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Thursday, March 21, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Columbia City: Strolling past some Seattle history

Seattle Times staff reporter

If you go


The Self-Guided Walking Tours of five Historic Neighborhoods in Seattle are free but you must download them from either www.CityofSeattle.net (click on "Online Tours" and then "Historic Districts") or www.HistoryLink.org (look under "Favorites" and click on "Cybertours!"). Pioneer Square, the Chinatown International District, Pike Place Market and Ballard are also included. If you don't have a computer, visit your nearest library or ask your 13-year-old neighbor for help.
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Unbeknownst to anybody but me, as I enjoyed a scone and creamy latte at the window table at Lottie Mott's coffee shop, I actually was knocking off No. 6 and No. 10 on the Columbia City Historical Walking Tour.

When I say historic, I don't mean the scone belonged in the day-old bin. But by sitting in Lottie Mott's, I was actually in the 1904 Columbia Hotel, No. 10 on this self-guided tour that I snagged off the City of Seattle's Web site.

No. 6 was even easier: I just peered out at the intersection of Rainier Avenue South and South Ferdinand Street — the very place promoter J.K. Edmiston pitched a tent on April 4, 1891, to sell $300 lots in a mill town named for Christopher Columbus.

But what was I really doing? I was spending money while I was spending time in Columbia City, seven miles south of downtown along Rainier Avenue South. I didn't buy a lot of treats and trinkets, but by lingering to look at the place through historical eyes, I saw a number of reasons to come again.

The City of Seattle's Office of Economic Development, thumb-rubbing-against-fingers tourism division, commissioned these walking tours, which also include Ballard, Pioneer Square, Pike Place Market and the Chinatown International District.

"It's called cultural tourism," said Donna James, director of the mayor's office of film and tourism. "Rather than just drawing tourists to go shopping, you try to get people to think about your city. What are its values? How did it get started?"

A fresh supply of brochures will hit the ferries and streets next month touting the tours, but the walks are really not just for tourists. The writers at HistoryLink.org have provided enough interesting details to lure even us natives.

Explorer theme

I didn't know, for instance, that the promoters of this town were so caught up in the explorer theme that the cross streets in Christopher Columbus' city are also named for explorers:

Ferdinand (Magellan), (Henry) Hudson and Americus (Vespucci), according to an essay on Columbia City available at HistoryLink.org.

Or how about this for entrepreneurial genius?

Edmiston began building what would be Rainier Avenue Electric Railway in 1889 out to the old-growth forests that would process logs 5 to 6 feet in diameter. That timber fed the maw of rebuilding after the Great Seattle Fire.

Meanwhile, the 40 acres being cleared became $300 home sites with a mortgage of a buck a week. Potential buyers went out on the train, which provided transportation for the next 45 years. The train lasted long beyond Edmiston. As a 1916 writer noted, Edmiston fled town when the 1893 bank rush forced him to relocate someplace "kept secret from all former acquaintances."

Seattle swallowed up the city in 1907. The glory days were still ahead. Heater Glove of Columbia City made the leather aviator hat Charles Lindbergh wore across the Atlantic in 1927, and Hitt Fireworks, founded in 1905, provided the spark in the fire and battle scenes you saw in "Gone With the Wind."

None of that really jumps out at you in the walking tour, except that many of the buildings reflect those up years.

Preservationists stepped in to declare Columbia City a Landmark District in 1978, but their best ally was the series of economic downturns that kept the old buildings intact long enough to be appreciated.

Two of the best stand out at the start of the walking tour beside the village green that is now Columbia Park.

The 1915 Andrew Carnegie library, where ceilings were built for giraffes, is still stunning as a Seattle Public Library. The Columbia Funeral Home, an attractive 1906 bungalow at the north edge of the park, has the added interest of being the childhood home of Leo Lassen, voice of the old Rainiers baseball team.

The rest of the highlights are largely sprinkled along two blocks on Rainier Avenue South, which is how you end up poking into stores and cafes.

Lots of new arrivals

Today Columbia City is full of signs that show many people started someplace else in the past decades — Somali Community Services Coalition, Taqueria Dos Hermanoz, Vietnamese Noodle Soup.

At No. 4 on the tour, Columbia School, built in 1923 in Spanish Revival style and just a block or two off Rainier on South Ferdinand Street, signs on the door of what is now called "Orca" make note "that all people are welcome here."

There are similar signs in businesses all over Columbia City, although it wasn't entirely true on the crisp, clear day of my visit.

"You have to have lunch at Salumeria on Hudson," a friend who lives nearby told me about the restaurant that occupies No. 8 on the historical tour, the old Electric Bakery. (Alas, it was closed for remodeling.)

"Stop by the art gallery." (Columbia City Gallery, closed on Tuesdays, No. 9 on the tour.)

"Bob's Quality Meats. The meats are to die for." ("VACATION," the sign said about No. 5.)

But Hassan Ali welcomed me in to Little Medinah Fragrances. Business has been good enough the past four years that "I'm still in business," he said, standing among his scarves, incense and essential body oils.

He sees more people strolling the streets these days and he hopes that will increase if the historical walking tours catch on.

Some will come by way of the airport and some will be like me, just looking for new perspective.

"A lot of people don't know about Columbia City or haven't experienced it," said Walt Crowley of HistoryLink.org. "It's a charming place."

Sherry Stripling can be reached at sstripling@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2520.

Information in this article, originally published March 21, was corrected March 30. The name of the Columbia City Gallery was incorrect in an earlier version.

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