Kirkland -- Thumbnail History

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 10/25/1998
  • Essay 208

The city of Kirkland, located on the northeastern shore of Lake Washington east of Seattle, is named for Peter Kirk (1840-1916). Kirk was a British steel industrialist who originally envisioned Kirkland as a bustling steel town. Kirk's plans didn't materialize. Nevertheless, Kirkland has become by the twenty-first century a thriving suburban community of almost 50,000 people.

In 1871, the Popham and MacGregor families became the first people to settle the area. They located their homesteads along the lake, south of what is now downtown Kirkland. Soon after, the French, Church, and DeMott families settled north of them. Farther north, the Forbes family and others began clearing land around what is now Juanita Bay.

By the 1880s, these groups had formed communities. The town to the south was named Houghton, in honor of a woman from Boston who donated the Bell for the Congregational Church. The settlement to the north was first named Hubbard, but was soon changed to Juanita, a name chosen by a Mrs. Terry, a Seattle pioneer.

The land between Houghton and Juanita contained a few homesteads, but remained largely undeveloped. In 1886, Peter Kirk stepped in to change all that.

The Pittsburgh of the West

Kirk was an established steel mill owner in Workington, England. Steel production in England was not as prosperous as he would have liked, and he had come to America to find a more suitable environment. At the time, development in the Puget Sound region was just taking off, and Kirk saw an opportunity. Iron, coal, limestone, and other natural resources used in smelting steel were abundant, and train lines were just being built throughout the area.

Upon arriving in Seattle, Kirk solidified friendships with local businessmen: Seattle pioneer Arthur Denny, who had an interest in possible iron mines near Snoqualmie Pass, and Leigh S. J. Hunt, publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In 1888, Kirk, Hunt, and other men formed the Moss Bay Iron and Steel Works. The new city of Kirkland would be their "Pittsburgh of the West."

Since Kirk was not an American citizen, Hunt bought thousands of acres of land for the project. They platted out the town, and built homes for workers. These founders chose street names that were decidedly British: Piccadilly, Oxford, Regency, and so on. They undertook plans for a bank, hotel, and other businesses. They built a brickworks to provide the materials for construction of the buildings, including the steel mill itself.

But these grand plans hit upon snags. First, for mostly political reasons, the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad refused to bring a rail line down to the waterline. The Northern Pacific, based in Tacoma had just bought the railroad, and Tacoma was in direct competition with Seattle as the predominant seaport on Puget Sound. A rail spur to Kirkland would have helped Seattle, which was not in the railroad's best interest.

Kirk modified his plans, and construction of the mill began near the closest spur line, located two miles east of Lake Washington, near present-day Lake Kirkland on Rose Hill. Water had to be piped in to the site, and the city center was redesigned to provide easy access to the mill.

Steel Venture Refuses to Fly

The problems didn't end there. Kirk's mill in England had fallen on hard times and closed down for a year. Many of the workers moved from England to Kirkland in anticipation of the work to come. Land speculators started gouging prospective buyers. At the same time, ore deposits near Snoqualmie Pass were not panning out.

Kirk sold much of his stock and investments in England and moved ahead in Kirkland. He built one of the finest homes in the area and moved his whole family to his namesake town. Hunt went deeply into debt as he bought more and more land.

The crushing blow came in 1893, when a nationwide financial collapse extinguished the hope of ever getting the steel venture off the ground. Investors backed out, leaving Kirkland with a partially built mill up on a hill, and row upon row of empty houses.

Still, Kirk never gave up hope. He stayed on in town and held on to most of his land holdings, which he slowly parceled out over the years. He later retired and moved north to the San Juan Islands, where he died in 1916.

Woolen Milling, Shipbuilding Become Important

Meanwhile, Kirkland continued to grow. A woolen mill was built in Moss Bay that did good business with gold prospectors during the Alaska Gold Rush. Later it would provide products for the military during World War I.

Shipbuilding became an important industry. In 1916, the Lake Washington ship canal opened, providing a waterway from Kirkland to Puget Sound. Early ships built and repaired in Kirkland were mostly ferries, but by World War II the Lake Washington Shipyard was building naval warships.

Kirkland was incorporated in 1905, and over the years became a popular bedroom community for urban commuters, dubbed by the East Side Journal the "Hub of the Eastside." Kirkland's ferry landing was the most popular on the lake, providing access to and from Seattle in just over 30 minutes. Many of Kirkland's early residents were gentleman farmers; folks who worked at office jobs in the city, and kept chickens and berry vines back home.

Growth of a Suburban Community

Kirkland grew slowly and steadily. In 1940, the Lake Washington floating bridge was opened just south of Bellevue. More than a decade later, ferry traffic would cease on Lake Washington. By the time a second floating bridge was built in the 1960s, Kirkland, along with Bellevue and Redmond had become known as Seattle's Eastside; a suburban community largely made up of middle-class families and commuters.

In 1968, the residents of Houghton elected to merge with Kirkland. In 1988, Kirkland annexed most of Juanita, along with the community of Rose Hill. In 2005, the city celebrated the centennial of its incorporation during a time of increased population growth and development. More than 100 years after Peter Kirk envisioned a vital city on the eastern shores of Lake Washington, his dream has come to pass.


Arline Ely, Our Foundering Fathers (Kirkland: Overlake Press, 1975). Also see: "From Shingle Mills to Suburbia," (; "Kirkland Centennial website accessed June 18, 2008 (
Note: This essay was updated on June 18, 2008.

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