Seattle Now & Then: Mercer Island’s Industrial School, 1904 (now Luther Burbank Park)

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: In summer 1904, more than 30 boys wearing sailors’ whites stand at attention on the north end of today’s Luther Burbank Park, where they sheltered in tents awaiting construction of the Industrial School’s first dormitory. Major Cicero Newell sits at far left, also dressed as a sailor. His wife, Emma, sits beside him. The school continued, in various incarnations, through the mid-1960s. (Courtesy RON EDGE)
NOW: Videography students from Bellevue’s Hillside Student Community explore the concrete remains of the Industrial School’s practice dairy farm. In the foreground, from left, Liam Wallace, James Doyle and Ashton Westfahl. In 1970-79, Hillside rented upper floors of the then-Mercer Island Community Center’s brick headquarters.

(Published in The Seattle Times online on Sept. 29, 2022
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Oct. 2, 2022)

Jean’s note: We must assign credit where credit’s due. The “then” photo attached to this column–and the original notion to tell the story of Major Cicero Newell–came from the ever-inventive and perpetually helpful photo historian and collector Ron Edge, whose name we praise! Thanks a million, Ron!

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Stepping ashore on Mercer Island, my friend Mark and I were thrilled by our discovery. Both 13, we were keen to explore and plunder. Before us stretched acres of golden, waist-high grass, dotted with fruit trees and thorny Himalayan blackberry bushes, as well as crumbling old buildings promising untold treasures.

On this early summer 1970 day, we had paddled from Bellevue’s Enatai Beach, passing under arches of the old East Channel bridge (just days earlier, on a dare, we had leapt from the span’s deck) then muscling north to the grounds of evidently abandoned Luther Burbank Park. We did not know we were repeating a journey in reverse made 66 years earlier.

Just past midnight on a cold, wet November night in 1904, 13-year-olds William Kiger and Albert Cook, wearing only their skivvies and chained together with ankle manacles, cradled the shackles to stop them clanking. Labeled incorrigible “bad boys,” they were forging a second attempt to escape from Major Cicero Newell’s Industrial School, which had recently relocated to a dozen rural acres on Mercer Island’s north shore.

Kiger and Cook crept out of the recently built dormitory and down to the water’s edge. Having earlier noted a neighbor’s decrepit rowboat tied up nearby, the boys clambered in and pushed out into the channel.

“For hours they paddled, making little headway,” the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported. “Several times their frail little craft came near swamping, and one of the boys had to bail water to prevent it from going to the bottom. Soon after dawn, the boys, exhausted and all but unconscious, made land opposite the island on the east shore of the lake.”

Sympathetic Northern Pacific belt-line workers used hammers and chisels to cut off the boys’ leg chains and wrapped the pair in borrowed jackets.

Newell (1840-1913), a Civil War veteran commended for bravery by President Lincoln and respected among the Sioux as an Indian agent, had arrived in Seattle in the early 1890s.

THEN2: A portrait of Major Cicero Newell in 1863. He commanded the White Horse company of Michigan’s Third Cavalry.

With wife Emma, he founded the Boys’ and Girls’ Aid Society, sheltering “homeless, neglected and abused children.” They garnered strong community support, including a Seattle School Board eager for solutions to a growing problem.

Early in the 20th century, however, Newell’s increasingly punitive methods, including beatings and chaining, drew increased scrutiny and criticism. Following newspaper accounts and public outcry, Newell was quietly replaced as school principal in spring 1905.

William and Albert were not recaptured, according to the P-I story.  “The boys were allowed to go on their way. Nothing has been seen of them since.”

William Kiger became a Seattle truck driver with a large extended family until his death in 1962. No further record can be found of Albert Cook.


For our 360 degree video of this column, please visit our YouTube channel.

Here’s several newspaper articles from the digital archives regarding Maj. Cicero Newell.

The first is an open letter from Newell published in 1900 that seems reasonable, laying out methods for addressing the needs of young delinquents which might help rather than harm. Within two years, however (see the next archival article from 1902), the Major’s shocking practices belie his stated good intentions.

Before moving to the Mercer Island Industrial School site in 1904, Newell located in Seattle. The 1902 escape of another boy–this one eight years old, found wandering on the waterfront, raised questions about the Major’s tactics.

The article from which we quote in the column is included below.

And, also courtesy of Ron Edge, a copy of Cicero Newell’s book about his years as an Indian agent. He found much to admire, even venerate, during his tenure with the Dakota Sioux.


One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: Mercer Island’s Industrial School, 1904 (now Luther Burbank Park)”

  1. I spoke with a gentleman about ten years ago that had been a resident at the Luther Burbank Boys Parental School in the late 1950’s or early 1960’s. He alluded to the prison-like conditions of the school. He said that “you didn’t try to escape,” and indicated that the punishment for being caught escaping was a severe beating.

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