him. Incredibly, his land claim, the future Fremont, was tied up in legal disputes until 1887, which meant that no one was allowed to live on the property until its ownership status was resolved.
Finally, Seattle’s leading attorney and land developer Thomas Burke found a way to force the sale of the Strickler property due to non-payment of taxes. Burke was desperate to get access to the Strickler property because Burke was a member of two development groups, one which was planning to build a ship canal, and a group working toward construction of a railroad route which would go across Strickler property (today’s Burke-Gilman Trail).
After portions of the Strickler property were set aside for a canal and the railroad, in the summer of 1888 an investment group opened the newly-named Fremont neighborhood.
Instead of being settled gradually as other Seattle neighborhoods had been, Fremont’s development started with a bang in the summer of 1888. Sales opened at the introductory price of $1 per lot to the first one hundred buyers. Fremont was settled in a kind of land rush by those who were eager to be the first to harvest its natural resources and set up businesses. To facilitate settlement, Edward C. Kilbourne and other investment backers set up the Fremont Milling Company, a sawmill located at the present site of the Fremont Bridge. The mill would provide employment and produce cut lumber for the building of houses in Fremont.
Fremont’s first residents were energetic go-getters
Fremont’s earliest residents put in public-spirited efforts to create a livable environment in their new community. The neighborhood’s earliest founding organizations included churches, schools, and fraternal groups which were organized by residents. Some of the first businesses which were established in Fremont were groceries and meat markets, pharmacies and doctor’s offices.
Fremont’s residents were proud of the “firsts” which they were creating, such as the reading room which evolved into Seattle’s first branch library.
Another “Fremont first” was marked by the Denton family who came from Quincy, Massachusetts, and settled in Fremont in 1888. They had the honor of the first child to be born in Fremont in March 1889, and they named their son Fremont Quincy Denton.
The centrality of streetcar lines
Edward C. Kilbourne, a dentist turned land investor, became a key person in the development of Fremont as the legal representative of the out-of-town investors, the Blewetts of Fremont, Nebraska. Kilbourne enhanced the settlement of Fremont by creating transportation options, including ferry boats crossing Lake Union, and later with a streetcar line which went northward from downtown Seattle out along Westlake Avenue.
After Seattle’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889, E.C. Kilbourne was tasked with restoring the downtown Seattle electric grid including the streetcar system. In so doing, he also extended a streetcar line along Westlake Avenue, on the west shore of Lake Union to Fremont, which Kilbourne hoped would help bring residents to this new neighborhood.
Kilbourne networked with other local developers including Guy Phinney who had a Woodland Park estate, and William D. Wood, developer of Green Lake.
A streetcar line came from downtown and crossed the bridge into Fremont. At the main intersection of Fremont Avenue & North 34th Street, riders could transfer to the Woodland Park Line or to the Green Lake Line. This major transfer point in the center of Fremont in 1890 started Fremont’s reputation of being at the center of everything.
Fremont’s status as a transit hub was reinforced even more in 1910 when a railroad, the Interurban, was built which ran through Fremont on its way north to Everett. The Waiting for the Interurban statue at 34th & Fremont Avenue commemorates the Centrality of Fremont in Seattle’s history of transit. Fremont still has a car barn from the old streetcar system. It is historically landmarked and is the home of the Theo Chocolate factory.
The centrality of business and industry in Fremont
In the early 1900s Fremont had its own newspaper, the Fremont Colleague. The January 1904 edition of the Colleague reviewed the first fifteen years of the community and featured prominent business leaders.
The first visual representation of Fremont as the Center of Everything was printed in this January 1904 commemorative edition of the Fremont Colleague newspaper. The newspaper described Fremont’s vigorous business district with its major industry, the lumber mill, as a Hub with the rest of the City of Seattle radiating outward from Fremont.
Seattle slumps, Fremont rebounds
In 1940 Fremont was knocked off-center when the City of Seattle abandoned the streetcar system. All of the tracks were either pulled up or paved over in the 1940s as streets were modified to accommodate buses. Although there were bus routes through Fremont, it was not the same as in the old days of the streetcars when there had been a Grand Union track layout at the intersection of 34th & Fremont, where all lines converged.
By the late 1960s the economy of Seattle was slowing down as Boeing Aircraft, the city’s major employer, began to lay off workers. Seattle slumped under the economic depression called the Boeing Bust.
By 1970 the population of Seattle was less than it had been in 1960. As people left the city, there were many vacant houses being offered at lower rents, and it became a time in Fremont when artists could find affordable housing. The artist community began to coalesce in Fremont and named themselves an Artistic Republic.
In the do-it-ourselves spirit which had always characterized Fremont, in the 1970s new initiatives were organized including an arts council and the Fremont Public Association which sponsored community development projects.
Despite the slump in the Seattle economy, the vitality of Fremont continued to grow in the 1970s, and Fremont continued to set “firsts.” The Fremont Fair started in 1972, and in 1973 Fremont established a recycling collection site. In 1975 Fremont was the first community in Washington State to offer curbside collection of recycling.
The Centrality of Fremont becomes official
In the 1990s the City of Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods sought to promote pride of place and community spirit by defining neighborhood “boundaries” and posting neighborhood names. At this time Fremont was officially designated as the Center of the Universe (the sign says it is! So it must be true!)
In July 1994, Metropolitan King County Council issued an official Proclamation that “Fremont is a State of Mind….. Fremont has a long and lustrous history of community activism, having transformed itself into a thriving business, arts, and urban living community…. the Metropolitan King County Council plainly postulates and proclaims Fremont to be Center of the Universe…”
The Guidepost of Fremont, located on a traffic island at 3427 Fremont Place North, is the marker of the Center of the Universe in recognition of Fremont’s status as an Artistic Republic and the center of lively life in the City of Seattle.
“Billboard reading ‘Will the Last Person Leaving Seattle Turn Out the Lights’ appears on April 16, 1971,” HistoryLink Essay #1287 by Greg Lange, 1999.
“Edward Corliss Kilbourne (1856-1959),” HistoryLink Essay #1251 by Louis Fiset, 1999.
“Forty Years of Curbside Recycling in Seattle.” Seattle Magazine, January 6, 2015.
“Fremont Branch, The Seattle Public Library,” HistoryLink Essay #3967 by David Wilma, 2002.
Fremont Chamber of Commerce, Guidepost info.
Fremont Colleague newspaper, various dates; on microfilm at the University of Washington Library.
Fremont Historic Resources Survey – Context Statement by Caroline Tobin, January 2010. City of Seattle Historic Preservation.
“Seattle Neighborhoods: Fremont – Thumbnail History,” HistoryLink Essay #1320 by Patrick McRoberts, 1999.
“Seattle Neighborhoods: Green Lake – Thumbnail History,” HistoryLink Essay #2227 by Louis Fiset, 2000.
“Woodland Park Railway begins running in 1890,” HistoryLink Essay #3285 by Greg Lange, 2001.