Seattle-based opportunists met to chart the future of Ballard
The summer of 1887 stands as a turning point in the early history of Ballard for that was when a number of parties joined forces to form the West Coast Improvement Company - the enterprise that "sold Gilman Park" that, in turn, directly led to the incorporation of the City of Ballard. This land development venture is noted in regional history as the single most successful 19th century real estate development on Puget Sound.
It was an interesting group of Seattle-based opportunists with capital, and pioneer-stock Salmon Bay residents that met often in the winter and spring of 1887 to enthusiastically discuss schemes for their land development company grandly named the West Coast Improvement Company. It is widely believed that the "big three" as they were known in their heyday-William Rankin Ballard, John Leary and Judge Thomas Burke composed the West Coast Improvement Co. While each of these men indeed held a major interest in the company, careful investigation of the company's articles of incorporation reveals that several old pioneer families were a part of the venture: these were William and Mary Crawford, Alonzo Hamblet, son of Eli and Mary Hamblet who homesteaded in the Crown Hill area, and B. J. Tallman. The Seattle investors included William R. and wife Estelle Ballard, John and Mary Leary, Thomas and Carrie Burke, Arthur and Mary Boren Denny and Dexter Horton.
The West Coast Improvement Company's success was almost instantaneous and legendry in its own time. Operating out of attractively appointed offices located at 719 in the New York Block in downtown Seattle W. R. Ballard functioned as corporation secretary. From his gleaming hand-carved desk Ballard sent out a steady stream of promotional notices and marketing literature. In its 14 years of its existence, 1888 - 1903, 1,396 real estate transactions were recorded ranging in size from one to 26 lots each. The company's standard Ballard lot measured 50 x 100 feet. Prices ranged from $150 for two lots to $240 for a single lot. The terms were typical for the day: one-third down, cash, balance to be paid, with interest, in" easy monthly installments". Undoubtedly price variations were determined by location and availability of street and public utilities were determining factors.
Lots went fast. In 1892, 103 sales were closed. Ballard's municipal records show that at that time two thirds of the original Gilman Park land was sold. In fact, 75 percent of the company's sales were realized in the first four years.
The West Coast Improvement Company was highly profit oriented and has little interest in providing community services or dedicating land for amenities such as public parks or playgrounds. Gilman Park, named for the original Gilman Park plat, is the sole park located in the original holdings of the company. However, this park was not set aside by the development company but was part of the Olmsted's' City of Seattle Parks plan drawn up in 1908.
Highly motivated to keep costs down and profits up the West Coast Company was selective in investing in improvements. After bringing the railroad into Ballard, thus supporting the mills and strengthening the economic basis of the community, the company put its greatest efforts into procuring water. At the outset the company-owned land was supplied with fresh, sweet, flowing water from a large spring. The land, originally part of Learys' holdings, is described as "located on the side of the hill to the east, just south of Broadway [Market] Street. Icy cold water cascaded down the slope, over the rocks and then flowed on as stream into Salmon Bay."
As the population grew, the big spring could not meet the water demands and the company sunk a well near Railway and B streets (14 Ave. NW & NW 46 St.) This well filled with sand and was soon inadequate. Next the company created a reservoir at 4th Ave. (24 St NW). Some people had backyard wells, but most relied upon the water provided by the West Coast Improvement Co. who charged each building its water one dollar a month. The company was relieved of the responsibility to provide water when the City of Ballard, assuming responsibility for providing water to the community, bought the company's last two reservoirs for $4,500.
The West Coast Improvement Co. was not the only land development venture in Ballard at the end of the 19th century. Small firms, such as Russell & Russell were also active. The venture of William L Russell and Ella D., husband and wife, encompassed three tracts, platted between January and March, 1890: Ballard Park Addition, Water Front Addition and Gilman Park Addition. Small scale subdividers rarely made any effort to provide water or other improvements. The couple was successful with its subdivisions. Russell Street is named for this family.