In the years before a real estate company named and developed Hawthorne Hills, the area was the land claim of a man who was determined to live there even without the legal right to do so.
Squatting In Hawthorne Hills
May 2021 by Zach van Schouwen
The untold story of how one man came to own an entire Seattle neighborhood through sheer stubborn pigheadedness.
The Hawthorne Hills neighborhood is one of northeast Seattle’s better known residential neighborhoods, famous for its large houses, curving streets and sweeping views. The area was developed in 1928 by the prominent Goodwin Company and H. K. (Hawthorne) Dent, an insurance magnate, who went on to found SAFECO.
Lesser known, but equally interesting, are the pre-1900 origins of the area — although Valarie Bunn has written some excellent articles that help to illuminate portions of this poorly-documented period. While studying it, I came across a particularly interesting story.
Prior to the 1880s there were few permanent settlers in the Hawthorne Hills area. It lay well outside Seattle’s city limits, and overland travel east of Ravenna was limited by a near-total lack of roads. The area was thickly wooded with few clearings. Newspaper records suggest that a single primitive road crossed the property of Calvary Cemetery, following an irregular, circuitous route.
In 1881, the county opened a new road to serve this area and closed the old road. The “new” road ran east-west near the southern border of Calvary Cemetery and across the present Burke-Gilman Playground. The short diagonal section of NE 51st Street that exists today is a remnant of this old county road, which has mostly vanished or been replaced by nearby Sand Point Way.
In 1887, the Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern Railway was completed, permitting rail travel to the area. Keith Station was located near the current Met Market by 1893, making this unincorporated region somewhat more accessible to Seattle.
Stillson makes a claim
Our story begins with a young oculist (doctor of the eye, ear, nose and throat), named Hamilton Stillson. Dr. Stillson was born in Bedford, Indiana in 1857. After graduating medical school in Kentucky and Indiana, he moved west to Red Bluff, California, where he married Ida Westluke in 1888 and had his first son in 1889.
Dr. Stillson moved to Washington State shortly after, registering to practice medicine in 1890 and establishing an office in the Haller Building, then later in the Hinckley Building. He lived at a few city residences before settling at remote Keith Station in April 1893.
The land that Dr. Stillson had chosen, however, was not open to settlement. Like many early Seattle settlers, he attempted to file a homestead claim. He was rejected on April 6, 1893 — the state had reserved the land in question as school land decades earlier. Other applicants for land in this area had apparently been similarly rejected.
Dr. Stillson was undeterred. He took possession of an entire quarter-section (160 acres), half a mile long and wide, stretching from NE 55th to 65th Streets and from 45th to 55th Avenues NE. He established his permanent residence there, and began fending off intruders despite his lack of legal title.
Stillson-Sommers legal dispute
Further complicating matters, the state land office conducted an auction in 1897, allowing high bidders to rent portions of this land. One such bidder was the unlucky Herman Sommers, who quickly found himself in a dispute with Dr. Stillson which he laid out in the pages of the Seattle Times. When Sommers went to claim his land, he brought farm implements and household items, which Stillson “threw out in the road and chopped to pieces.” Conflict continued between the two until Stillson hired a lawyer and obtained a court injunction against Sommers “trespassing” in 1898. (Herman Sommers, having lost his rights, eventually received $165 from the state in 1904.)
Stillson was living on the land despite a widely-known lack of title. This situation persisted until 1905, when a few interesting events transpired in rapid succession. In February and March 1905, the Washington House considered House Bill 311, a bill which would have awarded Stillson the title to the land in return for a payment of $10 per acre. This bill was “postponed indefinitely” after the Attorney General advised the legislature that they did not have the authority to dispose of the land.
Stillson then filed a suit against the state of Washington. The suit was settled in July before an Olympia judge, who awarded all 160 acres of land to Dr. Stillson for a payment of $1,500 — almost exactly the terms proposed in the rejected bill. This was interesting since contemporary reports suggested the land was worth $600-$1000 per acre… Stillson’s profit on the transaction, inflated into today’s dollars, would be about $2 million!
Investigation by the Seattle Daily Times newspaper
In 1907 the matter aroused additional suspicion in the Seattle Times. The Times reported that the lawsuit, settlement and judgement had all been filed in a single day, and that Stillson’s lawyer had been compensated with a deed for 25 acres of land. The newspaper did not name the lawyer, but from the land records it can be determined to be the firm of McBride, Stratton, and Dalton. This firm had two prominent partners — former Attorney General Wickliffe B. Stratton, and former governor Henry McBride.
Investigating that claim shows that about 25 acres on the south side of the railway were indeed transferred personally by Stillson to Stratton and McBride. (McBride sold his share to Stratton in 1906.)
The newspaper went on to accuse Stillson’s lawyers of colluding with the state land commissioner (Edward W. Ross) to achieve this settlement. Although the evidence provided is too thin to draw a conclusion in the present day, it is not hard to believe that the influence of the two politicians had an effect on the outcome of the case. Both were prominent figures and Stratton had only recently left office.
Hawthorne Hills becomes a development
Without judging those accusations, it is clear that Stillson’s gamble paid off. The entire area was annexed into the Seattle city limits in 1910. Dr. Stillson sold the northeast portion of the land (modern Hawthorne Heights), but continued to live on the remaining land through at least 1913.
In 1918, Stillson signed a contract to sell the remaining land to the H. K. Dent Investment Company, one of Dent’s many ventures.
Dent allowed the land to appreciate in value before selling it to the Goodwin Company for $200,000 in 1928 (about $3 million in today’s dollars.) It was reportedly the largest undeveloped tract remaining in the city limits at that time. Goodwin immediately developed the exclusive Hawthorne Hills subdivision on the site, complete with restrictive covenants prohibiting cheap buildings, farm animals, and nonwhite owners or renters.
Most of the lots in the Hawthorne Hills subdivision remained undeveloped for some time due to the poor economic climate immediately after 1928. On an 1936 aerial photograph of the Hawthorne Hills subdivision, remnants of Stillson’s clearing and wagon road are still visible and stand out against the mostly wooded land.
Stillson relocated to a more urban setting, a luxurious home worth $15,000 in a quiet setting at 4712 Avalon Place (a now-vanished U-District alley, off 21st Ave NE near the present Ivy Plaza), where he and his wife lived for the rest of their lives.
When Stillson died in 1948 at age 89, the Seattle Times newspaper reported that his estate was worth over $80,000 (about $1 million today). Although Stillson had bought and sold other real property during his lifetime, his obituary focused on his many achievements in the medical field, and his unique career in real estate was omitted.