Skip to content

Harry French glass plate negatives

By Matt McCauley

The Kirkland Heritage Society’s extensive photo collection recently got a delightful boost, thanks to the purchase of 36 previously-unknown glass plate negatives which are nearly 130 years old! These amazing images provide new glimpses of Kirkland’s transformation from a thickly-wooded collection of 80-160 acre homestead ranches to the early stages of becoming a company-owned steel mill town, envisioned as the “Pittsburgh of the Pacific”.  

KHS President Loita Hawkinson, who has also served as its Collections chair and the unofficial Historian since the early-1990’s, said that the negatives were taken by Houghton pioneer and early photography hobbyist Harry D. French. Hawkinson elaborated, “The French family were wonderful people and are true Houghton and Kirkland pioneers. Three generations are buried in the Kirkland Cemetery. There were four children, three who died young. Harry was the oldest and the only survivor. Both Harry and his father Foster wrote of their daily lives in both Maine and Houghton and are a primary source of early history for the Houghton area. Foster stopped writing when they moved to Washington Territory. Sadly, Harry stopped writing when Peter Kirk arrived. Thankfully, he instead bought a camera and took photographs. Each of the three boxes we discovered had 12 5” x 8” negatives. He sure knew how to use that camera!”

Prior to the advent of plastic-based film, photographers used glass plates to make negatives. Hobby photographers like French were rare due to the complexity of the equipment and the expense. Hawkinson says the wooden camera French used to capture these images is in KHS’s collection, thanks to his only grandson, Dave Davis, who has donated numerous French family heirlooms to KHS.

Kirkland namesake Peter Kirk, an English steel manufacturer, visited the US in 1886 and again in 1887 looking for a suitable location for his planned mill and company town. He sought to make steel rails, then in great demand, as railroad construction was at a feverish pitch and there was not yet a steel mill on the West coast capable of making them. Tacoma, the North Bend area, and Cle Elum were all considered, but S. J. “Leigh” Hunt, the flamboyant young publisher of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, promised Kirk that a new canal connecting Lake Washington to Puget Sound was coming soon, along with a critical north-to-south railroad line along the lake’s eastern shore that would bring raw materials—iron ore, coking coal, and lime—to the mill. In 1888, Hunt persuaded Kirk to locate the new enterprise on the lake’s east shore, then inhabited by only a handful of hardscrabble pioneer homesteaders. The well-connected Hunt sold the idea first to prominent local, and later, to national investors, from Seattle founder Arthur Denny to legendary tycoons John D. Rockefeller and Joshua Montgomery Sears, then among the wealthiest men in the U. S. The investors formed two corporations, the Kirkland Land and Improvement Company, which would build the company town, and the Moss Bay Iron and Steel Company of America. (In 1890 the steel company was reincorporated as the Great Western Iron and Steel Company.)

In 1888, the land company erected a small two-story brick office building at what would soon be the foot of Market Street. The company’s corps of engineers employed over 2000 men to chop, blast, and burn away the thick forest and brush that covered today’s Market, Norkirk, Moss Bay, Highlands, and North Rose Hill neighborhoods. As the land was cleared, the corps shifted into grading and surfacing the streets and sidewalks with wooden planks. Up on the south side of Forbes Lake, near today’s Costco, a brick works, a saw mill, and the steel complex started taking shape. Hunt’s interests extended to creating the Lake Washington Belt Line Company to survey and build a rail line along the length of the lake’s eastern shore. (This incomplete line is not to be confused with the 1905 Lake Washington Belt Line, built by the Northern Pacific, that is now the Cross Kirkland Corridor in Kirkland. Much of the 1890 rail grade followed a different route through Kirkland, along today’s Slater Avenue.)

Most of Kirkland’s pioneers sold all or some of their land to Hunt for the steel venture. Many, like Harry French and his neighbor Ed Church, put their own fortunes on the line by investing in the enterprise, either by stock purchase or through land speculation and improvements. The brick Masonic Lodge Building, located at 702 Market Street (corner of 7th Avenue), was built by Church and French in 1890-91, at the cost of $12,000, then a substantial sum for men of average means. Kirkland quickly became a boom town and land speculators bought up and platted more tracts from the homesteaders.

A series of national and local events brought it all to a halt in 1892, including Congress declining to move forward with funding the promised ship canal. The national depression known as the Panic of 1893 sealed Kirkland’s fate. Most of the boom activity fizzled and the few holdouts and original pioneers struggled to get by during the financial hard times that lasted into the 20th century.

Until this cache of glass plates was discovered, there was little photographic record of the early boom period, so French’s negatives have done much to answer longstanding questions about that era, but they have also created new questions, as the best historical materials always do! In addition to the invaluable new glimpses of the townsite development, French took candid photos of Kirk and his family. Hawkinson said that there were previously only two known photos of Peter, both formal portraits, and just one of image Mary, seen later in life. In this new set of images, we see that French captured several charming candid shots of Peter and Mary Kirk, giving us an exciting, fresh look into the life and times of Kirkland’s namesake.

Note: This article was originally published in the Kirkland Views blog.

Looking east to the steel mill. The planked road was 7th Avenue, then called Piccadilly, which ran from Market Street to the mill, just south and a bit east of Costco’s overflow parking lot. The man on the left is unidentified while the man on the right is believed to be Peter Kirk’s right-hand man and corporation secretary, Walter Williams. The long structure at left behind the mill buildings was a 350-foot long bunker, intended to store iron ore, coal and lime, the raw materials need to create steel. A rail spur is seen on trestle bents at far right. The track ran across the top of the bunker and ore cars were to have dumped their loads down into it. The skunk cabbage on both sides of Piccadilly suggests the photo was taken in the Spring or Summer of 1890.

Looking south to the steel mill. On the left is the southern end of the bunker and the trestle bents supporting the elevated rail spur. In the middle is the main foundry building and to the right are the pattern, blacksmith, and machine shops, housed in a single structure. The company built a brick works about 1100-feet west of the photographer’s position. Note the large pile of bricks in the foreground. The tree line at the end of the clearing seen between the foundry and shops is roughly where NE 85th Street is located today. Note the thickness of the forest cover in the background. Keep in mind the massive, backbreaking clearing effort that was done by hand and with ox teams. Crews laboriously extracted hundreds, perhaps thousands, of stumps.

Until now, there were only two known photos of Peter Kirk, both formal portraits. This image came as a welcome surprise to KHS, because it captures Kirk (L) in a candid pose, wearing a pith helmet, with Walter Williams. Williams was a fellow Englishman who had worked for Kirk and his brothers in England and emigrated with his wife and children to the US with Kirk. Williams owned acreage he named Glandwr, the land on Juanita Bay around Rose Point, the site of today’s Juanita Bay Park. Note Kirk’s lunch bucket and possibly his dog. His sack suit, stand-up wing-tip collar, and four-in-hand large knot tie were cutting edge men’s fashion in 1890.

Looking northeast across Moss Bay. Kirkland Land and Improvement Company crews are clearing what is now the Market and Norkirk neighborhoods. The smoke is from fires set to burn away the underbrush and fallen logs that were not used for lumber. The building on the water at far left with the smokestack is a sawmill. The wharf and warehouse are at the foot of today’s Market Street, which had not yet been put down when this photo was taken. The two-story brick building was built in 1888, the first such structure constructed in Kirkland. It served as the company’s office and stood on the corner of Market and Central until the middle of the 20th century. Kirk’s personal residence is at left, on today’s Waverly Way. It is the large house on the bluff, the first one to the right of the sawmill.

Looking north along Market Street as it is graded and surfaced with wooden planks. This shot was quite an exciting find! The house and barn in the background and the orchard immediately east of Market Street had belonged to Andrew Nelson, the original homesteader who owned what is now the Market Neighborhood. He sold his entire claim to Kirk’s associate S. J. “Leigh” Hunt, who transferred title to the Kirkland Land and Improvement Company. The brick structure at the right housed the previously-mentioned company offices, for decades known by Kirklanders simply as the “Bank Building”. It was built in 1888 and over the years served as a bank and telephone company office and the first meeting place for the Kirkland Town Council, after incorporation in 1905.

Looking southwest at Moss Bay from about where Heritage Hall stands today, prior to Market Street being constructed. The lake was about nine feet deeper then, so the wharf to the right of the Bank Building would be about where the Marina Park gazebo is located today. The barn and farm structures at the left would soon be demolished. They had belonged to homesteader Andrew Nelson. The steamboat is the “Kirkland”. It was owned by the Jackson Street Cable Railway and based out of Leschi. Kirk associate and Post-Intelligencer newspaper owner S. J. “Leigh” Hunt was also a principal in that company.