Historic Orchard with a View
Perched on the steep west slope of Beacon Hill, Dr. Jose Rizal Park commands a view over downtown Seattle, two major sports stadiums, Elliott Bay, and, on a clear day, the Olympic Mountains. Three distinct orchards bearing dessert, cider, baking, and eating apples are nestled in this 9.6 acre park bounded by Interstate 5 on the west and Interstate 90 on the north. The Mountains to Sound Greenway Trail runs the length of the park, at times ducking beneath the overhanging fruit.
The upper portion of the park along 12th Avenue South has a viewpoint with sheltered picnic tables and a small play area. The orchards are located at the base of a steep, wooded hillside, connected to the viewpoint by a rough trail. The orchards and other amenities here represent the collaborative efforts of a broad coalition of stakeholders including the Filipino community, local neighborhood groups, environmental groups, service groups, the Seattle Parks and Recreation, orchard stewards and City Fruit volunteers.
History: From Overgrown Bramble to Fledgling Orchard
Beacon Hill’s northwest slope was condemned in 1911 and the City of Seattle took possession of the area to stabilize it with retaining walls, drains, and other engineering projects. In 1928 the City donated 12 acres of the site for a federally-funded “seamen’s hospital.” The 300-bed Marine Hospital dominated the skyline on the northern promontory of the hill. This Seattle Historical landmark subsequently served as a U.S. Public Health Service facility from 1951 until1981 and later the world headquarters for Amazon.com.
Additional reconfiguration of the surrounding land was undertaken in 1967 to develop a new freeway interchange. In 1971 the Seattle Parks Department (now Seattle Parks & Recreation) became the property owner of the “bench” of land and hillside west of 12th Ave. S.
At this same time, the Filipino Alumni Association was petitioning to name a suitable feature in honor of Dr. Jose Rizal, a leader of the Philippine independence movement. During his short life, Dr. Rizal made lasting contributions to medicine, politics, social reform and engineering. A fervent patriot, Dr. Rizal wrote about political and social reforms for Filipinos and chronicled Filipino history predating Spanish rule. He was executed after being accused of complicity in the 1896 Filipino insurrection and is revered as the greatest national hero of the Philippines.
The parkland to the west of 12th Ave. S was selected to honor this legendary Philippine patriot and Dr. Jose Rizal Park was formally dedicated in 1979. Today the park is a popular gathering place for Seattle’s Filipino community, a group that also offers on-the-ground support for orchard rejuvenation projects.
Trees & Site: Fruiting Fringes between Forests and Park Areas
The East Duamish Greenbelt along the western edge of Beacon Hill is home to a series of orchards that include three areas within Dr. Jose Rizal Park and additional fruit bearing trees in the East Duamish Farm Orchard and Katie Black Garden. These orchards lie in the delicate transition zone between forested habitats and more domesticated urban areas.
Jose Rizal Park Orchards – Today one large and two small orchards with a total of 54 apple and crabapple trees remain in the park. No one is exactly sure when these were planted. Craig Thompson, a neighbor leading the restoration effort, believes they may date back to the 1950s.
The largest orchard, just downhill from the overlook, has twenty crab and true apple trees. It contains cider, baking, dessert, and eating apples, including a successful Victory apple graft on a crabapple stock. This orchard is bounded by a restored natural forest area to the south, a stand of Leyland cypresses to the west, and a stand of European white birches to the north.
A second, smaller orchard is located farther downhill and across a service road. It has five Winesap apples, a fruiting crabapple, and another unknown true apple variety. Farther north, a third stand of seven apple trees sits beside the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trail.
Fruit harvesting at these three park orchards started fairly recently. In 2011, neighbors picked four hundred pounds of fruit, pressing half of it for cider at a Beacon Hill harvest festival. In 2012, 600 pounds of fruit were split between a harvest festival benefitting a local daycare and neighbors. In 2013, 550 pounds of grocery-quality fresh fruit were harvested and donated. Some went to a cider pressing benefitting the daycare and the rest to the Rainier Valley Food Bank.
East Duwamish Farm Orchard – In 2013 a significant orchard once owned by an Italian family was discovered (and uncovered) on public lands on the east side of Beacon Hill near where the Mountains to Sound Trail enters the East Duwamish Greenbelt. It contains 15 blue plum trees and three pears. The blue plums and pears bear hundreds of pounds of organic, bug-free fruit that is donated to food banks and meals programs. This orchard also boasts a walnut tree that cross-pollinates with another in Dr. Jose Rizal Park. Both trees produce nuts.
The East Duamish Farm Orchard has recently been identified as a priority in restoring the East Duwamish Greenbelt. In a major reclamation effort, 24 volunteers with the Student Conservation Association cleared nearly an acre of Himalayan blackberries, wild clematis, and English ivy from the site. Seattle Parks & Recreation crews followed up by planting short Oregon grape, sword ferns, and other native underbrush to complement the orchard and the reforestation goals of the Seattle Green Partnership.
Katie Black Garden – Just south of Jose Rizal Park are legacy nut and fruit trees planted by early Seattle settler, Katie Black. The nearby Katie Black Garden, is a small corner of the once-extensive Black family estate. Popular history holds that in 1913 Frank Black offered his wife, Kate Gilmore Black, a Grand Tour of Europe. But Kate responded that she’d prefer a grand garden instead. Work began on Katie Black’s Garden in 1914. In 1992, the property was purchased by the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation for permanent preservation as an urban park.
Orchard Restoration & Development
In 1993, the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust brought together volunteers from the Greenway, the Rotary Club of Seattle, and the Filipino-American community to plant 650 trees in the park, creating an arboretum. They established trails in the lower park, a critical first step in reclaiming the existing apple orchards.
Between 2007 and 2009, Microsoft employees built a trail from the upper overlook to the lower park, providing much-needed access for forest and orchard restoration. In addition to the trail, they removed invasive plants from the slope and did an initial clearing of the large orchard at its base.
From 2009 to 2015 Safeco/Liberty Mutual employees volunteered at the park as part of Liberty Mutual’s annual “Serve with Liberty” events. They continued orchard restoration work, digging out the eight-foot tall blackberries that were burying the apple trees, and mulching with yards of wood chips.
Throughout this time, Filipino-American veteran, student, and professional associations continued to bring culture and community to the project.
The annual fruit harvest at Dr. Jose Rizal Park is a testament to the power of communities coming together to restore heavily-damaged urban sites to healthy, productive orchards. Volunteer stewards will continue working in the park to establish pathways and plant the orchard floor with native species that complement the fruit trees. They plan to create kiosk displays and an informational brochure about the orchard’s history and its relationship with the adjacent woods. Other plans include solidifying relationships with community groups working on Beacon Hill and, of course, harvesting even more fruit.