History of Madison Park

The history of Madison Park and Madison Valley began when they were shaped by the last of the great glaciers, the Vashon. The Duwamish tribe used the Madison Valley as hunting, fishing, and gathering space, since it is so fertile. They had camps established throughout the neighborhood areas for these uses.

About a decade after white settlers came to Seattle in the 1850s, Judge John J. McGilvra bought 420 acres in the Madison Park and Madison Valley area. He had previously practiced law in Chicago with Abraham Lincoln, who later appointed McGilvra as U.S. Attorney for Washington Territory.

After cutting the way through his land with East Madison Street, he parceled up some of his land and sold it while donating 24 acres for public use – which became Madison Park in the early 1900s. Madison Park became the home of the first Seattle ball park “Madison Street Ball Park” which was built in 1890. The Park area become a popular campground for pioneer families, and became known as Tent City, after McGilvra supplied wooden platforms on which they could pitch tents.

McGilvra developed the waterfront with a boathouse, piers, promenade and twin bandstands with seating for a thousand people. The area became known as an ”amusement park” where many spent their weekends. Cruises on steam boats became popular on Lake Washington and were used to transport people to the new Seattle Golf and County Clubhouse, built in Laurelhurst, which still exists today.

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expo was planned for 1907, and Madison Park was highlighted. The park held amusement rides and was given a new name ‘White City Park’ – both of which vanished after the expo was finished. The lakeshore at Madison Park continued after the expo to host a growing number of activities, including public swimming, regular stops from Captain John Anderson’s “Mosquito Fleet” steamboats, and musical bands played from barges.

In 1908, Madison Park became a site for the ferry service that ran to Kirkland, however it was abandoned in 1943 after the floating bridge was built in 1940.

Judge McGilvra went on to found the Madison Street Cable Railway Company, whose streetcars ran along E. Madison every two minutes.

The Lake Washington Ship Canal was opened in 1917. Lake Washington’s water levels dropped by about nine feet, opening up more lakefront space, and thus sending more people to Madison Park. Madison Valley became more of a place to pass through, instead of a destination. New housing also began to be built in the Valley by the advent of World War I for industrial workers, changing the economic climate of Madison Valley.

When the Puget Sound Mill Company gave a 62-acre lot to the city in 1920 for the Arboretum, more changes came to Madison Valley in particular. An earthen wall was built along Madison Street which restricted the Valley’s previous access to the cable car trestle, thus further separating the Madison Park and Madison Valley neighborhoods.

Madison Park and Madison Valley (the Valley in particular) experienced many changes over the later half of the 1900s. There was lots of activity during Prohibition, economic changes through the two World Wars, and the presence of a strong African American community in Madison Valley through the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Although Madison Park has remained an urban getaway over the century, and the history of Madison Park and Valley has recorded extreme changes, the two areas are still connected to each other by the thoroughfare initiated by Judge McGilvra back in the late 1800s – East Madison Street.

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