by Kris Parfitt
- The Capitol Hill Times -
With over 30,000 bicyclists on Seattle roads daily, it’s amazing to note that 125 years ago there were one third as many. Despite the hills, biking in Seattle has been a frequent mode of transportation for sport, commuting and recreation since the development of our city.
Bikes arrived in Seattle as early as 1879 and were an instant hit. Regardless of traffic, the real hazards for bicyclists were the wooden planks along the boardwalks and streets. Noting the injuries and safety issues involved with this reliable and dependable realm of transportation, the city’s assistant engineer, George Cotterill hiked Seattle’s hills, ridges and ravines and developed a 25-mile system of bike paths that connected downtown to Lake Union, Portage Bay and Lake Washington.
The improvement and technological advancements of bikes in the late 1890s caused a bike boom in Seattle that resulted in one in every five residents owning and using a bike daily. Along with better bikes, women’s fashions included bloomers which allowed women more freedom of movement. The combination was greatly embraced by Seattle women who joined cycling clubs and rode side-by-side with men up and down Seattle’s steep hills and ravines.
The Olmsted Brothers noted this trend and supported what they believed would be long-term infrastructure for generations of bicyclists. Their concept of an Emerald Necklace of parks circling Seattle was inspired by the outdoor passions and pursuits of the city’s residents. Walking, hiking and biking were common recreational activities before and after the arrival of the automobile, and in each park’s design one finds roads and pathways, boulevards and promenades wide enough for a car, yet accommodating to those who preferred to bike or walk.
Between Cotterill and the Olmsteds’ designs, Seattle’s biking popularity blossomed and led to the creation of a Bicycle Route that linked Seattle’s greenways. One of the most popular routes now, as it was at the turn of the century, Interlaken Boulevard is one of the main roads of the original Bicycle Route. Created originally for the enjoyment of bicyclists, the boulevard was a well chosen pathway utilizing the northern slope of Capitol Hill that was not soil-steady for development yet had views that would draw visitors. Wanting to provide unique natural spaces in a rapidly growing city, the Olmsted’s took advantage of the geological features left from the glacial-melt off from the Vashon Ice Sheet and incorporated the deep ravines of the Boulevard into their trail and road designs.
The undeveloped areas of Seattle were heavily logged during the earlier pioneering days. Thick old-growth conifers found on this slope were replaced with hardwoods and eventually second growth evergreens. Despite forest revisions, this particular slope was well known for its great variety of wildlife. Bears, coyote, foxes and year-round and migratory birds resided in harmony on this quieter side of Capitol Hill. Today visitors may see fox and raccoon tracks and hear the hooting of barred owls and the songs of over 100 species of birds. The bears are found more often on the outskirts of town today.
When first designed in 1903, Interlaken Park was called Volunteer Hill Parkway after the nearby Volunteer Park. The boulevard was a forested link between the Bicycle Route that connected Lake Washington Park (also known today as the Arboretum) and Volunteer Park – two significant gems in the Emerald Necklace of Olmsted’s parks.
There was, and still is, a summer resort in Switzerland called Interlaken and many Capitol Hill and Montlake residents named this part of town after that summer resort. The name stuck and after a short time the parkway was formally called Interlaken Park and the road that winds through the trees Interlaken Boulevard.
Although plagued with landslides due to an unsteady glacial till and the placement of water and sewage lines, Interlaken Boulevard was the most popular bike and buggy route between downtown and Lake Washington.
Where 19th Avenue East meets the junction of Interlaken Drive East is a horseshoe shaped flat piece of land. For years the Good Roads Lunch Room – nick-named the “Halfway House” for its location between downtown and Lake Washington – provided breakfast and lunch to the weary or intrepid traveler. The Queen City Good Roads Club was a bike activist organization responsible for bike trails throughout Seattle and established the business in 1897 as a good way to raise money and recruit new members.
Nineteenth Avenue East was the main route to the southern entrance of the park and once held tracks for a trolley that gave way to a bus line, which resulted in the large turn-around landing found today at the intersection of 19th Avenue East, East Galer Street, and East Crescent Drive.
Before the development of Interlaken Park or Boulevard, the only residential structure on the slope was the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Thompson’s Point. Today the buildings and land belong to the Jewish Hebrew Academy.
As the park ages and endures Seattle’s windy and sometime snowy winters some of the land requires scheduled maintenance. Funded through grants and donations, the Friends of Interlaken-Boren Park is a volunteer forest steward organization dedicated to the upkeep of the 52-acre “Urban Forest of a Jewel.”
In the summer the canopy of Western Cedars, Douglas Firs, Alders, Big Leaf Maples and non-native California Coast Redwoods offers cool and abundant shade while the sparse foliage in the winter provides glimpses of the snowed covered Cascadian peaks.
Whether you’re biking, hiking, walking, jogging, driving or exploring Interlaken, take pleasure in knowing the land was specifically designed for that purpose.