Men from Portland created Seattle’s first housing boom

Sep 27, 2017, 9:00 AM | Updated: Sep 25, 2018, 10:46 am
(Feliks Banel)...
(Feliks Banel)
(Feliks Banel)

It was 166 years ago this week when three men from Portland visited West Seattle. They liked what they saw, so they decided to move here and look for work and a place to live.

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When their families joined them a few months later, it was the beginning of the city’s first real estate boom.

There’s a monument out at Alki Beach to the settlers who landed there on Nov. 13, 1851. It’s a big obelisk that lists the names of the people who arrived on that famously rainy day.

Across the street is a much smaller monument – mounted down low on a concrete wall – that often gets lost in the shuffle. It commemorates an event that took place in late September 1851, six weeks before that famous November landing.

As a quick refresher, Seattle was founded by a group of settlers known as the Denny Party. The main part of that group was a large blended family from Illinois, the Dennys and the Borens. That group left Cherry Grove, Illinois in April 1851 and headed west for Oregon Territory, aiming to settle in the Willamette Valley and build a city.

At a place in eastern Oregon called Burnt River, 29-year-old Arthur Denny met a man named Brock who told him about Puget Sound. It’s unclear who Brock actually was – we only know his last name – and it’s unclear if he had actually ever visited Puget Sound.

Either way, Brock convinced Arthur Denny that there was more land and fewer settlers on Puget Sound than there were in the Willamette Valley, and told him it was pretty much the same distance to Puget Sound as it was to Portland. To Arthur Denny, this sounded like a better place to create a new city.

When the Denny Party got to Portland on August 22, 1851, the population then was about 2,000. Arthur Denny was ill with the “ague” (pronounced AY-gyoo) – or a kind of “malarial fever” that was common then. So Arthur sent his younger brother, 19-year old David Denny, and a 31-year old man named John Low, who they had met along the trail to Oregon, north to Puget Sound.

Low and Denny left Portland on Sept. 10. The first part of their journey was by boat down the Willamette and across the Columbia River, to move Low’s cattle to grazing land accessible via the Cowlitz River and Cowlitz Landing.

They then reached Olympia, where they met a man named Lee Terry who was also interested in creating a new community somewhere on Puget Sound. The three headed “down the sound” as they used to say (that is, north from Olympia), aboard a boat that was traveling that way.

Sometime in the afternoon of Thursday, Sept. 25 – 166 years ago this past Monday – they went ashore at what’s now Alki Beach, near where the Denny Party monument stands along Alki Avenue SW at 63rd Avenue SW. Here they built a camp, with a lean-to to sleep in, though the weather was dry and mild – as it often is here in late September.

The next day, Sept. 26, they set out to explore the Duwamish River, which looked very different from the industrial waterway that the river has since become.

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The three men got help from Native Americans who took them by canoe across the tide flats of the Duwamish delta. They then went up the Duwamish – that is, to the south – where other settlers had recently staked claims where they were intending to farm. At some point, Low and Terry went on shore to explore, leaving David Denny alone with the Native Americans. It got dark, Low and Terry didn’t come back, so David Denny camped overnight along the Duwamish with the Natives, somewhere in the vicinity of what’s now Boeing Field.

The next day, Sept. 27, Low and Terry showed up, and the three men returned to their camp over near the beach. It was either on this day or the next day that Low and Terry decided to make this spot the townsite they’d been searching for.

They decided to call the town “New York” – either with great aspiration or great irony. It wasn’t obvious to Low and Terry, but the drawbacks of that spot for siting a big city would later prove problematic, especially its exposure to south winds and lack of a protected, deep-water harbor.

But that was in the future – not the far future, less than six months. Still, there were other priorities to see to.

On Sept. 28, they moved their camp north to what’s now Alki Point and began work on building a log cabin. Within a few days, John Low headed back to Portland to tell the others what they’d found and to get his family. David Denny wrote a note for Low to give to David’s brother Arthur. It said, essentially:


After John Low left, David Denny and Lee Terry made slow progress on the cabin, clearing the land, falling trees and moving the heavy logs into place. Soon Terry realized they didn’t have a frow (pronounced “froh,” and defined as “a cleaving tool having a wedge-shaped blade, with a handle set at right angles to it”).

A frow was necessary to make shakes for the cabin’s roof, so Terry headed to Nisqually or Olympia (sources vary on this point) to get one. Bill Speidel, in his 1967 Seattle history called “Sons of the Profits” says that Lee Terry was lazy, and shopping for a frow was a great way to get out of doing real work.

For most of October, then, David Denny was left all alone to build the cabin by himself. Some accounts say that he got help from Native Americans moving the heavy logs, and paid them in bread, other accounts (Bill Speidel again) says that Denny paid in chewing tobacco.

At some point in October, David Denny accidentally whacked his foot with an ax and ended up with a bad limp. Then, he came down with the ague – the same malarial fever that had waylaid his big brother – and crawled under the blankets in the lean-to, where he recovered slowly, sipping tea and dozing away the increasingly damp October days.

By early November, David Denny was still not feeling well. The walls of the cabin had been built, but it was still roofless. As anyone who’s been here that time of year knows, the rainy season was about to begin in earnest.

And it was indeed a rainy Thursday – this time, Nov. 13 – when David Denny awoke to the sounds of anchor chains outside. The rest of the Denny Party had come up from Portland on a seven-day journey via the schooner EXACT, and the adults and children were coming ashore at low tide.

Verbatim accounts of what words were exchanged are hard to come by, but David Denny was said to have wished the party hadn’t come (perhaps he felt bad that the cabin wasn’t ready). Multiple accounts, however, say that most of the women of the party were in tears as the reality of the damp and roofless situation set in.

Either way, the men pitched in and got a roof on the cabin before too long.

As for “New York,” some wiseguy affixed the Chinook trade jargon word “Alki” to the name, which means “bye and bye” or “eventually” or “someday”; that is, some kind of indeterminate delay. Eventually, “New York” fell by the wayside and just plain Alki stuck.

Also, in those days, “Alki” was pronounced “AL-kee,” but that fell out of fashion in the 20th century and the pronunciation morphed into “AL-keye.” A search through old newspaper archives shows that at various points in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, micro-controversies would occasionally pop up over the proper pronunciation. Local historians, including Edmond Meany and Willis J. Sayre, believed it was pronounced “AL-kee,” but usage seems to have overtaken the opinions of those long-deceased experts.

In late 1851, John Low and Lee Terry’s brother Charles staked their claims at New York-Alki, but the Dennys and Borens waited until February 15, 1852, to paddle across Elliott Bay to what’s now downtown Seattle to stake theirs. According to Bill Speidel, John Low left the area after less than two years and never returned. Lee Terry left after only six months.

Fast-forward 117 years, and ABC launched a TV series called “Here Come The Brides.” The show was set in 1860s Seattle and was loosely based on the efforts of Asa Mercer to import marriage-worthy females to the rough and tumble frontier settlement.

Chances are the producers and the network had no idea of what David Denny, John Low, and Lee Terry had done that early autumn afternoon back in 1851. But somehow, by some kind of wacky only-in-Seattle coincidence, “Here Come The Brides” premiered on Sept. 25, 1968.

Want to know more?

To learn more about the early years at Alki, look for these books at your local King County Library System location or other public library:

“Pig-tail Days in Old Seattle,” by Sophie Frye Bass

“Blazing The Way,” by Emily Inez Denny

“Skid Road,” by Murray Morgan

“Sons of the Profits,” by Bill Speidel

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Men from Portland created Seattle’s first housing boom