Thursday, July 7, 2016

What And Where Is The "Town of Yesler" In Laurelhurst? Local Historians Provide Detailed History

The Laurelhurst Community Club (LCC) often refers to a specific part of the neighborhood of Laurelhurst as "the Town of Yesler."

Over the years, many neighbors have written to the Laurelhurst Blog asking what this means.

One Laurelhurst Blog reader wrote:

Would you please tell me what is meant by the Town of Yesler? We have lived in our home on 42nd Avenue NE since 1971.  I had not heard that expression before reading it in the Laurelhurst Blog and the LCC newsletter. 

LCC told the Laurelhurst Blog Staff that the Town of Yesler is the area of the neighborhood behind the Laurelhurst business district adjacent to the Talaris campus.  

The Laurelhurst Business district runs from NE 45th Street/Sand Point Way where Pro Robics is located and includes all the businesses on that side of the street only to the end of the block at Five Corners where the Tennis Shop is.  

All businesses directly across the street, such as St. Helens, Uncle Lee's restaurant and others are not in the Laurelhurst business district, but are in the Bryant neighborhood business district.

Here is a post from Eleanor Boba, who lives in Northeast Seattle and is a public historian who writes and blogs about "historic places off the beaten path and other curious matters" as she told the Laurelhurst Blog Staff.


On New Year’s Day, 1890, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an article touting the benefits of purchasing property at Ravenna Park, north of the city limits. To bolster the argument, the article pointed to the settlement of Yesler as a neighboring thriving community:

“Yesler Mill, a settlement of some sixty houses, with ice factory, church and stores -- just a little east from the Park -- is doing a flourishing business and affords us lumber at $1 per thousand [board feet] cheaper than other mills.”

Since the town of Yesler had only been platted two years earlier, it is unlikely that all “sixty houses,” church, and stores were in evidence.

The community which would be variously known as the Town of Yesler, Yesler Mill, Yesler Junction, or simply Yesler -- was laid out in 1888 as something like a company town to support Henry Yesler’s second mill on the north shore of Union Bay. The town father himself passed away in 1892 and had little to do with the mill operations.
The plat application for the Town of Yesler includes a rough map of the community, with these words written by hand: "Know all men by these presents that the Yesler Wood Coal and Lumber Co. by its president H.L. Yesler and its secretary J.D. Lowman both of the City of Seattle County of King Territory of Washington has laid out and platted this town of Yesler as hereby shown and described and hereby dedicate it to the use of the public forever all the Streets platted therein." (Signed and notarized September 6, 1988)

The mill never had anywhere near the prominence of the first Yesler Mill on Elliott Bay which was a key element in the development of Seattle. The researcher finds scant resources to sketch out the history of the second Yesler Mill. Much of what follows relies on deductions from a handful of references in newspapers, property records, and secondary accounts.


The 12 blocks that make up what is now called Yesler Addition are directly west of the Belvoir Addition to Laurelhurst. A number of homes found in the plat date to the period before annexation by Seattle in 1910; a few appear unaltered today!


Kroll Map, 1920, shows the Town of Yesler with some 32 homes built – one third of the available parcels. Small structures are marked on the grounds of the Yesler Logging Company.

The mill was built on the north shore of Union Bay on Lake Washington on the property that is now the University of Washington’s Urban Horticulture Center and the adjacent Yesler Swamp, west of Laurelhurst. Equipment was probably transferred to the location from the original Yesler Mill in Seattle which had burned down in 1887. Yesler and his associates seem to have anticipated the devastation wrought two years later by the Great Seattle Fire!

Like other lake mills, the Yesler Mill took timber harvested in the hinterlands and processed it into lumber for both local use and export. Long-time area resident Jim Thompson remembers hearing about the logistics: "Logs were towed from the log boom where the apartments are now on the north side of Madison [Park] and then positioned in the mill run for the recut at the mill. These were four to five feet in diameter or larger and sometimes 100 feet-plus long. Thus they were very difficult to maneuver" (Thompson, 2010).

This photo from the collection of the Seattle Public Library is dated 1893, two years prior to the 1895 fire. The railroad is apparent in the background. What appears to be a small church appears at the far right hand. This may have been the Yesler Junction Church.

Soon after the mill was established a spur railroad line was put in to connect the mill to the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Rail line, now the Burke-Gilman Trail. An 1893 photo of the mill from the collection of the Seattle Public Library shows a rail bed extending out over the waters of the bay, a large mill building with smokestack, and a number of small structures, including a church, on the hillside. A plume of smoke shows the route of an outbound train. 

A train connection allowed the mill to ship lumber to eastern markets which were greedy for Pacific Northwest timber. A newspaper article from August 1895 details the junket of a group of Wisconsin lumbermen to Seattle: "The party was tendered the use of the steamer Enigma by the Great Western Lumber and Supply Company. A trip was taken around the lake and a stop made at Yesler to inspect the lumber mill there" ("Lumbermen seeing the City").

Maps of the day are not always reliable; however, we see the railway spur on maps from 1890 (O.P. Anderson and Co., Seattle and Environs) and 1895 (Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Company, Guide Map to Seattle), but the Baist Maps, beginning in 1905, show no spur. The apparent loss of direct rail transportation for lumber up to the main line is one indication that things did not always run smoothly at Yesler Mill.

Baist Map, 1908, UW Special Collections. This map demonstrates how, prior to the cutting of the ship canal, the waters of Union Bay lapped up to and across a portion of E. 41st at high tide.

Men, women, and a child atop logs at the Yesler Mill on Union Bay. Photo dated 1893, Courtesy of Seattle Public Library. 


Fire was the enemy of all sawmills. A catastrophic fire of unknown cause devastated the mill in 1895, only seven years after it was established. A lengthy article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on September 17 of that year described the chaos:

“YESLER MILL BURNED. Devouring Flames consume the Plant and Lumber Yard. The Town Narrowly Escapes. Employes (sic] Can Do Nothing but Watch Mill and Lumber Burn.

The entire plant of the Yesler mill at the town of Yesler, on a spur of the Lake Shore road, was destroyed by fire last night, together with nearly the whole stock of lumber, the wharf and eight cars of the lake Shore road. The fire burned so fiercely that the flames were visible throughout the city and for miles around and it was thought that the whole town of Yesler had been destroyed….Fire was discovered at 11 o’clock by the night watchman in the dry kiln. The watchman blew the whistle and in a few minutes a large crowd had gathered, but the fire spread with wonderful rapidity, and in a few minutes the entire mill was in flames."

The reporters on the scene were able to give a rip-roaring first person account of the conflagration:

“About this time a wind from the south sprang up, driving the men away from the lumber back among the houses on the hill. The timbers began to fall and broke the water pipe, leaving the men helpless. The flames at this point were leaping into the air full seventy-five feet and the heat was terrific. Standing on the tracks were six logging cars and two box cars belonging to the Lake Shore road, two of which were loaded ready to ship East: one had logs aboard and the others were empty. As the flooring timbers were burned away these eight cars crashed down into the lake. About the same time the boilers and engine were heard to fall.
In about thirty minutes there was nothing left of the mill but a few smoking timbers. The fire confined itself then to the immense piles of lumber, and gradually ate its way toward the office.
So rapid was the progress of the fire that one of the men, H. Butler, at work on the wharf was cut off from escape and had to jump into the water. He seized a boom chain and hung on until he was rescued.” 

The report goes on to relate how the fire eventually burned itself out “chiefly for lack of further food,” and how water from the neighboring ice plant saved some lumber piles and the mill post office building.

Reporting in the days following the fire focused on the untangling of insurance claims and the burning question: would the mill be rebuilt?

It is clear from the newspaper accounts that there was more than one going concern on the mill property at the time of the fire. This was not a company town in the traditional sense. Portions of the mill property were leased to the Great Western Lumber and Supply Company, sponsors of the Enigma trip, while the ice company also appeared to be an independent entity. Other claims were less clear: “There appears to be some doubt as to the proprietorship of the wharf and dock burned, and it will probably be some days before a full adjustment of the losses can be reached.” (Seattle P-I, September 18, 1895, p.8) 

A bulletin in the same paper three weeks later reports that “A.H Ruelle, of Ruelle Bros, lessees of the Yesler mill, at Yesler, recently destroyed by fire, is now in the East closing accounts of the firm. He expects to make arrangements before his return to erect a new mill, probably on the site of the old.” (Seattle P-I, October 6, 1895, p. 8.)

The receivers of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railway also suffered losses, as described in the P-I article of September 18, 1895. In addition to the train cars lost, it is likely that a good portion of the spur line was damaged or destroyed. Since the spur line disappears from maps soon after this date, one might conclude that the line was never rebuilt.


Various sources refer to the Seattle Ice Company, Union Ice Company, or Lake Union Ice Company sharing quarters with the Yesler Mill. In the days before home refrigeration, companies that delivered blocks of ice to your door were an indispensable part of the community.

A section of the Sanborn Fire Insurance map for 1893, two years before the fire, shows several structures of the Union Ice Company, including freezing tanks, ice storage, and oil storage.

The Sanborn map provides intimate details of the workings of the ice company. It had the capacity to produce 20 tons of ice per day, pumping water directly from Lake Washington into 7500 gallon tanks, 16 feet tall. The plant was in operation day and night in summer; closed in the winter. Being a fire map, Sanborn goes on to tell us, somewhat prophetically, “The station pump [will] supply sawmill with pressure in case of fire.” The Sanborn notes conclude that the building is “substantial, premises tidy.” (Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, Seattle, 1893, Vol. 2, Sheet 55a)

This small snippet of map may be the best depiction we have of the mill property in the few years it was active before the 1895 conflagration. The diagram also shows the route of the railroad spur, a “Yessler [sic] W. C. & L. Co. boarding hotel,” lumber runs, planked roadbeds, and a combination office and post office.

The lengthy article describing the fire in the P-I also gives a snapshot look at operations at the mill:

“[The mill] had a capacity of 75,000 feet in 12 hours and employs 36 men. It was a two-story structure with the sawmill on the upper floor and planing mill and engine room on the lower floor. It contained two double circular saws, an Allis edger, two large wood planers, a sticker, a shingle machine and a lath machine, a Corliss engine and a Noyle engine, two large boilers, an Allis steam setwork with twin engine…Of the 1,000,000 feet of lumber in the yard, only 15,000 to 20,000 was saved.


The years between 1895 and 1912 are somewhat hazy. All sources agree that at some point a shingle mill was constructed on the property. One encounters the term “Yesler Mill” in newspaper articles and on maps as late as 1918. Whether the mill was operated by the Yesler Logging Company or an affiliate during this period is not clear. It is possible that the term “Yesler Mill” was just a comfortable moniker.

Beginning in 1912 the researcher finds references to a Two Lakes Mill which manufactured shingles at Yesler Station and maintained an office in the downtown Henry Building. Articles of Incorporation for the Two Lakes Mill were filed August 24, 1912. Newspaper ads include the following:

“Wanted: shingle bolts and stumpage near Lake Washington at once. Two Lakes Mill Co.” (1912)

“Wanted: to let contract for hauling several hundred cords shingle bolts, Two Lakes Mill Co.” (1913)

“Shingle your house all over with shingles made in Seattle. Inquire about our four grades and prices. Two Lakes Mill Co.” (1916)

The 1918 Polk City Directory contains a bolded listing for Two Lakes Mill: “Mnfrs of High Grade Premium Red Cedar Shingles.” However, the very next year the listing had been reduced to two words -- “wholesale shingles” -- perhaps indicating a downturn in the business.

Any doubt that we are talking about the same property where the Yesler Mill stood is laid to rest by an annotated diagram in the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map for 1919 showing the workings of “Union Bay Shingle Co./Two Lakes Mill Co’s Shingle Mill.” Notes on the diagram indicate that the mill had a capacity of 105,000 shingles in eight hours, that there was a night watchman, and that water was taken from Union Bay.

The question of corporate names does not die easily. In 1917, The University District Herald, under the headline “Yesler Mill Running,” reported “This mill has been idle for some time and it is indeed good to see the wheels turning again. It furnishes work for a bunch of men who are causing their earning to benefit Yesler in general.” (July 27, 1917) On April 25, 1918, The Seattle Daily Times reported that a shed had been destroyed by fire at the Yesler Mill Company plant, but that the mill itself was saved by the fire department.

The mill may have dodged this bullet in 1918, but most sources agree that the mill buildings succumbed to fire sometime in the 1920s. Long-time resident Jim Thompson (born 1923) remembers seeing the mill burn as a young boy about 1928 or 1929. There would be no rebuilding this time. It is likely that the cutting of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1916, and the subsequent lowering of Lake Washington, made it just that much harder to run a lumber mill of any kind.

As the lake waters receded, they left the mill wharf high and somewhat dry and the mill pond only slightly damp. At some point an attempt was made to dredge a channel into the bay in order to make the mill run viable again. This last ditch effort must have had only limited success. While some lake mills may have benefited from access to the big steamers that the cut afforded, the Yesler Mill, on a shallow bay made even shallower by the cut, was already too low in the water to make that leap. The mill's loss was the U Dub's gain. All the mill acreage, as well as most of the newly exposed wetlands at Union Bay, was acquired by the university with new uses in mind. 


In 1971 not-yet-famous author Ivan Doig wrote a piece for The Seattle Daily Times based on the recollections of his neighbor in the area known as Exposition Heights overlooking University Village shopping center. Bill Lozott, Doig’s informant, recalls going down to the dredged mill channel to swim after a hard day’s work in the mid-1920s. 

In 2010, Jim Thompson, shared memories with the Friends of the Yesler Swamp and in 2016 spoke with this author. Both Lozott and Thompson recalled sawdust piles on the old mill site that would smoke and occasionally combust on hot days. Thompson remembers that the mill run “was dug deep enough to accommodate a tug;” he and his pals kept a very small sailboat, “the tar baby,” in the mill run.

"My friend John found this old boat in the swamp. At that time they were building 43rd NE. Part of what they were doing to build it -- they had tar. So John and I went up and secured the tar, brought it down, melted it, and used it to caulk the boat somewhat. It was just a little throwaway. About a 10 or 14 foot little sailboat. So we went sailing. I was in my very best clothes -- and we tipped over! So I’m swimming in a brand new suit of woolen clothes.I had to throw them away, of course." (Thompson, 2016)

The dredged mill run can be clearly seen about center in this aerial from 1937. Even after the mill closed, neighbors attempted to keep the run open for boat launches. The channel eventually was abandoned to the encroaching wetland now known as Yesler Swamp. Image Courtesy University of Washington Special Collections.


While the mill at Yesler struggled, the town originally platted to support mill operations thrived. As the City of Seattle grew up around the small community, lines were blurred and inevitably the 12 blocks that made up Yesler were annexed to the city in 1910. Institutions that had been established during frontier days became part of the urban fabric.


The first church in Yesler was the Yesler Junction Church, a Methodist or Methodist Presbyterian congregation. The church is listed in the Polk Directory as early as 1899 and appears on the Kroll Map for 1914. Note that in the Kroll Map for 1920, pictured earlier, the church is gone.

The 1914 map also shows another church in the neighborhood to the north of the original Yesler plat, on E. 50th Street near the corner of 36th Avenue NE (now NE 50th).The Yesler Presbyterian Church is listed in the Polk City Directories between 1910 and 1927. “Come in Crowds.” So read an advertisement for services at the church in 1923 (Seattle Times). “Hear J.C. Kellog, every day except Monday.” Other events at the church, advertised in the daily newspaper included an Easter social and bazaar (1911), an address by a missionary to Alaska (1915), and a program by the Christian Endeavor Society, including music and Japanese decorations (1923).

Property record photo showing Laurel Church, circa 1937. Image courtesy of Puget Sound Regional Branch, Washington State Archives.

In the photo above it is clear that in 1937 the structure is still being used as a church, here called “Laurel Church” according to the sign to the right of the doorway. At some point subsequent to this the structure was converted to a private residence which still stands, although much disguised. The floor plan of the Laurel Church, included in the property records at the Washington State Regional Archives, was voided in 1968, perhaps giving a clue to the approximate date the building was converted to a private home.

Image courtesy of Puget Sound Regional Branch, Washington State Archives.

The newly built Yesler School in 1893, with hipped roof and bell tower. Apparently each of the two classrooms had its own entry. Courtesy of MOHAI, Image No. 5568


A community needs a school and such was established in 1892. The Yesler School was the only school in the appropriately named Yesler School District. Building for Learning, the published history of the Seattle School District, tells us that the structure was a one-room schoolhouse designed by John Parkinson, later expanded to two rooms. Like the Presbyterian church, the Yesler School was built north of the mill and the residential community, on 36th Avenue NE just north of (N)E 47th Street.

In Ivan Doig’s 1971 article, he recounts Bill Lozott’s memories of attending the school:

“From his hillside, the schoolboy trudged down to class in the village of Yesler. He went by one wagon road; the team and stage bringing his classmates form Sand Point clattered along another. Across the street from the Yesler School sometimes he saw the blacksmith shoeing horses, working the old hand bellows to heat the metal into a magical soft brightness.” (Doig, “The home-town boy,” Seattle Daily Times, April 18, 1971)

Doig's prose makes Lozott's commute to school sound formidable; in fact it was probably less than ten minutes each way. Other students, however, came by wagon road from as far away as the Pontiac community on the Sand Point peninsula or followed the train tracks from Laurelhurst/Hawthorne Hills.

According to Building for Learning, the school closed in 1918 and students moved to the new Bryant School a half-mile north. (On the 1920 Kroll Map the new school is labeled Yesler-Ravenna Public School, a name used for planning purposes.) However, the Yesler School continues to appear in Polk Directories through 1927, after which it was torn down. Its use during these intervening years remains to be uncovered.

Students of various ages and teachers at the Yesler School, 1912. Photo. E.H. Curtis. Courtesy of MOHAI, Image No. 11609

Baist Map, 1908, showing Yesler Public School at left. The Yesler Presbyterian Church appears at the top center. The area shown is roughly three blocks north of the northern edge of the Town of Yesler, and one quarter mile east of today’s University Village.


A community’s post office was a critical nerve center in those days. The community of Yesler was officially granted a substation by the Seattle Post Office in 1898, although a station had existed since 1890. 

The Yesler post office continued in operation until 1917, although not in the same place. Because the mail was carried by train, the post office had by necessity to be located close to the rails. With information gleaned from the Polk City Directories and from the publication Postmarked Washington: King County, we can roughly trace the journey of the Yesler post office, first from a mill boarding house in 1890 (probably the boarding hotel on the Sanborn map,) to the mill property itself in 1893 (also on the Sanborn map), to a candy store run by Mrs. Julietta Harden on (N)E 43rd Street, two blocks north of the mill in 1903, to its final location at the corner of 36th (N)E and 45th Street, just a stone’s throw from the main line of the railroad, now the Burke Gilman Trail. It appears that once the spur line to the mill was demolished, the post office moved ever closer to the main line.The last Yesler Postmaster was Mrs. Ellen Donnelly, who also ran a store called “Dry Goods and Notions” by Polk and referred to as a “small knick knack shop” by Postmarked Washington. Mrs. Donnelly’s tenure as postmaster seems to have run approximately 1910 to 1917. The address given for her shop, 4510 36th (N)E, no longer exists. However, the building at 4500 36th NE, on the corner immediately across from the railroad bed stills stands. Built in 1900 according to King County property records, the building was clearly used as a shop. It is tempting to identify this as the site of Mrs. Donnelly’s shop and post office.

This photo, taken circa 1937, as part of a property survey, appears to show the shop windows papered over. Today the shop windows and entryway have been removed and the structure is divided into apartments. Image courtesy of Puget Sound Regional Branch, Washington State Archives.

Postmarked Washington tells us that Mr. and Mrs. Donnelly had “a dog trained to retrieve and bring back the mail sack” from what must have been a whistle stop on the railroad. “Mail was tossed from the moving trains and dispatch mail picked up at a trackside crane. This happened twice a day as the train went north and on the southbound trip.”


Today remnants of the Town of Yesler survive, while the land that held the Yesler Mill on Union Bay has continued on a path of transformation -- from sawmill to shingle mill to University housing to research center. The surrounding acres, once part of Lake Washington, became a literal dumping ground for the growing city until being returned to something like a natural setting: swamp, wetland, and upland managed by the University of Washington. All this is a story for another day.


Sources include:

  • Christine Barrett, A History Of Laurelhurst, 1981.
  • Lucile McDonald, The Lake Washington Story, 1979.
  • Carolyn J. Marr and Nile Thompson, Building for Learning: Seattle Public School Histories, 1862-2000, 2002.
  • Guy Reed Ramsey, Postmarked Washington: King County (self-published?), 1966.
  • The website of the Friends of Yesler Swamp:
  • Valerie Bunn's blogspot:
  • Various articles from The Seattle Times, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and The University District Herald, including: Ivan Doig, “The home-town boy,” Seattle [Daily]Times, April 18, 1971.
  • Special Collections, University of Washington, including historic maps collection
  • Puget Sound Regional Branch, Washington State Archives, property and corporate records.
  • Memories of Jim Thompson, courtesy of Friends of the Yesler Swamp, 2010, and interview with Eleanor Boba, 2016.

Here is information posted by the Friends of Yesler Swamp about the Town of Yesler:

In 1888, Yesler platted the Town of Yesler to provide housing for the mill workers. The town was laid out to the north of the mill and to the northwest of Yesler Swamp. The town extended from its south border on Front Street (now NE 41st Street) to Wilkes Street on the west (now approximately the western border of Talaris) and north to Railroad Street (now NE 45th Street).

Plat of Town of Yesler

Homes were built, and the Town of Yesler became a thriving community. Some of the original houses are still standing.

Photo courtesy of Paul Dorpat

The Town of Yesler post office opened in 1890 with Theron W. Peck as the first postmaster. Peck distributed the mail for sawmill workers from a boarding house that he ran.[32] One lot in the Town of Yesler was also set aside in 1891 for a church.[33]
In 1892, Yesler School District No. 77 opened a one room schoolhouse for the children in the Town of Yesler.[34] Children from Laurelhurst also attended Yesler School, which they reached by walking west across Yesler Creek.[35]

Photo courtesy of Paul Dorpat

In 1910, Seattle incorporated the Town of Yesler as part of the city.[36] Henry Yesler died before the town became a thriving community, but his legacy survives in the neighborhood still designated as the “Town of Yesler Addition.”[37]

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