Thursday, May 19, 2016

Making the Cut: The Yesler Mill on Union Bay

On New Year’s Day, 1890, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published an article touting the benefits of purchasing property at Ravenna Park, north of the city limits. To bolster the argument, the article pointed to the settlement of Yesler as a neighboring thriving community:

“Yesler Mill, a settlement of some sixty houses, with ice factory, church and stores -- just a little east from the Park -- is doing a flourishing business and affords us lumber at $1 per thousand [board feet] cheaper than other mills.”

Since the town of Yesler had only been platted two years earlier, it seems doubtful that all “sixty houses,” church, and stores were in evidence.

The community which would be variously known as the Town of Yesler, Yesler Mill, Yesler Junction, or simply Yesler -- was laid out in 1888 as something like a company town to support Henry Yesler’s second mill on the north shore of Union Bay. The town father himself passed away in 1892 and had little to do with the mill operations.

[For an expanded version of this essay, including details on the town and its institutions, see the blogpost Mill Village.]

The Yesler Mill was built on the north shore of Union Bay on Lake Washington on the property that is now the University of Washington’s Urban Horticulture Center and the adjacent Yesler Swamp, west of Laurelhurst. Equipment was probably transferred to the location from the original Yesler Mill in Seattle which had burned down in 1887.

Men, women, and a child atop logs at the Yesler Mill on Union Bay. Photo dated 1892?, Courtesy of Seattle Public Library. 

Soon after the mill was established a spur railroad line was put in to connect the mill to the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway line, now the Burke Gilman Trail. Maps of the day are not always reliable; however, we see the railway spur on maps from 1890 (O.P. Anderson and Co., Seattle and Environs) and 1895 (Seattle and Lake Washington Waterway Company, Guide Map to Seattle), but the Baist Maps, beginning in 1905, show no spur. The apparent loss of direct rail transportation for lumber up to the main line is one indication that things did not always run smoothly at Yesler Mill.

Baist Map, 1908, UW Special Collections. This map demonstrates how, prior to the cutting of the ship canal, the waters of Union Bay lapped up to and across a portion of E. 41st at high tide.


This photo from the collection of the Seattle Public Library is undated, but was probably taken prior to the 1895 fire. The railroad is apparent in the background. What appears to be a small church appears at the far right hand. This may have been the Yesler Junction Church.

Fire was the enemy of all sawmills. A catastrophic fire of unknown cause devastated the mill in 1895, only seven years after it was established. A lengthy article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on September 17 of that year described the chaos:

“YESLER MILL BURNED. Devouring Flames consume the Plant and Lumber Yard. The Town Narrowly Escapes. Employes (sic] Can Do Nothing but Watch Mill and Lumber Burn.

The entire plant of the Yesler mill at the town of Yesler, on a spur of the Lake Shore road, was destroyed by fire last night, together with nearly the whole stock of lumber, the wharf and eight cars of the lake Shore road. The fire burned so fiercely that the flames were visible throughout the city and for miles around and it was thought that the whole town of Yesler had been destroyed….Fire was discovered at 11 o’clock by the night watchman in the dry kiln. The watchman blew the whistle and in a few minutes a large crowd had gathered, but the fire spread with wonderful rapidity, and in a few minutes the entire mill was in flames."

The reporters on the scene were able to give a rip-roaring first person account of the conflagration:

“About this time a wind from the south sprang up, driving the men away from the lumber back among the houses on the hill. The timbers began to fall and broke the water pipe, leaving the men helpless. The flames at this point were leaping into the air full seventy-five feet and the heat was terrific. Standing on the tracks were six logging cars and two box cars belonging to the Lake Shore road, two of which were loaded ready to ship East: one had logs aboard and the others were empty. As the flooring timbers were burned away these eight cars crashed down into the lake. About the same time the boilers and engine were heard to fall.
In about thirty minutes there was nothing left of the mill but a few smoking timbers. The fire confined itself then to the immense piles of lumber, and gradually ate it way toward the office.
So rapid was the progress of the fire that one of the men, H. Butler, at work on the wharf was cut off from escape and had to jump into the water. He seized a boom chain and hung on until he was rescued.” (p. 2)
The report goes on to relate how the fire eventually burned itself out “chiefly for lack of further food,” and how water from the neighboring ice plant saved some lumber piles and the mill post office building.

Reporting in the days following the fire focused on the untangling of insurance claims and the burning question: would the mill be rebuilt?

It is clear from the newspaper accounts that there was more than one going concern on the mill property at the time of the fire. This was not a company town in the traditional sense. Portions of the mill property were leased to the Great Western Lumber and Supply Company while the ice company also appeared to be an independent entity. Other claims were less clear: “There appears to be some doubt as to the proprietorship of the wharf and dock burned, and it will probably be some days before a full adjustment of the losses can be reached.” (Seattle P-I, September 18, 1895, p.8) 

A bulletin in the same paper three weeks later reports that “A.H Ruelle, of Ruelle Bros, lessees of the Yesler mill, at Yesler, recently destroyed by fire, is now in the East closing accounts of the firm. He expects to make arrangements before his return to erect a new mill, probably on the site of the old.” (Seattle P-I, October 6, 1895, p. 8.)

The receivers of the Lake Shore and Eastern Railway also suffered losses, as described in the P-I article of September 18, 1895. In addition to the train cars lost it is likely that a good portion of the spur line was damaged or destroyed. Since the spur line disappears from maps soon after this date, one might conclude that the line was never rebuilt.


Various sources refer to the Seattle Ice Company, Union Ice Company, or Lake Union Ice Company sharing quarters with the Yesler Mill. In the days before home refrigeration, companies that delivered blocks of ice to your door were an indispensable part of the community.

A section of the Sanborn Fire Insurance map for 1893, two years before the fire, shows several structures of the Union Ice Company, including freezing tanks, ice storage, and oil storage.

The Sanborn map provides intimate details of the workings of the ice company. It had the capacity to produce 20 tons of ice per day, pumping water directly from Lake Washington into 7500 gallon tanks, 16 feet tall. The plant was in operation day and night in summer; closed in the winter. Being a fire map, Sanborn goes on to tell us, somewhat prophetically, “The station pump [will] supply sawmill with pressure in case of fire.” The Sanborn notes conclude that the building is “substantial, premises tidy.” (Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps, Seattle, 1893, Vol. 2, Sheet 55a)

This small snippet of map may be the best depiction we have of the mill property in the few years it was active before the 1895 conflagration. The diagram also shows the route of the railroad spur, a “Yessler [sic] W. C. & L. Co. boarding hotel,” lumber runs, planked roadbeds, and a combination office and post office.

The lengthy article describing the fire in the P-I also gives a snapshot look at operations at the mill:

“[The mill] had a capacity of 75,000 feet in 12 hours and employs 36 men. It was a two-story structure with the sawmill on the upper floor and planing mill and engine room on the lower floor. It contained two double circular saws, an Allis edger, two large wood planers, a sticker, a shingle machine and a lath machine, a Corliss engine and a Noyle engine, two large boilers, an Allis steam setwork with twin engine…Of the 1,000,000 feet of lumber in the yard, only 15,000 to 20,000 was saved.


The years between 1895 and 1912 are somewhat hazy. All sources agree that at some point a shingle mill was constructed on the property that was the Yesler Mill. In her history of Laurelhurst, Christine Barrett reports that folks used to set their watches by the mill's noon and four o'clock whistles. 

One encounters the term “Yesler Mill” in newspaper articles and on maps as late as 1918. Whether the mill was operated by the Yesler Logging Company or an affiliate during this period is not clear. It is possible that the term “Yesler Mill” was just a comfortable moniker.

Beginning in 1912 the researcher finds references to a Two Lakes Mill which manufactured shingles at Yesler Station and maintained an office in the downtown Henry Building. Articles of Incorporation for the Two Lakes Mill were filed August 24, 1912. Newspaper ads include the following:

“Wanted: shingle bolts and stumpage near Lake Washington at once. Two Lakes Mill Co.” (1912)

“Wanted: to let contract for hauling several hundred cords shingle bolts, Two Lakes Mill Co.” (1913)

“Shingle your house all over with shingles made in Seattle. Inquire about our four grades and prices. Two Lakes Mill Co.” (1916)

The 1918 Polk City Directory contains a bolded listing for Two Lakes Mill: “Mnfrs of High Grade Premium Red Cedar Shingles.” However, the very next year the listing had been reduced to two words -- “wholesale shingles” -- perhaps indicating a downturn in the business.

Any doubt that we are talking about the same property where the Yesler Mill stood is laid to rest by an annotated diagram in the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map for 1919 showing the workings of “Union Bay Shingle Co./Two Lakes Mill Co’s Shingle Mill.” Notes on the diagram indicate that the mill had a capacity of 105,000 shingles in eight hours, that there was a night watchman, and that water was taken from Union Bay.

The question of corporate names does not die easily. In 1917, The University District Herald, under the headline “Yesler Mill Running,” reported “This mill has been idle for some time and it is indeed good to see the wheels turning again. It furnishes work for a bunch of men who are causing their earning to benefit Yesler in general.” (July 27, 1917) On April 25, 1918, The Seattle Daily Times reported that a shed had been destroyed by fire at the Yesler Mill Company plant, but that the mill itself was saved by the fire department.

The mill may have dodged this bullet in 1918, but most sources agree that the mill buildings succumbed to fire sometime in the 1920s. (Thompson, Barrett) There would be no rebuilding this time. It is likely that the cutting of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1916, and the subsequent lowering of Lake Washington, made it just that much harder to run a lumber mill of any kind.

As the lake waters receded, they left the mill wharf high and somewhat dry and the mill pond only slightly damp. At some point an 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. Long-time resident Jim Thompson recalls watching the mill burn in 1928 or 1929.

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. 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.


In 1971 not-yet-famous author Ivan Doig wrote a piece for The Seattle Daily Times based on the recollections of his neighbor in the area known as Exposition Heights overlooking University Village shopping center. Bill Lozott, Doig’s informant, recalls going down to the dredged mill channel to swim after a hard day’s work in the mid-1920s. 

In 2010, Jim Thompson, shared memories with the Friends of the Yesler Swamp and in 2016 spoke with this author. Both Lozott and Thompson recalled sawdust piles on the old mill site that would smoke and occasionally combust on hot days. Thompson remembers that the mill run “was dug deep enough to accommodate a tug;” he and his pals kept a very small sailboat, “the tar baby,” in the mill run.

My friend John found this old boat in the swamp. At that time they were building 43rd NE. Part of what they were doing to build it -- they had tar. So John and I went up and secured the tar, brought it down, melted it, and used it to caulk the boat somewhat. It was just a little throwaway. About a 10 or 14 foot little sailboat. So we went sailing. I was in my very best clothes -- and we tipped over! So I’m swimming in a brand new suit of woolen clothes.I had to throw them away, of course.

The dredged mill run can be clearly seen about center in this aerial from 1937. Even after the mill closed, neighbors attempted to keep the run open for boat launches. The channel eventually was abandoned to the encroaching wetland now known as Yesler Swamp. Image Courtesy University of Washington Special Collections.


Sources include:

  • Guy Reed Ramsey, Postmarked Washington: King County, 1966.
  • Christine Barrett, A History Of Laurelhurst, 1981.
  • Lucile McDonald, The Lake Washington Story, 1979.
  • The website of the Friends of Yesler Swamp.
  • Valerie Bunn's blogspot:
  • Various articles from The Seattle Times, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and The University District Herald, including: Ivan Doig, “The home-town boy,” Seattle [Daily]Times, April 18, 1971.
  • Special Collections, University of Washington, including historic maps collection
  • Puget Sound Regional Branch, Washington State Archives, property and corporate records. 
  • Memories of Jim Thompson, courtesy of Friends of the Yesler Swamp, 2010, and as told to Eleanor Boba, 2016

-- Eleanor Boba, 2016

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