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.