The Founding of Kirkland

Most of the land on Lake Washington’s east shore opened for homesteading in 1870, about 20 years after the land on Puget Sound, comprising today’s greater Seattle area.

Early homesteaders staked 40-, 80- and 160-acre parcels – which they could purchase for $2.50 per acre, or “prove up” by occupying for several years and building improvements. Today’s Kirkland’s pioneers occupied two different unincorporated areas, called districts: Juanita, to the north, and Houghton, south to the head of Yarrow Bay.

The Eastside’s rural character ended in 1888 when Seattle newspaper publisher, S.J. “Leigh” Hunt, and English iron and steel manufacturer Peter Kirk purchased thousands of acres of from the homesteaders. Kirk and Hunt sought to create a model “company town” owned by Kirk and Hunt’s Kirkland Land and Improvement Company, its centerpiece being a state-of-the-art foundry and steel rolling mill complex that would manufacture steel rails for the booming railroad industry around the western U.S. and Pacific rim. The Moss Bay Iron & Steel Company, named after Kirk’s English company, was later renamed the Great Western Iron & Steel Company, after a financial reorganization. 

The boom was on, and hundreds of workers and new residents swept in to clear the thick forest and build the mill complex on today’s Rose Hill, with the townsite and company offices on the lakeshore. Kirkland was dubbed “the Pittsburgh of the Pacific,” becoming the focus of national and even international scrutiny, with financial backing from some of the wealthiest industrialists of the time, including John D. Rockefeller and Joshua M. Sears.  
Fortunes turned in 1892, however, as a series of setbacks culminating with the national economic depression known as the Panic of 1893. Everything came to a halt, and Kirkland sat unfinished; the mill never produced any steel. The homesteaders and some of the newer arrivals persisted through the tough times and eventually reinvented Kirkland, capitalizing on its beautiful lakeshore location and creating instead of a dirty, Pittsburgh-like manufacturing center a charming, lakefront suburban city

Until the Mercer Island Floating Bridge opened in 1940, the quickest way for Kirklanders to cross Lake Washington was by boat. 
First with rowboats and small sailboats, later with scheduled steamboat service, and finally via King County Port district’s double-ended ferries, facilitating wagon and, later, cars and trucks. The foot of Kirkland Avenue was the county ferry system’s North Lake Washington eastern terminus; Madison Park was its western. The last ferry run was in the summer of 1950, but at the north side of Kirkland Avenue near Lake Street, the restored 1935 ferry clock stands in its original position.

Kirkland’s Houghton neighborhood was the lake’s boat-building center. The site of today’s Carillon Point became a small boatyard in 1905 and by World War II grew into the Lake Washington Shipyards, where auxiliary ships – primarily seaplane tenders – were built for the U.S. Navy.

For more Kirkland Historical Information, check out these two books available at the Book Tree on Market Street, and you can visit the Kirkland Historical Society at Heritage Hall.