Who named Beacon Hill?

Robert Ketcherside in the CHS Capitol Hill Seattle blog has a great historical article about the first Broadway streetcar, from the 1890s. Why am I mentioning it here on the Beacon Hill Blog, you ask? Scroll on down to the addendum to the article and you’ll find a discussion about the murky origins of the name of Seattle’s Beacon Hill:

“Someone on Beacon Hill needs to stop freakin’ and figure out who really named Beacon Hill and why.”

Apparently there isn’t any paper trail for the commonly accepted origin story — that M. Harwood Young moved to Beacon Hill from Boston and named it after the famous Boston location. It could be true. But as far as the current sources are concerned, there isn’t really anything concrete.

“At least up here we have a healthy debate about the origin of Capitol Hill,” says Ketcherside. “…Down on Beacon Hill they settle for tacit acceptance of a hole-ridden story.”

Anyone up for a research challenge?

35 thoughts on “Who named Beacon Hill?”

  1. My story is also authentic. In the late 1800’s my Swedish grandparents landed in New York at Ellis Island and worked their way here to log the huge amounts of timber all around the sound including the crest of now Beacon Hill. During those early years ,it was also the beginning of airplanes. One of the places the very early plane builders (,when planes were only a little advanced from the Wright Bros. later planes) settled on the flat logged and cleared fields, which is now basically King Co. Airport. They built their “experimental” planes there and flew them. They decided they needed special lights there on tall timber poles to let pilots know where to land still with trees all around
    People living on the crest of the hill began first calling them Aviator lights and later they were called beacons and consequenty the hill was called Beacon Hill.
    Now isn’t that plausible …? L L

    PS: Of course Bill Boeing came on the scene much later where he too, started building planes as we have all seen the little gray house/factory that still sits on display down by the Flight Museum.

  2. Actually, it was originally called “Bacon Hill” because of all the pig farms that used to be on the ridge here. But then there was a typo on one of the early maps of the city….

  3. I have no insight into why it’s Beacon Hill, but this seems as good a time as any to ask two questions I’ve been wondering about for quite a while.

    On a sewer map from 1891, the area bounded by 13th on the west, 19th on the east, Walker on the north and College on the south is undivided and labelled “College Grounds.” Does anyone know what college was supposed to go there?

    Today, the blocks between Bayview and College are double-length blocks in comparison to the other blocks in the neighborhood. On the 1891 map, the north half of these blocks are divided into lots, but the south half remains undivided in a stretch that goes from 11th to 32nd. On the sewer map, this is labelled as “tunnel.” In arial photos I once saw from the late 1930s this whole stretch was still notably less-developed than the area around it. The map includes proposed work, so it seems likely this sewer tunnel was never built, but if anyone knows for sure I’d be curious to hear about it.

    Here’s a link to the map I’m talking about.

  4. I’ve read that our hill was originally proposed as a site for the University of Washington.

  5. Well I’ve always assumed it was named after the UFO beacon buried deep in the hill by the Illuminati (or else the Tri-Lateral Commission or staff members from Area 51, not sure).

    But that might just be wishful thinking on my part 🙂

  6. Tyler, I have been proposing it for a long time. Jefferson Park would be good, but I would also suggest one at the Viewpoint Park on 12th or 13th or whatever it is.

    Or, how about multiple beacons? Different styled ones, all over the hill in many notable locations? Each one with a history note or something.

  7. Wow, Sergey, a great Beacon Hill History with accompanying photos. This is worth printing out. People new to Beacon Hill, or older , should read and see this. Part of it’s heritage is the keeping the wonderful Native American tribal names . Somehow I feel the tribes were justified in burning the properties of the “foreigners” for stealing their lands. L L

  8. The Hill’s name as Beacon Hill was in use at least by 1887 (Prosch 1901). If I had to guess, there were no ship beacons on the hill, as they would be useless overlooking a closed embayment. If there were any beacons ever, they were likely related to the mid-19th century indian wars. A way to signal far-flung blockhouses of impending attack. It would have been halfway between the Collins/Van Asselt blockhouse (where the 1st Ave bridge is now) and the Seattle blockhouse. But I have never seen anything to back that up – I am just guessing here.

    But, if you were a settler from 1851-1860, the closest nearby cities/trading posts would be Fort Nisqually (Olympia), or Victoria BC. Victoria BC just so happens to have its own Beacon Hill. Boston’s Beacon Hill would be a good candidate too. If I had to guess I would guess it’s named after a hill in another city an early settler reminded them of. I am doing more research to figure it out…

  9. Actually, yes, it looks like it was M Harwood Young naming it after Boston’s Beacon Hill. Young came to Seattle in 1890 and developed the hill. He was the regional manager of the New England Northwest Investment Company and was instrumental in the rebuilding of Seattle after the 1889 fire. He then was a large stockholder in several Seattle streetcar companies, and probably had naming rights over the new streetcar up to his land holdings on Beacon Hill. Boston’s hills and Seattle’s hills are very similar geologically – both are primarily features called drumlins, which are glacially-created hills.


    (The Seattle Times, December 21, 1955, pp 34)

  10. Yes, I have loved reading the history of Beacon Hill – and discovering friends that are connected to many sites around the hill including Katie Black’s Garden and even the land where our home is.

    I’ve been percolating a historical and artistic wayfinding idea I have been lately. I’ll make sure it involves beacons! 🙂

  11. I’ve always thought it was interesting how Van Asselt has always been written out of the official Seattle histories, when in fact he staked his claim BEFORE the Denny party landed at Alki.

  12. Hi folks — lots of new posters! If you were wondering why your posts weren’t showing, it’s because first-time posters’ posts are held for moderation. Once they’ve been released, you can post freely.

    Ryan, John — I think the point of the original link is that they weren’t able to find primary sources for the claim about M. Harwood Young, and they had reason to doubt the claim. The HistoryLink page doesn’t solve that problem, if I recall correctly.

  13. I’ll settle for Harwood Young naming the hill. Maybe we could do “sister hills” with Boston, as they do with cities .
    Well ,if he had stock in street car companies , which apparently ran “downtown”, (before the Denny Regrade) perhaps we can get the Mayor’s Toonerville Trolly up to Beacon Hill, maybe up the middle of the 12th. Ave. bridge from Jackson, and up 15th. by my house to Beacon Ave. They are battery operated? ,just lay the tracks. sigh—well, dreaming doesn’t cost anything.

    In reality, what great coverage about “our hill” from so many versions, nearly all with the same general viewpoint. L L

    PS: I guess we can’t go with John’s Bacon Hill, due to misprint on a map however.

  14. No one denies that M. Harwood Young lived on Beacon Hill. I think Ketcherside’s point is that there isn’t really any contemporary proof that he named the hill, and the timing may be wrong. See the original article at http://www.capitolhillseattle.com/2012/05/18/chs-retake-the-very-first-broadway-streetcar .

    I don’t think anyone’s yet posted anything that addresses what Ketcherside said. It’s certainly possible that Young did name the hill, but the problem is the lack of contemporary evidence for it. The sources people are posting here are all quite a bit later.

  15. Young is in Seattle by 1890, when he appears in the Polk Directory. He does not yet live on Beacon Hill, however. The Directory does not refer to Beacon Hill by name at all, as far as I’ve been able to see. (Still searching, though.)

    What is the earliest printed reference to Beacon Hill? The earliest one I’ve found is 1892, but I think Rob Ketcherside might have an earlier one related to the Union Trunk Line…?

  16. Thanks for the link, Sergey. I’ve actually read it before and it doesn’t answer my question. What that says is that the land Jefferson Park is now on was “set aside for the support of the state university,” not that the U was going to be put there. Land was set aside elsewhere for support too, which means the profit from the logging or other development went to fund the school. The most lucrative example of this is the land the Four Seasons Hotel sits on, which was the original location of the school. The rent the Four Seasons pays UW for being on that land now is considerable.

    Anyway, the property I’m talking about is almost a mile north of Jefferson Park and is clearly labelled “college grounds” not “college property” or anything else indicating it was land in trust to provide support but rather that that’s where a school was going to go. It might have been intended for the state college, but I’ve never come across anything that suggested there was ever a plan to put it up here.

  17. That profile of Beacon Hill 82_28 linked to somewhat answers my other question, since Judge Turner owned much of the undeveloped land not labeled “college grounds”, which I’d already suspected since it would have been his backyard, er, back 40. But the boundaries given in the article are much smaller than the boundaries on the map.

  18. There’s great info on early Beacon Hill history and early settelment in the “Beacon Hill Historical Context Statement” that Caroline Tobin did for the Department of Neighborhoods in 2004. (https://docs.google.com/open?id=0B1a06rAyrP1uck8yOUphbExRbENVcnZUX19oSnAzQQ).

    Young named Beacon Hill and also Massachusetts Street (the street in front of the house he built on Beacon Hill) in honor of his home town and home state (page 19). There are no specific reference notated in Tobin’s statement, but the work is well researched and lists all the original references used. However, I suspect the answer to this particular question would be found in “The Street Railway Era in Seattle: A Chronicle of Six Decades” by Leslie F. Blanchard, 1968, which is listed in the bibliography.

    I can’t find it in digital form anywhere online, but the Central Library has a copy. I’ll try to stop by there sometime in the near future and verify if there are any specific references.

  19. Yup, the Historical Context Statement doesn’t give a source for the info, darn it. I’m with Ketcherside on this; I want to see contemporary evidence. Which hopefully still exists.

  20. While not related directly to Beacon Hill ,again the old is new again, in speaking of railroads and trolleys,on or close to Beacon Hill in my early youth challenged days, I recall the Interurban that ran from Tacoma to Seattle which now is Urban Ave. through Tukwila. Some portions of the grade are still visible. Too bad it wasn’t kept going with improvements. The light rail of nowadays possibly might not have been needed ?

    I also remember the last days of the Seattle street cars ,which existed
    long after the very early Beacon Hill hill lines and the Denny First Hill Regrade sluiced into Elliot
    Bay. again perhaps some of those lines should have been kept, as was the short line
    resurrected a few years back by bringing in Australian Street cars. It will resume it’s
    route from Jackson St. and along the Alaskan way waterfront, when the Tunnel and
    the resultant street changes are made. Ahh the memories. L L

  21. Mira, thanks for that great link. I’m partway through reading it and it’s answered my first question:

    Territorial Supreme Court. College Street abutted a
    parcel labeled “College Grounds,” which was given
    to Father Prefontaine (1838-1909) by his friend Jo-
    seph McNaught. McNaught platted a large area on
    Beacon Hill, and Father Prefontaine hoped to estab-
    lish a college in this area of south Seattle. Father
    Prefontaine founded Seattle’s first Catholic church.
    The college envisioned by Joseph McNaught was
    never built.

  22. And now I may need to eat my words in my reply to Sergey, although I’d like to see another source for the idea that Jefferson Park was ever intended to be the home of UW:

    The property that later became Jefferson Park was
    acquired as a possible university site. Initially sec-
    tion 16 of every township was set aside for schools,
    and Jefferson Park is in the west half of section 16-

    However, the selected site for the original
    location of the University of Washington was in down-
    town Seattle on property donated by Arthur Denny.

  23. I’m so glad that my article provoked such conversation on Beacon Hill.

    If you haven’t read it carefully, I invite you to head over to http://www.capitolhillseattle.com/2012/05/18/chs-retake-the-very-first-broadway-streetcar for a peek.

    It’s understandable that you would trust the historians to tell you the history of Beacon Hill. I had no reason to doubt it until I began reviewing documents from 1890 to about 1900 involving the Union Trunk Line.

    I have personally seen nothing from that era that links Young to Beacon Hill before 1893 or 1894. The city archives and city directories don’t have anything.

    I did not search exhaustively, but I’m sure that I searched more thoroughly than any of the history texts that you have quoted. In my article I pointed out that there were several other facts wrong with each of them. More damning, in my mind, is that they are all so similar and derivative. I think everyone is starting from Bagley’s 1916 History of Seattle.

    Except, Ryan Thompson, can you provide more details about this statement? “The Hill’s name as Beacon Hill was in use at least by 1887 (Prosch 1901).” I would trust Prosch as a source because that predates Bagley’s book, and Prosch lived it and was a journalist in Seattle in the 1880s.

    If you look at the larger version of the photo at http://www.flickr.com/photos/tigerzombie/7230339862/sizes/o/in/photostream/ , you’ll see “Beacon Hill” across the front. I’m sure the photo dates from before October, 1891. I bet the paint wasn’t changed after it opened in May, 1891.

    Again, it’s possible that Young did name Beacon Hill. But think about it. This guy was not from Seattle. Why would Seattleites accept his name for a massive topographical feature right next to downtown, within 18 months of him arriving in Seattle?

    James Moore named Capitol Hill — the area beyond Broadway which was nameless and unsettled. But he was a prominent, wealthy, and well-connected Seattle citizen. On top of that, he undertook a massive advertising campaign for his land development called Capitol Hill (the name only applied to his development at first).

    So where is the evidence of Young’s renaming to Beacon Hill during 1890 and early 1891?

  24. Here’s a thought: Capitol Hill was supposedly named because of a desire to lure the state government from Olympia. The Massachusetts Statehouse is on Beacon Hill — could Seattle’s Beacon Hill get its name come from a similar desire? If any notable citizens had an interest in trying to move the capitol, say to the Jefferson Park grounds, Young’s suggestion of naming it Beacon Hill might have been well-received.

    Alas, it’s just speculation.

  25. Yes Wendi. (But, I was not keeping note of Beacon Hill references as I looked through — I was looking for Capitol Hill and Marcellus Harwood Young.)

    Brook, that doesn’t seem any more fanciful than the idea that it was fire beacons during the Battle in Seattle. Or that M. H. Young named it after his hometown. They all lack evidence. Hopefully someone interested in Beacon Hill history will do the research necessary in 1889 and 1890 newspapers and documents to see if Young really named it or if it predated him.

Comments are closed.