Martha Washington Park

Secluded sanctuary beside Lake Washington harbors a developing orchard

Martha Washington Park is a 9.6-acre hidden gem along the western shore of Lake Washington in south Seattle. Sprawling down gentle slopes to the Lake about a mile south of Seward Park, this serene site rewards visitors with several sandy pockets of beach, a large grassy meadow, an old (and new) orchard, and a stand of Garry Oak trees in a thicket of shrubs. It’s the perfect little neighborhood get-away for a contemplative stroll or a romantic picnic with views out over Lake Washington.

History: Historic prairie passed down through many hands

The stretch of Seattle running south from Seward Park to Pritchard Island including the site of Martha Washington Park was once maintained by Native Americans as an oak savannah or prairie. These unique prairie communities, typical on the southern reaches of Puget Sound, are rich meadows in which communities of grasses and wildflowers intermingle with massive oak trees that can be more than 300 years old. The undergrowth mixture of grasses and plants include common camas and other edibles.

Fires were set every few years to keep the landscapes open and to remove conifers. Seattle pioneer E.A. Clark first settled on the site of Martha Washington Park, selling it in 1852 to David Graham, who then traded it to his brother Walter. Walter planted a large orchard with apple, plum, cherry, pear and chestnut trees. Asa Mercer eventually bought, then lost, the park site property as payment on an overdue loan. John Wilson, a farmer from Massachusetts, built a house near the center of the site in 1866.

In 1889 Everett T. Smith, a Yale Law School graduate, bought five acres from Wilson and built his home, “Morningside.“ A member of the School Board and an advocate for troubled youth, Judge Smith built a youth camp on the site and carved a hollow stairway for the children inside an enormous Madrona tree.

The Seattle School District bought the property as a new site for the Martha Washington School for Girls in 1920. A classroom and dormitory were built at that time, and a new dorm and gymnasium added by 1930. The school kept the Morningside greenhouse, boathouse, and caretaker’s residence. The State of Washington operated it as an alternative school from 1957-1972, when the property was sold to the Seattle Parks Department. Responding to neighborhood complaints in the following decade, the City demolished the buildings. Now all that remains of the original school is its distinctive archway and trees planted in the 1920s.

Trees & Site: Legacy apple trees tower above newer plantings

The existing orchard has eight apple trees that include Gravenstein, Tompkins King, Northern Spy (mature trees), Williams Pride, and Spartan. Six new trees planted in 2012 include two apples, an Orcas pear, a Rescue pear, an Italian plum and a Stanley plum.

The mature apple and cherry trees in the north end of the orchard likely date from the 1920s, when the site was the Martha Washington School for Girls. Because the orchard wasn’t maintained after the City took over the property, many of the trees are overgrown and too tall to conveniently pick, with fruit dangling from branches 30 feet above ground.

The wetland portion of the site contains the Garry Oak Prairie—the oaks, grasses and edibles.

Orchard Restoration & Development: Topping the old; planting the new

Orchard stewards and Parks staff developed a rehabilitation plan for the Martha Washington orchard in 2010. This plan calls for large-scale renovation pruning using Parks Department equipment and chainsaws to lower the height of the trees over several years. In the process of doing this work, some of the deadwood will be maintained as a source of food for birds. Red Breasted Sapsuckers, for example, eat bugs in the dead wood.

Orchard stewards were trained at a winter pruning workshop in early 2011. Stewards planted four new fruit trees and installed mason bee houses in the orchard, and volunteers protected the apples from pests by applying foot sox in the spring. That same year, a tree crew from the Parks Department did a large-scale renovation pruning in August. The highlight of 2011 was a community cider pressing that brought out more than 60 neighbors, including many children.

In early 2012 six new fruit trees were planted to replace the first young trees which were sadly stolen from the Park. These new saplings, secured with bicycle cable, are doing well. 2013 saw another pruning work party for orchard stewards and ongoing orchard maintenance. Volunteers mulched around all trees and put footies on the apples. Parks Department completed the second annual renovation pruning in late 2013.

In a parallel effort in 2012, neighbors and forest stewards began restoration of a portion of the historic Garry Oak Prairie. They removed ivy and blackberries from the nine Garry Oak (Quercus garryanna) and cleared vegetation from the base of each tree. They also prepared a small area for a demonstration Oak Meadow Garden—a garden that will add to the beauty of the park and highlight its unique ecology.

Future Plans

Ongoing maintenance of the mature trees and saplings will continue annually. Larger projects at Martha Washington Park orchard will include developing educational signage and securing an accessible source of water(a cistern), especially for the young trees.

Fun Facts

1. It’s now well known that Oaks and Native Americans depended on each other. Native Americans used fire to suppress conifers, allowing the oaks to thrive. Without fire, the ecosystem is dominated by conifers and other unwanted vegetation within decades. In return, the Oaks provided acorns and habitat for animals and plants that supplied food and medicines. The xachua’bsh, or Lake People, were a sub-group of the Duwamish who lived on Lake Washington. They had 13 villages and longhouse sites along the lake shore, including sites at or very near Martha Washington. Since the oaks that currently inhabit the fields of Martha Washington Park could not possibly have survived without human help, it is highly likely that the Lake People were the ones who maintained them.

2. Rumor has it the past misdeeds on the site during the time when it hosted the Martha Washington School for Girls may have left some lingering ghosts. Fans of the paranormal profess that these shadowy figures can occasionally be experienced wandering beneath some of the older trees. These rumors have made the orchard a popular rendezvous for paranormal aficionados.

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