Kirkland, Washington
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History of Kirkland, Washington

The land around Lake Washington to the east of Seattle, which would later be known as Kirkland, was first settled by Native Americans. English settlers did not arrive until the late 1860s, when the McGregor and Popham families built their homesteads in what is now the Houghton neighborhood. Several prisoners four miles to the north had also settled near what they would later call Juanita Bay, a favored campsite of the Natives because a type of wild potato, "wapatos", thrived in the region. The Curtis' arrived to the area sometime in the 1870s and, later, the French family in 1872. The Forbes family settled on Rose Hill in 1877. As time went by slowly more and more people arrived to the area and by the end of the 1880s a small number of logging, farming and boat-building communities had been established.

In 1886, Peter Kirk, a British-born enterprising businessman seeking to expand the family’s Moss Bay steel production company, moved to Washington state after hearing that iron deposits had been discovered in the Cascade mountain range. Other necessary components such as limestone, needed in steel smelting, were readily available to the area. Further yet, a small number of coalmines (a required fuel source for steel mills) had recently been established nearby in Newcastle and train lines were already under construction. Plans were also underway to build the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

Kirk realized that if a town were built near the water it would be a virtual freshwater port to the sea, as well as help support any prospective mill. At the time, however, Kirk was not a U.S. citizen and could not purchase any land. Fortunately, Leigh S.J. Hunt, then owner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, offered to partner with Kirk and buy the necessary real estate.

Under their new venture, the Kirkland Land and Development Company, Kirk and Hunt purchased thousands of acres of land in what is now Kirkland’s downtown in July of 1888. Kirk and his associates started the construction on a new steel mill soon after, named Moss Bay Iron and Steel Works, on land east of Seattle, near Lake Washington. Thus founding the city of Kirkland in 1888, officially one of the earliest on the Eastside at the time, Kirk’s vision of a "Pittsburgh of the West" was beginning to take form.

However, the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad, which had recently been purchased by Tacoma-based Northern Pacific, had now refused to construct a rail line to the lake. This would, after all, have a negative impact on Tacoma, which was furiously competing with Seattle as the dominant Puget Sound seaport. The ensuing financial issues and numerous obstacles were also taking toll on Kirk, who was running out of investors. Hunt was also in debt from the purchase of land.

Nevertheless, the plans continued and the steel mill was eventually completed in late 1892 on Rose Hill (a full two miles from the Lake’s shore). Unfortunately, before it would ever produce any steel financial issues arose and, due to the Panic of 1893, the mill subsequently closed without ever producing any steel. In spite of everything, Kirk was determined not to give up on his namesake town, and Kirkland was finally incorporated in 1905 with a population of approximately 532.

In 1900 the Curtis family, who had been living on the Eastside since the 1870s, had made a living operating a ferry-construction business on Lake Washington. Along with Captain John Anderson, the Curtis' were among the first to run ferries in the area. Leschi, first operated on December 27, 1913, was the original wooden ferry to transport automobiles and people between the Eastside and Madison Park until her retirement 1950. The ferry operations ran nearly continuously for 18 hours each day. However, the construction of the first Lake Washington floating bridge in 1940 made ferry service unprofitable and eventually led to its cancellation. Subsequent years saw wool-milling and warship-building become the major industries.

The first wooden mill in the state of Washington was built in Kirkland in 1892. The mill was the primary supplier of wool products for the Alaska Gold Rush prospectors and for the U.S. Military during World War I. By 1917, after the completion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the construction of ocean-going vessels had become a major business. By 1940, the thriving Lake Washington Shipyard had constructed more than 25 warships during World War II for the U.S. Navy, on what is now Carillon Point.

For more information, see the official Kirkland Centennial Website.

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