STEPPING ASHORE ON Mercer Island, my friend Mark and I were thrilled by our discovery. Both 13, we were keen to explore and plunder. Before us stretched acres of golden, waist-high grass, dotted with fruit trees and thorny Himalayan blackberry bushes, as well as crumbling old buildings promising untold treasures.
On this early summer 1970 day, we had paddled from Bellevue’s Enatai Beach, passing under arches of the old East Channel bridge (just days earlier, on a dare, we had leapt from the span’s deck), then muscling north to the grounds of evidently abandoned Luther Burbank Park. We did not know we were repeating a journey in reverse made 66 years earlier.
Just past midnight on a cold, wet November night in 1904, 13-year-olds William Kiger and Albert Cook, wearing only their skivvies and chained together with ankle manacles, cradled the shackles to stop them clanking. Labeled incorrigible “bad boys,” they were forging a second attempt to escape from Maj. Cicero Newell’s Industrial School, which recently had relocated to a dozen rural acres on Mercer Island’s north shore.
William and Albert crept out of the recently built dormitory and down to the water’s edge. Having earlier noted a neighbor’s decrepit rowboat tied up nearby, the boys clambered in and pushed out into the channel.
“For hours they paddled, making little headway,” The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported. “Several times their frail little craft came near swamping, and one of the boys had to bail water to prevent it from going to the bottom. Soon after dawn, the boys, exhausted and all but unconscious, made land opposite the island on the east shore of the lake.”
Sympathetic Northern Pacific belt-line workers used hammers and chisels to cut off the teens’ leg chains and wrapped the pair in borrowed jackets.
Newell (1840-1913), a Civil War veteran commended for bravery by President Abraham Lincoln and respected among the Sioux as an Indian agent, had arrived in Seattle in the early 1890s. With his wife, Emma, he founded the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society, sheltering “homeless, neglected and abused children.” They garnered strong community support, including a Seattle School Board eager for solutions to a growing problem.
Early in the 20th century, however, Newell’s increasingly punitive methods, including beatings and chaining, drew increased scrutiny and criticism. Following newspaper accounts and public outcry, Newell was quietly replaced as school principal in spring 1905.
William and Albert were not recaptured, according to the P-I story. “The boys were allowed to go on their way. Nothing has been seen of them since.”
William Kiger became a Seattle truck driver with a large extended family. He died in 1962. No further record can be found of Albert Cook.