UW began 150 years ago in audacious manner
The University of Washington is celebrating the anniversary of its founding 150 years ago.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
History of the University of WashingtonFor an extensive history of the UW, including photos, videos and a timeline, see www.washington.edu/150/timeline/
W DayToday is W Day, a global spirit day celebrating the University of Washington's 150th anniversary. Huskies around the world are encouraged to wear purple and join the festivities. The Pacific Science Center arches will be lit with purple and gold, and some businesses will be offering discounts to people dressed in school colors. For more information, go to www.washington.edu/150/w-day/
Seattle campus, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.: University President Michael Young — who is also celebrating his birthday Friday — will lead a pep rally in Red Square, accompanied by Huskies athletes and basketball coach Lorenzo Romar.
UW Tacoma campus, 12:30-1:30 p.m.: Celebration and cake in the Academic Building.
UW Bothell campus, 1-2 p.m.: Celebration, music and cupcakes outside the bookstore.
On this day 150 years ago, a 22-year-old college graduate named Asa Shinn Mercer began teaching the first classes at the grandly named Territorial University of Washington.
The school was housed in the most elegant building in the pioneer settlement town — a two-story wooden building with a front portico, graced with four cedar Ionic columns and capped with a belfry.
But what audacity, to build a university in this muddy outpost.
Seattle was a rough-and-tumble mill town, where men drank, gambled and swore, where white settlers numbered only about 250. It did not even have a high school.
"It was presumptuous — you've got a couple of hundred people in a settlement in wood shacks and mud," said UW spokesman Norm Arkans. "And they decided they needed a university?"
They did. As UW information specialist Antoinette Wills likes to describe it, they had "go-aheaditiveness" — a term coined by Daniel Bagley, one of the city's early pioneers. As Wills defines it: "You don't wait until everything is in place — you go ahead and build a future."
Today the University of Washington celebrates the 150th anniversary of its first classes. It is one of the oldest public universities on the West Coast. It receives more federal research funding than any other public university in the nation, and it is routinely ranked among the top public research universities in the country — in some surveys, it's in the top-25 list in the world.
But in 1861, it would have been difficult to predict greatness, said John Findlay, a history professor at the UW.
Professor Mercer was both the school's president and one of its common laborers; he and a crew of about 50 worked by hand to build the Territorial University building, its dormitory and its modest presidential home on the 10-acre property that was donated by settlers Arthur Denny and Charles Terry.
The building would have been visible to steamships coming into port. "It was like the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis — that's how proud people were," said Lorraine McConaghy, public historian for the Museum of History & Industry.
And yet, "It was a hollow boast," she said. Because there was no high school in town, Mercer's first students — there were about 30 of them — were ill-prepared for college-level classes, which would have included Greek, Latin and algebra. Instead, they were most likely taught basic high-school subjects.
"Education throughout the Sound district is in an extremely backward condition," wrote William Barnard, the second president of the university, shortly after he resigned from his post in 1866.
"As an illustration: Not one of the misses attending the university, the first quarter after our arrival, could accurately repeat the multiplication table," Barnard wrote.
"Society is also greatly disorganized; drunkenness, licentiousness, profanity, and Sabbath desecration are the striking characteristics of our people," said Barnard, who counted "two distilleries, 11 drinking establishments, one bawdy house (brothel)" — and gambling going on just about everywhere.
"Seattle didn't have a lot of resources or promise," Findlay said, "but it had a lot of ambition."
The university itself led a precarious existence in those early years, closing its doors several times because of a lack of funding or a lack of students. McConaghy describes it as "that empty, chilly, drafty building that had no purpose for so long."
It would take 15 years after its founding before the UW awarded its first bachelor's degree — to a woman, Clara McCarty, of Puyallup, who went on to become a teacher and then superintendent of schools for Pierce County.
Findlay said the university became a stable, full-fledged institution of higher learning around the 1890s, shortly after Washington became a state and after a network of public K-12 schools was formed.
In 1895, the school was moved away from "the temptations of the city," Wills said, and to its present location just north of Portage Bay. The school stopped offering preparatory classes and taught only college-level courses.
The two-story Territorial University building was eventually torn down. But the university held on to its 10 acres of downtown property, and still owns it today. Known as the Metropolitan Tract, it includes the Fairmont Olympic Hotel — the original site of the building — as well as Rainier Square and parts of the surrounding blocks.
And it also held on to two pieces of the original building — the Ionic columns, which stand in the outdoor Sylvan Theater, and the bell, which now hangs in the belfry of Denny Hall, the oldest building on campus. It is rung every year at homecoming by descendants of Arthur Denny.
Findlay thinks the pioneers' decision to build a university in Seattle, as a way to promote the city, was a move that paid off — if not right away. It helped create a sense of refinement in the pioneer town, and eventually its early graduates had a significant impact on the state in politics and public service.
"Even the most visionary couldn't have known the focal generative wellspring the University of Washington has been in this community — in the arts, industry, entrepreneurship — anywhere you look," McConaghy said.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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