History of Green Lake

Green Lake swimmers. Photo credit: The Museum of History and Industry, Webster & Stevens collection.

Green Lake swimmers. Photo credit: The Museum of History and Industry, Webster & Stevens collection.

A surveyor named David Phillips discovered Green Lake in the late summer of 1855. At the time of his surveying team’s visit to the lake, seasonal algae blooms were in full force in the lake – most likely being the reason for the name the team entered in their logs: Green Lake.

The first white settler of Green Lake was Erhart Seifreid, who laid claim to a 132-acre homestead – including a portion of the lake – in 1869. Seifreid became known later as “Green Lake John” and with his wife Eltien cleared some of the trees in the area to plant an orchard.

Soon more homesteaders arrived to claim their portions of the land around the lake. By 1870, however, the homesteading around Green Lake had slowed. When – in the late 1880s – Seattle experienced rapid population growth, Green Lake’s residential population also began to grow. Aided by a cross-town trolley, which was expanded from Fremont to the northwestern shore of Green Lake in 1891, new residents of the Green Lake area had easier access to other parts of the city. The neighborhood also annexed itself to the city of Seattle that year. Green Lake was advertised as having the potential to become “Seattle’s choicest suburb”.

With the boom of population growth and prosperity brought by the Klondike gold rush, Green Lake experienced its own growth. When Seattle hired the Olmsted Brothers architectural firm in the early 1900s to design a 20-mile long string of parks, boulevards and green spaces, Green Lake was supposed to be a highlight. But by that time, settlers around the lake had built almost right up to the shoreline. So, to acquire acreage for a park around the lake, John Olmsted had the lake lowered in 1911. The lowering of Green Lake brought 100 acres of land for park development.

The Green Lake neighborhood quickly became a hotspot for weekend visits. By 1920, the area had multiple elementary schools, churches, a Carnegie library, and plenty of businesses to enrich its economy.

However, the lake itself was beginning to show the effects of years of tree cutting and the eradication of the natural flushing of the lake due to the persistent homesteading and settling. Since the early 1900s, algae, odors, and swimmers’ itch have plagued Green Lake’s visitors and residents. The lake has been closed on a few occasions to divert water from two nearby reservoirs to refresh the lake water. But algae blooms and now milfoil weed still flourish.

For a time, hydroplane racing, aqua theatres, an annual 4th of July celebration, and Bite of Seattle took place at Green Lake, but eventually were stopped due to the noise and crowds.

Today, Green Lake is the busiest park in the state, with over one million visitors per year. The asphalt path around the lake hosts walkers, joggers, in-line skaters, skateboarders, cyclists, and dog-walkers, and was widened in 1997 to accommodate all of its traffic.

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