Guest columnist Ann Hedreen marks Seward Park's 100th anniversary with some gratitude to those forward-looking Seattle taxpayers who taxed themselves to establish the park.
ONE hundred years ago, the people of a new city called Seattle bought a funny-shaped chunk of forest from the land-rich Bailey family, which had held out 20 years for the best price it could get. Maybe that’s why Seward Park was named not for them but for William Seward, the U.S. secretary of state best known for buying an even bigger parcel of old growth called Alaska.
Seward Park sticks out into south Lake Washington like a hitchhiker’s thumb. It’s easy to spot from the air. But to many people in King County, it remains remote: a mini-Alaska. It was remote to me, growing up in north Seattle. But not anymore. For the past 21 years, I’ve lived a block and a half from the park. It is my 277-acre backyard, my refuge, my second church, my second home.
I wish I could travel back in time and thank those voters of yesteryear, who were willing to tax themselves to wrest this little paradise away from the Baileys and give it to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In our current era, when collective generosity and forward thinking rarely carry the political day, when spending on anything other than military might or bailing out Wall Street is viewed as indulgent, it seems an astounding gift.
William Seward paid the czar of Russia 2 cents an acre for Alaska. Seattle voters shelled out $1,500 an acre for Seward Park, which came to $322,020. Calculated conservatively, that is about 5.7 million in today’s dollars.
Those voters saw the sawmills springing up, the trees coming down, the streets mired in mud. They embraced the vision of the Olmstead Brothers, the renowned landscape architects who were hired by Seattle in 1903 to lay out a necklace of green through our frontier city, with paths graded for bicycles and Sunday strollers. They knew that the Bailey Peninsula would be the perfect pendant for the Olmstead necklace.
This weekend, Seward Park celebrates its centennial. There will be classic cars, pie-eating contests, people in costume mingling with the usual picnicking families, runners, birders and bicyclists. There will also be many people who will see a story in the paper or online and say to themselves, “Now where is Seward Park exactly?”
But that may be changing. Bicyclists, runners and swimmers have staged races here for years. The park is now home to the Seward Park Environmental and Audubon Center, which last year hosted classroom groups from 85 area schools, in addition to providing summer camps and year-round programs for nature lovers of all ages. And the park’s lovely amphitheater hosts more cultural events and ethnic festivals every summer.
Last month, my husband and I went to the amphitheater to see Freehold Theatre’s dynamic production of Shakespeare’s “Pericles.” It’s the story of a king who suffers one loss after another — father, wife, daughter. King Pericles rails against the cruelty of time itself. But in the end, time is his ally. It brings his daughter and his wife back to him.
Seward Park was quieter when we first moved here. It remains an oasis of stillness, compared with, say, Green Lake. But this centennial celebration makes me feel like Pericles: grateful to step back and see what time has done. This green peninsula lives and thrives in exactly the kinds of ways those generous voters of 100 years ago must have hoped it would when they checked “yes” on their ballots. Let’s lift a toast to them on their park’s 100th birthday.
Ann Hedreen is a writer, filmmaker and commentator for KBCS radio.