Streets of Seattle

Seattle street names, from Adams to Yukon

Labyrinth of Names

When a developer first subdivided a piece of property, he laid out the blocks, lots, and streets and dedicated the streets for public use, filing a plat, or map, of an “addition.” The person who platted each addition had the privilege of naming the streets within that addition. Additions are relatively small, so a single street will pass through many of them. As a result, by the 1890s Seattle street names were a mess. As an 1891 report to the Chamber of Commerce explained:

Some names have been repeated from three to five times, and in the Pontius and other additions to the city, streets are designated by numbers in utter disregard of the fact that streets in the oldest part of the city have been designated by similar numbers for more than thirty years. Another evil which should be remedied is the possession by a single street of several different names at several different points. For instance, in the Renton addition and the additions immediately adjoining of the streets running north and south, Rose street within a few blocks becomes Black street and Chestnut street is changed to Cedar street. Of the north and south streets, Bancroft changes within a short distance to Talbot street, Hayes to Adams, Gould to Mastick and Choat street within a few blocks becomes Blakeley street, and again within a few blocks changes back to Choat street. These are all straight streets and are cited from among many instances of unnecessary and inexcusable multiplication of names of streets running through different additions. In the southern part of the city, where the streets running north and south are numbered, similar evils exist without any apparent excuse, except that some one platted an addition to the city with direct reference to the number of lots to be gotten out of land and no reference whatever to streets and alleys. As a result, at one point Twenty-second street becomes Twenty-fourth street for a couple of blocks and then once more becomes Twenty-second street. Twenty-sixth street changes its name in a like manner and Twenty-first, Twenty-third and Twenty-fifth streets are duplicated within two blocks of each other. As the city is built up this condition of affairs will lead to greater confusion each year. These evils result wholly from culpable carelessness or utter disregard for the rights of the public by those platting land and the equally culpable carelessness of the authorities who accept and approve such plats.

Read the full report, printed in the December 16, 1891 Seattle Press-Times, here. This “labyrinth of names” is clearly visible on the 1890 Anderson map of Seattle. The streets were rationalized and many of them renamed in 1895.

Norman Judkins

“Each man who opened an addition named the streets according to his fancy,” writes Sophie Frye Bass. Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in the Norman B. Judkins Addition to the Town of Seattle, filed by Norman B. Judkins in 1869. The plat includes five named streets, which Judkins called Norman, B, Judkins, Addition, Town, and Seattle.

King County Recorder's Office

Judkins’s plat is roughly where I-5 and I-90 meet today. (The numbered streets have shifted slightly from the 1869 layout. The plat’s Seventh St. would be today’s Fifth Ave. S, and so on.) Note that the shoreline of Elliott Bay cuts right through the center of the plat; this is approximately where I-5 is now.

Of Judkins’s named streets in southeast Seattle, only Norman and Judkins remain. B Street is now Connecticut, and Town is Atlantic. However, both Addition and Seattle Streets are still evident in short stretches on a 1950 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, and Seattle Street is still here, albeit only in its far westward extension, between Atlantic and Massachusetts in West Seattle.

Bell

The neighborhood of Belltown, through which Bell Street runs, corresponds geographically to the donation land claim of William Nathanial Bell. Bell arrived in 1851 as a member of the Denny Party and his land claim was one of the original six Seattle claims. Bell didn’t stay too long; he left Seattle for California in 1856 after the Battle of Seattle, during which white pioneers were beset by Native Americans and the Bell family’s cabin was burned. He returned to Seattle in 1870 and remained until his death in 1887.

Wikimedia Commons

Much of Bell’s claim was taken up by Denny Hill, and the “Belltown” designation originally referred only to the blocks west of Second. When the hill was sluiced into Elliott Bay at the turn of the century, the entire neighborhood became more commonly known as Denny Regrade. In 1937, Sophie Frye Bass writes: “If you ever hear anyone speak of ‘Belltown’ you may know he is a real old timer.”

Bell named several streets after family members: Olive and Virgina are named for Bell’s daughters, and Stewart Street is named for his son-in-law Joseph H. Stewart. The Austin A. Bell Building on 1st Ave between Bell and Battery is named for his son.

King

King Street was named by David Maynard in his 1853 Plat of the Town of Seattle, one of the first three plats laying out the street grid. (The other two plats, north of Maynard’s, were filed by Carson Boren and Arthur Denny). Maynard, a staunch Democrat, named many of the streets in his plat for Democratic leaders, including Andrew Jackson, John B. Weller (Governor of California), and Joseph Lane (Oregon Territory’s Congressional delegate).

King Street is named for William Rufus DeVane King, who was elected as Franklin Pierce’s vice president in March of 1853 and died six weeks later. He remains the shortest-serving U.S. Vice President. King died about a month before Maynard filed his plat. King County was also named for William King, and Pierce County, our neighbor to the south, was named for the President.

Wikimedia Commons

King County has since been re-namesaked in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., but presumably the street is still named after William Rufus.

Yesler

Henry Yesler arrived in Seattle in 1852, looking for a place to set up a steam-powered sawmill. The downtown land claims had already been staked, but Carson Boren and David Maynard moved the boundaries of their claims north and south just far enough to allow for the construction of a mill on the waterfront and a road going east up the hill. The map below shows Yesler’s pipe-shaped claim, with the bowl of the pipe expanding east of Boren’s claim, in what is now the Central Area.

Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives, Item No. 312

The road was called, appropriately, Mill Street. As Sophie Frye Bass explains, “Mill Street started right in being Mill Street. It could not help itself for Yesler’s mill was there.” Mill Street was renamed Yesler Avenue in 1888.

In addition to constructing and operating the city’s first sawmill, Yesler operated a cookhouse that served as the town’s event space, and built a larger hall at 1st and Cherry in the 1860s. He founded Seattle’s first water system, and served two terms as mayor, in 1874 and again in 1885. (A term only lasted one year in those days.) His wife, Sarah, helped found the Seattle Library Association, predecessor of the Seattle Public Library, and served as the first town librarian.

Pig-tail days

Sophie Frye Bass was the granddaughter of Arthur Denny and the author of two charming little books on Seattle history, Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle and When Seattle Was a Village. Both books consist primarily of her memories of growing up in pioneer Seattle. The one that concerns us here is Pig-Tail Days, published in 1937, which gives her account of the origins of the downtown street names and a few others.

Pig-Tail Days is an important source for street names; Bass, born in Seattle in 1867, grew up as the streets were being laid out and knew many of the people who did the naming. As a Seattle Times reviewer put it:

When one closes this thrilling little volume there will be no forgotten streets, no forgotten pioneers for the reader, as Mrs. Bass has carefully written of some of these forgotten streets, she has refreshed the memory concerning pioneers and their heroic deeds, their achievements (often unheralded and unsung) in the upbuilding of Seattle.