The life story of Henry Spiger tells of the western migration of Americans after the Civil War, and the attraction to the growth opportunities in Seattle in the 1880s.
Henry Spiger, born before the Civil War, gradually migrated from his birthplace in Ohio out to Seattle. Henry engaged in maritime activities in Seattle, became a landowner, a real estate developer and then followed the rise of the automobile to open a gas station in 1918 after World War One.
On the banks of the Ohio River
Henry Spiger’s hometown in Meigs County, Ohio, was on the banks of the Ohio River looking across at the state of Virginia. Henry, born in 1848, grew up watching river traffic and learning of the vital importance of transport via water.
Henry was fourteen years old when the Civil War came to the doorstep of Meigs County with the invasion of a Confederate cavalry, Morgan’s Raiders, in July 1863. It came to be called the Battle of Buffington Island although the raid actually crossed several counties.
The purpose of Morgan’s Raiders entry into Ohio was to take supplies, such as food and horses, from civilian homes and to divert Union troops from other battles. For the most part the raid was repelled by Ohio’s own militia (volunteers). The invasion strengthened the resolve of the people to fight even harder to defeat the Confederacy.
From Ohio to Kansas
Henry’s father Samuel Spiger had served in the 7th Ohio Artillery in 1861-1862. Like so many Civil War veterans, after about ten years he moved westward.
The Spiger family took a land claim in Sedgwick County, Kansas, a place named for a Union Army general. Samuel Spiger spent the rest of his life there and when he died in 1886 he was buried in the Pioneer Cemetery in Cheney, Kansas.
Moving on westward to Washington Territory
The Spiger sons continued moving westward with three of Henry’s brothers settling in Spokane, Washington, while Henry went to Seattle.
City directory and news articles of the 1890s listed Henry Spiger as a marine engineer, the worker who sees to the operation of a boat. During this time Henry moved to Ravenna, the little community which was developing in northeast Seattle. He established a home and married late in life, at age 55 in 1904.
Henry Spiger and his wife Carrie, a Norwegian immigrant, had two children, Helen, born in 1905, and John, 1908.
During these years Henry continued with his maritime career and he had some adventures, such as the time he got stranded in Alaska in 1906. The next year he brought suit against the Northern Commercial Company for discharging him without pay and leaving him at St. Michael, 2,500 miles from Seattle, where Spiger was then compelled to pay his own fare back home.
Transitioning to property development
We may guess that Henry’s wife Carrie might have prevailed upon him to wind down his maritime career for the sake of his family and because he was getting older, as well, as he turned 65 in 1913. That year the Spigers got a bigger house for their family at 6835 27th Ave NE on land which they then platted for more house lots.
Henry switched careers to real estate as he began advertising lots for sale in his plat called Spiger’s Addition to Seattle. This plat encompassed 25th to 27th Avenues NE on the northern half of the 6800 block and was contiguous with one of the plats of Swan Swanson. Henry Spiger likely watched and learned from what the Swansons were doing: deriving income from selling house lots.
We might expect that Henry Spiger would be content to spend his retirement years in the house he built in 1913, but he was not content to stay there. He seemed remarkably well-attuned to what was happening in the economic development of northeast Seattle, and he wanted to get in on “the next thing.”
Henry Spiger turned seventy years old in 1918 and he found a new place to take advantage of economic trends. He moved his family to 3505-3515 NE 45th Street in a plat called the Town of Yesler, which today is the northern portion of the Laurelhurst neighborhood. The Spiger family property was in Block 1, the top left corner of the plat map shown below. Railroad Street at the top, is now NE 45th Street/Sand Point Way NE.
The Town of Yesler
When we hear the term “Town of Yesler” we might first think of the original Yesler Mill at the site of today’s Pioneer Square on the downtown Seattle waterfront. In fact early newspapers of Tacoma, in the rivalry between that city and Seattle, used to refer to Seattle condescendingly as Yeslerville because the lumber mill on Elliott Bay seemed to be the only viable industry in Seattle’s early days of the 1860s-1870s.
Later in the 1880s mill owner Henry Yesler and an investor, J.D. Lowman, decided to set up another lumber operation in northeast Seattle on Union Bay, at today’s Laurelhurst. Their reasons for doing this probably had to do with the new railroad line that was being put through, the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern. That line is today’s Burke-Gilman Trail.
At the point of the railroad line near today’s University Village, a spur went to the new Yesler Mill at the present site of the Center for Urban Horticulture, 3501 NE 41st Street. Logs could be floated to the mill on water or brought from outlying areas by rail, processed at the new mill and then sent into town on the SLS&E.
The plat map of the Town of Yesler (below) shows that in addition to the mill, Yesler & Lowman developed the real estate with house lots. The map of the plat done in 1888 shows the lots as laid out by surveyors. The name of the civil engineers surveyors company in the upper right corner of the map is Scurry & Owens, early residents of Seattle who were Civil War veterans.
From mill town and railroad to cars and houses
At the close of World War One in 1918 the interest in automobile ownership soared. Seattle realtors realized the potential for opening up areas of northeast Seattle which they advertised as peaceful places to live, with the best of both worlds — you could have a garden and other space around your house, and still be able to drive into “town” in minutes.
By 1918 the sawmill on Union Bay had been closed for many years and developers had tried to reinvent the Town of Yesler as Laurelhurst. Roads began to be extended and soon the northern edge of the Town of Yesler was being transformed into a commercial district accessed not by rail, but by car: today’s Sand Point Way NE.
The new home of the Henry Spiger family was just east of today’s Union Bay Place intersection and they moved there at a time when car traffic was beginning to characterize northeast Seattle. The University Bridge was completed in 1919 and it greatly increased the accessibility to northeast Seattle. People began moving to the northeast where there was no public transit service, such as Laurelhurst, and even farther out such as Morningside Heights in today’s Wedgwood. To get to work or to stores, people had to have a car.
Northeast Seattle residents were car owners from these early years and Henry Spiger seemed alert to the trend. At their new residence as of 1918, the Spiger family lived in a house at the rear while at the street front, the Spigers owned a gas station on what was to become the arterial NE 45th Street/Sand Point Way NE.
As Henry had reached the age of 70, it is possible that he didn’t run the gas station himself. The Spigers may have leased out the gas station to an operator. Sadly Henry Spiger lived only three more years. He died in 1921 and unexpectedly his wife Carrie died in 1923, leaving behind their two children, Helen age 17 and John, 15. The Spiger children were able to stay in their home and finish school.
The Spiger descendants
John Spiger became a carpenter and then later in life he listed himself as a builder of home construction. When he married, he built a house for his family at 2615 NE 70th Street in the Spiger Addition, at the north end of the block where he had lived as a child, and where he continued to own some of the property he’d inherited.
At the Town of Yesler property, the Spigers continued to own the site at 3505-3515 NE 45th Street (Sand Point Way NE) down through generations until it was sold in the year 2022, the end of more than one hundred years of ownership in the same family.
Over time the economy continued to transform so that where there used to be several gas stations around the Union Bay Place NE intersection, now there are none. The district has become more and more commercial with stores and office buildings. The transformation of the Union Bay Place/University Village area continues in the present day with more construction projects.
Census and city directory listings.
HistoryLink Essay 3692: “King County Land Use Survey”, by Paula Becker, 2002. This essay tells how King County did a survey of all taxable properties in the years from 1936 to 1940. The property photos used in this article are from that collection, now stored at the Puget Sound Regional Archives.
Newspaper article: “Discharged Far From Home: H.T. Spiger is asking the superior court for a judgement of $1,995 against the Northern Commercial Company.” The Seattle Daily Times, March 20, 1907, page 24.
Puget Sound Regional Archives: repository of the property records of King County.