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Life and Times in Leschi: John M. Frink

Our neighborhood’s Frink Park is named for Leschi residents John and Abbie Frink, who donated the land to the city of Seattle in 1906. Born in 1845, John Frink arrived in Seattle in 1874. Starting out as a day laborer, and later a schoolteacher, he made his fortune as Seattle’s first manufacturer of industrial equipment, including iron and steel products for logging and mining. His Washington Iron Works, established in 1880, remained in the Frink family until 1969. The factory, destroyed in the Great Seattle Fire, was replaced in 1892; the building still stands, at 400 Occidental Avenue South.

In 1885 he helped establish the Seattle Electric Company and was named its superintendent. After a while it took over most of the city’s private streetcar lines, until it was acquired by the predecessor of today’s Puget Sound Energy, and then municipalized in 1919.

The Frinks were members of the First Presbyterian Church, headed by the Rev. Mark Matthews, an indefatigable anti-vice crusader and the bane of open-town politicians—the ones who tolerated, endorsed, or profited from vice and corruption of all sorts here in the early 20th century.

John Frink, a member of the school board and the city council, later served eight years as a Washington State senator, from 1891 to 1899.

In 1900, Mr. Frink ran a losing campaign for Washington governor. He was nominated as a Republican with the backing of John L. Wilson, who, with money from the Empire Builder, James J. Hill, of the Great Northern Railroad, had recently purchased the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. But Frink was a victim of the vengeance of Seattle’s popular mayor, Tom Humes, who thought he should have been the candidate. Humes, who ran a wide-open city, spent the campaign attacking his fellow Republican with more vigor than he mustered against the Democratic nominee.

Caricature by Edwin Brotze, 1906

In a big Republican year, Frink, presumably on the anti-vice side, given his choice of pastors, was the only one to lose, not even carrying King County, while Republicans won everything else statewide. Frink did come within 1% of victory, nonetheless. But he was only a bit player caught in the political machinations, a saga told well by Murray Morgan in his book “Skid Road.” For a good time, read it. Any historian should aspire to be as good a storyteller as Morgan.

John Frink became a member of the park board in 1906. That year, the board was attempting to obtain financing to acquire the roughly 15-acre parcel known as “Washington Park,” which had been platted for private use. Instead, the Frinks bought the parcel and quickly donated it to the city. Since there already was a Washington Park (now part of the UW Arboretum), the board renamed it to honor the benefactor. He remained on the park board until 1914, serving as its president from 1908-1909.

Frink also involved himself in civic affairs in other ways. He spoke out in opposition to the planned Lake Washington Ship Canal and locks. In a 1908 speech he cited numerous reasons, largely having to do with cost and usefulness. He also complained that, since the canal was first proposed in 1854 by early settler Thomas Mercer, very little had been accomplished towards the goal. It would be almost another decade before the canal was completed—63 years to the day after Mercer’s proposal.

Most of Frink’s reasons for concern do not seem to have stood the test of time. However, he failed to speak to the environmental disruption that would result from the elimination of the Black River outflow from the south end of Lake Washington—an important Indian fishing area. The lowering of the lake also eliminated wetland areas of Native sustenance around the lake, including in Leschi.

In 1905, the Frinks built a mansion just across 31st Avenue South, at Jackson Street. The Olmsted Brothers, who developed plans for the park, also prepared designs for the private residence. The house remains, having left the Frink family in either 1978 or 1984. A friend of mine, the Frinks’ great grandson, told me that the family sold it for much less than it was worth, due in part to racism fueling their fear that Blacks were going to be moving into the neighborhood and lowering the property values.

I met a woman who went there with a friend for an estate sale in 1984. They ended up buying the whole house, for $111,000. Upon returning home, she thought better of it and disposed of her share soon afterward.

The Frink Mansion’s sign—waiting for an update.

In recent times, the house has been known for the sign on its north side counting down daily the number of days till the end of Trump’s presidential term. The house went on the market in 2021 for $2.5 million, selling for a bit less. The new owners have preserved the sign. Perhaps before long it will be repurposed to enumerate the days remaining in Trump’s prison term.

John Frink died in 1914; Abbie died in 1946.

~Roger Lippman

The author writes monthly about Leschi history and his experiences over his 48 years in the neighborhood.

In the coming months we will meet some past Leschi residents who once upon a time were inspired to creativity by their walks in Frink Park.


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