The First 50 Years

From Forested Knoll to the World Stage: A UW Campus Begins 

The Territorial University building, 1870

The Territorial University building, 1870.

For the earliest Northwest pioneers, the rough and tumble frontier of the 1850s presented its share of challenges. With small reserves of money and food, the settlers persevered through wet, muddy conditions, cultural skirmishes and the seemingly endless towering trees needing to be removed before crops could be planted. Yet through the tests of the time, industrious leaders and hard-working citizens of the day envisioned and worked for the creation of a powerful future for those who would follow. This perseverance would give us the University of Washington that we know today.

Bringing a University to Life

Territorial UW Faculty, 1882.

Territorial UW Faculty, 1882.

In the early days of the 1850s, only a few hundred people called Seattle’s straggling, hilly wilderness ‘home.’ However, newly appointed territorial governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens wasted no time setting out to get a university for the new Washington Territory. A well-educated man, he knew that a public university could best support the growing needs and potential industry of the new frontier. His idea would be realized later in 1860: the territorial legislature passed a bill locating the university in Seattle but requiring a donation of land for a campus.

Forward-thinkers Arthur and Mary Denny, Charles and Mary Terry, and Edward Lander stepped up to bring a university to the community. Recognizing the value of an educated populace, they donated 10 acres and within months, the Territorial University of Washington — the first public university on the West Coast — was ready to welcome its first students.

First “W Day” Launches Learning

The University opened its doors on Nov. 4, 1861, today celebrated as “W Day,” to 30 students, and a lone instructor who also served as the University’s president. Using only pencils and foolscap paper for writing, early students could study literature, science and music using books shipped from the East Coast.

First UW graduate Clara McCarty.

First UW graduate Clara McCarty.

With a lack of funding and a shortage of students, times were difficult for the university. But these early struggles helped galvanize public and private support that would not only build a great academic institution but also developed the community. It would be 15 years before the University awarded its first bachelor’s degree, which went to Clara McCarty. The first of many teachers and leaders who got their start at the UW, Clara went on to become the first superintendent of schools in Pierce County.

Years later, Clara shared details with a reporter about those trying early days of the University, “Tuition was $30 … Even in the 1870s, about 20 students a year worked their way through. Typewriters and fountain pens were unknown and even notebooks and pen and ink were scarce.”

A Growing UW Shines in the Spotlight

After Washington gained statehood in 1889, university enrollment grew and students now had access to a broader curriculum as the University began to be organized into schools and colleges: Arts & Sciences and Education, as well as Pharmacy and Law. Along with a growing number of class offerings, students would soon benefit from a new, larger campus with room to grow on the shore of Lake Washington. Thanks to donated books including 47 volumes on scientific discoveries from the British government, the University’s library holdings grew. By the turn of the century, the UW’s faculty and students showed a marked increase in scholarly research and publication.

AYPE Court of Honor postcard, 1909.

AYPE Court of Honor postcard, 1909.

When the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, Seattle’s first world’s fair, took place on campus, the University and the wider community were again transformed. The exposition took place in 1909, drawing more than three million people from around the world for a 4½ month event that would showcase the wonders of science, art, commerce and invention, as well as Seattle’s potential for trade with Asia and as the gateway to the Alaska and Yukon gold fields.

Philanthropy becoming Keystone to UW’s Growth

Early citizen-involvement with the UW came in many forms: advocating for funding, land, resources and collaborations. But in the later part of the decade, it was the alumni who would take on a new role in the UW’s history and legacy. With only a handful of members, an alumni association was formed to support and sustain the early work of the University. A decade after forming the association, members paid $1 annual dues for the printing of The Alumnus magazine, later renamed Columns. Annual fund drives would follow and help the group grow to a current membership of 55,000, one of largest alumni associations in the country.

Philanthropy extended beyond alumni to community members seeing how their interests and passions could be manifested — and could make a lasting impact — through the UW. One wonders if Sarah Loretta Denny realized in 1909 that her donation would change the lives of students and the course of learning at the University? Her estate gift — the UW’s first endowed fellowship — provided not only support for graduate students but also the inspiration and momentum to establish graduate studies. Abraham Schwabacher recognized that the University was on to something important with its child development studies, and he saw the subject as foundational for research and teaching. In honor of his sister and brother-in-law, Abraham created the Bailey and Babette Gatzert Foundation for Child Welfare at the UW. The endowment has grown to eight times its original size, and today provides fellowships for students doing PhD dissertation research in child development with reference to disabled children.

Academy Meets Industry

President Edmund Meany with Professor Trevor Kincaid, 1905.

President Edmund Meany with Professor Trevor Kincaid, 1905.

Early partnerships and collaborations with businesspeople and state industry further shaped the University, and in turn helped shape Washington state. When assistant professor Henry Benson arrived in 1904, he formed collaborations with many of the state’s industries and helped create the Bureau of Industrial Research to support them. Known as the UW’s “father of chemical engineering,” his research reduced water and air pollution from the pulp and paper industries, and resulted in pioneering processes to create new products from the waste materials, an example of industry collaborations that continues today.

In 1909, the Washington Legislature named the UW home of the state’s Food and Drug Laboratory, where the College of Pharmacy tested food, oils, drugs and other products for almost eight decades. And when the state’s oyster industry began to rapidly decline in 1910, it was an 1899 UW graduate, zoology professor Trevor Kincaid who came to the rescue and built a relationship with the state Department of Fisheries.

These early champions of the University fought for its existence, advocated for its expansion and ensured its growth. Alumni and friends alike played a compelling role as their gifts helped take the University’s early efforts in learning and discovery to the next level.

Looking back, moving ahead | The First 50 Years | The Middle 50 Years | The Last 50 Years

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