The richest people in Seattle–a very long time ago

Holding onto a fortune can be a lot harder than amassing one. It’s an old saying, uttered long before I became New To Seattle. But I’m going to offer you some hard proof of this proposition and make it extremely local.

Thanks to Forbes, we have the names of the half-dozen richest Seattleites today. That’s because of the famous Forbes 400 list, published annually each fall since 1982. In Seattle the fattest cats are Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Steve Ballmer, Paul Allen, Craig McCaw and Howard Schultz. You all know that. There’s nothing like a billion-dollar-plus net worth to make you a household name within the 1%, at least among your neighbors in the other 99%.

Arthur Denny, about 1890, two years before he was declared the  “richest man” in Seattle and Washington State (via Wikipedia)

But I also can give you a list of the locally fattest cats a long time ago. How long ago? How about 1892? That’s barely 40 years after the first gringos arrived from Illinois and just three years after Washington became the country’s 42nd State.

That roster numbers a dozen. But here’s the really interesting part. As near as I can figure, no descendants of that 12 today sit on the Forbes list or anywhere near it. Indeed, you’ll know some of their names only because they adorn Seattle streets, buildings, bike paths and in one case an entire  suburb–but not because their heirs possess fabulous world-class wealth anymore.

That ancient list of Seattle’s richest was part of an amazing research project by the New-York Tribune to identify everyone in the country who was worth $1 million or more (about $26 million in today’s money). In the spring of 1892, after months of poking around, the paper published an astonishing list of 4,047 individuals–10 times longer than the Forbes 400. As you might imagine, the “Tribune 4,047” caused a sensation. About one-quarter of the listees were in New York City.

Behind the project was more than a whiff of politics and even class warfare that sounds pretty familiar now. Perhaps the country’s leading Republican newspaper, the Tribune was trying to beat back Democratic Party charges that a high-tariff bill GOP lawmakers had pushed through Congress was nothing but a sop to the wealthy at the expense of the working man (not unlike today’s claims that low tax rates for capital gains are really paid for by high rates on back-breaking labor) . Tariffs are foreign-competition-killing taxes imposed on goods imported into the U.S., allowing domestic manufacturers to raise their prices. In an introductory article, the Tribune said it reckoned that a good three-quarters of the fortunes were in industries or calling not protected by tariffs.

Despite such errors as misspelling names and listing dead people as still alive (something Forbes has been known to do), historians consider the Tribune list, which today is not widely known, to be reasonably accurate. One reason is that the paper didn’t try to develop precise net worth estimates or rank the 4,407.

The Seattle contingent largely made their fortunes in real estate, timber and banking. Here, word for word from the Tribune, is the entire list, with annotations by me [in brackets like this]:

ARTHUR A. DENNY. Richest man in the State. One of Seattle’s oldest settlers. His fortune comes from rise in real estate.” [Born 1822, died 1899. He’s the First Gringo of Seattle. Denny Hall at the University of Washington, which he helped found, is named for him.]

D.T. DENNY. Real estate chiefly. He is an old settler.” [1832-1903. Denny Park and Denny Way, which defines the northern edge of downtown Seattle, are actually named for him and not Arthur, his older brother.]

WILLIAM RENTON. Sawmills, fur, timber lands, real estate and vessels.” [1818-1891; he was already deceased when listed by the Tribune, which also misspelled his name as Reuton; he had coal mining interests in the Seattle suburb named for him for 1901.]

CYRUS WALKER. Sawmills and lumber, fur, timber, lands and vessels.” [1827-1913.]

H.L. YESLER. The founder of Seattle. Made in real estate.” [1810-1892, Seattle mayor in 1874. His sawmill sat at the western end of what is now Yesler Way.]

BAILEY GATZERT (of Schwabacker & Co.). Wholesale groceries and hardware. He is the leading merchant of the State. President of the Puget Sound National Bank and the People’s Savings Bank.” [1829-1893, Seattle mayor in 1875.]

ESTATE of W.C. HILL. Real estate.”

WATSON C. SQUIRE. Made in rise in value of real estate.” [1836-1926. Also territorial governor and U.S. senator.]

MRS. MARY M. MILLER. The richest woman in the State. Made in rise in value of lands and bank stock.” [1840-1927. A widow,  she managed the investment portfolio amassed by her husband, William Miller, an ex-Supreme Court judge.]

THOMAS BURKE. Real estate and railroads.” [1849-1925, today’s Burke-Gilman Trail for bicyclists and walkers is named for him, as is the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.]

LEIGH S.J. HUNT. Real estate, newspaper, street railroads, etc. President of the Guarantee Loan and Trust Company.” [1855-1933.]

JACOB FURTH. Real estate and bank stock. He is interested in three of the largest banks in the city.” [1840-1914.]

So what happened to these country-class fortunes? Within a generation, it appears most of them pretty much went poof, either because of business reverses or their division among increasing numbers of heirs who didn’t have the smarts to increase the family stash. The famous Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter had it right when he described the “creative destruction” property of capitalism.

Some fortunes went poof real quick. The year after the Tribune list was published saw the Panic of 1893, a national bust preceded by a boom and bubble (sound familiar?). It was particularly felt in Seattle for five long years. An early victim was Leigh Hunt, a former college president who owned the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which was then by far the city’s leading newspaper. Hunt was forced to sell the paper in 1894 to out-of-staters. A plunger at heart, he eventually moved to Las Vegas, where he died in 1933 at age 78, outliving the other heavies.

The Panic of 1893 also wiped out David Denny. He was in the middle of various real estate and transportation ventures when the bottom fell out. He went bankrupt. Denny died complete broke in 1903 at age 67. A more cautious investor, Arthur Denny died four years earlier in better circumstances.

In 1902, the World Almanac, then owned by Joseph Pulitzer (an arch-rival of the Reid family, which owned the Tribune) published another one-off list list of American millionaires. In a decade their ranks had shrunk by one-eighth from the Tribune‘s 4,047  to 3,561. The attrition in Seattle was a lot worse–half. The World Almanac listed the estates of the deceased Arthur Denny and William Renton; three living returnees, Jacob Furth, Bailey Gatzert and Cyrus Walker (recorded as residing in Tacoma); and one newcomer, Thomas S. Lippy (1860-1931). A YMCA official in Seattle, he had quickly struck it rich in the Alaska Gold Rush of 1897 and, returning to Seattle, bought a big home.

How things change over time. The New-York Tribune, which never again published such a rich list, evolved into the New York Herald-Tribune and later the New York World Journal Tribune but went out of business itself in 1967. Once No. 1 among Seattle newspapers, the Post-Intelligencer that Leigh Hunt lost in 1894 eventually fell into the clutches of the Hearst Corp., which finally closed the print edition in 2009. Slippery things, those fortunes.

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The richest people in Seattle–a very long time ago — 7 Comments

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  6. There’s another saying amongst the wealthy – “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” The saying highlights how many wealthy families have their roots in regular working class people that had an idea, or worked their way to the top, or what have you. They are usually frugal people and count their pennies with only a few extravagances. Their children are the spoiled bunch. They cannot agree on how to split up the family fortune, cannot agree on how to run the business or manage the investments, and have a lifestyle befitting of their upbringing and then some. By the time the third generation comes around, there are so many grandchildren or dispersed income or worse, the business and wealth are gone, so they are back to being regular folks again.

    That’s why it is remarkable how some families seem to have staying power, most famous most likely being the Rothschild families.

    I like that quote, “creative destruction” of capitalism. It is very apt, and even more so today, when short-term thinking for short-term profits rule the day and long-term vision and growth of the company is passe. Thankfully, we have a system in this country that seems to muddle along, no matter who seems to be in power or office.

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