W Commodore Way, which runs 1⅓ miles along Salmon Bay from 21st Avenue W to 40th Avenue W, obviously has a nautical name, but is its backstory as simple as that, like NE Boat Street along Portage Bay? Or does it honor a particular person?
The only online mention I’ve seen of a possible specific referent of Commodore is in the Don Sherwood Parks History file for Commodore Park:
Who was particularly in mind when the street was named Commodore Way is not recorded. However, the choice of Commodore Peary’s flagship [the SS Roosevelt]… to participate in the dedication of the [Ballard] Locks is significant. Peary must have sailed from Seattle as the port nearest Alaska and the Arctic.
It’s a reasonable theory on its face, but there are some major flaws. The street was named in 1890 as part of Gilman’s Addition to the City of Seattle, when Peary was a lieutenant — 19 years before he reached the North Pole (supposedly) and 27 years before the Ballard Locks were dedicated. In addition, Peary’s port of departure was New York, not Seattle. It doesn’t seem possible Commodore Way was named for Robert E. Peary.
Rather, I think there’s good evidence it was named for James Dickinson Smith (1829–1909), commodore of the New York Yacht Club in 1882 and 1883 and president of the New York Stock Exchange in 1885 and 1886. In Men of Progress: Biographical Sketches and Portraits of Leaders in Business and Professional Life in and of the State of Connecticut (1898), they write that he “has a national and international reputation as a yachtsman, and is best known all over the world as Commodore James D. Smith.” But where is the connection to Seattle? And why Commodore Way instead of Smith Way?
I first became aware of Smith’s connection to Seattle when I came across this line in the March 30, 1890, issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, while looking for a connection between Commodore and the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway: “Mr. J.S. Dunham, treasurer of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern, and Commodore Smith visited Snohomish yesterday.”
Before I go too much farther, I should note that the landowners in the plat of Gilman’s Addition were listed as Dr. Henry A. Smith and Franklin M. Jones and his wife, Carrie B. Jones. Franklin was a member of the New York banking firm Jameson, Smith and Cotting, financiers of the business ventures of Daniel Hunt Gilman, including the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway (SLS&E). Hence the search terms I’d been using at Washington Digital Newspapers.
This article from the June 17, 1897, issue of the P-I also came up, further associating Commodore Smith (to distinguish him from Dr. Smith) with the SLS&E and with New York:
I then did some reading on Commodore Smith… but still wasn’t quite sure until I found this passage in Men of Mark in Connecticut: Ideals of American Life Told in Biographies and Autobiographies of Eminent Living Americans (1904): “Among his successful performances was the establishment, in 1865, of the banking firm of Jameson, Smith & Cotting, now the banking house of James D. Smith & Company.” So Commodore Smith was the Smith in Jameson, Smith and Cotting! If J.A. Jameson merited a street (W Jameson Street), surely so did Commodore Smith. And why Commodore Way instead of Smith Way? Because there was another Smith to be honored — Dr. Henry A. Smith (Smith Street, as well as Smith Cove).
It may not have been one of the great mysteries of the ages, but I do think I may have solved this one.