History of South Lake Union

19th Century

South Lake Union, sometimes referred to as SLU is, as it's name suggests, a neighborhood that lies on the southern tip of Lake Union. South Lake Union's neighborhood boundaries are difficult to determine, but it is roughly bounded by Denny Way to the south, Interstate 5 on the East, Aurora Ave N. on the west, and by Aloha Street, Lake Union, and E. Garfield Street to the north.

Lake Union as it is today

In native dialects, Lake Union is known as "little lake" or "little water". In the 1850's Native Americans, most likely Duwamish or Southern Coast Salish, were encamped near the southwest corner of the lake. They hunted dear and elk, as well as harvested clams, root vegetables, fish, camas, bracken, wapato, and berries. Settlement of the South Lake Union area by natives continued until 1875.

Pioneer David Denny staked a claim in 1853. His claim spanned from South Lake Union to what is now Denny Way in the south, and west to what is now the Seattle Center grounds. In 1882, the Lake Union and Lumber Company built a sawmill on the south shore of the lake. David Denny bought the sawmill in 1884 and renamed it the Western Mill. He cleared the land along the south shore of the lake and, in 1885 cut a weir from Portage Bay at the northeast corner of the lake to Lake Washington. This allowed logs from the sawmill to float to Lake Union, so that the entire area of the larger Lake Washington was a catchment for his mill.

A view from the dock by Chandler's

Denny operated the Western Mill until 1895 and many of his employees settle nearby, some with their families. Other mills opened in the area. In addition, the lake became a throughfare for the transport of coal, which originated from present day Issaquah via Lake Washington. The coal traveled by wagon to Portage Bay and then to Lake Union. At first, coal was transported from South Lake Union to the downtown docks by wagon, then from 1872 to about 1877 a small railroad was built to facilitate the transfer of coal. The railroad was eventually abandoned and the route degenerated back into a wagon trail.

20th Century

After David Denny's bankruptcy in 1895, the mill operated for 25 more years under the ownership of Brace / Hergert Mill Company. In 1909 Brace & Hergert extended their mill into the lake building a peninsula, now know as South Lake Union Park. The last remaining portion of the mill business was Brace Lumber Company which operated from 1925 to 1988, the end of the mill area. The area also saw growth in the area of manufacturing toward the turn of the century. Cabinetry and furniture were the primary manufactured product, followed by shipbuilding, and Bill Boeing's first airplane factory. Also the Seattle City Lights Hydro house and the Lake Union Steam Plant, and the first Ford Model T assembly plant west of the Mississippi River were built. These buildings now hold Landmark status. The former steam plant now houses Zymogenetics and the former Ford building is used for rental storage space. Meanwhile, the Northern Pacific Railway ran a railroad line around Lake Union and down Terry Avenue where a freight station opened in 1913.

Seattle City Lights Steam Plant now Zymogenetics

With the increased industrial and commercial growth of the area more residential developments were built. Predominantly among these new residential developments was Cascade. At the center of the community established by the Russians, Swedes, Norwegians, and Greeks who settle there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the Cascade School. The Cascade School was a public elementary school from which the neighborhood took its name. From the 1930's, South Lake Union move from a residential center to a more commercial area of small business, warehouses, and auto-oriented services. Cascade gradually lost its identity as a neighborhood distinct from the rest of South Lake Union, especially after construction of Interstate 5 cut it off from Capitol Hill

When the Lake Washington Ship Canal Opened in 1917, the locks at Ballard kept Lake Union at its historic level, while the canal gave it a water connection both to Lake Washington and to Puget Sound, an arm of the Pacific Ocean. This was a further boon to the industrial and commercial growth. Many timber-framed buildings still survive from this era. Many of these buildings were reinforced with masonry and exterior walls of brick, or for some commercial buildings, terracotta. For a while, the neighborhood held numerous auto dealerships. The Ford McKay and Pacific McKay buildings are examples. Also during that time most of the cities large laundries were in that area, especially in Cascade. The Troy Laundry Building, built in 1927 is immediately west of Fairview Avenue E. These were soon joined by the Seattle Times Building which was built in 1930.

21st Century

Only a few of the older residential structures of the historic Cascade era still retain their original uses today. The Immanuel Lutheran Church and the St. Spiridon Russian Orthodox Cathedral remain. Within the boundaries of South Lake Union as of 2008 are the REI flagship store, NBBJ architects, the headquarters of PEMCO, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the headquarters of Zymogenetics, which is residing in the old City Light Steam Plant.

Elsewhere in South Lake Union the situation is similar, many of the old buildings still exist but no longer retain their historic uses.

Aerial photo of South Lake Union

In April 2008, the new Lake Union Park opened to the public with a pedestrian bridge across the western waterway, a walkway along the waterfront, almost 1.6 acres of green space, landscaping and much more. The 12-acre park should be complete in nearly 2010. The historic ships wharf will provide long-term moorage for historic vessels. The Maritime heritage center will help to provide an array of cultural, educational, and recreational activities. Vessels that are currently moored at the wharf include the historic steamer Virginia V, the lightship Swiftsure, the tugboat Arthur Foss, the fireboat Duwamish, and the salmon troller Twilight. The schooner Wawona is also moored nearby at Northwest Seaport, and several smaller historic boats are just to the east at the Center for Wooden Boats.

In December 2007, announced it would be consolidating its Seattle offices in South Lake Union, with occupancy to begin in 2010. South Lake Union is also home to Denny Park, the oldest park in the city.

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