The Invisible Gardener Who Shaped Seattle Parks

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Near the base of Leschi Park, attached to a large rough boulder, is a plaque with the following inscription under the boughs of a soaring tree:

Image: David Brewster

As the famous phrase had it for New Yorker copy editors: Jacob Umlauff — who he? Another of the invisible makers of modern Seattle, that’s who. 

To go way back in time, Seattle’s copious green spaces were pre-designed by glacial ice and the underlying sand, clay, and decaying material left behind as the slow melting process was underway. The first pioneer “green space” contribution to the tiny settlement occurred in 1863, when David and Mary Denny donated five acres of land for a cemetery.  Rededicated as a park in 1884, gravestones and remains were disinterred and sent to Capitol Hill’s Lake View Cemetery and other burial grounds.  

In the late 1880s City Engineer R.H. Thomson undertook his famous effort to remove Denny Hill and dump the residue dirt and clay into Elliott Bay.  That bold project caused an uproar about preserving five-acre Denny Park. The park was saved and today the Seattle Parks administrative building rests among the Sequoias and lawns on Dexter Avenue next to Denny Way. 

Young Jacob Umlauff was part of the Great Migration, the rush of Europeans to America among those who saw their futures across the sea.  Jacob’s uncle, Walter (or Carl?) Hagenbeck, owned and managed a famous animal circus in Hamburg.  Although Jacob worked with his uncle’s menagerie and adhered to its strict travel schedule, he was attracted to gardening.  He found lawn and garden work on a large Hamburg estate, followed by four more years of local apprenticeship.  At this point he was allowed to sign “gardener” after his name.  He had entered the profession that would consume his life.

In 1891 Jacob Umlauff climbed aboard a sailing vessel.  Upon landing in New York, he made his way to Chicago where he took odd jobs for a year or two.  Eventually he bought a railway ticket for the farthest North American western destination he could find: Bellingham, Washington.  Discovering the soil, flowering bushes and tall trees of the Pacific Northwest was an awakening for the young immigrant.  He had found a place to unreservedly practice his beloved gardening.  

Jacob arrived in Seattle at a time when privately-owned parks were being developed at the end of rattling cable and electric cable routes.  Most of these open greeneries were established to attract prospective buyers to nearby real estate, and many of these estates were in wooded settings such as Woodland Park (future home of our zoo), or at shoresides like Madrona-, Madison- and Leschi Parks.  Woodland Park and Leschi also offered menageries (Jacob looked after the animals at Leschi), circus performances, carriage rides, and paddle-wheel steamers, not unlike Jacob Umlauff’s uncle Walter’s Hamburg business.

Once the railroads arrived, Seattle was on the cusp of rising to Big City status.  Seattle City Parks Superintendent E.O. Schwagerl in 1892 proposed a comprehensive system of parks and boulevards.  Schwagerl’s ideas were followed in 1900 by Assistant City Engineer George F. Cotterill’s proposal for city-wide bicycle routes (bicycle “mania” had recently taken hold throughout the United States).  

In turn, Cotterill’s ideas helped stimulate the plans of the Olmsted firm’s design for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific (AYP) exposition in 1909, and visionary engineer Virgil R. Bogue’s ambitious “Seattle Plan,” which extended to Mercer Island, Bothell, Kent, and, believe it or not, Snoqualmie Falls.  Voters turned down Bogue’s ambitious plans, but embraced the Olmsteds’ parks, playgrounds, and “corridors of green.”  

Jacob Umlauff found himself immersed in these open-space projects, embracing the first opportunity at hand, the L.T. Haas greenhouse.  Next step was the Seattle Electric Company, which had gardening as well as cable and electric trolley responsibilities at Leschi, Madrona, and Madison Parks.  Umlauff also found time to run his own greenhouse business in Madison Park (perhaps on 41st Avenue East) from 1909 to 1914.  In 1914, he moved up in the gardening world: Maintenance Superintendent of the Seattle Parks Department.

Soon Umlauff’s hands were everywhere that a holly tree sapling or rhododendron bush found root.  “Green Lake and Lincoln Parks were developed entirely by [him],” a rare early notice observed. “Woodland, Volunteer, Seward, and lesser parks were transformed and improved vastly under his direction.”

At Volunteer Park Umlauff knew the location, name, and status of 750 trees and shrubs.  He helped Seattle families place small plaques at the base of trees in the Park, many of which require a close squint to find.  For many years Jake (as his friends called him) held seminars in the Park, attended by nurserymen, florists, and gardeners from everywhere.  

Jacob Umlauff passed away in November, 1950. “His” giant Sequoia tree in Leschi is a single living monument to an almost invisible gardener. Across the hills of Seattle, especially in the Madison-Madrona-Leschi neighborhoods, many of the red-barked, straight, aromatic trees – cedars and Sequoias – now reach to the sky. Their tiny roots were placed by master gardener Jacob Umlauff.

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Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.

1 COMMENT

  1. Taking little away from this nice story, the author seems to be confused about “The Great Migration”. The actual Great Migration also affected Seattle, bringing thousands of African American workers and families from Jim Crow South to the industrial North. The Great Migration led to a thriving and vibrant Black Middle Class, which resulted in the culturally rich Jackson Street and Central District.

    While the best place to learn more about The Great Migration and the impact on Seattle is at the Northwest African American Museum, a broad study is here: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Migration_(African_American)

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