The Rise and Fall of Peter Kirk

Peter Kirk was an established steel mill owner in Workington, England. Steel production in 1880's England was not at the levels it had been at ten years earlier. In 1886, Kirk ventured to America to seek out a new, and hopefully more prosperous location. After discovering that iron deposits had just been discovered in the Cascade mountain range in Washington State, he traveled west. Once he arrived, he liked what he saw.

Coalmines had already been established on the East Side. This would provide fuel for his mill. Limestone, another necessary component in steel smelting, was also readily available. Train lines were being built throughout the area, which would provide transportation for product. Plans were underway to build a canal between Lake Washington and Puget Sound, effectively making any city on the lake a freshwater port to the sea.

It all seemed so good, but unfortunately for Kirk, only U.S. citizens were allowed to own real estate.

Not a problem. Kirk had also met and made some very influential friends while visiting Seattle. One of his new friends was Leigh S. J. Hunt, owner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Hunt had wanted to enter the business of land development, and the two men struck up a partnership. Hunt would buy the land, and Kirk would have his steel mill.

In June of 1888, Kirk announced his intention to build a steel and iron works on the eastern shores of the lake. Modeled after his mill in England, it would employ thousands of workers who would live in the city that would grow around it. He called it "The Pittsburgh of the West", and within a month, Leigh and Hunt had incorporated the Kirkland Land and Improvement Company.

Work started in earnest. Thousands of acres of land were bought by Hunt near what is now downtown Kirkland. Streets were platted, and homes were built for the workers they needed to run the mill. Plans were in the works for a bank, a hotel, and other businesses. A brickworks was built to handle the awesome task of creating these buildings.

What the locals, had called Pleasant Bay, was renamed to Moss Bay, after Kirk's home in Workington. Street names were decidedly British; Piccadilly, Oxford, Regency, etc. All was moving forward, but as Kirk was preparing to move ahead on building the mill, problems arose.

The first hiccup in the plan came when the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railroad refused to bring a rail line down to Moss Bay. Politics played a major part in this. The railroad had recently been bought by the Northern Pacific, which was based in Tacoma. Tacoma was in direct competition with Seattle as the predominant seaport on Puget Sound. Since Tacoma was the hub of the rail lines, they weren't about to give Kirkland, and therefore Seattle, an edge in.

For his steel mill to be viable, Kirk needed it built along the lake. Without a rail line, this could not occur. Plans were redesigned, and construction started near the closest spur line from the railroad. This was two miles east of the shore, on top of Rose Hill. Suddenly, things weren't as rosy as they had thought.

Kirk continued looking for investors. Many of his contacts in England were hesitant to speculate in this overseas venture. Back in the states, investors were easier to come by. Still, Kirk ended up selling his own stock and investments in England to purchase much of the equipment for his new mill. Hunt also went deeply into debt as he bought more and more land.

Kirk was determined to see his project attain fruition. He built one of the finest homes in Kirkland, and his wife and family moved here from England. Sadly for Kirk, problems continued to mount. The mill in England had fallen under hard times, and closed down for a year. Many of the workers moved to Kirkland.

Work continued on the construction of the mill, but its location proved vexing. Water had to be piped to the site. The city center was moved and redesigned and the office buildings were built in a location that provided access to the mill. Land speculators started gouging prospective buyers. Rail lines were still not built near the ore deposits in the Cascades. On and on.

Throughout it all, Kirk tried to move forward, but kept encountering obstacle after obstacle. Finally, a nationwide financial collapse ended all hope. As happened to many businesses at the time, the Crash of 93' also proved fatal to Kirk's venture. Without a booming economy, no rail line would be built, no canal dredged, no mill constructed and no workers hired.

Although his steel venture had failed, Kirk never gave up on his namesake town. Still hoping that a future canal would be built, he held on to most of his land holdings and slowly parceled them out over the years. He later retired and moved north to the San Juan Islands where, in 1916, he died in his sleep.

The dream of Kirkland as an industrial steel center passed away with him. After all of the hubbub, life in Kirkland quickly reverted back to what it had been before; a collection of houses, farms, and shingle mills. The difference was ... it had now coalesced into a village.

Kirkland Enters the 20th Century

 

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