History of the Belltown Neighborhood in Seattle

Ever wonder how the name of the Seattle neighborhood Belltown came to be? Let’s roll back the clock to the early 1850s for a quick history lesson.

Belltown derives its name from William Nathaniel Bell, an Illinois farmer who went west in 1851 by wagon towards Oregon. There he met Arthur and David Denny. All three headed up to Seattle to claim land under the The Donation Land Claim Act of 1850, which created a powerful incentive for settlement of the Oregon Territory by offering 320 acres at no charge to qualifying adult U.S. citizens.

The Bell family chose land near the bay, while the Denny family claimed the hill overlooking Pioneer Square.

Left: William N Bell ( source: History of King County) Right: Early Seattle (source: WA State Digital Archives)

Left: William N Bell (source: History of King County) Right: Early Seattle (source: WA State Digital Archives)

After William Bell’s house was burned down by Native Americans in 1856, he moved his family to California. His wife died of tuberculosis later that year. In 1870, he moved back to Seattle and reestablished himself in several businesses. He married his wife’s younger sister in 1872 and passed away in 1887, just before the Klondike Gold Rush brought business to the area in the late 1890s.

Corner of 1st and Bell in 1884 (source; Ron Edge Collection)

Corner of 1st and Bell in 1884 (source; Ron Edge Collection)

Today you’ll recognize the streets named after his two daughters: Virginia and Olive. The Austin A Bell building (shown below) was named after his son after his untimely death (self inflicted gun shot wound after he started seeing signs of his father's dementia in himself). Stewart Street was named after Olive’s husband.

autinbell.jpg

Denny Hill was once one of Seattle’s tallest hills, but it was regraded in 1897. They sluiced the hill into Elliot Bay in the early 1900s, which gave way to Belltown and the Denny triangle neighborhoods. The Seattle Times has an interesting video of the history “Seattle Moves a Mountain” in this article.

Electric shovels move dirt onto conveyor belts to be dumped into the Puget Sound at the Denny Hill regrade next to Fifth Avenue on Oct. 6, 1929. (Seattle Times Archive).

Electric shovels move dirt onto conveyor belts to be dumped into the Puget Sound at the Denny Hill regrade next to Fifth Avenue on Oct. 6, 1929. (Seattle Times Archive).

For some time Belltown was a low-rent, semi-industrial arts district. A portion of it was known as “Film Row”, servicing around 470 commercial movie theaters in the Northwest. In 1923 Seattle had 26 different Motion Picture Machines and Supplies companies. Film was highly flammable, so zoning rules limited the film exchanges to the Belltown area. In 1980, Universal Studios was the last film business to leave.

Today Belltown is the most densely populated neighborhood in Seattle and well-known for its trendy restaurants, nightclubs, condos, art galleries, and former warehouses. One of those was Block 41 which was built in 1927, originally used as both an ice warehouse and a carriage garage.

Easy Belltown landmarks marking the outer boundaries of the neighborhood, include:

  • The Olympic Sculpture Park located in the northwest end of the Belltown waterfront

  • The boundary moves east past the Space Needle, then depending on your source, past Westlake, all the way to I-5 (see discussion here).

  • Occupying the southwest end is the Bell Harbor International Conference Center

  • The far west end also includes the Anthony’s on Pier 66, The Edgewater, and the Seattle Clipper Terminal on Pier 69.

So, next time you’re in Belltown enjoying a brew, whether it be coffee or beer, reflect upon the early settler’s decision to move his family to a large patch of dirt near the water that later became the heart of downtown Seattle.