Much of Seattle’s past is pretty hard to recognize anywhere on our streets today. We have a few old buildings left—like Row House Cafe!—but most of the history is buried deep underneath ever-expanding construction. Especially in South Lake Union, a neighborhood that has been demolished and reinvented several times in its history, much of the community’s early roots are visible today only in our street names—Denny, Boren, Mercer, or so many others. Let’s take a closer look at these names, their stories, and the way this neighborhood has grown and changed.
Originally, South Lake Union was kind of a Seattle backwater. Lake Union was named by Thomas Mercer in 1854 because of his optimism that the smaller lake would soon be connected to Lake Washington and “united” by a canal. It took 80 years to finally build the canal, however, and for the next thirty years development of the Lake Union settlement stalled.
It wasn’t until David Denny—yes, of the Denny party, whose name lives on in Denny Way and Denny Park—bought the city’s largest sawmill from Lake Union and Lumber Company in 1884 that the neighborhood really took off. Denny renamed the mill Western Mill, cut a weir between Lake Union and Montlake, and was able to float logs and boards through. He and his wife Louisa Boren lived approximately where the Space Needle sits today, and had one of the most progressive households in Seattle—Denny was an early advocate of women’s suffrage, learned Native languages and could communicate with Natives in their own tongues, and befriended and gave land to Natives at a time when their presence in the city was banned.
In 1895’s financial crisis David Denny was forced to sell the mill, but he had ignited a wave of labor and industry along Lake Union. In 1916, the first wood-and-linen B & W Seaplane, known as the Boeing Model 1, first flew from Boeing’s hanger on Lake Union. Houses were springing up along the shores, filling with Eastern European, Russian, and Greek immigrants. Street cars were running along Westlake from downtown, just as they are today. Ford Motors and other auto manufacturers had plants on the lake. In 1917 the ship canal was finally completed, unlocking the full potential of the neighborhood, which was known as Cascade after the widely-esteemed Cascade elementary school constructed during the turn of the century, which operated until destroyed by an earthquake in 1949. The addition of Highway 99 or the “Aurora Speedway” in 1932 contributed to Cascade’s success and accessibility.
Unfortunately, the vibrant identity of Cascade Neighborhood declined throughout the 1950s as residential construction and use decreased and commercial development tools its place. In 1957, a new zoning ordinance forbade any new residential use, designating the area for manufacturing, and then in the 1960s seven blocks of mostly residential construction were bulldozed to make room for I-5, which carved up Cascade and cut it off from Capitol Hill, destroying its autonomous neighborhood identity and vitality.
And yet, South Lake Union is a tenacious neighborhood that has rebounded. Residents defeated another freeway measure in both 1995 and 1996 that would have cut off Cascade from Lake Union. Interest in the cheap land after the measure was defeated revitalized the community as a tech hub, and South Lake Union is once again a hive of commerce and opportunity for the whole city. We at Row House are proud to have an old Cascade structure that’s managed to transition with the neighborhood, and we hope you’ll come in some time, have a drink, and take a moment to remember the way waves of settlers, immigrants, and community builders who came before.