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The original University of Washington, built in 1861 by Daniel Bagley and Arthur Denny near what's now the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in downtown Seattle. (Photo:UW Alumni Association)

The original University of Washington, built in 1861 by Daniel Bagley and Arthur Denny near what's now the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in downtown Seattle. (Photo:UW Alumni Association)

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UW 150: Founding The University Of Washington

Feliks Banel

This year marks the 150 anniversary of the University of Washington. Today the UW is a respected institution of higher learning, serving more than 92,000 students on campuses in Seattle, Bothell and Tacoma. But it didn't quite start out this way. Feliks Banel explains.


In 1851, 29–year–old Arthur Denny arrived from Illinois with a group of settlers in what's now Seattle. Denny was an ambitious man. He came West not simply to homestead, but to build a city on Puget Sound.

In those days, boosters like Denny in communities around Washington Territory jockeyed to get the capital or the prison located or moved to their towns. These facilities brought prestige, and government jobs and money. Arthur Denny envisioned Seattle as the perfect place to serve as capitol of Washington Territory.

But another early settler had a different idea. It was so audacious, President Kennedy even mentioned it when he spoke at the UW's Hec Ed Pavilion in 1961.

JFK: "This territory had only the simplest elements of civilization, and this city had barely begun to function, but a university was one of their earliest thoughts."

The man with this early thought — to build a university in pioneer Seattle — was Daniel Bagley. Bagley had learned of a little–known federal law and saw opportunity. The law allowed territories to sell land to raise money in support of public schools. Bagley convinced Arthur Denny to forget about the capitol, and work with him to instead go after the territorial university.

And Arthur Denny was just the man to do it. By 1860, he was a respected member of the Territorial Legislature. At Bagley's urging, Denny struck a bargain with fellow lawmakers that proposed moving the capital from Olympia to Vancouver, and locating a prison in Port Townsend. In return, Seattle would be home to the Territorial University.

Bagley and Denny didn't waste any time. The school needed a campus, so Denny donated 10 acres of choice land on a hill overlooking Elliott Bay. The campus needed a building, so Bagley went to work selling public land. He quickly raised $31,000 and spent it all on a grand structure, with Greek–inspired columns and a magnificent bell on top.

The building was grand, but it also was empty. And the students? They were children — mostly primary and secondary school age. This is audio from a 1961 KING TV broadcast marking the UW Centennial:

KING TV: "In all of the Washington Territory there was hardly a high school. That November when the university opened where the Olympic Hotel now stands, there was only one real, live college student, and even he was a ringer: Bagley's son, Clarence."

Bagley had to recruit his son because there weren't any other college–age students around. With its young enrollees, Bagley and Denny's venture to build an institution of higher learning in pioneer Seattle took on an air of folly. And for years, the so–called "university" was really little more than a 19th–century day care center and a one–room schoolhouse.

KING TV: "The beginnings were brave but pitiful. For over a quarter century, its students and faculty could all fit into one large room."

During that quarter–century, the capital didn't move to Vancouver. It remained in Olympia. And it was Walla Walla, rather than Port Townsend, where the prison was eventually built.

But Seattle had the university, and it struggled to survive. The school went broke and was even shutdown for awhile. Even Daniel Bagley's son Clarence — the ringer — didn't stick around. A few years after it opened, there were only 38 students enrolled, with none at university level. It was fifteen years before the first college degree was awarded.

But then, circumstances began to change. Arthur Denny's vision for an urban Seattle was becoming a reality. The population grew, and so did demand for a real university. There were more and more students enrolling, and they weren't just little kids.

This is one of the oldest known recordings in UW history. It's the voice of Edmond S. Meany at Husky Homecoming in 1930.

Meany: "In greater numbers each year, the sons and daughters of our graduates are entering the University of Washington. This is a fine evidence of loyalty greatly prized by older institutions where such experiences extend back over many generations. We are proud of this growth ..."

Meany was a student at the UW in the lean years of the 1880s, and a beloved professor there for much of the rest of his life. By the time Meany was valedictorian for the class of 1885, enrollment had climbed into the hundreds. By 1889, the UW had outgrown its original home. Daniel Bagley and Arthur Denny's university was folly no more.

Both Bagley and Denny lived long enough to see the UW move to its new campus northeast of downtown. The bell from Bagley's grand old building made the move, too. It rang atop what's now called Denny Hall when classes began there in September 1895.

Edmond S. Meany lived to see the UW make even greater leaps forward, with an ever–expanding campus and curriculum, and thousands of students enrolled: all at college level, and not a ringer among them.

Meany: "Come home to alma mater! Lift up your hearts to the ecstasy of youth!

I'm Feliks Banel for KUOW News.

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