It was July 29, 1959, when Mercer Island pioneer Virginia Ogden Elliott first began serializing her “Mercer Island Old & New” columns in the Mercer Island Reporter. Born on the Island exactly 100 years ago in 1908, she shared stories of its evolution from 1920 to 1980.
Although she died in 1981 at age 72, “Nin,” as she was known to us, bequeathed 70 anecdotes of early school days, ferries, roads and docks, the first postman, grocery store, teachers, doctor and dairymen. She tells of playing in the woods and the lake, of Island creatures and flora, and Christmas then.
For four weeks you will get to know her as I did as a friend, fellow writer and woman full of Island spirit. Ironically, she wrote about the same subjects we do these days: land development, “those bridges again,” transportation and preservation of our natural wonders. Here’s how she began:
“Progress depends on where you stand,
If you are the seller, you say, “I have reaped golden harvest from this land.”
If you are the buyer, you say, “We have always wanted a home by Christmas.”
If you are he who loved this land, you say, “There stood a grove of Christmas trees
Where now these fine homes stand.”
Here on this street I once found a bird’s nest
On a shining summer day.
Progress gives you little choice.
You change with the changing land
Or you pass from that place forever,
As the trees have passed.
But you may stand
Where once you stood
In that grove of trees.
You may say, “These are my friends!
These, the new ones.”
Progress depends on where you stand.
For us — it is the outstretched hand.”
Feb. 22, 1961 — “How the Island Got Its Name,” by Virginia Ogden Elliott:
“It wasn’t long ago that [Thomas] Mercer’s canoe marooned him on the shore of what is now our Island. His Indian escorts left him because they were afraid — more of the gathering dusk than their employer’s wrath. They feared the ‘tahminawis’ of an island that could sink under the lake when darkness fell.
It had no name in those days (1860s), except for the Duwamish ‘klut-use,’ meaning ‘that in the middle.’ The magic island in the middle of a lake was so beautiful that the first men who saw it referred to it as ‘Lake Geneva.’
Mercer was on the island in the first place to gather abundant berries and to enjoy the wildlife and quiet woods. Unlike the Indians, Mercer loved this island and came often. The Indians risked hurried berrying trips to the island strictly in daylight, since it was well-known that it was spirit-haunted and some of it had once fallen into the deep and lay under the blue waters called Duwamish — or simply ‘the water.’
Hugging himself to keep warm on the chilly midnight shores, Mercer may have reflected uneasily upon the Indian legends. He could not have known that many years later, the government would send a survey boat to pinpoint these sunken forests and even bring up limbs of petrified wood for the scientists to ponder.
It was a mistake of this same government that gave “Mercer’s Island” its first mention in history. It is said that Abraham Lincoln, looking for a “salt sea” Naval base in the new land of Oregon, put his finger on the map and said “build it here.” But the island he chose turned out not to be on the salten seas, but a land-locked lake, and “forthwith the whole idea was abandoned.”
The name “Mercer’s Island” grew with popular usage, leading us to believe Mr. Mercer’s enforced chilly night did not in the least cool his interest or affection for the pretty place that now bears his name.
That the Indians did not share his enthusiasm is further demonstrated by the strange lack of artifacts found in this area. When the lake was lowered (8.8 feet in 1916-17) remnants of old campfires hugged the submerged shoreline, and we found a sandstone mortar that could have been used to pound berries, but was forthwith used as an ashtray and lost in the passage of time.
More fortunate was the arrowhead found by young Barry Kirkpatrick in recent years (1950s) in a sandbank near his home. It was eagerly seized upon as proof that the Indians did come here – in the daylight no doubt – and only now and then. These discoveries were exceptions that pointed out the island’s isolation in those days of pre-history.
A little over 55 years ago (when VOE was born here), the descriptive terms used for this wooded place could still have been used: isolated, heavily wooded, a natural game preserve, abounding in berries and with a unique charm that has endured even to the “after-bridges era.” (To be continued next week.)
To contact Nancy Hilliard, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.