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Life and Times in Leschi: Frink Park, Part 1

Established in 1906, Frink Park, Leschi’s vast, rambling woods, lies in the neighborhood’s geographical heart. Yet even those who are well acquainted with its hillsides, trails, and creeks may not know its history, flora, and fauna, nor even where its unmarked boundaries are. In the coming months we’ll take a long stroll through the park and shed some light on these obscurities.

An early cable car returns downtown through the future Frink Park on the Jackson Street trestle (1888-1891). Photo credit: MOHAI

The park originated as a land donation from John and Abbie Frink. Having obtained the approximately square parcel bounded by Main and King Streets, and 31st and 34th Avenues South, the couple promptly donated it to the city for park purposes. In 1908 and 1909, the city acquired a few small parcels along the edges and added them to the park. Frink Park, along with Colman Park, Mt. Baker Park, and the Dose Terrace Stairs, was added in 2020 to the National Register of Historic Places.

Upon a visit to Seattle in 1903, the landscape designer John C. Olmsted conceptualized a parkway along 31st Avenue South, the top of Mt. Baker Ridge, from today’s Colman Park to Leschi. He was the nephew, and later the adopted son, of Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., who is considered the father of landscape architecture in the US, having designed New York’s Central Park, along with numerous other significant public spaces. After the elder Olmsted’s brother died, he married the widow and adopted her three children, including John. When Frederick retired, John and his half-brother, Frederick Jr, continued his work, as Olmsted Brothers, of Brookline, Massachusetts.

Historically the area below crest had been prone to landslides, most recently in the late 19th century, attributable to clearcutting. But there had been slides centuries before, held in the cultural memory of Native peoples and attributed to the resident earth-shaking spirit A’yahos (described in my January 2022 article).

Olmsted thought that any development below 31st would only consist of cheap housing, and that the maintenance of streets and utilities in a slide zone would be a never-ending expense. Construction of foundations and trenching for utility services would only exacerbate the problem, he feared. So instead, he recommended that parkland be extended down to the lakeshore and all the way south to Colman Park.

Olmsted’s concerns about landslides were reasonable, but probably worse than justified, due to observations he made within the future Frink Park itself. On the steep hillside, he noted disruptions in the surface that he ascribed to earth movement. He wrote that he had seen “sudden depressions which I thought were and recorded as numerous landslides.” But, on a later walk through the area, J. W. Thompson, the superintendent of parks, told Olmsted that the depressions were left “when the footings were set for a great trestle used by a cable railway years ago to get from the top of the hill down to Lake Washington.” Olmsted wrote, “After the street railway was taken away leaving no sign except these long trench-like holes, I saw at once that they were artificial as soon as their origin was stated.”

This huge, rickety bridgeway (built with 330,000 board feet of lumber) had been the return pathway for the Mill Street (later Yesler Way) cable car, which began service in 1888. But the structure, at a 15% grade and rising to 140 feet above ground), was dangerous and scary. In 1890, due to high winds that swayed the trestle, a car derailed and lost its grip. Passengers leaped from the car and held onto the side railings of the bridge as the car rushed downhill. Fortunately, no one was killed or seriously hurt. The bridge was decommissioned not long after, leaving behind the scars that Olmsted observed.

No trace of the trestle is to be found at this late date, except perhaps by the most eagle-eyed among us. (Watch for more on the Leschi cable car in a future article.)

During a 1906 return visit, Olmsted proposed a viewpoint at the corner of 31st and Jackson. He described the view from there as “almost unobstructed and very fine.” It’s hard to visualize that now, after a century of tree growth, but we must recall that the trestle had been removed not long before, leaving a clearing along the Jackson Street corridor below. The good view to be had nowadays is from the upper part of 31st, above the retaining wall, at King Street.

The park enlargement did not come to pass, partly because the city was under pressure to complete Lake Washington Boulevard in time for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909, which attracted numerous visitors to Seattle. Thus, a less ambitious boulevard wound through Leschi’s parks, and the park did not reach Olmsted’s expansive vision.

Thanks to Frink Park advocate Darrell Howe for his assistance with this series.

Continued next month.

~Roger Lippman

The author writes monthly about Leschi history and his experiences over his 47 years in the neighborhood.

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