South Seattle History: Developing Columbia City

South Seattle History: Developing Columbia City

By David B. Williams (HistoryLink.org):

Developing Columbia City

Few people were more central to the development of the area that became the Seattle neighborhood of Columbia City than James Kippen Edmiston. Born in Renfrew, Scotland, he traveled to America with his brother George Fleming Edmiston (1863-1932), and became an American citizen in Walla Walla on June 22, 1883. By the end of the decade, James Edmiston was president of the Walla Walla Savings Bank.

In September 1890, the Edmiston brothers and Samuel L. Bowman (1850-1931) filed articles of incorporation for the Rainier Avenue Electric Railway Company. Stock was fixed at $250,000. James, or J. K. as his name usually appeared in print and on legal documents, put $173,000 into the company. The plan was to run a street trolley from downtown Seattle east over the high ridge connecting First Hill and Beacon Hill and down to the low land on the other side, then southeast down that valley to Columbia City and eventually to Rainier Beach on Lake Washington.

Prior to 1891, because of limited access, only a handful of people lived at the southern end of the valley, which would become known as the Rainier Valley. But this would begin to change with the new trolley line. By late November 1890, workers had laid rails from near Lake Washington north to Jackson Street. The tracks would soon continue on Washington Street to the Seattle waterfront. Cars began to run on the completed section in late December 1890.

With cars running out toward Lake Washington, J. K. Edmiston unveiled the reason the tracks had been built — to open up the land at the end of the route to development. On March 6, 1891, Edmiston, Percy W. Rochester (1850-1914), and John I. Wiley incorporated the Washington Co-operative Home Company with a capital value of $300,000. The company owned about 200 acres in an area that the incorporators called Columbia. They hoped to sell 1,500 lots, most of which would cost $300 each, and all of which were on high land, with great views, good soil, and easy transportation to downtown Seattle via the recently completed street trolley, or so claimed the company’s advertising. The line was successful enough at opening up the valley that within two years, in 1893, Columbia City incorporated as an independent town. In 1907, Columbia City residents would approve the town’s annexation into the city of Seattle.

Arrest and Conviction

Long before the annexation, however, Edmiston disconnected from the town and railway company. In December 1893, his Walla Walla Savings Bank closed its doors. The problems were primarily the nationwide Panic of 1893 and the low price of wheat, but there was one other outstanding issue. On January 1, 1894, the Walla Walla County Sheriff began a search for Edmiston, who was wanted on the charge of embezzling $30,000 from the bank. He was caught in Harrison, Idaho, and arraigned on a $50,000 bail. Edmiston’s lawyer argued that his client couldn’t get a fair trial in Walla Walla, so the trial was moved to Pomeroy, in Garfield County, about 65 miles east. In mid-April, Edmiston was acquitted of embezzlement. However he still had to pay a $1,500 bond to be released from the county jail because he was being held on subsequent charges of receiving deposits when he knew the bank was insolvent.

Freedom was not quite what Edmiston had hoped. Several days after his release, on April 23, Henry C. Tobin (1847-1922), who had invested in the bank, walked up to Edmiston and shot at him. Tobin missed and Edmiston ran off with Tobin hot in pursuit. Tobin fired four more shots but missed. Edmiston escaped and Tobin was fined $20.

The Walla Walla bank was not Edmiston’s lone case of shenanigans. He was also president of the Security Savings Bank in Seattle. It, too, went into receivership in 1894. Edmiston had used the bank for his own personal transactions on funds and properties associated with the Washington Co-operative Home Company.

Edmiston’s second trial in connection with the Walla Walla bank began on February 14, 1895, in Walla Walla. The prosecutor trying the case said that he would show “that the Walla Walla Savings Bank had been insolvent for some time prior to closing its doors and that J. K. Edmiston knew this fact, and had resorted to most extraordinary and even criminal means to raise money for the purposes of bolstering his fallen fortunes” (“In the Toils …”). The trial ended with the jury in disagreement and a new trial was set. It began on June 6; Edmiston was found guilty on June 8. The judge sentenced him to two years in jail. Edmiston promptly disappeared.

Repayment and Pardon

By November, he was reported to be in British Columbia but by February 1896, his location was unknown. Edmiston was neither seen nor heard from again until the first years of the twentieth century, when Judge Everett Smith (1862-1933) of Walla Walla started to receive money from him. Over the next several years, Edmiston repaid the investors who had lost money in the bank. For example, a Walla Walla bar owner lost $4,000 and ended up a “victim of the drink habit” (“Renton Line Sale …”). Instead of sending the entire $4,000 at once, Edmiston sent the man $30 a month. Edmiston eventually paid back all of those who had invested in the bank, which led to his pardon on January 31, 1911, by Washington governor Marion E. Hay.

Where exactly Edmiston was is not known. Judge Smith heard he was in Palestine. Others placed him in Egypt, developing a profitable irrigation system. Part of the challenge may be that Edmiston changed his name. On September 2, 1895, George Kippen of Geneva, New York, died. Although he had one daughter, Margaret, she was in a home for the mentally impaired, and much of George Kippen’s money was left to his sister’s children including James K. Edmiston and George F. Edmiston. When Margaret died in 1925, her estate was left in part to James, who at some undetermined previous date had married and changed his name to James Fleming. Where he was living is unknown. Nor is the date or location of his death.

Sources:
“In the Toils of Law,” Yakima Herald, February 14, 1895, p. 3; “Renton Line Sale Recalls Weird History,” The Seattle Times, April 30, 1916, p. 22; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 21, 1890, p. 5; “Brevities,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 7, 1891, p. 8; “J. K. Edmiston Shot At,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 24, 1894, p. 1; “Banker in Exile, Pardoned by Hay,” Portland Oregonian, February 1, 1911, p. 1; “Kippen Cemetery,” New York Roots website accessed February 10, 2017 https://www.newyorkroots.org/ontario/cems/geneva/kippenceme.htm).

Photo/David Mullarkey

 

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