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A South Hill—Seattle Historical Connection

by Carl Vest

It is not well known, but South Hill and the City of Seattle share a common historical connection.  This relationship flows from the activities of an early settler, William Rankin Ballard.  He is the man who surveyed South Hill and also is the person for whom the Ballard District of Seattle is named.

William R. Ballard was born in Ohio in 1847.  His father brought him to Oregon in 1858.  Subsequently he studied at several educational institutions achieving proficiency in civil engineering.  He taught school for a while but eventually was appointed a contract Federal deputy land surveyor.

Ballard surveyed South Hill in 1872.  The mapping of the Pacific Northwest began in 1851 with the establishment of a control point near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette Rivers just outside Portland, OR.  From that point Townships were established on a North-South meridian line and an East-West Range line.  That process was in keeping with the rectangular survey system specified by Congress in 1785, called the Rectangular Survey System or the Public Land Survey System.  Tracts of land were divided into geometric shapes that were approximately six miles on each side starting at the control point.  Each 36 square mile unit was called a Township.  South Hill is located four townships to the east of the control point and 19 townships north.  It is usually designated by the shorthand notation T19R4E.

The Federal General Land Office (GLO) controlled the distribution of Federal land in the 1800s.  GLO was responsible for mapping the land areas to be distributed so that proper title could be established and maintained.  In 1872 it issued to William Ballard Contract No. 138 to survey two townships, T19R3Eand T19R4E.  This was the 36 square miles of South Hill and the township directly to the West.  He also obtained contracts to survey twenty-eight Donation Land Claims (DLCs).  However, there are no DLCs on South Hill.

It can be said that Ballard “chained” South Hill.  He used a so-called Gunter’s chain to measure distances.  A Gunter Chain was a sixty-six foot long set of links that was drug along each township line to establish boundaries.  These routes were determined mathematically and did not necessarily follow natural contours and existing trails.  As for specific locations and directions a solar compass was used.  The magnetic compass was not considered reliable.  A typical survey party consisted of six people; the surveyor, two chain-men, a person to read the compass, a person to mark the corners, and a cook.

Ballard left contract surveying in 1876 and went into maritime work.  It was in 1883 that he turned to speculating in real estate.  He bought 700 acres of land on Salmon Bay and started subdividing it into building lots. He sold these lots from time to time to further other business interests.  That location is now known as the Ballard District of the City of Seattle.

Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.