The area that became Columbia City, Washington, was still heavily timbered when an electric railway south from downtown Seattle into the Rainier Valley began.
The railway did two things, it opened the valley to development, and opened new sources of lumber, which was in great demand after The Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, that had destroyed most of Seattle’s business district.
The town site was dense forest bordered by swampy marshland. Native Americans had cut a few trails through the area, but there had been no inhabitants until the arrival of a few farmers in the late 1870s. Seven miles of track was laid from downtown Seattle to the town site.
The first business in Columbia City was a lumber mill built on the northwest corner of what is now Rainier and S. Brandon Street. The mill processed newly felled logs that were five to six feet in diameter.
The promoters of the town named it in honor of Christopher Columbus. Expanding on that theme, they named major streets after other famous explorers, Ferdinand Magellan, Henry Hudson, and Americus Vespucci. The first lots were sold from a canvas tent set up at what is now Rainier Avenue S. and S. Ferdinand Street in April 1891, shortly after the inauguration of regular railway service.
By 1892, the town had 40 to 50 residences, a town hall, a school with 75 students, a post office, two churches, a gravity-fed water system, a park, various stores, and rail service to Seattle every half hour.
Columbia was incorporated as a town in January 1893, after 66 citizens filed the necessary petition with the King County Board of County Commissioners. The new Town Council promptly changed the name from “Columbia” to “Columbia City.”
Fancy schemes continued, including one to turn the landlocked town into a seaport. The plan, started in 1895 by former Territorial Governor Eugene Semple, meant cutting a canal through Beacon Hill to Lake Washington.
Running north and then east of the town was a deep ravine that became a marshy swamp. Town boosters hoped the canal would make the slough navigable. Ironically, the completion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1917, lowered the level of the lake by nine feet, drying up the slough and pulling the plug on Columbia City’s maritime future.
Despite this setback, the town continued to grow. The lumber mill and two nearby shingle mills attracted workers, as did the railway. Businesses moved in to meet the needs of the workers.
By 1900, Columbia City was a full-service community, as well as “downtown” for the nearby settlements of Hillman, Brighton, and Rainier Beach. The town remained a business hub after its annexation by Seattle. Among the major employers were the Hitt Fireworks Company, founded in 1905, and the Heater Glove Company, established in 1916. Both companies survived the Great Depression.
World War II brought a new period of growth and change for Columbia City. Government contractors built temporary housing was for defense workers in the fields on the west side of town.
Hitt Fireworks switched to military production, and at its peak in the 1940s, Hitt was employing 200 workers on “Hitt’s Hill,” at 37th Avenue S. between Brandon and Dawson streets.
Columbia City has seen a number of economic cycles beginning with the Panic of 1893, which bankrupted the electric railway.
Columbia City’s business community turned to its past in an effort to protect its future, winning status as a Landmark District, in 1978. The designation provided tax breaks for owners who rehabilitate historic buildings. City funds have been used to pave the sidewalks with brick and to plant trees along its streets.
As a result of these and other efforts, Columbia City today has a renewed feeling of vitality, while retaining much of the look of a turn-of-the-century mill town. The neighborhood includes more than 40 historic commercial and residential buildings. At the center is the “village green,” with a stately Andrew Carnegie library.
Columbia City has become a destination neighborhood for many Seattleites because of its unique events, restaurants, and specialty stores. In addition, retail stores provide the area's new homeowners with home improvement and shopping opportunities. New businesses continue to move into the area, commercial space is under renovation.