Issaquah is just 17 miles east of Seattle, sitting on the southern border of Lake Sammamish. With its proximity to Seattle, nearby mountains, and perfect summer weather, the town has grown in recent years and attracts enough new blood to be the second fastest growing suburb in the state.
With the current influx of new residents, it is important to remember the rich and robust history of the small town.
The earliest known inhabitants of the area were Native Americans who named the area Squak. The true meaning of the name is unknown. Some believe that Squak means ‘little stream’ but others say it is a mimic of the sounds of certain waterfowl, romanized as Squak. Regardless, Squak now lends its name to both one of the nearby mountains and the town.
Early settlers arrived in the 1860s, and primarily farmed hops for the nearby Seattle breweries. The town grew steadily, and had its own railroad depot by 1889. This was two years after the Seattle, Lake Shore, and Eastern Railroad companies arriving nearby made coal mining profitable.
The city was incorporated in 1892 under the name Gilman. For the first decade of its existence as an official town, it functioned primarily as support for coal mining operations on nearby Squak and Cougar mountains.
Like many mining towns, the influx of workers and people to support them created a major boom for the town. Mining would stay an important source of work, if not the only one, for the people of “Gilman” for many years to come. The town took on the name Issaquah during this period, in 1899, to honor its Native American history.
The area around Issaquah was also ideal for the lumber industry. The extensive forestation of the area made it a prime location for sawmill development, and companies exported the wood to Seattle through the town’s railway.
The lumber industry had an interesting side effect on the town by creating fertile, clear land ready to be put to use. As a rampant plague of hop aphids was destroying any value in planting hops, the acreage was soon utilized by dairy farmers. By the early 1910s, Issaquah was the major supplier of fresh milk to the city of Seattle.
The onset of the Great Depression signaled a final blow to the lumber and mining industries. The mines had been drying up, the forests had been cleared, and few were purchasing what was being produced.
The town’s boom cycle was over, and it settled into the quiet life of a farming town with a fairly stable population. One of the construction projects supported by the government during the depression was the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery, which is now one of the largest and most visited hatcheries in the state.
The modern era for Issaquah can be traced to the opening of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge in 1940 and I-90 in the early 1970s. Thereafter, Issaquah’s connection to Seattle and points east made for substantially more traffic. As Seattle’s suburbs sprawled, Issaquah was a natural place for new development.
With companies like Boeing and Costco moving into the area, and the real estate market drawing in people from all walks of life, there is a danger of losing the memory of the hardworking and very American story of the birth of Issaquah. Organizations such as the Issaquah History Museums and Issaquah Historical Society share the city’s story with those who might not have heard it.