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Judge Thomas Burke, Burke Museum
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All Over The Map: Who was ‘Burke’ of the Burke Museum?

It’s grand opening weekend for the all-new Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus. But who was the “Burke” behind the name of this august institution?

A biography of Judge Thomas Burke, written by Robert C. Nesbit and published nearly 60 years ago, is called He Built Seattle, which pretty much sums it up.

Young Tom Burke came to Seattle in 1875; he was 25 years old, and the city was just 23. He was born in Chateaugay, New York in 1849, not far from Montreal. Burke moved with his family to Michigan where he studied law and gained admittance to the state bar.

But like so many Americans in those years, Burke wanted to head west. When he arrived in Seattle, Burke joined a law practice with his future father-in-law, Judge John McGilvra, and he became a circuit judge himself, traveling all over the territory.

Over the next 50 years, Thomas Burke became wealthy buying and selling real estate, but he also was a tireless civic booster. He was particularly interested in and he saw, maybe before and to a greater degree than anyone else, the potential for trade with the Pacific Rim.

One of Burke’s most valuable skills was a talent for securing outside capital from investors in New York and elsewhere to finance things like trolley systems, as well as Seattle’s attempt to beat the dastardly Northern Pacific Railroad. In the late 19th century, that railroad was funneling all its resources into boosting Tacoma — the place where it owned a lot of real estate — rather than Seattle.

The main way that Burke fought the Northern Pacific was by helping create and recruit investors for the “Seattle Lakeshore and Eastern Railway,” which was ultimately supposed to go to Spokane and Walla Walla over Snoqualmie Pass.

Burke raised the money, and the project was managed by Daniel Gilman. This local railroad didn’t make it farther than Arlington, but a big chunk of the old route eventually became the Burke-Gilman Trail.

Burke also played a role in the Great Northern selecting Seattle as its terminus; though that story is a little complicated, because Burke also served as a paid representative of and adviser to James J. Hill, railroad tycoon and the “Empire Builder” who owned the Great Northern.

The author of He Built Seattle says that most of Thomas Burke’s accomplishments around here were in place by the early 1900s, when Burke was just in his 50s.

In December 1925, 75-year-old Burke was in New York City for a meeting of board of the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace. Midway through speaking about one of his favorite topics — “American understanding of the Far East” — Burke collapsed and “fell dead into the arms of Nicholas Murray Butler,” the president of Columbia University, wrote his biographer.

The Great Northern brought Burke’s widow Catherine McGilvra Burke and his remains home in special rail car and, his biographer wrote, “Men stood with heads uncovered at the trackside as the train passed through Washington cities … Grief was widespread and genuine.”

Thomas Burke’s name was attached to the museum on the UW campus right about the same time He Built Seattle was published in 1961. The old Burke Museum that many of us remember visiting as kids (or that we took our kids to) opened in 1964 after a series of delays. It cost about a million dollars to build, and more than half of the money came from the estate of Catherine McGilvra Burke.

The Seattle Times said in 1962 that Catherine McGilvra Burke’s “will gave the university funds for construction of a museum dedicated to the advancement of understanding among peoples of the Pacific Rim.” Catherine had passed away in 1932; the couple didn’t have children.

The plan for what became a memorial museum wouldn’t be approved by the UW Board of Regents until 1960; it’s unclear why it took so long. The public was calling for a museum on campus as a tribute to Burke, and as necessary repository for art and artifacts as early as January 1926.

A huge monument to Judge Burke was built to house his tomb at Evergreen-Washelli Cemetery. There’s also a monument at Seattle’s Volunteer Park that reads:

Patriot Jurist Orator Friend
Patron of Education
First in every movement for the advancement of the city and the state
Seattle’s foremost and best beloved citizen.

What was first called the Washington State Museum traces its roots the 1880s and a group called the Young Naturalists’ Club. They built a structure at the old UW campus downtown, and later moved their collection and related activities to the current campus around 1900.

The early incarnation of the museum on campus was housed at various locations that were mostly old buildings left over from the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition of 1909. Along the way, at least two homes of the museum would be found structurally unsound and condemned, forcing the museum to move.

This timeline of pre-Burke Museum locations gives some idea of the travails faced by scholars working to collect and display artifacts of natural and cultural history:

1909 to 1914

The old “California Building” left over from the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (AYPE), described by The Seattle Times as a “large mission-style structure built of stucco.”

1914 to 1923

The old “Forestry Building,” also leftover from the AYPE. Described by The Seattle Times as a “pillared log edifice with natural rough fir bark left intact.” The museum was forced out when wood-boring beetles chewed up the building from within.

1928 to 1957

After having no home for five years, the museum settled into the old AYPE “Washington State Building” that had served as a library since the end of the fair. It was deemed unsafe and condemned in 1957; the museum moved its collections to the original KCTS building (which may have actually been a World War II-surplus Quonset hut) at 15th Avenue NE and NE Campus Parkway.

1964 to 2018

The newly-christened Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum opened after numerous delays in May 1964. The building designed was by Seattle architect James Chiarelli, and housed the Burke until the end of 2018.

Let’s hope the new Burke Museum is here to stay for a long time, and that those wood-boring beetles never return.

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