In 1888 Henry Yesler and friends built a small sawmill on the north shore of Union Bay on Lake Washington. A small company town called...what else?...Yesler grew up behind the mill and up toward the tracks of the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Railway (now the Burke Gilman Trail). A wharf extended into the bay on a point of land roughly where the Urban Horticulture Center now stands west of Laurelhurst. Logs were floated in to the mill run and processed into lumber and later shingles which were shipped out by train. Maybe, probably, still working on that angle.
The Yesler Mill survived at least two fires (typical for mills of the era), but the lowering of the lake caused by the cutting of the ship canal in 1916 left its wharf high and somewhat dry and the mill pond only slightly damp. While some lake mills may have benefited from access to the big steamers that the cut afforded, the Yesler Mill, on a shallow bay, was already too low in the water to make that leap. At attempt was made to dredge a channel into the bay in order to make the mill run viable again. This last ditch effort must have had only limited success because by the mid-1920s the mill was gone.
The mill's loss was the U Dub's gain. All the mill acreage, as well as most of the newly exposed wetlands at Union Bay, was acquired by the university with new uses in mind. That is a story for another day.
The dredged mill run can be seen about center top in this aerial from 1937. Even after the mill closed, neighbors attempted to keep the run open for boat launches. The area that is now the University Village can be clearly seen laid out in farming plots, lower right. University of Washington Special Collections.
The historian regrets that the era of the mill is well below the horizon for useful oral history. However, memories survive in unexpected places. In 1971 not-yet-famous author Ivan Doig wrote a piece for The Seattle Daily Times* based on the reflections of his neighbor, Bill Lozott,. Born in 1907, Lozott still lived on the street where he grew up on the hill behind University Village in an area called Exposition Heights, no doubt for the AYP Expo that took place on the grounds of the University in 1909. Lozott remembered the old neighborhood well. Some snippets from Doig's article:
"Around the mill and its wharf sprouted the village of Yesler, a going little community now vanished almost with a trace except in the memories of Bill Lozott and a few others."
"Another attraction: immense mounds of cedar sawdust which, come summer, would ignite in spontaneous combustion."
"The water level receded until a flat triangle of land appeared down the hill to the west of the Lozott home [now University Village.] About 1924, as Bill remembers it, 'a Japanese family dug ditches and drained it to develop a lettuce farm.' Young Bill harvested lettuce there for 25 cents an hour. 'Then we'd go down to the old mill channel' -- trenched from Union Bay to the Yesler shingle mill after the drop in the late level -- 'for a swim to wash off.'"
* Ivan Doig, "The home-town boy," Seattle Daily Times, April 18, 1971, p. 139.
Excellent information about the Town of Yesler can be found in Christine Barrett's A History of Laurelhurst, 1981, Valarie Bunn's blogpost From Yesler to Wedgwood, and on the website of the Friends of Yesler Swamp. Much more needs to be dug up on the workings of the mill itself.