Railroad tracks used to be like the Internet. A century ago, they offered a promise of unparalleled markets and worldwide access. It was such a...
Railroad tracks used to be like the Internet.
A century ago, they offered a promise of unparalleled markets and worldwide access.
It was such a promise that made Kirkland.
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Trains were reaching never-seen speeds then, and the demand for steel rails seemed limitless, with thousands of miles of tracks needed in the western United States alone.
To Peter Kirk, owner of a steel company in England in 1886, the idea of building a duplicate mill on America’s West Coast seemed entirely reasonable. Exploration showed vast amounts of iron ore in nearby mountains, coal fields to the south, and even needed limestone at quarries on San Juan Island.
Everything seemed poised for Kirk and fellow investors to become the owners of the Microsofts and Compaqs of their age.
Instead, what remains are the oldest buildings on the Eastside and a reminder of how dreams don’t always come true.
Settling on Yarrow Bay
Kirkland actually started along what’s now called Yarrow Bay.
In the summer of 1872, Harry French, who’d come from Maine with his family, sailed a rented boat from Seattle to the Yarrow Bay shore. He built a cabin of shakes and logs and by 1874, he’d built a wood-frame house, the first in the community.
Other settlers followed, including the Curtis family, which arrived from South Dakota and built near the Frenches. The family began operating freight and ferry boats and by 1901 was building boats as well, creating a business that would later play a key role in Kirkland history.
As the settlement grew, a church was needed and a church needed a bell, which was produced by a New York foundry for $184.50. The cost was paid by Sarah J. Houghton, wife of a Boston philanthropist who became interested in the Kirkland congregation through a church in Providence, R.I.
The settlement, which had been using the name Pleasant Bay, was renamed Houghton in their honor. The bell survives, standing atop the south end of the Kirkland Congregational church at First Street and Fifth Avenue.
For most of those early years, until the late 1880s, what’s now downtown Kirkland was just two marshy homesteads owned by John DeMott and Ed Church.
In 1883, however, New York lawyer Daniel Gilman arrived in Seattle and began planning a railroad to connect Seattle to the Issaquah coal fields. Much of the route of that Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad remains today as Seattle’s Burke-Gilman Trail. Gilman needed rails and got them from Kirk’s Moss Bay Hematite Iron & Steel Co. in Workington, England.
The two men first met in New York in 1886 when Kirk, then 46, was interested in expanding his steel business. By September of that year, he had visited iron deposits in the “Snoqualmie Mountains” and considered placing a mill near North Bend, but he ran into problems trying to purchase property because of his English citizenship.
That’s when he met Leigh S. J. Hunt.
Hunt, former president of Iowa State College, moved West about 1884 and purchased a Seattle newspaper named the Post-Intelligencer. He liked the east shore of Lake Washington and named Yarrow Point and Yarrow Bay after two of his favorite Wordsworth poems. He built a house on Yarrow Point in 1886. Hunts Point is named for him.
When Kirk told Hunt of his problems buying land for his mill, Hunt had the solution. By declaring his intent to become a U.S. citizen, Kirk was able to arrange with Hunt to own property through a corporate business structure.
A city of 40,000 envisioned
In July 1888, Hunt, Kirk and other investors formed the Kirkland Land & Improvement Co., buying 1,400 acres in the area now bounded by Central Way, Juanita Slough, Lake Washington and Rose Hill. A few months later, the Moss Bay Iron & Steel Works of America was incorporated. In 1890 it was reorganized as the Great Western Iron & Steel Works of America.
A city of 40,000 was visualized.
At first, plans were to build the steel mill at what’s now Peter Kirk Park.
But when Kirk learned the railroad would come south from Woodinville only as far as Rose Hill, he moved the mill site just north of today’s Costco, along Forbes Lake. By March 1891, a sawmill on the lake had cut 3 million board feet of lumber, pits had been dug for blast furnaces and a foundry and a 160-by-34-foot cast house had been built.
The center of town was to be what’s now Seventh Avenue and Market Street, where the Eastside’s oldest commercial buildings still stand.
Within a few months, the plans collapsed.
The Tacoma Ledger newspaper printed an “expose” declaring the steel plans were a ploy by Hunt and other investors to get rich on land deals. The Northern Pacific didn’t finish the tracks to the iron mines east of North Bend. And an English bank failure led to hundreds of American bank failures, the Panic of 1893, and East Coast investors’ inability to keep putting money into Kirkland.
The steel plant was abandoned in December 1893 before it even opened.
Kirk remained solvent and later formed the Kirkland Development Co., but in 1910, saddened by the death of a daughter, he sold the company to two Seattle businessmen, Edmund Burke and Bert Farrar. For decades they ran real-estate offices at the Kirkland and Seattle ferry landings, selling Kirkland city lots for $75. Kirk moved to San Juan Island and died there in 1916.
Hunt lost nearly everything in the mill failure and sold the P-I. He went on to a life that might make a good novel, however: gold mining in North Korea, becoming wealthy enough to repay his Seattle creditors, developing cotton plantations in the Sudan and finally getting interested in the building of Hoover Dam and moving to Las Vegas, where he died in 1933.
Kirkland became known as “stump city” because of the desolation left from the 1890s land clearing.
The potential of the waterfront
It was shipbuilding that eventually brought some prosperity to the town. The Lake Washington Shipyards developed on what had been the Curtis homestead and employed more than 6,000 workers during World War II. Ferry traffic also grew, and for many years Kirkland was the largest city on the Eastside.
The completion of the first Lake Washington Floating Bridge in 1940 led to Bellevue’s eventual rise as the biggest Eastside city. For the next 40 years, Kirkland struggled as new suburban shopping centers — including Bellevue Square — stole much of its business.
The Evergreen Point Floating Bridge brought new access in 1963, and community leaders recognized the potential of the city’s waterfront, acquiring thousands of feet of public shoreline.
An active historical organization, the Kirkland Heritage Society, now fights to preserve the city’s past, putting up descriptive markers and seeking to make history a part of community-character guidelines.
By the early 1970s, Kirkland had begun changing to the beach-restaurant-gallery place it has become today, with much of its prosperity attributed to high-tech businesses in the surrounding area.
One part of Peter Kirk’s vision did come true: By 1998 Kirkland’s estimated population was 43,160. Kirk’s prediction was off by only a century.
Peyton Whitely: 206-464-2259 or pwhitely@firstname.lastname@example.org
From A Hidden Past: An Exploration of Eastside History
The 2005 Kirkland population estimate is 46,359.
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