Trees sway overhead and the pitted pavement rises gently on the way into Interlaken Park on North Capitol Hill. At the spot where East Interlaken Boulevard splits, take the low road and pedal between wooden posts and you will be transported back in time — 125 years, to be exact, when Seattleites first bicycled here along the ravine.
A stretch of trail in this woodsy Seattle park is the only remaining car-free segment of the historic Lake Washington Path, one of our city’s first paved bicycle trails.
This paved 10-mile path from downtown Seattle to Lake Washington arose from a bicycling craze that swept the nation in the wake of other post-Industrial Revolution inventions: transcontinental railroads; the telephone; the lightbulb; the safety bicycle, with its two equal-sized wheels.
By the 1890s, the young city of Seattle, just a few decades old but fueled by growth from timber and, in 1897, Klondike gold, eagerly took up the two-wheeled trend. But where to cycle?
The town was clustered around the port on Elliott Bay, and its streets were wood planks laid to stave off the mud. In 1894, only one city block was brick-paved. By 1896, the brick had been laid down a whole mile, wrote Frank B. Cameron in his 1982 book, “Bicycling in Seattle 1879-1904.”
But cyclists’ hearts burned for a long ride. They formed the Queen City Cycling Club to agitate, fundraise and pave. The first iteration of the club, formed in 1888, held Seattle’s first bicycle meet on July 5 that year, but soon after disbanded. Revived in 1896, the club led the fundraising and building effort for the first city trails.
By the fall of 1896, a path of cinders — gravelly waste material from furnaces — stretched from Second Avenue downtown to Lake Union. A ride christened the path on Sept. 19, 1896, with lanterns swinging from handlebars. In 1897, ambitions grew, and the path was lengthened along Lake Union. Then a trail was hacked over the hills, along the ravines and through the forest to Lake Washington.
“Nothing was platted in Montlake and we were in deep woods approximately 150 feet above the lake,” recalled assistant city engineer and path planner George Cotterill in a 1953 Seattle Times article about charting the route. “Beyond Federal and Roanoke [streets], great gullies and gorges indented the northeast slope of Capitol Hill. I couldn’t cross them, so I ran the path up each gorge to its turning point. There were two large canyons and three or four small ones.”
On June 19, 1897, the 10-mile-long Lake Washington Path opened with a daylong cycling outing. The bike path cost approximately $2,200, paid for by club fundraising and a bike tax.
When tires first hit the cinders to Lake Union in 1896, there were 300 bicyclists in Seattle; by 1897, the number jumped to 3,000, and in 1900 there were “possibly 10,000 bicyclists in Seattle,” wrote Cameron in “Bicycling in Seattle.” That surge matched the exuberant young city, whose census count spiked from 3,533 in 1880 to 80,671 in 1900.
Path cyclists didn’t have to venture far to trade city noise for black bear encounters in Seattle’s dense forests. But they could get a sandwich trailside at the Good Roads Lunch Room in the forested ravine that is now Interlaken Park. Cyclists could get a ticket there, too: The path was patrolled by A.C. Deuel, one of Seattle’s first bicycle police officers, who would ticket speeders (called “scorchers”) and riders who passed on curves or had unlicensed bicycles.
Ahead of the historic paved bike trail’s 125th anniversary, pedal back through more than a century of Seattle’s two-wheeled history.
Paths shaped the city
In a way, said Tom Fucoloro of Seattle Bike Blog, “bike paths themselves shaped the city.” The city’s roads, its neighborhoods, and parks like Roanoke Park got their start thanks to bicyclists.
Fucoloro, whose book on Seattle’s cycling history, “Pedaling Uphill in the Rain,” is due out from University of Washington Press next year, said that, as the last decade of the 19th century began, “Seattle was behind the bike craze because there wasn’t anywhere to ride your bike.” A bike path network was envisioned. Cotterill, who would later become mayor and was also a leader of the Queen City Cycling Club, traced 25 miles of paths around the city.
Fevered bike club members raised money, volunteered labor and lobbied for progress. Along with the trail to Lake Washington, another traced Magnolia Bluff to what is now Discovery Park. They encircled Lake Union, went to Fremont, linked to Ballard, then went on to Green Lake and circled that, too. Many of those areas had yet to be platted for homes.
“A lot of the neighborhoods grew around the shape of those paths,” Fucoloro said. “I refer to the bicycle trails as little Oregon Trails, part of the city’s version of western expansion.”
The paths explored land that non-Native settlers had taken from Indigenous peoples through treaties and government edicts like the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850 and an 1865 Seattle board of trustees ordinance expelling Native Americans. Some trails would become routes designated as linked leafy boulevards through the landscape design vision of the Olmsted Brothers.
But the desire for bikes cooled. Four wheels replaced two with the invention of the automobile. The Queen City Cycling Club became the Good Roads Club, and bike trails became roads. “Seattle’s original bike culture was really the start of our car culture,” Fucoloro said.
Bike racing kept the sport alive. Fifty years after Queen City Cycling Club held Seattle’s first bicycle meet, a race around Lake Sammamish inaugurated Redmond’s “Derby Days” festival in 1939. Internationally, cycling has been an Olympic sport since 1896, and the Tour de France dates to 1903.
It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that public interest in recreational cycling resurged. Mountain biking expanded the sport in the 1970s, and in 1976, the first organized long-distance ride in the U.S., dubbed “Bikecentennial” in honor of the country’s bicentennial, introduced the pastime of bicycle touring.
But it would take the official abandonment of an early Seattle railroad for bicycling to again rise in the Emerald City. That turning point: the opening of the Burke-Gilman Trail.
From rails and levees to trails
Judge Thomas Burke and entrepreneur Daniel Gilman led the creation of an ambitious railroad, the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern, in 1885. Their goal was to connect to Canada and to lines heading east, linking Seattle to two major transportation corridors. The line was built to Arlington, and was in use until 1963. By 1971, the railroad’s owners applied to abandon it. An effort began to acquire the city segment for recreation, and in 1978, the 12.1-mile Burke-Gilman Trail, stretching from Seattle’s Gas Works Park on Lake Union to Kenmore, was christened. It eventually would extend 6 miles to Golden Gardens Park.
As people pedaled “the Burke,” more rail line opportunities surfaced. The north end of the SLS&E eventually became the 30-mile Centennial Trail from Snohomish to Arlington. The Cedar River Trail paved a line south out of Renton. The Interurban Trail-South traced part of a trolley line toward Tacoma, while the Interurban Trail-North followed trolley tracks toward Everett.
But trail conversion didn’t happen just to old rail lines. A levee corralling a river became the Sammamish River Trail, and people pedaled on the Green River levee trail. The Interstate 90 floating bridge got a trail. The Seattle waterfront bike trail cut through a railroad yard. When the light-rail tunnel was bored under Beacon Hill, nearby land was sculpted using excavated soil, and the Chief Sealth Trail took shape.
Creating a bike trail from a rail line was perhaps easily envisioned, but including trails on bridges was sometimes a bridge too far.
When the West Seattle Bridge was planned, citizens lobbied without success to include bike lanes, Fucoloro said. But its opening in 1984 heralded a shift.
“Bike advocates lost that fight, but they got a policy change,” he said. “Whenever they build a bridge, there’s going to be a bike lane on it.”
When the Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington was replaced in 2017, a trail for cyclists and pedestrians was included.
Today, more than a century removed from the impact of the Lake Washington Path, cycling continues to impact how people move around Greater Seattle — even on four wheels.
What’s next for cycling in Seattle
It’s been many decades since the Lake Washington Path was mostly converted to streets but, in a reversal, new cycling paths today are carving out bits of street real estate.
Infrastructure conversion that resembles rail-trail efforts has occurred in urban locations as driving lanes or parking areas have been converted into two-way protected bikeways like the Westlake protected trail on Lake Union or the Second Avenue bike lane in downtown Seattle.
“People need separation [from other vehicles] to feel safe and be safe” when cycling, Fucoloro said. That’s the current thinking that has driven installation of bikeways with curbs or barriers like planter boxes. It hasn’t resulted in many new off-street trails recently but two developments loom.
“Eastrail is coming on fast,” he said, referring to the planned 42-mile uninterrupted Eastside bike trail. “It will be a huge asset. You’ll be able to go to Renton from Redmond on a trail.”
Approximately 16 miles of the trail are open, including the south segment and a section from Bellevue to Kirkland, but the center link through Bellevue will take up to four more years to complete.
And then there’s the Seattle waterfront. Removal of the Alaskan Way Viaduct and rebuilding of the seawall triggered a tsunami of changes. Plans show a wide boulevard park that includes a bike trail; Fucoloro said people might not realize the impact of this addition.
“It will connect from South Park and Alki all the way to the Ship Canal Trail to the B-G,” he said. “Alki to Fremont, without going uphill.”
So, 125 years after the opening of Seattle’s pioneering Lake Washington Path, the desire still burns to link place to place on two wheels. Maybe this is the summer to map it out, be a tourist at home, and check all the area’s bike paths off your list.
Start your trek in the Interlaken Ravine. Just don’t be a scorcher.