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Founding The University Of Washington, One Student At A Time

Wikipedia/public domain

The University of Washington 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; in its first 25 years, the school went broke and even shut down for a brief time. It barely had enough students and faculty to fill a large room.Just a few years prior to its founding, 29-year-old Arthur Denny arrived from Illinois with a group of settlers in 1851.  He came west not simply to homestead, but to build a city on Puget Sound. He  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.  “This territory had only the simplest elements of civilization, and [Seattle] had barely begun to function, but a university was one of their earliest thoughts,” said Kennedy.

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.  

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "For years, the so-called university was really little more than a 19th century daycare center and a one-room schoolhouse.", "style": "inset"}]]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 capitol 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.  When the university opened in November the only college student enrolled 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.  For years, the so-called university was really little more than a 19th century daycare center and a one-room schoolhouse.  

During that quarter-century, the capitol 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. 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 15 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.

Edmond S. 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.  In one of the oldest-known audio recordings in UW history, Professor Meany told the 1930 Husky Homecoming just how far the school had come.  “In greater numbers each year, the sons and daughters of our graduates are entering the University of Washington,”  Meany said. “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.”

And the professor knew this first hand, since 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.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the University of Washington.