By Matthew McCauley
The Kirkland Heritage Society’s vast photo collection recently got a huge boost, thanks to 36 nearly 130-year-old glass plate negatives which provide new glimpses of Kirkland’s transformation from a thickly wooded collection of 80-160 acre homestead ranches into what was to have been a company-owned steel mill town, an envisaged “Pittsburg of the Pacific”.
KHS’s Past President Loita Hawkinson, who has acted 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, who also kept journals in the 1870-80’s, now also in the KHS collection.
“The French family were wonderful people. They were examples of the times. They had four children, three who died as young children. Harry was the oldest. Both Harry and his father Foster wrote of their daily lives in both Maine and Houghton. They are a primary source for the Houghton area. Foster stopped writing when they moved to the Washington Territory. Sadly, Harry stopped writing when Peter Kirk came. Thankfully he bought a camera and took photographs. Each box had 12 negatives 5 by 8 negatives. There are 3 boxes and 36 negatives. He knew how to use that camera. Three generations are buried in the Kirkland Cemetery”.
Prior to the advent of plastic film photographers used glass plates to make negatives. Hobby photographers like French were rare. Hawkinson says the same 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 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. 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 US. They 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 had over 2000 men out chopping, blasting and burning 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 busy saw mill and the steel complex started taking shape, along with rail spurs running down from the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern’s Railroad’s main line at Woodinville (Not to be confused with the Cross Kirkland Corridor, opened in 1904. The 1890 rail grade is now 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 at 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. The Panic of 1893 national depression 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.
Up to this point 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.
In addition to the invaluable new glimpses of the townsite development, Hawkinson says that French took candid photos of Kirk and his family. She said that there were previously only two known photos of Peter, both formal portraits, and just one of image Mary, seen later in life. French captured several charming candid shots of Peter and Mary Kirk, giving us an exciting new look into the life and times of Kirkland’s namesake.