Our neighborhood: South Lake Union


Puget Sound Salish Couple. Picture courtesy of U of WA

In native dialects, Lake Union is known as "Little lake" or "Little water". In the 1850's , Native Americans were encamped near the southwest corner of the lake. They hunted dear and elk, as well as harvested clams, root vegetables, fish, camas, bracken, wapato, and berries. Settlement of the South Lake Union area by natives continued until 1875.

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

Pioneer David Denny (of the Denny Party) staked a claim in 1853. Denny's claim ran from South Lake Union (where the lake extended farther to the south and west than it does today) south to what is now Denny Way and west to include the area that is now the Seattle Center grounds.


In 1882, the Lake Union and Lumber Company built a sawmill on the south shore of the lake. David Denny bought the sawmill in 1884 and renamed it: The Western Mill.

He cleared the land along the south shore of the lake and, in 1885, cut a weir from Portage Bay at the northeast corner of the lake to Lake Washington, which allowed logs to be floated to Lake Union, so that the entire area of the larger Lake Washington was a catchment for his mill.

Western Mill Company, Lake Union 1891
Photo by Frank LaRoche, courtesy UW Special Collections

1850's & 1890's

John Chupup and others in canoe,
Lake Union 1885 Photo courtesy of Historylink.org

John Brace moved to Seattle in 1888 to join the Western Mill Company, started by D.T. Denny. When Denny went bankrupt in the financial panic of 1893, Brace leased the Western Mill under the name of JS Brace Company. With his partner Frank Hergert, it became the Brace and Hergert Mill Company.

Map courtesy of The Seattle Times

Homes soon began to appear on Lake Union's south shore, ranging from the ornate Queen Anne-style mansions built by Margaret Pontius in 1889 to humble worker's cottages. The latter housed a growing number of immigrants from Scandinavia, Greece, Russia, and America's own from the East attracted by jobs in Seattle bustling mill and dock industries.

Pontius mansion facing Denny Way
near Yale Avenue Photo courtesy of Paul Dorpat

The area saw a growth in manufacturing toward the turn of the century with cabinetry and furniture making leading the way, followed by shipbuilding.


The first B & W Seaplane, known as Boeing Model 1, was completed in June 1916 at Boeing's boathouse hangar on Lake Union. It was made of wood, with wire bracing, and was linen-covered . It first flew on June 15, 1916.

Replica of B & W Seaplane at Museum of Flight

When the Lake Washington Ship Canal opened in 1917, the locks at Ballard kept Lake Union at its historic level, while the canal gave it a water connection both to Lake Washington and to Puget Sound. This was a further boon to industrial and commercial development.

Construction of Lake Washington Ship Canal
1912, photo by A. Curtis

For a time, dry docks, marinas, machine shops, mills and factories jostled for space among old squatter houseboats and worker cottages. The "Aurora S.eedway" terminating at Broad and Denny in 1932, the Alaskan Way Viaduct opening in 1953 and I-5 separating Lake Union from Capitol Hill in the early 1960's had a detrimental effect on the vibrancy of South Lake Union.

Lake Union Houseboat, 1905. Photo by Webster and Stevens

South Lake Union Today

Only a few structures remain such as St Spiridon Cathedral on Yale Street.

Now South Lake Union is known as the SLU and is home to Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Zymogenetics, Museum of History and Industry, Center for Wooden Boats, Amazon, and a host of restaurants and apartments.

Paul Allen's Vulcan Real Estate Company has built 5 million square feet in 24 projects in the South Lake Union area. It is one of the country's largest development projects.

Amazon has singlehandedly changed the culture of South Lake Union by moving their business here and building more facilities to house their growing industry. Other high-tech companies are following suit.

Apartments have sprung up around South Lake Union to accommodate Amazon's growth. According to Trulia, the median rental price per bedroom is $2,248 which makes it the most expensive area in Seattle's downtown core.

St. Spiridon Cathedral, photo by Priscilla Long

South Lake Union today, photo courtesy of South Lake Union Neighborhood Guide