Turning Point 15: Seattle's Other Birthplace: From Hop Field to Boeing Field

  • By David Wilma and the HistoryLink.org Staff
  • Posted 9/21/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9291

The 15th essay in our Turning Points series for The Seattle Times explores Seattle's "other birthplace," the Collins settlement in present-day Georgetown. Luther Collins, Henry Van Asselt, Jacob and Samuel Mapel (sometimes spelled Maple) and their families filed the first Donation Lands claims in King County on September 16, 1851, nearly two months before the Denny Party assembled on Alki beach. Their initial interest was farming the fertile Duwamish Valley, but a distinctive community gradually developed based on beer, bars, brothels, and ultimately, Boeing. This essay was published on September 28, 2001.  It is by David Wilma and the HistoryLink Staff.  (It was corrected on October 24, 2011, to note that Julius Horton was Dexter Horton's brother, not his son).

Most historians place Seattle’s birth on Alki beach, where the Denny Party assembled on the damp morning of November 13, 1851 -- but they already had white neighbors who had arrived two months earlier to set up housekeeping on the banks of the Duwamish Valley.

Farmers Luther Collins, Henry Van Asselt, Jacob Maple, and possibly Jacob’s son Samuel, arrived by canoe from Nisqually on southern Puget Sound on September 14, 1851. Their aim was to take advantage of the new Oregon Donation Land Claims Act which allotted 320 acres of “free” land to individuals and twice as much to married couples. The current inhabitants of these land grants were not consulted, of course, but in the case of Chief Seattle and the Duwamish Tribe, there was no immediate objection to the sudden appearance of these early settlers in their midst.

Collins was not new to the region. He had been farming the Nisqually on the South Sound since 1847. Van Asselt and the Maples were fresh from the California gold fields. They used Collins’s farm as a base for their reconnaissance “down” Sound.

They found what they were looking for in the fertile Duwamish River valley. Approximately three miles upstream from its muddy delta, they staked out claims for themselves at what would later become Georgetown and Boeing Field. They returned to Nisqually and loaded their families and goods into scows and headed down the Sound.

Who Got Here First?

In the interim, on September 25, David Denny, John Low, and Lee Terry landed at Alki Point. They sent word back to Portland for the rest of their party to join them. On the evening of September 27, 1851, the Collins Party passed Alki and greeted the three scouts. The rest of the Denny Party arrived at Alki on November 13, 1851.

Other settlers had looked at the area before, but moved on. In 1845, the Michael Simmons party paddled through. They found Tumwater to be more to their liking. In 1850, Isaac Ebey and his Native American guides canoed up the Duwamish and the Black River into Lake Washington, but he picked a site (Ebey’s Landing) on Whidbey Island, where he was later beheaded by Indians from a northern tribe.

John Cornelius Holgate, age 21, also looked at the Duwamish in the summer of 1850. Some historians have credited him as our community’s first white settler, but he filed no claim. Holgate went to Oregon and perhaps back east in search of a wife before returning to stake a claim on Beacon Hill in 1853.

By then, most of the Denny Party and relocated from the “New York” settlement on Alki to eastern shore of Elliott Bay. Henry Yesler was turning out lumber at his sawmill and David “Doc” Maynard was salting salmon caught by local Indians for sale to passing ships. The Town of Seattle was already established as the seat of King County, and Luther Collins had been elected one its first Commissioners. Beyond this involvement, however, the two settlements pursued independent courses for the next 50 years.

War and Peace on the Duwamish

Relations between Duwamish Valley settlers and the area’s original inhabitants soon soured, and Luther Collins was implicated in two separate lynchings of Indians suspected of murdering whites in 1853 and 1854. During the Indian War of 1855-1856, the settlers built a 22-foot-square blockhouse they called Fort Duwamish on the Collins claim. John Holgate’s 13-year-old brother Milton was killed in an early raid, and settlers destroyed the longhouses of the Duwamish village Tu-kwel-tid, which had long predated their arrival.

With the return of peace, Henry Van Asselt made cabinets and Luther Collins farmed and ran a river ferry. In 1860, he and his wife Diana divorced and she received half his donation claim. She rented a portion of her property in 1869 to Seattle saloonkeeper John Pinnell for a race track, which became a major “recreation center” for the region.

The Duwamish River then served as the principal means of communication and transportation between Seattle and the interior. When the Northern Pacific Railroad picked Tacoma for the terminus of the transcontinental railroad, Seattle went upriver to start building its own railroad. The route they chose along the east bank of the river is still the main line for all rail traffic from the south.

Pioneer banker Dexter Horton’s brother, Julius, saw the potential of Collins’s claim. In 1871, he bought some of the land and platted lots and streets in what was then called Duwamish. King County picked the area for its first poor farm and hired the Sisters of Providence to manage a hospital for indigents in 1877.

Brewing to Boeing

The Duwamish and nearby valleys proved ideal for growing hops for beer, and a community of Belgians and Germans gathered around the area’s first brewery, built by John Claussen and Edward Sweeny in 1883. This became the Seattle Brewing and Malting Company and its popular Rainier product helped to make it the fifth largest brewery in the world.

In 1890, Julius Horton named it all Georgetown after his own son, who had just graduated from medical school. Growth accelerated after 1893, when electric streetcars pushed south from Seattle proper. After 1902, carloads of spectators and gamblers would board special interurban trains to visit Georgetown’s new Meadows Race Track.

By then, Seattle began to extend its city limits north and south. Prohibition was also spreading and under state law, no liquor could be sold within a mile of an incorporated city. If Seattle got too close, Georgetown would be forced to go dry, putting most of the residents out of work. Anxious to preserve their jobs, citizens incorporated Georgetown in 1904, and elected the brewery superintendent as its first mayor.

Saloons operated 24-hours a day and vice was the main source of both public revenue and private income. As Seattle gradually dried up in anticipation of prohibition, pleasure seekers found Georgetown’s fleshpots a short ride away on the interurban, which prompted Presbyterian clergyman Mark Matthews to brand it, "the cesspool of Seattle."

Georgetown’s sin taxes proved insufficient to cover Georgetown’s expenses, including its handsome new City Hall, and voters approved annexation to Seattle in 1910. In a harbinger of things to come, daredevil pilot Charles Hamilton demonstrated Seattle’s first airplane at the Meadows track that same year.

Eighteen years later, King County paved the spot over to build Boeing Field. By then the meandering Duwamish had been, dredged, banked and straightened to create an industrial waterway, and the fertile farmlands that had lured King County’s first permanent white settlers were just a memory.

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