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Re:Take: What to call Capitol Hill when you arrive in 1885

Seattle Municipal Archives

Harrison east from Federal, 1899 by Seattle Municipal Archives (image 7292) and 2015 by a three-year-old.

This is it. 2015. The year Marty McFly goes back to the future. Hoverboards, flying cars, compression suits. We all know Capitol Hill of 2015, and some of us were even born before 1985. But what about the dusty, lawless world from 1885 until Capitol Hill became Capitol Hill in 1901?

When you hit 88 miles per hour you need to know enough to not cause a paradox that erases your existence or rips apart our universe. When you time travel back it’s okay to talk about Sherlock Holmes since he was newly in print (but don’t mention that you attended Sherlock Con). Bring your Indian head pennies and three-cent nickels. But mainly, never, ever refer to the neighborhood as “Capitol Hill”.

So where will you be back then?

Most of what you call Capitol Hill was open wilderness until the early 1900s. No one had a reason to talk about it so it didn’t have a definite name.

Koch Map, Library of Congress

Looking northeast at Capitol Hill with Second Hill on the far right. Library of Congress, 1891

“Nagle’s place” probably sufficed until John Nagle was committed to the Fort Steilacoom insane asylum in 1874. He lived on a large land claim from what we know as Harvard to 14th, Union to Thomas. In 1880, David Denny sold off part of Nagle’s land after subdividing it and sparse settlement began. In 1890 he sold more. Maybe call it “Nagle’s Addition” when you arrive in 1885.

The street names we know were assigned in 1895. Before that Nagle’s land had chaotic names like Choat, Randolph, Jones, Bancroft, Gould and Hayes. Gould presumably after Union Pacific Railroad owner Jay Gould. Hayes after U.S. President Rutherford B. Hayes. But the rest? You’d best just take a note back with you from the future.

Change came with the Madison cable car in 1889. That year William Renton subdivided his land at what-we-call Howell to Marion, 14th to 23rd. His street names didn’t match Denny’s, so you could walk on Knight, Filbert, Division, Blakely, Clara, Hyde, Chestnut, Joy, Rose, Mastick, Adams or Talbot before 1895. The property was called Renton’s Addition or the Renton Tract. Use the name “Second Hill” in 1885, but after 1889 the names Renton Hill and Second Hill are interchangeable.

(Marty McFly’s Hill Valley had a Monroe Avenue, which coincidentally was the name of Boylston.)

Northeast towards Renton Hill with Madison crossing, 1889

Northeast from First Hill towards Renton Hill with Madison crossing, maybe 1890. (Seattle Public Library)

Activity centered on the Pontius family’s plats. They owned and developed from Pontius Avenue down in the Cascade neighborhood all the way up to 14th, and from Roy to Thomas. South to Denny in some spots. But they focused along the Broadway streetcar, improving the land, building houses and steadily selling a new neighborhood from 1891. Early on, real estate ads clinically referred to the area as the Pontius 2nd Addition or F. Pontius Addition or by the handful of other sub-division names. Later they became collectively known as “Pontius lots”, but throughout they were described as the Broadway district. On rare occasion this area was mentioned as Broadway Hill.

Broadway was touted as Seattle's #3 residential neighborhood after First Hill and Renton Hill in this 1899 ad (Seattle P-I, Chronicling America)

Broadway was touted as Seattle’s #3 residential neighborhood after First Hill and Renton Hill in this 1899 ad (Seattle P-I, Chronicling America)

The 1890s Seattle Post-Intelligencer has a whole lot more results for Broadway Hill in Aberdeen than in Seattle. The scarce mentions seem more easily attributed to a realtor that was new to our city. The idea has merit, though. An 1890s commuter would have returned home to “Broadway Hill” from the south, riding streetcars from the cables on First Hill. From James and Madison cables, Broadway dips from First Hill to Pike, then rise up again to Denny — and you’re on top of the hill.

So to be safe, you should not talk about the plateau from Denny to Roy when you arrive in 1885. After the street is graded in 1891 call it the Broadway district, or even Broadway Hill if that is your preference. If your conversation partner is confused, explain it as the Broadway area of the Pontius additions.

During this period, the future Capitol Hill development was owned by a retired sailor in San Francisco. He dusted off his uniform for the Spanish-American War, which led to his death in 1900. His heirs quickly sold the property, finally allowing it to be turned into a new neighborhood. It landed in the hands of James A. Moore and he divided it up as the Capitol Hill Tract.

It took until 1955 for Marty McFly’s ancestor’s Hill Valley to get their high-end neighborhood Lyon Estates. But for us the sprinkling of fine houses from the previous decade were outshined by Capitol Hill in 1901. For forty years Broadway and Capitol Hill were the memorable names on the front of streetcars, but gradually the latter won out. By now there are probably people who refer to Eastlake as part of Capitol Hill. At this rate, in the (possibly non-canonical BTTF: The Animated Series) 2091 future of Marty’s descendant starship captain Marta McFly, Seattle will all be called Capitol Hill.

Jackie Williams’ Hill with a Future and the 19th century Seattle P-I on Chronicling America were referenced for this article. Rob has a book, Lost Seattle, that you can find at Elliott Bay or the re-opened Capitol Hill library.

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17 thoughts on “Re:Take: What to call Capitol Hill when you arrive in 1885

  1. At what point would you no longer be in the Cascade, walking up the hill? Wasn’t thestreet named for Pontius originally further up the hill?

    • The boundary may have changed over time. I think the cliff from Eastlake to Melrose would have been the clear dividing line early on. After Lakeview was cut through, I’m not sure if Cascade bled up the hill. In about 1910 the Summit neighborhood took off, which would sit in between Broadway and Cascade — I haven’t determined if the area was called Summit before that.

      Which all goes to say, there is plenty of fertile ground for researching the origins of boundaries of Capitol Hill’s early sub-neighborhoods and surroundings.

      The same is true for Beacon Hill, and probably many other areas of Seattle.

    • Also, I need to check my notes, but I think I was referring to today-Pontius.

      You’re right that it changed. Today-Pontius was Lincoln until 1895. Then-Pontius changed to Melrose (north of Denny) in 1895. The Pontius additions had street names yet again different from surrounding development until 1895. The bit that irritated city leaders most was the numerical naming of east-west streets. For example, Republican was Fifth Street.

  2. Great article… loved it!

    My home (over on 24th, a bit north of Madison) was built in 1901. Any tips on resources to learn more about the history of my specific portion of the Capitol Hill neighborhood?

    Would love to know more about the first folks to setup homes, etc.


    • Well Done,

      The Seattle Public Library staff have put together this very thorough guide to researching house histories,

      If I were to pick four things I’d say:
      1) Use your library card to log in to the historic Seattle Times, and search for your address.
      2) Find your home in the King County Parcel Viewer, and look at the “Legal” column. This usually includes the name of the plat. Search the internet and then historic Seattle Times (ads) to find out information about this addition.
      3) If you don’t find anything about the addition in #2, click the link on the right bottom of Parcel Viewer to find the original plat map. It includes the the person who filed for the plat, year of filing, etc. You can search for information about the filer at least.
      4) With the parcel number from Parcel Viewer you can visit the state archives at Bellevue College or pay them to find the property file and scan the documents and photos. If you have an hour, a laptop, and a scanner you can carry it’s worth going yourself.

      There is lots of other good info to be had. If you find something about your plat/addition in the old papers and didn’t find anything useful online like on Historylink, I suggest writing a community post on Capitol Hill Blog to share info with your neighborhood.

      • The library also has old city directories, and with some cross-indexing you can usually figure out who lived in your house over time and often where they worked.

  3. Fascinating article, Robert….especially enjoyed seeing that old photo on Harrison & Federal, as I live around the corner from that location.

    I’ve been curious about the derivation of “Cherry Hill,” which is where Swedish is located (formerly Providence). Was it one of the original hills of Seattle (First, Queen Anne, Capitol etc.)? Having lived almost my whole life in Seattle, I had never heard that area called Cherry Hill until Swedish located there and renamed the hospital.

    Thanks so much!

    • I believe that area’s historical name is Renton Hill or Second Hill as mentioned in the article. I believe the “Cherry Hill” name is much more modern and in reference to the main thoroughfare in that area – Cherry Street.

    • The name “Cherry Hill” was invented in January 1959. It was used to describe the area of an urban renewal project that stretched from 18th to 23rd, Yesler to Cherry. A 1/21/1959 Seattle Times article clearly said that Seattle City Councilmember Harlan H. Edwards suggested the name because residents were planning to plant a number of cherry trees.

      Previously Cherry Hill in Seattle referred to the home of grocer Charles Louch in the Rainier Valley. I wrote an essay about that on my site,

      Nationally Cherry Hill was a common name, and it became the name of an estate in the area between Bellevue and Kirkland that was later turned into suburban housing, and another suburban tract in Lynnwood at least.

      The area that was renamed Cherry Hill in 1959 was part of the Second Hill or Renton Hill ridge. If it needed a unique name, Squire Park Hill or Walla Walla Hill would have been perfectly fine. Squire Park is still today a unique neighborhood. I don’t know when the neighborhood name Walla Walla went away, but it remained on the community playfield until 1923 when Garfield HS was built and named and the adjacent playfield renamed.

      Apparently the definition of Cherry Hill has bled out across Second Hill over time. The Wikipedia entry describes it going all the way to Madison. I’m not sure if that is an official City of Seattle definition or not.

      It’s very difficult but entertaining to try and understand how people talked about living in our city 50, 100, 150 years ago. Transportation — movement through the city — shapes perception of topography and the beginning and end of places. So many names that we use now meant something quite different in the past.

  4. Fascinating article. I love the whimsical premise. Ketcherside’s history vividly illustrates just how young our neighborhood and city are. The lost street names are particularly interesting.

    But given the influx of Big Money reshaping the Hill, a time traveler to the neighborhood’s future might discover that it’s been renamed “Capital Hill.”

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