Squatting In Hawthorne Hills

May 2021

Map showing modern Hawthorne Hills neighborhood.
The Hawthorne Hills neighborhood.

The untold story of how one man came to own an entire Seattle neighborhood through sheer stubborn pigheadedness.

The Hawthorne Hills neighborhood is one of northeast Seattle's better known residential neighborhoods, famous for its large houses, curving streets and sweeping views. The area was developed in 1928 by the prominent Goodwin Company and H. K. (Hawthorne) Dent, an insurance magnate, who went on to found SAFECO.

A street in Hawthorne Hills.
Hawthorne Hills today.

Less better known, but equally interesting, are the pre-1900 origins of the area — although Valarie Bunn has written some excellent articles that help to illuminate portions of this poorly-documented period. While studying it, I came across a particularly interesting story.

Prior to the 1880s there were few permanent settlers in the Hawthorne Hills area. It lay well outside Seattle's city limits, and overland travel east of Ravenna was limited by a near-total lack of roads. The area was thickly wooded with few clearings. Newspaper records suggest that a single primitive road crossed the property of Calvary Cemetery, following an irregular, circuitous route.

In 1881, the county opened a new road to serve this area and closed the old road. The "new" road ran east-west near the southern border of Calvary Cemetery and across the present Burke-Gilman Playground. The short diagonal section of NE 51st St that exists today is a remnant of this old county road, which has mostly vanished or been replaced by nearby Sand Point Way.

In 1887, the Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern Railway was completed, permitting rail travel to the area. Keith Station was located near the current location of Met Market by 1893, making this unincorporated region somewhat more accessible to Seattle.

1894 topographic map showing Keith Station and Stillson's claim (Hawthorne Hills).
1894 topographic map showing Keith Station, outside still-rural Ravenna. Stillson's claim (Hawthorne Hills) outlined in red. Note that most land is undeveloped.

Our story begins with a young oculist (doctor of the eye, ear, nose and throat), named Hamilton Stillson. Dr. Stillson was born in Bedford, IN in 1857. After graduating medical school in Kentucky and Indiana, he moved west to Red Bluff, CA, where he married Ida Westluke in 1888 and had his first son in 1889.

Dr. Stillson moved to Washington shortly after, registering to practice medicine in 1890 and establishing an office in the Haller Building, then later in the Hinckley Building. He lived at a few city residences before settling at remote Keith Station in April 1893.

Portrait of Dr. Stillson

The land that Dr. Stillson had chosen, however, was not open to settlement. Like many early Seattle settlers, he attempted to file a homestead claim. He was rejected on April 6 1893 — the state had reserved the land in question as school land decades earlier. Other applicants for land in this area had apparently been similarly rejected.

Dr. Stillson was undeterred. He took possession of an entire quarter-section (160 acres), half a mile long and wide, stretching from NE 55th to 65th Streets and from 45th to 55th Avenues. He established his permanent residence there, and began fending off intruders despite his lack of legal title.

1897 survey of Stillson's land claim, showing railroad, county road and improvements.
Stillson's 160 acre claim, as surveyed in 1897. The county road cuts through the corner of the property (roughly following modern Sand Point Way, marked in blue), as does the railroad (now Burke-Gilman Trail, marked in red). The top-left corner of the map is located at 45th Ave NE & NE 65th St.

His unhappy neighbors reported in the late 1890s that he had built a subtantial house worth $3500, and cleared about 40 acres of land to sell the timber. Stillson's clearing is shown on a survey taken in 1897 by the state land commissioners.

Detailed 1897 survey showing Stillson's clearing, wagon road and improvements.
Detailed view of 1897 survey. Stillson's wagon road, house and clearing are visible, near the area of present NE Tulane Pl and Purdue Ave. Railroad line (modern Burke-Gilman Trail) marked in red; county road marked in blue.

Further complicating matters, the state land office conducted an auction in 1897, allowing high bidders to rent portions of this land. One such bidder was the unlunky Herman Sommers, who quickly found himself in a dispute with Dr. Stillson which he laid out in the pages of the Seattle Times. When Sommers went to claim his land, he brought farm implements and household items, which Stillson "threw out in the road and chopped to pieces." Conflict continued between the two until Stillson hired a lawyer and obtained a court injunction against Sommers "trespassing" in 1898. (Herman Sommers, having lost his rights, eventually received $165 from the state in 1904.)

An open letter published by Herman Sommers in 1899.
An open letter by Herman Sommers, leaseholder of a portion of the school land, protesting his inability to take possession of his land.

Stillson was living on the land despite a widely-known lack of title. This situation persisted until 1905, when a few interesting events transpired in rapid succession. In February and March 1905, the Washington House considered House Bill 311, a bill which would have awarded Stillson the title to the land in return for a payment of $10 per acre. This bill was "postponed indefinitely" after the Attorney General advised the legislature that they did not have the authority to dispose of the land.

Stillson then filed a suit against the state of Washington. The suit was settled in July before an Olympia judge, who awarded all 160 acres of land to Dr. Stillson for a payment of $1,500 — almost exactly the terms proposed in the rejected bill. This was interesting since contemporary reports suggested the land was worth $600-$1000 per acre... Stillson's profit on the transaction, inflated into today's dollars, would be about $2 million!

Accusations of collusion in a Seattle Times headline.
The Seattle Times accused Stillson's attorney of colluding with the land commissioner to obtain the land below its fair value.

In 1907 the matter aroused additional suspicion in the Seattle Times. The Times reported that the lawsuit, settlement and judgement had all been filed in a single day, and that Stillson's lawyer had been compensated with a deed for 25 acres of land. The paper does not name the lawyer, but from the land records it can be determined to be the firm of McBride, Stratton, and Dalton. This firm had two prominent partners -- former Attorney General Wickliffe B. Stratton, and former governor Henry McBride.

Investigating that claim shows that about 25 acres on the south side of the railway were indeed transferred personally by Stillson to Stratton and McBride. (McBride sold his share to Stratton in 1906.)

Map dating to 1912-1920, showing that Stillson has sold land to W. B. Stratton and Charles T. Moore
A Kroll map from the 1910s shows land transfers to W. B. Stratton. McBride has already sold his land to Stratton.

The paper went on to accuse Stillson's lawyers of colluding with the land commissioner (Edward W. Ross) to achieve this settlement. Although the evidence provided is too thin to draw a conclusion in the present day, it is not hard to believe that the influence of the two politicians had an effect on the outcome of the case. Both were prominent figures and Stratton had only recently left office.

Without judging those accusations, it is clear that Stillson's gamble paid off. The entire area was annexed into the Seattle city limits in 1910. Dr. Stillson sold the northeast portion of the land (modern Hawthorne Heights), but continued to live on the remaining land through at least 1913. In 1918, he signed a contract to sell the remaining land to the H. K. Dent Investment Company, one of Dent's many ventures.

Portrait of H. K. Dent.
H. K. Dent circa 1931.

Dent allowed the land to appreciate before selling it to the Goodwin Company for $200,000 in 1928 (about $3 million in today's dollars) — it was reportedly the largest undeveloped tract remaining in the city limits at that time. Goodwin immediately developed the exclusive Hawthorne Hills subdivision on the site, complete with restrictive covenants prohibiting cheap buildings, farm animals, and nonwhite owners or renters.

Advertisement for Hawthorne HIlls.
An early advertisement for the subdivision.

Most of the lots in the Hawthorne Hills subdivision remained undeveloped for some time due to the poor economic climate immediately after 1928. On an 1936 aerial photograph of the Hawthorne Hills subdivision, remannts of Stillson's clearing and wagon road are still visible and stand out against the mostly wooded land.

1936 aerial photograph of Hawthorne Hills area.
An aerial photograph of the mostly empty streets of Hawthorne Hills in 1936, eight years after it was laid out. Stillson's wagon road or fence is still barely visible (yellow arrow). Development in this area got to a slow start due to the Great Depression, as the amount of vacant land suggests.

Stillson relocated to a more urban setting, a luxurious home worth $15,000 in a quiet setting at 4712 Avalon Place (a now-vanished U-District alley, off 21st Ave NE near the present Ivy Plaza), where he and his wife lived for the rest of their lives.

Modern aerial photograph of Hawthorne Hills area.
A modern aerial photo showing the extent of Stillson's land claim, showing the fully developed Hawthorne Hills and Hawthorne Heights subdivisions. A corner of the Windermere neighborhood lies on the land that was transferred to W. B. Stratton in July 1905.

When Stillson died in 1948 at age 89, the Times reported that his estate was worth over $80,000 (about $1 million today). Although Stillson had bought and sold other real property during his life, his obituary focused on his many achievements in the medical field, and his unique career in real estate was omitted.

— Zach van Schouwen