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Seward Park Peninsula

This is a brief history of the Seward Park Peninsula or Bailey Peninsula as it is sometimes called. This illustrated map and article are from the archives of our predecessor organization, the Pioneers of Columbia City, an organization that was formed when the first lots were sold there in April of 1891.  

In 1993, the “Pioneers of Columbia City” changed their name to “Rainier Valley Historical Society”  and, by deed of gift, gave the “Historical Society” their extensive archival collection of Rainier Valley history acquired during their 110 year existence.  The archives were named the “Hall - Summers Collection” in memory of two of the Pioneers of Columbia City’s historians, Ruth Hall and Carey Summers. This article and map were found when we began to catalog their archival collection. 

In writing this article I have taken the liberty of adding some relevant information from our files to give a broader picture of Seward Park’s colorful history, particularly in regard to the Rainier District Pow Wow.  An annual summer event, the Pow Wow spanned a period of 56 years, undoubtedly the park’s major event.  

RVHS Phot: 1993.008.0001

As Seattle grew outward from the shores of Elliot Bay, the distant Bailey Peninsula remained in its wilderness state. Indian fishing and hunting parties undoubtedly visited it before the arrival of white settlers, for it abounded with wildlife.

In the 1880s, a Frenchman supposedly built the first homestead in the vicinity of the present amphitheater. In 1886, the peninsula was bought by Walter Graham who sold it soon afterward to a man named Philip Ritz. Ritz in turn sold the peninsula to realtor William E. Bailey in1890. Owing to Bailey’s prominence as owner of the Press-Time newspaper (now the Seattle Times), it became known as Bailey’s Peninsula.

But the peninsula was still too far from town to be of much profit to Bailey, and in 1892 Seattle Park Superintendent E. O. Schwagerl proposed that the city buy it as part of its first Comprehensive Plan. Many argued that the peninsula was too far from town, but Schwagerl knew better. Luckily, his opinion was backed by the Olmsted Brothers as they developed a plan for  Seattle’s parks in 1903. In 1911, the city bought the peninsula for $322,000 and named it after William H. Seward, the Secretary of State who was responsible for America’s Purchase of Alaska in 1867. (Ironically, the statue of Seward stands in Volunteer Park.) 

Development of the park was slow at first.  The Olmsteds recommended only improvements that would fit in well with the natural setting.  The city built a pier for steamers and began filling in the marshy neck to prevent the peninsula from becoming an island during the seasonal rises in the lake level. In 1917, the lowering of Lake Washington by construction of the Ship Canal exposed the wide grassy meadow that now leads to the swimming beach. 

In 1919, more boat docking and a plank roadway from Seattle, (now Rainier Avenue),  increased the popularity of the park, and large numbers of people began congregating there. Over the years , it has become a favorite picnic site for scout troops and ethnic groups. For example, Seattle Filipinos, who have picnicked in the park for many years, named Pinoy Hill; and the Campfire girls, who have also had countless gatherings here, have built a symbolic campfire circle near the south shore. 

The bathhouse was constructed in 1927 to allow increasing throngs to change clothes and shower in privacy. The fish-rearing ponds were built in 1935 as part of an effort to make Lake Washington a “fisherman’s paradise.” But as the human throngs increased, wildlife began to wane. In 1941, the mink that had inhabited the park  (and loved to feed on fingerling trout) were trapped by the game department, as were the last few deer that had swum over from Mercer Island to munch on the park’s feeding facility.

The park became people oriented. In 1953, a Greek-style amphitheater was hollowed out on the south hillside and for years was the scene of lavish orchestra , chorus, and dance productions under the direction of Gustave Stern. Concerts were so successful they caused enormous bottlenecks on the one way street, and today the theatre is used more casually. 

Despite the civilizing influences at Seward Park, a large part of the peninsula remains wild and relatively untouched. The northern upland forests have been consciously left alone over the years for the enjoyment of future generations.

RCHS Photo 1998.046.0002

Today’s generation is still using the park in record numbers. The activities however have changed over time. The fish hatchery has been closed but fishing in the surrounding lake still offers rewards to the diehard fishermen. 

 The two and one-half mile road around the perimeter has been closed for years to motorized vehicles, no more cruising or night-time parking with girlfriends. The park is now closed after dark.  The traffic today is limited to bicyclists, joggers and walkers.  Marathons, triathlons and bike races draw athletes from near and far. Bicycle Sundays around the peninsula and north along the boulevard to Mt Baker Beach bring out the whole family. 

The surrounding waters are used every day by the rowing shells from the nearby rowing club. Scores of yachts spend the weekend at anchor in Andrews Bay, particularly holiday weekends. 

The symphony and choral concerts in the wooded amphitheater have been replaced with the “Jazz in the Park” concerts, this being their twenty fifth year.   

Some things that have not changed however are the traffic and parking problems for major events. The local residents will attest to that. On the brighter side the large portion of the peninsula remains, as the Olmsted Brothers suggested, wild and relatively untouched for the enjoyment of future generations. Organized bird watching is a regular event, with the resident eagle the main attraction.

The Rainier District Pow Wow however takes top honors as the longest running major event at Seward Park. It was started in 1937 and continued for 56 years, with state representative John L. O’Brien as chairman for most of those years. The Rainier Businessmen’s Club, now the Rainier Chamber, should also take credit for its involvement during those 56 years. 

The story of the colorful history of our annual “Pow Wow” event, eagerly anticipated by several generations of Rainier Valley residents over the years, will have to be told at a later date. It will require research and interviews to write an article or perhaps a book. We have a good start however, as John O’Brien recently donated all of the Pow Wow records to the Society and we also have the local newspapers for that era as well.

The old timers will remember the early days of the Pow Wow with events for everyone in the family, like an old fashioned picnic. The accompanying photo shows the winners of the pie eating contest with Pow Wow chairman, John L. O’Brien. There were running races for the kids including the three-legged and sack races with prizes for the winners.    Swimming competition for all ages. Musical entertainers, comedians and a beauty pageant to select the Rainier District Pow Wow queen for the year, all performing on the stage built at the south end of the field, in front of the pagoda.  

One of the main attractions was the wrestling match.  And much more including fireworks by Hitt Fireworks Co. of course.  In the later years the Pow Wow was asked to be part of the Seattle Seafair activities including the Hydro races and the closing ceremonies, again with fireworks. 

The Friends of  Seward Park, a recently formed group of local residents, are working hard to improve the park. The City Council, thanks to the latest parks levy passed by voters in November, announced last week the unique building at the entrance circle of the park will be remodeled into an environmental-education center.

Another story concerning Seward Park that will have to come later is the community’s ten year battle with the highway department. The department proposed, in 1927, to build a highway through the Seward Park community, across the peninsula a little north of where the amphitheater is today and then over a girder bridge to Mercer Island. Fortunately it never happened.

Days Gone By 

South District Journal 8/1/2001

By Buzz Anderson


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