Seattle Sun Newspaper - Vol. 7, Issue 8, August 2003

Copyright 2003 Seattle Sun. Please feel free to use the article and photos below in your research. Be sure to quote the Seattle Sun as your source.

Remembering William W. Beck:

The father of Ravenna Park


William W. Beck was one North End pioneer who never got his due.

The founder of the short-lived Seattle Women's College and the operator of the private Ravenna Park, Presbyterian minister Beck and wife, Louise, arrived in Seattle from Kentucky in the late 1880s with big plans. They purchased 400 acres along Union Bay, including the newly-platted Ravenna Springs Addition (although Beck is often credited with naming his park, a 2001 article by David Wilma of traces the title to previous landowners George and Oltilde Dorffel).

The Becks' first venture was the creation of Seattle Female College in 1890. This "private and select school for girls" once served up to 40 young women with "thorough instruction and wholesome recreations," but didn't survive hard economic times and was closed by 1895.

Beck's next venture was to fence Ravenna Park and spruce up the property with paths, formal plantings, and picnic facilities. In the accepted practice of the time, a streetcar line was built with the park as its terminus. According to historian Paul Dorpat in his book, Seattle Now & Then III, the streetcar line (irreverently known as "the Bankruptcy Special") was one of the many David Denny projects that led to that Seattle founding father's mid-1890s financial collapse.

Ravenna Park proved a popular destination. Crowds gawked at the huge first-growth fir trees (the tallest was named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee; the thickest was assigned the name of President Theodore Roosevelt). Beck's publicity mills trumpeted its natural glories, inviting locals to traipse "among the giant firs and beside the laughing brook" and assigning the park alternate names including "Big Tree Park" and "Twin Maple Park."

But, like most of the private parks in Seattle, Ravenna Park was eyed for eventual public purchase under the 1903 Olmsted plan.

In 1908, Beck attempted to speed the process along, offering to sell the park immediately for $150,000 to allow the ownership transition to take place before 1909's Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition (held on the University of Washington campus), which he expected to draw "throngs" of visitors to nearby Ravenna Park.

"I have in Ravenna Park that that will entertain Seattle's visitors more than all the things the fair management can possibly assemble in hot, crowded buildings," boasted Beck.

His offer to sell included a few conditions, the first of which being that Ravenna be known by a new name: Beck Park.

But the process of selling the park proved long (more than two years) and painful, especially for Rev. Beck. His final offer to sell Ravenna Park for $150,000 was rejected, and the city convinced a court to set a lower price, $131,420, in November 1910.

Beck initially filed a motion for a new trial, but had apparently given up on the matter by March 1911, when he wrote the city to recommend an acquaintance for a job as a temporary park caretaker. The peace proved short-lived: by that May, Beck and the city's corporate counsel were feuding over who should pay various tax assessments on the property.

In a letter still contained in the Parks Department archive, Rev. Beck grumbled about the "false swearing and tricks of Satan" the city used to obtain the property, and asked that the parks department intervene in his negotiations with the city's corporate counsel. This is the last letter from Beck contained in the file.

But, as city ownership of Ravenna Park inflicted both benign neglect (Beck's pathways soon became overgrown and his immense cedar pavilion was converted into a city stable) and active mismanagement (all the giant trees were eventually cut down for vague reasons), some Seattleites looked back fondly on Beck's operation of the property.

In his book Univer City, author Roy Nielsen cites Anna B. Allen's Sept. 17, 1920 letter to the University Herald in which she complains about the poor shape of the park under city management and reminisces about the good old days. "Into this beauty spot, the owner poured his heart's worship of nature in her finest mood," she wrote.

Others questioned whether the city should have bought the park in the first place. "Ravenna Park," wrote Clarence Bagley in his 1929 History of King County, "is a dark, damp, dismal hole in the ground for which the city paid an outrageous price."

Rev. Beck made his last notable public appearance when he joined a group of Parks Department critics griping about Ravenna Park tree removal in 1926. According to Polk city directories, Beck long maintained a home near the park and his interest in both the real estate business (he ran the Duwamish Investment Company and Beck Builders Inc. over the years) and the Presbyterian Church (he served as pastor of Interbay Presbyterian Church in the early 1920s). Beck's name appears in city directories until 1942.

Historian Dorpat finds a silver lining to the city's continued lack of attention to Ravenna Park upkeep. As man-made features, such as a natural wading pond at the lower end of the park and Beck's structures, were removed and the plants allowed to grow undisturbed, the carefully planned and tended woodland paradise reverted to its natural state a feature which makes it one of the North End's most popular parks for walkers, runners, and bicyclists.

Beck is officially remembered by two of the smallest civic gestures ever performed. In keeping with the early practice of giving names to small bits of park property, the concrete-covered triangle of land at the intersection of 15th Avenue Northeast and Cowen Place was dubbed Beck Place. And, his beloved Twin Maples Park is memorialized by Twin Maples Lane Northeast, a half-block street where 24th Avenue Northeast meets the park border.