Seattle's first public schoolhouse opens on August 15, 1870.

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 7/21/1999
  • Essay 1509

On August 15, 1870, Seattle’s first public schoolhouse opens. (Seattle's first school, opened in 1854, was a tuition-based or private school. The first public schooling commenced in 1862 when elementary and high school students were sent for instruction to the new Territorial University in downtown Seattle.)

Seattle Public School District No 1 purchased four lots in the "northern portion of town" (on the east side of 3rd Avenue between Madison and Spring streets) for a public school. On the lots, which cost $2,000, contractors Russell & Shorey built a 30 x 48 foot two-story, two-room school house.

On August 15, 1870, the doors opened and pupils were admitted. Lizzie Ordway (b. 1828) was the teacher. Elizabeth Ordway was one of the "Mercer Girls," who arrived in Seattle on May 16, 1864. This group of women traveled to Seattle from Lowell, Massachusetts. They were recruited and escorted by Asa Mercer (1839-1917). Ordway began her career in the Pacific Northwest by teaching on Whidbey Island. After teaching in the Seattle public schools beginning in 1870, she taught at Port Madison, and later became superintendent of schools in Kitsap County.

On the first day of school, so many students arrived that within days the school district hired a second teacher, Mrs. J. H. Sanderson. By the end of the first week more than 100 pupils were attending school.

The school building cost $5,000, twice as much as the budget specified. The Seattle School District No. 1 delayed payment to the builders so long that Russell & Shorey sued the district for full payment. In 1871, the school house was foreclosed on and the King County Sheriff announced in the Seattle paper the forced sale of the school building to pay construction costs. But, before the auction was held the School District settled with Russell & Shorey and the sale was called off.

The school operated at 3rd Avenue and Madison Street for 13 years before the school district sold the building, which was moved to Front Street (later renamed 1st Avenue) and Virginia Street.

The lots at the old location, purchased in 1870 for $2,000, sold in 1883 for $30,000.


Thomas Prosch, "A Chronological History of Seattle from 1850 to 1897" (typescript dated 1900-1901, Northwest Collection, University of Washington Library, Seattle), 198-199.

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