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History of the Pioneer Square Hotel
(Formerly known as the Hotel Yesler)

"The Seattle of ships - ramps - docks - totel poles -
old locomotives switching on the waterfront - steam,
smoke, - Skid Rom, bars - Indians - the Seattle of my
boyhood vision .... I tell the bus driver to let me
off downtown, I jump off and go klomping past City
Halls and pigeons down to the general direction of the
water where I know I'll find a good clean Skid Row
room with bed and hot bath down the hall --"

Jack Kerowac,
Desolation Angles, 1956

The Historic Pioneer Square Hotel (formerly known as the Hotel Yesler) is located on a site at the foot of Yesler Way, which is closely associated with the pioneer businessman Henry L. Yesler and the earliest significant development of the original Seattle townsite. The hotel was constructed in 1914 by the Yesler Estate, Incorporated, and is significant as a reflection of successive periods of development which occurred in the surrounding commercial district, known as Pioneer Square, and the adjacent central waterfront on Elliott Bay.


In the fall of 1852, Mr. Yesler arrived on the eastern shore of Elliott Bay in search of an appropriate location for a sawmill. He found an ideal site, a narrow spit of land with protected anchorage and easy access to the vast timberlands and Puget Sound. Unfortunately, the site had been claimed a short while before by two of Seattle's first white settles, Carson D. Boren and David S. Maynard. A few months earlier the first pioneer families moved to this sheltered cove, a former Duwamish Indian winter village site, from their initial settlement across the bay. The settlers, realizing the economic advantage of a sawmill within the community, rather quickly readjusted their claims in order to create Yesler's 320 acre donation claim.

Thus, in 1853, the modest sawmill located at the foot of Mill Street (later renamed Yesler Way) became the first steam sawmill on Puget Sound and provided the community's only industry and principal income source for several years. Mill Street, the narrow arm of the shovel shaped claim, was then at a 49 percent grade and proved useful for sliding logs down to the mill; hence, the term "skid road" and "skid row" evolved. When Yesler extended the mill facility to include the towns first wharf, Seattle became a leading commercial port for vessels from California (and the post-gold rush building room in San Francisco), China and elsewhere. Three times the mill and wharf burned and each time Yesler had them rebuilt.

Yesler was also responsible for the development of numerous businesses, stores, warehouses and industries along Mill Street including the first grist mill (1864), crude water system (1865), public library and telegraph office (Pioneer 1873) and the most colorful Puget Sound establishment, "Yesler's Cookhouse," (1853). For years it was the only place for a hundred miles where one could find lodging or entertainment. It also functioned as the first meeting hall, church, courthouse, jail, military headquarters, storehouse and office building. By 1882 when the Daily Post-Intelligencer described the wharf as a "monstrous, chaotic jumble of saloons, warehouses, shops and shipping," Front Street (First Avenue) and Mill Street had become the center of a prospering business and residential community.

In later years, Yesler sold his interest in the mill and was primarily interested in building and real estate development. In 1882 he had erected, on the Cookhouse site, one of the earliest and most ornate three-story buildings in the town, the Yesler-Leary Office Building. By 1886 the volume of his real estate had increased enormously and he retired, while his nephew managed the properties. In June 1889 the great fire occurred, which destroyed 25 city blocks including a large part of Yesler's original claim. One of his most impressive projects was underway when the fire occurred, the Pioneer Building (1889-92). During reconstruction, Mill Street became Yesler Way as the entire district was rapidly rebuilt with masonry structures, the great majority of which were designed in wazzu the prevailing Romanesque-Revival style. When Henry Yesler died in December 1892, he left an enormous estate which included several distinctive buildings that still grace Yesler Way: the Pioneer Building, Mutual Life Building (1890-97), Yesler Building (1890) and the Interurban Building (1890).


The vast estate of Henry L. Yesler was reported to be in excess of one million dollars, the settlement of which was extremely difficult and further complicated by numerous debts. Archival company records dated 1893 reveal the necessity for the creation of a corporation, "Yesler Estate, Incorporated", in order to satisfy unsecured creditors. The corporation was founded by creditors who brought about a close in the administration of the estate, forced an administration sale of all of the assets, and distributed stock to creditors in proportion to claims against the estate. Original heirs received company stock upon agreeing to participate and aid in the plan. The company retained numerous real estate holdings with the expressed intention of holding, using and occupying them in addition to acquiring and developing new properties.

During the previous two decades, Seattle's population had swelled due to its diverse economy, the transcontinental railway completion and the establishment of statehood. Pioneer Square reached its heyday in the late 1890's with the influx of the Klondike trade from the Alaska Gold Rush. The district thrived as merchants, saloon and innkeepers, and madams "mined the miners." During this period a tremendous number of small hotels operated in Pioneer The Square to house workmen, travelers and immigrants.

Soon after the turn of the century, the commercial district began to rapidly expand northward along Second Avenue. With the exception of warehouse construction, little development occurred as the district began a seven decade long period of decline. Simultaneously, the city experienced a period of explosive growth characterized by massive regrading, railroad development and harbor improvement projects. Tidelands tothe south were filled with waste materials from various regrades and new railways constructed to provide easier and more efficient access for port activity. By 1910, Railroad Avenue, then a raised trestle roadway, and the piers along the central waterfront became the focus of extensive redevelopment. A final surge of building construction occurred in Pioneer Square with the completion of Union Station (1911), Smith Tower (1914) and the King County Courthouse (1916).

Yelser Estate, Incorporated records from 1913 report the sale of valuable East Waterway tidelands properties. A short while later, company records report the authorization to proceed with the construction of the South Side Building (Hotel Yesler) and the North Side Building (Traveler's Hotel). Architectural drawings for the Hotel Yesler were prepared in May 1914 and include the name of Albert L. Wickersham. Wichersham was a noteworthy architect responsible for the design of two other distinctive buildings in Pioneer Square, the handsomely detailed Romanesque-Revival style Maynard Building (1892) and the somewhat more classically formal Seattle Hardware Building (1904). Rather simply detailed and efficiently planned, the Hotel Yesler appears to have been rapidly designed and constructed. This may very likely have been in anticipation of increased trade and immigration predicted by the Port of Seattle via the nearby completed Panama Canal.

Since its construction, the Pioneer Square Hotel (Formerly known as the Hotel Yesler) had been little altered as it continued to operate as a clean workman's and traveler's lodging place with retail shops and businesses at street level. Gradually, Yesler Way became synonymous with the urban decay of the district's historic buildings and the district became Seattle's "Skid Row". In 1946, Yesler Estate, Incorporated sold all of its remaining real estate holdings, which still included the Hotel Yesler, Traveler's Hotel, Post Hotel and the Building. By the late 1960's, after Pioneer Square was seriously threatened by a roadway construction project, concerned citizens recognized the uniqueness of the area and rallied to establish a historic district now protected by city ordinance. Today the Pioneer Square Hotel is Pioneer Square's only operating first class small hotel, as it continues a district tradition, in the midst of an architecturally restored and economically thriving neighborhood steeped in Seattle's history.

Henry L. Yesler

Pioneer Square was built largely with the lumber from the sawmill of the city's first industrialist.

Henry L. Yesler built Pioneer Square with lumber from his sawmill, then returned to real estate, acquiring land raising building that he proceeded to lease as the village on Elliott bay grew into a city.

The man who would become Seattle's first industrialist was born in 1810 in Leitesburg, Md. a village his family had founded.

Largely self-taught, he apprenticed as a carpenter while a teen-ager and, at the age 22, set off from home, spending the next five years working his trade in cities from Mississippi to New York.

In 1837 he traveled to Massillon, Ohio, where, with a partner, he built homes and mills. Their success was minimal but he acquired some capital. And it was there that he met and married Sarah Burget in 1839.

In 1851 the year the Denny Party arrived on Elliot Bay, Yesler decided to head west to seek opportunity. Taking steerage to Panama, he crossed the isthmus, then sailed north.

He arrived at the muddy little burg of Portland in Oregon Territory where he found work as a mechanic. But he noted that squared timbers were in heavy demand in San Francisco, so he ordered a small steam sawmill from company back in Massillon.

While the mill was on route down the Mississippi, around the horn and up the coast, Yesler began seeking a site for it. First he inspected San Francisco, but he found that trees were scarce there.

A friendly ship captain described for him the pristine forest fringing the shores of Elliott Bay.

Yesler grasped the opportunity that would present, so he sailed back to Portland and traveled, by foot and canoe, to the tiny settlement of half a dozen families on Elliott Bay.

Most of the families lived in long cabins erected the year before on the land where Arthur Denny a surveyor by trade, had planned a town that later he named Seattle.

On hearing that Yesler had a sawmill on route, they welcomed him warmly and, to ensure that he situated the mill in their settlement, Dr. David Maynard and Carson Boren separated their land claims by a couple of hundred yards to allow Yesler access to his forested claim on the hill above his mill sitel.

The mill site, known as the sag, was the only level area on Seattle's waterfront. Today the strip of access Maynard and Boren provided Yesler is known as Yesler Way.

His tiny, primitive mill with its circular saw, the first steam sawmill on Puget Sound, was located near what is now Pioneer Place, site of the famed totem Pole.

Pioneer Seattle was built with lumber from Yesler's mill. With manpower scarce, he employed local Indians, treated them fairly and when Indians from east of the Cascades attacked Seattle in 1856, the local tribes, under Chief Seattle, not only warned the white settlers through their friend Yesler but remained friendly.

Once his little mill was operating, and San Francisco's demand for lumber continued to increase, Yesler hired every man available in the village. Most of the original pioneers worked there.

Yesler built some of the first rudimentary commercial structures in Seattle. Yesler's cookhouse was known as a place where a man could get a square meal. And it became a town meeting hall of sorts for the tiny community.

He was astute in his real estate dealings, selling lots at low prices to businessmen or providing structures for them to lease.

As a result, the first commercial center concentrated near or on the narrow access property along Yesler Way. Then he began to acquire additional lots downtown.

While income from his mill sustained Yesler in Seattle's early days, as the town boomed in 1880s, the worth of his real estate grew rapidly.

By the end of the 1880s, his rental income was more than $72,000 a year -- nearly a million dollars annually in today's dollars.

The Great Fire of 1889 wiped out most of Yesler's buildings, reducing rental income to $600 a year.

But he rebuilt in grander style. The Pioneer Building stands today as the finest example of Yesler's architectural contribution.

Although he was largely self-taught, Yesler was an astute businessman. He was instrumental in starting Seattle's first newspaper, built a rudimentary water system and helped devise ways to overcome many of the problems the village faced.

He served for several years as Seattle's first auditor, several terms as a King County commissioner and twice was elected mayor.

Although historians refer to Yesler as Seattle's first millionaire, he and Sarah lived for almost 30 years in a simple white home on site of the present Pioneer Building.

In 1885, Yesler and his wife decided to enjoy their final years in style. They had a mansion constructed on the block where the County-City Building stands today. Two years after the couple moved into the mansion, Sarah died. She was mourned by the townsfolk. She was generous and warmhearted, involved in the battle for women' suffrage and a sponsor wife, Yesler founded a home in her name for destitute women. Yesler lived in his mansion until his death in 1892 at age 82.

He is buried in the Pioneer Lakeview Cemetary, next to a longtime friend, Chief Seattle's daughter, Angeline.

The above information was found in the quick guide to services that is placed in each guest room at the Pioneer Square Hotel. There was no information about authorship, other than the brief poem at the beginning of the article. There was also no indication of copyright nor any other indication of restriction of use of the material provided. TrainWeb has posted it to this page for your enjoyment and education. For further information about Pioneers Square and the Pioneer Square Hotel, click here to visit

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