Seattle’s Leschi neighborhood is located along Lake Washington, directly east of Pioneer Square. It was a neighborhood served by a cable car that went from Pioneer Square to Lake Washington along Yesler Way. Leschi lies south of Madrona Park and north of the Mount Baker neighborhood (the I-90 corridor). It is a place of steep hillsides and ravines, one of the scenic neighborhoods along the Lake Washington Boulevard.
A Duwamish Settlement
Leschi and its shoreline, was used as a seasonal Duwamish settlement. Hunting and fishing parties used the cove and protective hillside as a base. Social events were held here and trails radiated from the site to Elliott Bay, Lake Union, and to points south and north.
Frederick J. Grant, local historian and president of the Leschi cable car company, named the neighborhood “Leschi.” Nisqually Chief Leschi (1808-1858) was known to visit this location and was a well-known and controversial presence in Western Washington during the 1850’s.
Bicycle paths had their day in the old Leschi neighborhood. Between 1895 and the early 1900’s bicyclists were everywhere. George Cotterill (1865-1958), Seattle City Engineer (later mayor), helped develop bicycle paths throughout Seattle, with Leschi a popular destination on the trails. About 10 bicycle miles from downtown Seattle, riders came to a hillside fork in the road and descended to Leschi Park and beach. Early photographs reveal Leschi’s cindered, meandering bicycle paths. Those photos make the case that the trip was arduous, rewarded by wide-angle views and the pleasures of Leschi Park’s amusements.
The shaky, exciting Yesler-Leschi cable car, built to attract land buyers, became a recreational route to one of Lake Washington’s favorite sites. Facilities were erected to take advantage of this traffic—a bandstand, boathouse with eight gables an ornate tower, Shield’s Vaudeville casino (later called the Leschi Pavilion). There were docking facilities for private use and for Captain John Anderson’s Lake Washington “mosquito fleet” a zoo (which featured black bears, a South American puma, sea lions, and birds), tennis courts, and formal gardens.
In later years a hotel restaurant was established at the Leschi terminal. Paul Dorpat notes in Seattle: Now & Then that the hotel’s rooms may occasionally have been used for trysts, as “Leschi was a hot spot for romping, mixing and romantic recreation.”
Boats on Lake Washington had a profound effect on Leschi. The 74-foot sternwheeler Chehalis began operating on the lake as a coal-hauler in 1872. Others included the Addie, the Minnie Mae, and the Squak, perhaps the lake’s first passenger ship. During the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, the Lake Washington Steamship Company, Later called the Anderson Steamship Company, provided 15 minute service between Leschi, Madrona, Madison Park and the AYP fair grounds on the University of Washington campus. Cost one dime per passenger per trip. If a Passenger wanted a 25-mile scenic tour, the fare rose to 25 cents.
After 1913, and just before the lake was lowered nine feet by the Montlake Cut in 1916, Captain John Anderson was struggling to compete with tax-supported boats operated by the Seattle Port commission. Leschi was Captain Anderson’s headquarters for his lake fleet.
The sternwheeler Leschi, an auto ferry—cars had entered the Seattle scene in 1900 and were seen everywhere an Olmsted boulevard was built—made regular runs to the eastside. The ferry company published a pamphlet, which stated that the new Leschi could carry 400 passengers and “40 teams of autos.” The Leschi was the last Lake Washington ferry, servicing the Medina-Kirkland-Bellevue area even after completion of the 1940 Lake Washington floating bridge.
The 1940 opening of the first floating bridge would change commercial and social dynamics of Lake Washington communities almost as much as did the lowering of the lake in 1916 after the Montlake cut. And by the early 1940’s Leschi had become a settled hillside community with a small commercial zone, and active marina, and some of Seattle’s best views.
Modern Times and Today
Through the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s the community issues focused on traffic, education, playgrounds, sanitation, crime, and housing conditions. Leschi today remains a scenic hillside neighborhood with an unusual history and diverse community.