PLAYING OUTLAW Butch Cassidy in 1969, Paul Newman nonchalantly expressed one of my favorite movie maxims: “Boy, I got vision, and the rest of the world wears bifocals.”
Of course, vision pertains as we struggle with today’s urban development maelstrom. But go back more than a century, to when much of Seattle’s destiny was uncertain. Take South Seattle’s Bailey Peninsula, not yet known as city-owned Seward Park.
Many, indeed, wanted to take it — city government pictured it as a park in 1892, as did the famed Olmsted Brothers landscape consultants a decade later. Other interests touted it as a golf course, a stockade and a Scout camp. It even was pronounced by a nearby land agent as the “logical” site for our first world’s fair, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. “The majority of the people of Seattle would like this location,” Columbia Realty claimed June 17, 1906, in an ad in The Seattle Times.
The fledgling fair quickly opted for the University of Washington, rejecting “beautiful” Bailey Peninsula as “badly isolated, and there is no positive assurance that the grounds can be had from the private owners.” The Pennsylvania-based Bailey family and owners of other smaller portions of the peninsula held out for a high price, and in 1911, four years after the land was annexed to Seattle, the city stuck to its vision. Leveraging condemnation and court proceedings, the city bought the parcel for a whopping $322,000.
Crucial to the pristine peninsula’s appeal was its size: nearly 200 acres. Instantly it became the city’s largest park. Boosters called it “a wonder of the West.” No surprise, then, that the city named it for statesman William H. Seward.
In 1867, as President Andrew Johnson’s secretary of state, Seward had purchased for the United States (from Russia) the enormous Alaska territory. A white expansionist, Seward drew native criticism near Ketchikan, but his endearment to Seattle grew after the late 1890s, when the city exploded as the jumping-off point for the Gold Rush, which lured 100,000 prospectors through Alaskan ports.
Like a thumb penetrating Lake Washington, Seward Park always has embodied unusual geography. In early days during spring runoff, water covered its isthmus, and the peninsula became an island. But when the new Lake Washington Ship Canal dropped the lake level by 9 feet in 1916, any future island status evaporated.
From planning to politics, from geology to greenery, emphasizing the beloved park’s diversity of uses and users, its story is told precisely and pictorially in the 336-page coffee-table book “Wild Isle in the City: Tales from Seward Park’s First 100 Years,” published last fall by Friends of Seward Park. Even read with bifocals, it’s clearly a validation of vision.