University Street

University Street was established as part of the Plat of an Addition to the Town of Seattle as Laid Out by A.A. Denny on November 16, 1861. It was named for the Territorial University of Washington, which had opened 12 days earlier on a 10-acre site atop “Denny’s Knoll.”

Plat of an Addition to the Town of Seattle as Laid Out by A.A. Denny, November 16, 1861
Plat of an Addition to the Town of Seattle as Laid Out by A.A. Denny, November 16, 1861
Territorial University on opening day, showing south and west sides of main building, November 4, 1861
Territorial University of Washington on opening day, November 4, 1861

Even though the University of Washington moved to its current location on Portage and Union Bays in 1895, the name was not changed. Nor did the university relinquish the land, though not for lack of trying. This turns out to have been fortunate. The UW owns the Metropolitan Tract to this day, and it earned $25 million in rent on the property during fiscal year 2020 alone.

The street, which originally ran from Front Street (now 1st Avenue) to the university campus, just northeast of 3rd Avenue, today begins at Alaskan Way on the Elliott Bay waterfront, and makes it just one block, to Western Avenue, before it becomes the Harbor Steps. From 1st Avenue, it’s about a third of a mile to 7th Avenue, where University Street is blocked by Interstate 5. It resumes at 9th Avenue and goes for another third of a mile to Boylston Avenue.

Portion of King County quarter section maps covering Metropolitan Tract
Portion of King County quarter section maps covering Metropolitan Tract

Incidentally, you’ll notice in the map above that 4th and 5th Avenues between Seneca and Union Streets, as well as University Street between 4th and 5th Avenues, plus half a block on either end, are marked private way subject to public use — long term grant of use for street purposes. This fact — that the University of Washington still owns all the land within the Metropolitan Tract and never formally dedicated those streets to the public — was something I never knew until I started taking close looks at King County’s quarter section maps as part of my local history research. It might seem an academic distinction, but as The Seattle Times reported in 2015, there are very real financial consequences.

In 2008… the UW wanted the city to interpret the tract as one undivided lot, streets and all. That novel argument would benefit the UW in calculating the development footprint, or base.… The bigger the base, the logic went, the more square footage a developer could build before triggering affordable-housing fees under the city’s formula.… The university held a heavy hammer in negotiations. Because the UW owned development rights for the land under Fifth Avenue and University Street, it could make the city compensate it, one way or another, for using those streets.

Madison Street

Madison Street — another of Seattle’s “first streets” — was named for James Madison, president of the United States from 1809 to 1817. It is the only street in town that stretches, uninterrupted, from the salt water of Elliott Bay and Puget Sound to the fresh water of Lake Washington.

Madison Street begins on the Elliott Bay waterfront at Alaskan Way and ends 3¾ miles northeast of there at a small fishing pier, just east of 43rd Avenue E and north of Madison Park Beach. Apart from a slight bend to the northeast at 22nd Avenue, it is as straight as an arrow from beginning to end.

Spring Street

Spring Street was another of Seattle’s “first streets.” Sophie Frye Bass writes in Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle:

Where springs of clear water bubbled from the earth and the beach was sandy and free from rocks, there the Indians camped. Such a choice spot was Tzee-tzee-lal-litch [dzidzəlalič], which Arthur Denny called Spring Street.

Spring Street begins at Alaskan Way and runs nearly a mile, to Harvard Avenue, before it is interrupted. A few more segments run through the Central District and Madrona. The last is from 38th Avenue to Grand Avenue, at which point it continues to Lake Washington Boulevard as a footpath and stairway.

Cherry Street

Cherry Street was among the first streets platted in Seattle on May 23, 1853. Sophie Frye Bass, author of Pig-Tail Days in Old Seattle, writes:

I choose to think that Cherry Street is named for the little town of Cherry Grove, Illinois — Mother’s birthplace — where the Dennys started on their long journey over the Oregon Trail.

“Mother,” in this case, refers to Louisa Catherine Denny Frye, one of three children of Arthur Armstrong Denny and Mary Ann Boren Denny of the Denny Party. She was 7 years old when they landed at Alki Point in November 1851.

In 2006, Hunter Brown wrote a People’s History essay for HistoryLink, “Finding Cherry Grove,” detailing his efforts to locate Cherry Grove, whose name was later changed to Cedar Township. The nearest town today is called Abingdon.

Bass began her Pig-Tail Days piece on Cherry Street by calling it “another up-and-up street… with no interferences. It begins at First Avenue, goes east and ends at Thirty-seventh avenue.” This is no longer quite the case because of a very small gap at the south end of the Seattle University campus. Today, Cherry begins at 1st Avenue and ends a block east of Broadway. It starts up again a couple hundred feet to the east as a continuation of the James Street/E James Way arterial, and then does go on to 37th Avenue in Madrona. All told it is 2⅓ miles long.

Marion Street

Marion Street, like James Street, was one of the first streets platted in Seattle on May 23, 1853. It, too, was named by Arthur Armstrong Denny after his younger brother, James Marion Denny (1824–1854). 

Marion Street runs ⅖ of a mile from Alaskan Way to 6th Avenue, where it is interrupted by Interstate 5. It picks up again at 7th Avenue and runs about the same distance to Broadway, where the Seattle University campus begins. East of there it runs in sections of varying lengths until it ends for good at 38th Avenue and Madrona Park.

Seattle’s first streets

The Denny Party landed at Alki Beach on November 13, 1851, and moved to dzidzəlalič  (today known as Pioneer Square) in the spring of 1852. The name “Seattle,” according to local historian Rob Ketcherside, first appeared in print that October. But it wasn’t until May 23, 1853, that David Swinson Maynard, Carson Dobbins Boren, and Arthur Armstrong Denny filed the first plats of the Town of Seattle — thereby creating its first official streets.

Boren and Denny famously aligned their streets with the Elliott Bay shoreline (32° west of north, or very close to northwest by north), while Maynard aligned his with the cardinal directions.

Plat of the Town of Seattle, May 23, 1853, by Carson Dobbins Boren and Arthur Armstrong Denny
Plat of the Town of Seattle, May 23, 1853, by Carson Dobbins Boren and Arthur Armstrong Denny
Plat of the Town of Seattle, King County, Washington Territory, May 23, 1853, by David Swinson Maynard
Plat of the Town of Seattle, King County, Washington Territory, May 23, 1853, by David Swinson Maynard

Mill Street, which divided the two plats, was renamed Yesler Avenue in 1888, and Yesler Way — its current name — seven years later. Front Street became 1st Avenue and Commercial Street became 1st Avenue S as part of that same “Great Renaming” ordinance of 1895. Streets that were named in these first plats that have kept their names till today include:

Boren and Denny

  • James Street — after James Marion Denny, younger brother of A.A. Denny
  • Cherry Street — after Cherry Grove, Illinois, where the Denny Party’s journey to Seattle began
  • Columbia Street
  • Marion Street — also after James Marion Denny
  • Madison Street — after President James Madison
  • Spring Street — after the springs along Elliott Bay

Maynard

  • Washington Street — after President George Washington
  • Main Street
  • Jackson Street — after President Andrew Jackson
  • King Street — after Vice President William Rufus DeVane King
  • Weller Street — after John B. Weller, senator from California, later governor of California
  • Lane Street — after Joseph Lane, governor of Oregon Territory, later Southern Democratic candidate for vice president in the 1860 election