A Brief History of First Hill

In its earliest days, it was called “the First Hill” and “Yesler Hill.” It was also called “Profanity Hill.” Some say that’s a reference to the words of loggers who struggled to clear-cut its steep slopes of Douglas fir and, later, lawyers forced to climb to the King County Courthouse that once dominated the site west of Harborview Medical Center. Others think it had more to do with the brothels, drug trafficking, and scandals of the dense tenement community that was replaced by the Yesler Terrace housing project beginning in 1939.

It’s also been called “Pill Hill” and still is, for the numerous hospitals, clinics and medical offices that have dotted the neighborhood from well before the turn of the century and have razed residential blocks for their expansion.

Some people might associate First Hill with all the “first families” who gave the neighborhood its reputation as the city’s premier residential enclave--home of mayors, judges, industrialists, timber barons, and art collectors. Unfortunately, of the 40 or more large and prestigious homes and gardens that once occupied First Hill, only four remain—the homes of the Stimson, Dearborn, Stacy, and Hofius families.

Because of the large area above downtown that comprises First Hill, it was not simply the home to wealthy businessmen, although contemporary accounts tended to focus attention on that segment of the population—as it still does. First Hill was also home to immigrants from Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, the Pacific islands, and many newcomers from rural and urban America who lived in rooming houses, single room occupancy hotels, and residential hotels as they joined the labor force.

Prepared by Larry Kreisman, Program Director, Historic Seattle