Ravenna Park (Seattle)

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 1/23/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9559

Ravenna Park, one of Seattle's oldest, was among the few areas that escaped the logger's axe in the late 1800s and thus preserved stunning examples of giant old-growth Douglas fir. Centered around a steep moss- and fern-covered ravine just north of the University District, the park opened in 1887 as a privately operated destination called Ravenna Springs Park. It featured nature trails and mineral springs touted for their supposed healthful qualities. Over the following decades, owners William and Louise Beck (1860-1928) promoted the park under various names including Big Tree Park, Twin Maples Lane, Ravenna Natural Park, and finally Ravenna Park. The City of Seattle bought the park in 1911, and subsequently lowered the lake that fed its stream and cut down many magnificent trees. Since then Ravenna Park and the adjacent Cowen Park have been public city parks.

The Ravine

The deep history of Ravenna Park is directly tied to that of the nearby Green Lake Park -- with the lake being a physical vestige of the Vashon Ice Glacial Sheet of 50,000 year ago. Green Lake had an outflow creek that meandered southeastward (roughly along the path of today's Ravenna Boulevard) through an increasingly steep and heavily wooded one-half-mile-long ravine and down into what is today called Union Bay (on Lake Washington). The western shore of that bay was the site of one Native American village and just northeast of the ravine (at the mouth of Thornton Creek) was another, so it may be presumed that the cutthroat trout and Coho salmon runs in the Green Lake (Ravenna) Creek were well known to those Indians. They also likely took note of the sulfuric mineral springs -- natural features that would later be touted for having healing properties.

When Seattle's first pioneer settlers -- chief among them the Denny Party -- began making the land claims that would soon comprise the new village of Seattle, they mainly grabbed real estate along the central waterfront on Elliott Bay. It would take some time and the arrival of additional settlers before anyone made claims near the ravine. As logging operations progressed farther into the town's surrounding forests, fields and hills all around were denuded of their bountiful stands of old-growth Douglas fir, and giant alders, cedars, and willow trees. But not so, the ravine: Its steep canyon topography made the task far too difficult and its huge trees and massive ferns were spared that fate.

Ravenna Springs Park

William N. Bell (1817-1887) and his wife Sarah Ann Bell (1815-1856) selected some acreage north of Union Bay that included the lower end of the creek that emerged from the ravine. In the years prior to Bell's death the couple sold their land and it reportedly passed through several hands until George and Oltilde Dorffel acquired ownership in 1887, the same year they filed paperwork platting it as Ravenna Springs Park -- a name inspired by the famously beautiful pine-tree-forested ravines near the town of Ravenna, Italy. Soon those 40-some springs bubbling from the ground were being touted for their medicinal properties.  

The year 1889 saw another couple -- William Wirt Beck and his wife Louise Coman Beck -- investing in a huge parcel of 400 acres on the north side of Union Bay including the Dorffels' park. The Becks were an interesting duo: He was a Presbyterian minister from Kentucky (who would later claim a background as a miner). She was an Athens, Georgia, native who had graduated from the Athens Female College and then studied music in the Northeast. She was well equipped to teach music in Seattle.

The Becks were ambitious: They envisioned a whole new town, Ravenna, arising on their land and toward that end they quickly platted out town lots southward from the edge of the park and entered the world of real estate sales. The Becks built a large house (at the northeast corner of NE 57th Street and 26th Avenue NE) on 10 acres that also contained their Seattle Female College.

The college enrolled 40 students for the 1890 school year, and soon included the Seattle Conservatory of Music and Ravenna Seminary. In addition they arranged to have a post office (headed by a Lafayette S. Beck) established and founded the Ravenna Flouring Co. Roper's Grocery soon joined the hamlet. Best of all, the little town would be serviced at a Ravenna Station (at Blakely Street and 25th Avenue NE) by the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern railroad, which passed through the area on its route from downtown Seattle (along today's Burke-Gilman Trail).

Rainier Power and Railway Company

The townsite of Ravenna became even more attractive to would-be home buyers a couple years later with the arrival of streetcar service via a route that would skirt the entire length of the park (along its southern border). Seattle pioneer David Denny (1832-1903) was behind the project. Denny had gotten into real estate. After platting the neighborhoods bordering the park -- an area still so distant from downtown that Grace Denny (1883-1971) soon built and then maintained a country "summer home" (1615 NE 63rd Street) there -- David Denny helped found the Rainier Power and Railway Company in order to facilitate easy transportation to the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood (later known as the University District).

That line was extended to Ravenna Park around 1892 and three years later was reorganized as the Third Street and Suburban Railway, which included a Ravenna Station (near today's NE 58th Street and 20th Avenue NE). After departing its terminus downtown, the line passed through logged and largely uninhabited terrain until it turned back southward at Ravenna. One writer noted that "Most of the area through the northern part of this system's route was inhabited only by squirrels and gophers" (Leslie Blanchard quoted in "No Finer Site").

But it was the sight of critters and the unspoiled nature of the ravine that made it such an attraction. The granddaughter of Denny's brother Arthur (1822-1899), Sophie Frye Bass (1866-1947), wrote that:

"My first recollection of Ravenna Park was a moonlight excursion in midsummer, when the moon failed to appear, a cool breeze came up, and a chill was in the air. Even so, the large coal-oil lamps shining through the trees lighting the path that ran through the park, and the bobbing and swaying Chinese lanterns made it seem like a land fit for fairies. It was quite a trip to Ravenna in those days, for we took the train at the funny little station at the foot of Columbia Street on the waterfront and rode nine and a half miles to the park ... it became a favorite spot for picnickers and a show place for out-of-town visitors (Bass).

Original Beauty and Natural Wonders 

In the wake of the great economic crash of 1893, the Becks' Seattle Female College was shuttered, but they remained committed to their 60-acre park. Beck fenced it in between 15th Avenue NE eastward to 20th Avenue NE, and over the ensuing years he  improved the property by carving out better trails. One was a path to the largest sulfur spring (sometimes known as the "Petroleum Spring," located at the center of the park, below and just east of today's 20th Avenue NE bridge), which he had wisely recast as the "Wood Nymphs' Well." He also built a teahouse, a 40- by 90-foot pavilion ("Ye Merrie Makers' Inn"), picnic shelters, wading ponds, and an area called Rhododendron Way where rows of shrubs featuring the state flower were planted.

The park was touted as "a safe, clean, and beautiful place for women and children -- a deputy sheriff in charge" (Beck, booklet, 1903). By 1902 it had become so popular that 10,000 visitors reportedly paid the 25-cent admission fee. Beck soon published a booklet that grandly sang the charms of his little piece of paradise: "Ravenna Park, with its standing or fallen giant trees; moss and fern covered canyons; dashing trout streams, preserves in quaint uniqueness every beauty of the wonderful Puget Sound forest, and is Seattle's only forest unshorn by axe and fire of original beauty and noblest and grandest characteristics" (Beck, booklet, 1903).

For her part, Louise maintained a keen interest in music. Indeed, it would seem that during her earlier musical activities back east she made the acquaintance of more than a few major talents of the day, because when touring stars -- including the famed Polish composer Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the Austrian violinist Fritz Kreisler, and British pianist Harold Bauer -- came through town they invariably visited the park and were treated to the "hospitality of her Ravenna Park home" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1928).

Although prominent Seattle historian Clarence Bagley (1843-1932) snarked in 1929 that the park was merely a "dark, dank, dismal hole in the ground" (Manning), many other visitors were awestruck by the outsized flora and the fish-rich Ravenna Creek that flowed through the park (and the adjacent Cowen Park). Some considered it one of Seattle's prime attractions, on a par with others of America's treasures: "Like natural wonders such as Niagara Falls, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon, Ravenna Park offered a pilgrimage to the sublime, the contemplative, the spiritual, the terrifying" (Duncan).

Big Tree Park and Cowan Park

At the turn of the century the park was also, at times, marketed as Big Tree Park, a name that highlighted its towering treasures. In 1904 the most girthsome tree -- 274 feet tall and 44 feet in circumference -- was given the moniker "Roosevelt Tree" in honor of the popular and nature-loving president, Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt (1858-1919). Roosevelt's famous political quip about walking softly but carrying a "big stick" led to that tree also being called "The Big Stick."

That same year the Becks offered, for the first of a few times, to sell their park to the City of Seattle. City officials rejected their asking price of $150,000. In October 1906, the town of Ravenna was officially formed.

Meanwhile, a British immigrant named Charles Cowen (1869-1926) had arrived in 1900 and purchased 40 acres adjacent to Ravenna Park, including the westernmost end of the Beck's property, where the creek running from Green Lake wound its way down to the ravine. Cowan stepped up with a generous offer. He divided up most of that land into residential lots and sold them via his Sylvester-Cowen Investment Company. But he deemed 12 of the lots that sank down toward the ravine as unusable for that purpose and in 1907 gifted that parcel to the city. This became Cowen Park, which bordered Ravenna Park at 15th Avenue NE.

The Queen of Parks

Big changes were coming to Seattle. On January 15, 1907, the city annexed the tiny (.62 sq. miles) town of Ravenna along with five other towns, nearly doubling the size of the city. That same year the Polk City Directory listed the Becks as living in a different home, one just across from the streetcar line's Ravenna Station (probably in the 1905 house at 5643 20th Avenue NE). Louise Beck also began teaching music in a downtown studio (229 Arcade Building).

The following year William Beck was selling real estate from his own downtown office (307 Collins Building) and eventually operating the Duwamish Investment Company and Beck Builders Inc. But judging from the sheer number of different promotional postcards, pamphlets, and posters produced around this time, he was still devoting considerable time to promoting his park. One such poster showed Beck and the Roosevelt Tree and hyped:

“Roosevelt-Ravenna Park’s ‘Big Stick’
The mountains around Seattle can not be seen always,
but Beautiful Ravenna -- Queen of Parks -- can.
‘Seeing Seattle’ without out it is like seeing the Cascades without Rainier!
Haven’t seen Ravenna Park? It is indescribable.
Admission 25C
Don’t Miss it.”

Visiting the A-Y-P Exposition and Ravenna Park 

Meanwhile, the city's business and political leaders were involved in planning for 1909's Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition -- a world's fair that would bring countless tourists to the area. With the A-Y-P Exposition being mounted on the University of Washington campus just a dozen blocks south of his park, Beck -- believing that throngs of expected fairgoers might easily be tantalized into making a side-trip to relax in the shady ravine -- again offered to sell his park to the city in 1908. City officials again declined. Beck snapped, Fine. "I have in Ravenna Park things that will entertain Seattle's visitors more than all the things the fair management can possibly assemble in hot, crowded buildings" (Bush).

In preparation for the expo, the Becks recruited the prominent University of Washington historian Edmond S. Meany (1862-1935) to help create an inventory of the park's flora and also stoked community enthusiasm in 1908 by inviting various social clubs to suggest names for various big trees. Louise dedicated the one named for her musical friend, the "Paderewski Tree." Fritz Kreisler was honored with the naming of the park's Kreisler Falls. The United Daughters of the Confederacy named the tallest tree (400 feet) the "Robert E. Lee Tree." Other trees were dubbed Adam, McDowell, Pan, and the Siamese Twins. The Becks also had a bit of fun by naming a pair of trees that crowded one another after Seattle's feuding mayor and fire-and-brimstone preacher, Hiram C. Gil (1866-1919) and Rev. Mark Matthews (1867-1940).

Other new features added to the park were exotica curiosities -- including an Indian "war canoe," a teepee, a wickiup (mat lodge), and five totem poles -- to increase tourist interest. The Cowen Park Bridge also proved to be an attraction. One visitor to Seattle at about that time was an excited Texas girl named Mary R. Watson whose handwritten diary contains the following passage:

“August 4th -- took the University car for Ravenna National Park [sic] where we passed the Cowen Park. Revenna [sic] contains 50 acres of woodland which man has never touched. The most beautiful footpath I have ever walked upon. Drank at the sulfur and iron Springs, walked 1 1/2 miles and then ascended to a high and long bridge, which crossed over the Ravine [sic] Park ..." (Mary R. Watson).

The Becks experienced plenty of changes over the years including the fact that they bore two sons -- Dillard R. Beck (1912-1989) and Broussais C. Beck (1914-2008) who eventually gave them five grandchildren. And too, it was in 1910 that the couple embarked on a trip to Europe -- including a stop in Ravenna, Italy, where they visited the tomb of Italian poet Dante Alighieri and signed the visitors' guest book kept there.

Seattle's Heavy Hand

Later that year the City of Seattle condemned the couple's park, and a court determined a fair market price of $144,920. Eventually Beck would complain in writing about the "false swearing and tricks of Satan" the city had used to acquire his park (Bush).  

In 1911 a national membership directory for the Daughters of the American Revolution listed Louise Beck's residence as being, interestingly, at "Fir Lodge, Ravenna Park." That same year saw a most tragic alteration to the Cowen-Ravenna ecosystem. Action was finally taken to implement certain recommendations outlined in a Master Plan commissioned by the city from the renowned Massachusetts landscape architect John Charles Olmsted (1852-1920).

That 1903 document had envisioned a 20-mile-long system of scenic boulevards that would tie together various parks and playfields across the city. Unfortunately one of those streets -- Ravenna Boulevard -- was to be created after lowering nearby Green Lake, which effectively negated its need for an outflow creek. The plan envisioned a new boulevard along the creek's former path through a winding ravine that had helped carve out the Ravenna canyon.  

Thus, city engineers diverted Ravenna creek, forcing it underground into Thomson's North Trunk Sewer line (which discharged into Union Bay), nearly drying up its old route (along with the once-bountiful fish runs) through the two parks. Although the resultant Ravenna Boulevard had its own positive attributes, many have lamented the fate of Green Lake: "The poor lake had been diked, dredged and drained, and its once-free-flowing outlet stream, Ravenna Creek, had evolved into a wetland dependent on springs and minor tributaries" (Hanbey).

A Public Park

Though the pretty little creek would never be the same -- today's version is but a ghost of its former self -- the park would henceforth be a public amenity open to all. The city moved ahead with additional changes to the area. In 1913 it constructed the steel Ravenna Park Bridge -- just across from the Becks' home -- on 20th Avenue NE. "The structure is 354 feet long. It has a 250-foot arch composed of two ribs (curved structural members that support a curved shape or panel) that rise 41 feet over the ravine, and support an 18-foot reinforced concrete roadway" (Long). In time, as the automobile era dawned, 20th Avenue NE became a notorious racing strip for University of Washington fraternity brothers (and Roosevelt High School kids) and that narrow bridge portion must have added to the thrills.

After Theodore Roosevelt's death in January 1919, the city attempted to rename the place Roosevelt Park, but in 1931 a public petition forced officials to revert to its original name. Meanwhile, the Cowen Park Bridge was built over the park at 15th Avenue NE around 1915. It was replaced in 1924 (when the streetcar line was extended northward) by a high and long double-decker wooden bridge (streetcars above, bipeds below) that spanned the ravine and thrilled pedestrians. The Cowen Park Bridge was upgraded to a new reinforced concrete one in 1936. (Decades later, and after years of engineering tests, the Ravenna Bridge's porous concrete was determined to be crumbling and by 2011 it was reserved for pedestrian crossings.)

No longer running his park, Beck continued selling real estate -- by 1916 he had a new downtown office (505 Fisher Studio building). But then around 1921 he returned to preaching, taking the position of pastor at the Interbay Presbyterian Church (3236 16th Avenue W). The Reverend and his wife were living near downtown (at 306 1519 3rd Avenue) by 1923, but by 1928 Louise was listed in the Polk Directory as back living near Ravenna (2128 NE Park Road). That same year Louise Beck passed away and was buried at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. A few years later her widower was listed as residing in Room 202, Olympic Place. William Beck stuck around until at least 1946.   

Drying It Up and Cutting It Down

In 1913 -- a mere two years after the city had taken custody of Ravenna Park and degraded its central creek -- city mismanagement of it took another turn for the worse. That was the year that some members of the Seattle branch of the Federation of Women's Clubs noticed that the beloved Roosevelt Tree was gone. In its place was a fresh three-foot-high stump. Alarmed, they notified Seattle Parks Superintendent J. W. Thompson, who glibly responded that it had been rotten and was removed as a "threat to public safety" (Arnold). A bit of investigating later revealed that Thompson himself had profited through the sale of "The Big Stick" as 63 cords of firewood.  

Riled up, the women contacted the dean of the University of Washington’s College of Forestry, Hugo Winkenwerder, who explored the ravine and discovered that several large trees had been cut down -- and that the remaining giants were perfectly healthy. The Parks Department responded with a promise to do no further logging. Yet the sawing continued and so, too, did the hue and cry from concerned citizens.  

Thompson was eventually forced out due to “abuse of equipment, abuse of personnel, abuse of funds, intoxication and unauthorized sale of department property” (Arnold). But the cutting did not stop. In 1926 the city -- ostensibly concerned about safety issues -- signed a contract to have more trees cut. William Beck insisted in particular that Paderewski, Robert E. Lee, and McDowell should be vigilantly protected. Seattle Parks Department engineer L. Glenn Hall tried to allay fears claiming that only dead or dying trees would face saw-blades and axes. In addition he offered to try and not thin the park grounds out too much by leaving 20-feet tall stumps. Sadly, such promises were hollow and within a few years all the old-growth giants were gone.  

Strangely as time passed and memories faded, the plight of those trees became  clouded. When the topic arose people offered varying reasons why the trees had disappeared. Even Sophie Frye Bass, looking back, wrote in 1947 that "As Seattle grew, the park was surrounded by homes with chimneys that poured forth smoke which caused the big trees to deteriorate. Fir trees resent civilization. They had to be cut down" (Bass).

Literature, Culture, Comic Books

Yet, even without its most majestic trees the park was a welcoming green amenity in northeast Seattle. Indeed, Ravenna Park has been the site of notable community events and has often been referenced in pop culture and literary realms. One neighbor, Seattle's famed author, Betty MacDonald, wrote about her years of living near the park (at 6317 15th Avenue NE) in Anybody Can Do Anything (1950).

Then in 1967 and 1968 Ravenna and Cowen parks were the sites of the town's first hippie-era Human Be-In, a Love-In, and as the Vietnam War ground on, an Independence from the Draft Day concert/picnic. Ravenna Park also served as the setting for Nick DiMartino's 1998 murder mystery, Seattle Ghost Story, and in the popular Black Hole comic book series (1995-2005) by Charles Burns.

Cowen and Ravenna Parks Today

After the Ravenna Creek was diverted according to Olmsted's Master Plan of 1903, it was never quite the same. Once a moist, lush, "deep, secluded wooded ravine," it dried up and became far less attractive (Becker). Then in the mid-1930s the public successfully pressured the city into filling in and leveling the lower southeastern end of Ravenna in order to make playfields. Similarly,  in the early 1960s -- and as work progressed on construction of Interstate 5 (a few blocks to the west) -- 100,000 cubic yards of excavation spoils were trucked over, dumped into Cowen Park, and the filled-in former ravine was effectively transformed into a street-level plane suitable for ball-fields and swing-sets (which is what exists there today).

Another tragic occurrence was the city's trail maintenance efforts of a few decades back when a bulldozer operator unwittingly disrupted the once-flowing spring's source while working on the adjacent footbridge. It has been but a mere trickle ever since.

Meanwhile, the Ravenna community has periodically had to battle the city over seemingly endless schemes to divert what remained of Ravenna Creek into sewers. Examples of such skirmishes include a 1948 plan by the City Engineer, which was successfully forestalled, and another in 1986 when plans to use the ravine as a staging area for a major stormwater drainpipe installation project. The latter actually served the purpose of galvanizing park supporters to rally for new efforts to restore and protect the park.

Subsequently, a community group called the Ravenna Creek Alliance advocated for "daylighting" some long-buried portions of creek. Due to the efforts of these citizens, the southeastern end of Ravenna Park was beautifully landscaped, with new rails and riparian habitat restored along a good portion of the long-abused creek.


W. W. Beck, Ravenna Park -- 'Im Walde,' (1903), Peter Blecha collection, Seattle; W. W. Beck, Ravenna Park -- 'Im Walde,' 16-page postcard booklet, undated, in Peter Blecha collection; W. W. Beck, Ravenna Park (ca. 1909), Peter Blecha collection; "Ravenna Park Guide," brochure, 1909, Peter Blecha collection; "Ravenna Or Big Tree Park: It is Famous = "Nature's Exposition," postcard, 1909, Peter Blecha collection; Harvey Manning, Winter Walks and Hikes (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2002), 42; Betty McDonald, Anybody Can Do Anything (Philadelphia / New York: J. B. Lippincott Co, 1950), 129-130; Paula Becker, "Time Traveling The Roosevelt District With Betty Macdonald," Seattlepress.com website accessed July 13, 2010 (http://seattlepress.com/article-9455.html); "One of Ravenna’s Giant Trees Christened 'Paderewski,'" Interlaken, February 8, 1908, p. 1; Sophie Frye Bass, When Seattle Was A Village (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford Co., 1947), 106-108:  David Buerge, "Indian Lake Washington," Seattle Weekly, August 1-7, 1984; Seattle Polk City Directory (1901-1934); Directory of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (Washington D.C.: Memorial Continental Hall, 1911), 1340; "Mrs. L. C. Beck Funeral To Be Held Today: Woman Widely Known In Musical and Club Circles Is Mourned By Seattle Friends," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 9, 1928, p. 13; Kate C. Duncan 1001 Curious Things: Tales from Ye Olde Curiosity Shop (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2000), 73-78; Andrea Casadio, email to Peter Blecha, January 30, 2008; "No Finer Site: The University of Washington's Early Years On Union Bay," Web exhibition, University of Washington Libraries website accessed August 19, 2010 (http://lib.washington.edu/exhibits/site/); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle's Ravenna Park Bridge is constructed in 1913" (by Priscilla Long), and "WPA builds Cowen Park Bridge in Seattle's Ravenna neighborhood in 1936" (by Priscilla Long), and "John Olmsted arrives in Seattle to design city parks on April 30, 1903" (by David Williams and Walt Crowley), and "David Thomas Denny (1832-1903)" (by David Wilma), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed August 1, 2010); Esther Campbell, Bagpipes in the Woodwind Section (Seattle: Seattle Symphony Women's Association, 1978), 9; William Arnold, "The Great Mystery of Ravenna Park," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Northwest Today section, December 17, 1972, pp. 8-9; Steve Cronin, "Ravenna Park's Famous Trees Vanished Furtively," UW Daily, May 25, 1977, p. 3;  James Bush, "Remembering William W. Beck: The Father of Ravenna Park," The Seattle Sun, August 2003, The Seattle Sun website accessed August 25, 2010 (http://parkprojects.com/2003news/0308aug/hisbeck.html); Mary R. Watson, travel diary (handwritten), 1910, portion accessed on eBay, December 2006, copy in possession of Peter Blecha; Russ Hanbey, "1916 Seattle was a Hotbed of Sin When 2 Officers Were Killed," The Seattle Times, February 6, 2010 (http://seattletimes.nwsource.com); Peter Blecha archives; Larry Johnson, email to Peter Blecha, June 11, 2018, in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle, Washington.
Note: This feature was updated and revised on June 14, 2018.

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