This Week Then: Saying Farewell to King County Civic Leader Jim Ellis

The 'father of Metro' leaves behind a vast legacy including the creation of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle and the cleanup of the badly polluted Lake Washington

By Alan Stein


October 24, 2019

This story was originally published at HistoryLink.orgSubscribe to their weekly newsletter.

Farewell, Jim Ellis

King County lost perhaps its greatest visionary this week when civic leader Jim Ellis died at the age of 98. Although Ellis never held public office, he devoted most of his adult life to public service, dreaming of ways to strengthen and improve the world around him and figuring out how to make those dreams come true. He leaves behind a vast legacy of forward thinking and determined action that are deeply interwoven into the region’s physical and political landscape.

Jim Ellis was born in Oakland, California, in 1921, but became a Seattleite at the age of two when his family moved to Washington. When he was 15, his father taught him and his brother Bob the art of self-sufficiency by dropping them off on five acres of woodlands that he owned near Preston. While the youngest brother, 8-year-old John, stayed home with their parents, Bob and Jim were told to build a cabin, and by the end of the summer the boys had completed the task.

After enlisting in the military on the day after Pearl Harbor, Bob was sent to fight in Europe, while Jim was told by the Air Force to complete his studies at Yale. He graduated in 1942, married Mary Lou Earling, and was stationed at an Air Force base in Idaho. When Bob was killed less than three months before the end of the war in Europe, Jim was devastated. To ease his grief, Mary Lou suggested that he consider “doing something extra” in his own life to make up for what his brother might have done if he had lived. Jim took this to heart, and it became the driving force in his efforts to better the public good.

A Life Well-Lived

After earning a law degree from UW in 1948, Ellis joined the law firm of Preston, Thorgrimson and Horowitz (later Preston, Gates & Ellis), but he vowed to devote one-quarter of his time to public service in honor of his brother and joined the Municipal League. After a failed attempt to draft a new King County charter he applied himself to what he considered his greatest contribution to civic life, the creation of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle — Metro — and the cleanup of the badly polluted Lake Washington.

After that success — which earned him the nickname “father of Metro”– Ellis spearheaded a campaign to create Forward Thrust, an ambitious slate of bond-funded capital improvements, and sell it to the public. In 1968 voters said ‘yes’ to seven of 13 proposals. Among them were measures to build a $40 million domed stadium, the Seattle Aquarium, and 25 county swimming pools. Another of the successful propositions set aside $118 million to develop new parks and trails, and voters also approved bonds to improve Woodland Park Zoo

But a transit measure that would have provided a light-rail system for the county was supported by only 50.8 percent of the voters, and 60 percent was needed. Ellis and transit backers resubmitted the measure two years later, but by that time an economic downturn soured any hopes for public approval. Nevertheless, the DNA of Ellis’s proposal was still present decades later in the creation of Sound Transit and voter-approved funding for light rail.

In 1979 Ellis championed a successful farmlands preservation bond, and then turned his attention to the construction and subsequent expansion of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center. In 1990 he became chair of the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust, which has protected and preserved nearly 1.5 million acres of land along the I-90 corridor, from Puget Sound to Ellensburg. Earlier this year the greenway was designated a National Heritage Area. Ellis believed that of all the projects he was involved in, this one would be the closest to his brother Bob’s heart.


When Tall Ships Sailed

In 1775 Bruno de Hezeta became the first European to spot and chart the mouth of the Columbia River. For the next 15 years the Spanish had a virtual monopoly on claims throughout the entire Pacific Northwest, which ended when Spain and Great Britain signed the Nootka Convention on October 28, 1790. Two years later the British explored farther up the Columbia, and on October 30, 1792, Royal Navy Lieutenant William Broughton landed 100 miles upstream and named Point Vancouver for his captain.

Wired, Not Mailed

On October 25, 1864, Seattle connected with the outside world when Western Union telegraph lines finally made their way to the city. Western Union demonstrated telephones in the city more than a decade later, but it wasn’t until 1893 that Washington’s largest cities began chatting amongst themselves.

Darkness Unveiled

On October 24, 1909, the Briscoe Memorial Boys School was founded in Kent, and operated as a Catholic orphanage and boarding school until 1970. In recent years, reports came to light of rampant verbal, physical, and sexual abuse of boys at the school dating back to the 1940s. In his memoir, St. Ann’s Kid, Seattle political activist John Mitsules described some of the brutal discipline he experienced while attending school there.

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