October 10, 2016

How Did We Get Here

Most people who live in the Seattle area see Kirkland as a charming little community of suburban gentility, nestled into a tiny inlet off Lake Washington and think it’s obvious that K-town was always just a bedroom community for those who worked downtown, in the Big City. That’s what it is today…

T’was not always so.

In the 1880s, a somewhat restless British-born steel tycoon, Peter Kirk, immigrated to the Northwest, in search of new challenges, new markets, and a little adventure in his business life. Kirk dreamed of developing a “Pittsburgh of the West” somewhere on the eastern shores of Lake Washington; a vibrant new town that would become a new American hotbed of…steel production?

Yep, that’s right: Kirkland, Washington, was originally built and conceived as a foundry town; one of those places built on heavy industry. Of course, this plan meant a future of pollution, rough trade, rail lines in and out, saloons, brothels, and all the charm such places invariably lack. None of that, of course, is at all in evidence in post-millennial Kirkland. In fact, that’s almost the polar opposite of what you find there today. So…what happened?

In 1880, the Moss Bay Iron and Steel Works was established by Kirk and several wealthy Seattle business pals. Their master plan hinged on the rich mineral resources of (relatively) nearby Snoqualmie Pass. It also depended on a vague plan for a ship canal that would soon be dug, going through Seattle to Puget Sound. Their grand plan would link Lake Washington to Puget Sound and, by extension, to the vast possibilities of the Pacific Rim trade routes. On the eastern end of the scheme would be a rail line to Snoqualmie Pass. Even in late 1800s dollars, such a project would have nearly bankrupted the fledgling city of Seattle, so opposition was fierce, not only from the local business community but from pioneering environmentalists, who saw Kirk’s caper as the virtual death of Seattle’s forested beauty. Eventually, for purely pragmatic reasons, both a ship canal to Puget Sound and an eastern rail line were constructed, but too late to save Kirk’s dream. A minor stock market crash in 1893 tanked all plans for serious industrial development in the Seattle area and the steel mill was scrapped, never having produced so much as a single I-bar of steel.

The new town of Kirkland, however, continued to thrive and was incorporated in 1905 with a population of 400. The original industries that sustained the emerging city were wool milling and ship building. Washington’s original textile mill started in Kirkland in 1892, producing wool clothing and other products in dire need in the great Alaska Gold Rush, and for the WWI-era U.S. military.

Kirkland‘s ship-building industry was built for the construction and maintenance of the state’s private ferries. By 1917, that long-awaited ship canal to Puget Sound opened Lake Washington to Alaskan and overseas trade. By the 1940s, The Kirkland Lake Washington Shipyard started building ships for the Navy. 25 warships were built during World War II on what is now Carillon Point, and dozens more were refitted there.

Peter Kirk’s dream of a city on the east shore of Lake Washington ultimately did come to fruition…just not in the way he imagined it. Today, Kirkland shows almost no signs of its proud history as a ship-building nexus and nothing at all of its near-miss steel-mill origins.