Yarrow House

Small Towns of Seattle: Georgetown

When I was a child, we’d drive to Seattle from our farm south of Tacoma once a year, to go Christmas shopping. In 1950, the trip took hours along Highway 99. Once as we drove into Seattle, my mother announced, "This is Georgetown." At that moment we were passing a huge brick building edged right up to the sidewalk. For me it was the essence of a Big City. Over the years when people mentioned Georgetown, the name would tug on that dangling thread of memory and pull the building back to mind. Was it still around and, if so, where actually was it?

Georgetown sprawls along the bank of the Duwamish River. The river’s rich flood plain had attracted some of the first white settlers in the Seattle area—Luther Collins, Henry Van Asselt, and the Maple family. They arrived in1851 and filed claims with the Territorial government for land along the east bank of the meandering river between what is now the First Avenue Bridge and South Idaho Street. The Duwamish delta soil was perfect for farming and the periodic river flooding had created meadows that took less time to clear than the forests that covered the rest of what would become Seattle.

By the time my mother drove through Georgetown, it was just another Seattle neighborhood on the outskirts of the downtown core. But it started out as a separate settlement. Collins was an enterprising man and built a ferry to take passengers across the river. A little hamlet called Duwamish grew up near the ferry. Then Collins sold part of his acreage to Julius Horton, brother of Dexter of Seattle banking fame. Julius, an equally enterprising man, had an interest in beer. Eventually he sold part of his land to some beer brewers to build a brewery and then grew the hops to supply that brewery. In 1891, Julius platted the remainder of his land and named his new development "Georgetown" in honor of his son George.

Georgetown grew into a flourishing village and, largely as a defense against Seattle’s growing prohibitionism, incorporated as a town in 1904. Turn of the century Seattle pushed its vices outside the city limits, and Georgetown entrepreneurs were happy to fill the need, with saloons, roadhouses, and brothels, centering around one of its main industries—the brewery that was to become the Rainier Brewery.

But the town, as did many of the other small towns ringing Seattle, found it hard to meet the water and sewage needs of its growing population. At the same time Seattle businessmen looking to expand south pressed the little town to incorporate into Seattle. In 1910 residents voted to join their bigger neighbor.

As commercial and industrial activity expanded along Seattle’s waterfront, they pushed up along the Duwamish. The Corps of Engineers straightened and deepened the river, and the farmland disappeared under concrete. Georgetown became an industrial area, its skyline dominated by the Sunny Jim Peanut Butter and Rainier Brewery signs. A cluster of tiny bungalows and modest Victorian farmhouses clings to the two-block section of what was once the town center.

Over the years, I’d drive through Georgetown occasionally on my way to the transfer station with a load of yard waste and wonder what my child self would think of the place now, hardly the image of a big city, with its cinderblock industrial buildings, low-rise warehouses and empty storefronts in the town center.

In the past ten or 15 years, Georgetown has begun to take on a bohemian allure. Some of my artist acquaintances moved into one of the old hotels. Then other friends bought the Sunny Jim peanut butter factory building and rehabbed it into artists live-work spaces. The aura of bohemian industrial chic spread its allure, and suddenly Georgetown was the hip new place to live. Retro clothing shops, antique stores, and art galleries, bars and restaurants reclaimed the little town center and spread out along Airport Way.

A local neighborhood organization has worked diligently to maintain the residential areas against the pressure of commercial development and to encourage other Seattleites to visit the neighborhood with an annual summer garden and art tour. I went to the garden tour and followed the map around the side of the residential area that edged the King County airport (former home of the Meadows racetrack, built in 1902, first for horse-racing and later for auto racing).

The garden tour was unpretentious. People’s yards, backyards, sideyards in this collection of working class homes. Some of the gardens were of little interest, some were labyrinths of flower and vegetable beds, some even edged with bowling balls. My favorite yard art was a bowling ball in the center of a big nest made of sticks and chicken feathers. Yes, Georgetown did have a bowling alley.

The Gessner Mansion, “gambling house and brothel” as some have referred to it, stood in restored glory, down the street from maybe the last original corner store in Seattle, the Carleton Avenue Grocery, and across the street from Oxbow Park—a reminder of the once meandering Duwamish River.

Collins had appointed himself as King County roads commissioner in 1853 and arranged for the main road from Seattle to Tacoma to go right to the Collins Ferry. The road became the same Highway 99 my mother had driven on our annual trips to Seattle. For years a prominent feature of Highway 99, through Georgetown had been another one of my other childhood memories the Hat’n’ Boots gas station. And there in the park were the hat and boots, rescued from destruction. They looked much smaller than I remembered them. The hat formed the roof of a tiny performance area; the boots stood tall, with doors still in the boot shafts.

Finally, my energy for touring gardens ran out, and I headed for home on Airport Way, past the original site of the Rainier Brewery. A collection of brick buildings crowded up against the sidewalk. They were identified in brick-work above their tall windows as the Brew-House, Malting Room, and Machine House. Among other businesses they now housed Fran’s Chocolates and the Machine Room Brewery.

As I drove along them, I was suddenly swept back through the years. My big city buildings! Still impressive, still crowding the sidewalk in their bulky brick elegance. The Brewery! Finally at after all these years, I tied the ends of that long, dangling thread from my childhood into a satisfying knot.

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2016