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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 Comments
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Ryan Packer
Ryan Packer
5 years ago

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?

C. da Silva
C. da Silva
5 years ago

Great piece, very clever and enjoyable writing. Thank you!

Well Done
Well Done
5 years ago

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.

Thanks!

Well Done
Well Done
5 years ago

Fantastic! Really appreciate you taking the time to provide that direction!

clew
clew
5 years ago

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.

Bob Knudson
Bob Knudson
5 years ago

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!

Bryan
Bryan
5 years ago
Reply to  Bob Knudson

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.

etaoin shrdlu
etaoin shrdlu
5 years ago

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.”

jseattle
Admin
5 years ago
Reply to  etaoin shrdlu

I knew your punchline was coming — C+

Lyn
Lyn
5 years ago

Love to see this stuff. Great job

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[…] A look back: Take a walk back in time to 1885 and see what Capitol Hill was like. […]

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[…] in the early 1890s as part of the Broadway section of the Pontius Additions, which was unveiled in last month’s time trip. By the 1910s the block was completely filled with […]