Pritchard Island Still `A Hidden Paradise' -- Lake Neighborhood Has City, Country - And History

Tom Scibor remembers watching his neighbor, a thoroughly modern woman who favored men's slacks and ties, stride up his oil-and-gravel street in the early 1940s. Her cigar glowed in the dark.

She was a Democrat, he recalls, and she had a heated argument going with another neighbor - a male Republican - about the merits of blacktop vs. concrete paving.

Concrete won out, and Scibor ended up helping the work crew pour curbs and driveways for all his Pritchard Island neighbors.

Before the Ballard locks opened in 1916, the three-block Rainier Valley neighborhood was truly an island, surrounded by Lake Washington. At the turn of the century, a gold miner named Alfred Pritchard purchased the island and built its first house for his wife, Emma.

When the lake level dropped nine feet, however, the island joined the mainland. But even today, folks still refer to it as ``the island.''

At 78, Scibor likes being a part of his neighborhood's history. He also wants to straighten out a few rumors, and get the truth out for posterity.

So when Lt. Gov. Joel Pritchard visited the waterfront community last week to swap stories passed down by his grandfather and father, Scibor was ready with a piece of gossip.

``Your grandfather got in an argument with his wife, and built a house across the street,'' said Scibor, who lives next door to that second house.

Pritchard smiled.

``Yes, they did live in different houses,'' he confirmed.

His grandfather crossed the street every Sunday night for dinner with his wife and children, and accompanied his wife to the movies every Friday night at the Blue Mouse Theater in downtown Seattle, Pritchard said. He died in that theater in the mid-1930s.

By that time, the elder Pritchard had sold off part of his island to other home builders, and then lost a big chunk of it to the city for back taxes. Scibor is among residents who acquired their land that way; he purchased his plot from the city in 1942.

Today about 75 houses of wood, brick and flagstone make up the neighborhood. It still feels like an island, accessible only by South Cloverdale Street. The mainland side of the island now faces the Seattle Parks Department's nurseries that fill the low-lying area where marsh land used to be. Pritchard Island Beach lies at the northern end, and the southern tip overlooks the Atlantic City Boat Ramp.

Some homes are built below the waterfront houses, on a shelf of land exposed when Lake Washington dropped. Some are still connected to the original properties, used for rental income; others are separately owned.

Waterfront property values on the island have doubled in the past two years; most are worth about $500,000 now.

Residents call it their hidden paradise, and they shake their heads at the stigma some people attach to Rainier Valley.

John Keister, host of Seattle's ``Almost Live'' television show, found his house on his wedding day in 1984. His wedding was held in the back yard of island resident Jack Griswold, and he saw a house for sale nearby.

``I grew up here, in Seward Park, and I used to swim at Pritchard Beach,'' Keister said. ``People say, `Oh, you live down there. Isn't it crime-ridden?' There's a perception that Rainier Valley is a combat zone. But I grew up here, and I understand it. I don't see it as a combat zone. ''

The area's cultural diversity appeals to Keister, who has two children. ``There's really great food, really interesting places,'' he said.

The island itself is diverse - white, African American and Asian families share Island Drive South, which stretches less than a half-mile from end to end.

Residents are a mix of old-timers and newcomers who tend to dramatically upgrade their new homes. The island's oldest home is the former Pritchard house, a modest white clapboard built in 1918 after their first, larger house burned down. The newest on the island was built last year.

``There are a lot of younger couples moving in, with little children,'' said Deanna Thome, whose husband, Carl, was born on the island.

Carl Thome was a Navy doctor, so the family has lived in many parts of the country. When it came time to retire, he moved home.

``We love it here. You're very close to the city, yet you have the beauty and tranquility of the country. Some of the most beautiful sunsets, and when the moon comes up over the lake, it's heaven,'' she said.

King County Superior Court Judge Norman Quinn is the newest member of the Pritchard Island Community Council. He and his wife recently purchased a waterfront home, which they are in the middle of rehabilitating.

The Quinns raised their family in Kirkland, but have always had an itch to be on the water, he said.

``I'd never heard of Pritchard Island,'' Quinn said. ``I think it's a fascinating bit of history, I hope it's preserved.''

Joel Pritchard discovered the difficulty of relying on oral histories when he compared notes with his brother, Frank Jr., in preparation for his meeting with island residents. Their mental notes didn't match about some pretty basic facts, he said, such as whether their grandfather had a wooden leg.

But their father's stories remain vivid. Frank Pritchard Sr. grew up on the island and lived there during his first years of marriage.

``My dad would relate how he would go to high school, play football, come home, find the cow, milk the cow, and then my grandmother would let him come in and clean up and have dinner,'' Pritchard said.

Frank Sr. was 14 the night he was sent to fetch Doc Hutchinson to the island in a canoe to deliver a baby. Hutchinson, father of baseball star Fred Hutchinson, couldn't swim. This wasn't a trip across the marsh; it was a trip across Lake Washington.

``My father said, `Don't worry, just put your hands in your lap, don't touch the sides, and you'll get there fine,'' Pritchard said.

For years, the island was accessible only via a footbridge, a sore subject with Frank Sr., who always wanted his dad to build an auto bridge.

``He (Alfred) hired 13 men to come out and build a tennis court, and what they really needed was a bridge,'' Pritchard said.