Mercer Island, old and new

Nancy Hilliard
Around the Island

(Continued from last week.)

In Island pioneer Virginia Ogden Elliott’s (1908-1981) “Mercer Island Old and New column,” first published in the Reporter on March 8, 1961, “Nin” tells of the early places and docks on her “enchanted Island.” By now, 27 years after this was written, we enjoy several street-end parks with dock family names: Franklin, Proctor, Calkins, buildings such as the Ogden Building, Fabin Point, Fortuna Drive for the old lodge, (Mabel) Clarke Park, among others. In 1984, with federal funds from the I-90 project, city center crosswalk plates gave historical tributes to more. The MI Historical Society also has placed a dozen plaques on historical Island spots. But this is “Nin’s” story.

The Docks

In most communities, you’ll find the history of early settlers written in place names for all to remember. Not so, on Mercer Island.

It’s almost as though the rush of progress was determined to engulf the old names, as it is engulfing the old places. You will find countless “such-and-such woods,” “so-and-so lanes,” and a flood of “dales;” but to our shame, not one of our new schools (or other public buildings) bears a pioneer name. Nor do the new developments perpetuate the names of the old places on which they stand.

There’s a plaque to the memory of one of our best known pioneers in the library (Editor’s note: it must have been left at the former library site, as it no longer exists at the present library. Does anyone know who it honored?) Aside from that, even the dock names are now forgotten.

The docks built up Mercer Island. Today we find only Roanoke Way, East Seattle and Merrimount Drive to recall former Mercer Island docks — even though there was only one way to get to Mercer Island before the East Channel Bridge was built (1923) — and that was by boat to the nearest dock.

Mostly, the docks bore the settlers’ names, beginning with Vince Fabin — for we speak of the days before the ferry came to Roanoke. There was a roll call of those who settled on the west shore: Fabin, Thompson, East Seattle, Proctor, Tennant, Zimmerman, Ogden, Island Park (Clarkes), Merrimount, Lott, Baxter, Horton and Nivisen.

Proctor’s was perhaps the oldest, from point of use. It seemed a logical place for early Seattle pioneers to land when they paddled over to the Island in those far-off days. It surely was among the first to be “settled.” (Editor’s note: Although Joseph Jenott staked a claim on the East Channel side at the turn of the century, and Vidus Schmid made claims on the Island’s crest in the late 1870s.)

For here it was that Gardiner Proctor, known as “the squaw man” in those days, built his little log cabin. The claim was filed in 1884 in his and his wife’s (Ellen) names. In 1889, Proctor died and his Indian wife returned to her people on the Black River (quote from Judy Gellatly’s “History of Mercer Island.”)

Though Proctor was gone, the landing retained his name and his ivy-covered sagging little cabin remained on the property of the James Lane family – a rather pathetic link with the Island’s early days. (Ed note: To see the current mansion on Proctor Lane, go to

Further down the beach was Hoyt’s big house and orchard, hedged with fences and ivy. This was where one left the boardwalk for the beach trail, past “Seenie” Tennant’s dock. We always remember this dock for its picturesque little roof and bright flower baskets that hung from it all summer.

Next came Zimmerman’s dock, which stood on high legs like an old crane. It was one which provided endless drama in our lives. Left high and dry when the lake was lowered (1917), it was never modernized like other docks were, and stood there spanning the beach trail throughout our childhood. It led to a long flight of wooden stairs, which took you to Zimmerman’s Concert Hall, called “Among the Firs.”

This great empty shed in the tall trees among carpets of violets was a pathetic monument to the dreams of an old eccentric man. For even in the uncritical atmosphere of highly individualistic people, Frederick Wilhelm Zimmerman stood out as one alone. Being a German in those WWI days was a chancy thing.

In these days of spies in the skies, it may be hard to imagine the childhood thrill of “counter spying” on this German in the shadowy woods. He had once been a famous opera singer, now cast up on the quiet shores of our island, singing to an empty hall, heard only by birds, squirrels and us wild things crouching among the violets.

Fancying ourselves well hidden in the trees, we watched him decorate the hall with ferns, boughs and florists’ flowers for his yearly concert. Each tree on the winding path was decorated with Japanese lanterns that glimmered like fireflies. A long purple and gold cord marked the magic path leading to “Among the Firs.”

On one year, we (kids) found a lower window open and we climbed in. Our families would have been delighted to get us tickets had they known, but this was our secret world. And so we sat, enthralled by the music, soft lights and wonderfully dressed people. We crept out before it was over, feeling part of a veritable fairyland.

Until the next morning. Phones rang as mothers were told of the previous night’s events. Woodsheds were visited. And we were told to pay for our illicit passages. And, such is the incomprehensible logic of adult justice, we were rewarded with tickets for the subsequent concerts “Among the Firs.” That, of course, took the high drama from the performances, and I don’t recall ever returning.

(To be continued next week.)

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