The Thornton Creek watershed extends eighteen miles through Shoreline and northeast Seattle, with its outlet into Lake Washington at about NE 93rd Street. The creek has two main branches, North and South, with many tributaries. Although he never lived there, the creek system might have been named for John Thornton who was an early settler in Washington Territory.
Just as it is today at Meadowbrook Pond at about NE 107th Street just east of 35th Ave NE, there is a convergence point of the two branches of the creek, in an area called The Confluence.
In the 1920s and 1930s when northeast Seattle was still very rural, there were fewer roads and developments to impede the flow of the creek. Downstream of The Confluence, southeast of NE 105th Street there would have been a much bigger flow of water in those days, especially in wintertime after heavy rains.
Living along Thornton Creek in the 1930s
The Land family had come to live on the estate property of John Matthews in 1930., located on Lake Washington at about NE 93rd Street. Roy & Anna Land brought rural skills of working with draft horses to do excavation work, and of growing and preparing all of their own food. The two youngest Land children, Dorothy and Cena, fondly remembered the days of freedom to roam at the Matthews lakefront (today’s Matthews Beach).
A story told to me by Dorothy Land was of one day when the girls had a terrifying adventure due to disobeying their mother’s warning about the winter-swollen creek. Today, we can hardly imagine that Thornton Creek would be deep enough to drown in, but we can harken back to the 1930s when the creek had a greater volume of water.
Although I don’t know exactly where this near-drowning incident occurred, we can guess that it was south of NE 105th Street where the flow of combined waters was greatest, and where the creek made many bends along the way.
“It happened in February of 1931. I was nine years old and my sister Cena was seven. As we started out the door to play one day, Mother called after us, “Don’t go near the creek!”
We’d had a winter of wet weather and the creek was high. It had a swift current so strong it carried logs, tree limbs, and brush swiftly along with it.
Big brother Henry lived a block away, was married and had a three-year-old daughter, Lois, whom we adored. Cena and I went to Henry’s home and asked, “Can we take Lois out to play?”
It was cold out so we decided to bring Lois to our house, taking a shortcut through the fields and walking a log which crossed the creek. We put Lois between us and I walked sideways on the log, hanging onto one of Lois’s little hands and Cena the other, with the creek raging below us. We were halfway across when Lois slipped. Her chubby little body pulled from our hands and she splashed into the rapid waters below.
We were frantic when we saw Lois being carried downstream, tumbling and bobbing like a cork. Cena and I ran as fast as our legs would carry us along the water’s edge as Lois was carried out of sight. We ran around a bend in the creek and saw a dam where the logs, limbs and brush had collected. We saw Lois’s little dress but her head was wedged underwater with the bubbles coming up. She was drowning.
Terrified, I held onto a limb which extended out from the dam so that I wouldn’t be swept off of my feet. I edged out into the creek until the water came up to my chin. I reached out as far as possible, catching Lois’s dress with the tips of my fingers — and pulled. I had her.
I sat on a log holding Lois close to me while Cena went to get her mother.”
–by Dorothy Land, as told to Valarie Bunn, May 1997.