In Seattle’s early years, 1851 to 1889, owners of property could lay out a plan for streets and give them any names they chose. But as the city grew, segments of a street would often have several different names as the street passed through these individually-laid-out plats of property.
The Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889 burned a large section of the downtown core but instead of destroying the city, the Fire led to a rebirth of Seattle with explosive population growth. The population jumped tenfold to about 43,000 people in Seattle as of 1890, and doubled again by the year 1900 to more than 80,000 people. (Source: Seattle Municipal Archives Quick Information population statistics).
Within three years of the Fire, four hundred new subdivisions were filed with King County, mainly in or near the Seattle City Limits. Each subdivision had a layout of streets with lots for houses or commercial buildings, and property owners continued to give the streets in their plats, any name that they chose. This resulted in a tangle of street names which were often repeated in different areas of the city. Finally in 1895 City Engineer R.H. Thomson began renaming Seattle streets via City ordinances. The street-renaming project also decreed that streets would be east-west and those that were north-south would be called avenues.
In searching for the origins of Seattle street names, we may find that some were derived from the names of the property owners and family members, such as is the case of Cleopatra Place NW in the Ballard neighborhood. Other street names reflected commercial aspirations such as Market Street in Ballard, or Broadway on Capitol Hill.
There was even a Broadway in a remote plat in the (future) Lake City, the northeasternmost area of Seattle which did not come into the Seattle City Limits until 1954. However, Broadway of Lake City never became a city street. Some streets were marked on plat maps filed by the property owner, but were never actually put through. Eventually Broadway in Lake City became part of Sand Point Way NE.
Seattle Municipal Archives has lists of city decisions, called ordinances and resolutions. The list of ordinances for Sand Point Way NE shows that the road was named in Ordinance 52478 of February 15, 1927, when it was to be established as a public street out as far as NE 65th, which was the Seattle City Limits at that time.
It is also the case in the Wedgwood neighborhood of northeast Seattle that there were named streets which were only on paper and were not actually developed. The Pontiac plat, filed in 1890 by Joseph Doheney, had a series of streets named for Indian tribes such as Huron, Chippewa, Erie, Mohawk, Eagle and Seneca.
By the end of the 1890s most of the lots in the Pontiac plat still had not sold and there were no residents, so we know that no one ever gave their address as Eagle Street in the (future) Wedgwood. It was not until the 1940s and 1950s that some of these streets were actually put through, and by that time the streets conformed to the numbering system rather than names.
The surveyor who laid out the streets in the Pontiac plat of the (future) Wedgwood was Charles Baker, who owned two nearby plats called State Park and Oneida Gardens. The State Park plat had streets named for the owners group including Charles Avenue for what is now 31st Ave NE.
Baker came to Seattle in 1887 as an ambitious young man with an eye to profit from developing property. He also owned the Palatine Hills plat in Fremont, and he is most famous for developing the power plant at Snoqualmie Falls.
E.C. Kilbourne, one of the developers of Fremont, was from Aurora, Illinois, and he was the likely namer of Aurora Avenue.
In the years before it was made into Highway 99, Aurora Avenue was an ordinary residential street. Its last segment in Fremont is now underneath the Aurora Bridge. In the year 2005 the City of Seattle passed an ordinance to rename this two-block segment of Aurora between North 34th to 36th Streets “Troll Avenue” to help people find the Troll artwork at the intersection of North 36th Street. This is one of the most recent examples of permanent street renaming in Seattle.
Straightening out the street names of Seattle
In 1892 a man arrived in Seattle who was determined to straighten everything out. City Engineer R.H. Thomson is most famous for his massive regrading projects including the obliteration of Denny Hill, but Thomson also applied himself to reorganizing the system of Seattle’s street grid.
In what was known as the Great Renaming of 1895, Thomson sent in a series of name changes which were approved as ordinances of Seattle City Council. The renaming was intended to give each street or avenue just one name along its entire length, and eliminate duplicate names around the city.
Our thanks to Seattle historian Rob Ketcherside for highlighting this newspaper article of 1895, telling of R.H. Thomson’s deliberations over the lists of street names. The entire article is posted below, after the Sources list.
We suspect that some of the news article of 1895 was a bit fanciful and we don’t know for sure if Thomson singlehandedly renamed Seattle’s streets. The article of March 8, 1895 in the Seattle Post Intelligencer does show the problems of street name duplication and that citizens lobbied for names which they thought were prestigious.
Changes to Seattle street names continue in the present time, such as Troll Avenue, mentioned above, which was created in 2005.
In 1961 the City of Seattle changed the “directional designations” so that, for example, East 75th Street in Wedgwood became NE 75th Street.
Early Neighborhood Historic Resources Survey Report and Context Statement by Greg Lange and Thomas Veith, 2005 (revised 2009.) The report is listed as “Residential structures constructed prior to 1906” under context statements, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods historic preservation page.
“R.H. Thomson (1856-1949), City Engineer,” HistoryLink Essay # 2074 by Alan J. Stein, 2000.
Seattle Annexation Map: Fremont was annexed to Seattle on May 1, 1891.
Seattle City Ordinance 4044, passed by the full Council December 16, 1895. An ordinance changing the names of certain streets and avenues in the City of Seattle. Seattle Municipal Archives legislative records, Seattle City Hall.
City of Portland, Oregon: Here is an interesting article about the problems of streets which didn’t align, due to early developers putting streets in their own blocks without an overall coordination of streets: Fixing the Perfect Labyrinth.
Seattle City Ordinance #52478 of February 1927, when the City of Seattle named Sand Point Way as a continuous single entity up to 65th Street, which was the City Limits in the northeast area.
Seattle City Ordinance 121844, passed by City Council August 1, 2005. An ordinance changing the name of a segment of Aurora Avenue North, under the Aurora Bridge, to Troll Avenue North. Seattle Municipal Archives legislative records, Seattle City Hall.
Seattle Municipal Archives, Facts about Seattle. Quick information about history, land area, government and population.
Seattle Street Directional Designations were changed in 1961 so that East 75th Street in Wedgwood, for example, is now NE 75th Street. Click on the link to see the map of the city designation before and after 1961.
Seattle Street Renaming Searchable Table by Seattle historian Rob Ketcherside.
Too High and Too Steep: Reshaping Seattle’s Topography, by David B. Williams, 2015. This book tells the story of R.H. Thomson’s massive regrading of Seattle.
Writes of Way, a blog by Benjamin Donguk Lukoff about Seattle street names.
Article of March 8, 1895 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about R.H. Thomson’s street renaming work: