Licton Springs is a short waterway in the north part of Seattle that historically ran on the surface for approximately 1 mile southward from present day North 97th Street to Green Lake.  It is also the current name of the surrounding neighborhood, and is located in the Densmore Drainage Basin which extends north from Bitter Lake and Haller Lake to the zones around Green Lake, bisected by Aurora Avenue North (Hwy 99).   Looking at the historical maps, we see the various routes delineated in early surveys, shown with a forked headwaters in both 1850s and 1890s.

1850s Cadastral Survey Map
1894 USGS Topo Map

The composite of these two maps overlaid in GIS on the modern aerial shows the fidelity between the routes (darker blue 1850s, medium blue 1890s, lighter blue Current), but also shows that the creek itself extended quite a bit further north than was mapped, up to the present day Licton Springs Park, where it is still visible today weaving throughout the park and in a few places near this headwaters zone.  The exploration focused on the park, some of the adjacent neighborhood zones, and the interface to the south with Green Lake.


The park itself occupied the largest portion of the explorations, with multiple inlets and channels weaving through the inner park which led to spending some quality time tromping through the margins of streams.  The springs were a constant destination for Native peoples as well as early settlers, including habitation in and around the location of the park, which provided recreation for inhabitants with (see an interesting write-up on the site Holy and Healing Wells).  David Denny built a cabin on the site in 1870, and other habitation continued in the adjacent area for years, and it is still used as a harvesting and recreation destination by the Duwamish.  The pressure to develop this area led to the typical cycle, with concerns about the water quality, via Wikipedia: “The natural spring fed Green Lake before it was capped and drained to the Metro sewer system after it became contaminated by residential development (1920, 1931).”  The typical “modernization” of city infrastructure in the early 1930s, the shift from destination to development and erasure happened throughout the area.

“Throughout the years, settlers and city dwellers came to the springs to picnic, drink the mineral water and to ease the aching legs of draft animals by soaking them knee deep in the mineral mud. Until 1931, when Seattle diverted the spring’s water to storm drains, Licton Creek fed Green Lake. Eventually most of the springs and bogs in the area were filled to create buildable lands. The natural wetlands were further drained because they were thought to be a health hazard.”

The area of the current park was left intact, as it was 1930s where the adjacent areas were platted for development, including a park plan from the Olmsted Brothers (no luck finding a plan so far).  A summary from Historylink:

“The Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Massachusetts, were retained by Calhoun, Denny & Ewing to draw up plans for a park. They proposed an organic layout with a park, rustic drives, paved streets, and home sites. The Olmsted plan, never fully realized, included rustic shelters over the two spring basins, bridges, paths, and clearing the reserve around the springs as well as preservation of the original, rustic Denny cabins. One remnant from the Olmsted plan for Licton Springs that exists today is a portion of the street network, where Woodlawn Avenue curves to connect with N 95th Street. “

The park plan wasn’t implemented, but the land was used for a  Spa operated by Edward A. Jensen, which “offered thermal baths that included 19 minerals.  Jensen also bottled the water and sold it countrywide”  After his death, the land was slated to be developed as a sanitarium, but escaped the fate by it being purchased as park land by the city.   The park was developed officially in the 1970s, and the connection to the streams was maintained.

Knowing little about the configuration beforehand, I started north of the park, and quickly found one of two large pipes with significant flows feeding the park in the northeast corner.   This small channel connected with another inlet, and the velocity slowed as it widened heading south into the park.

To the west, a short trail connection from the north edge of the park led to the current iteration of Licton Springs, with some well-tagged interpretive signage.

The springs consist of a simple basin with an outlet, which is striking with the reddish tint of the sediment, caused by the red iron oxide.  From the Licton Springs Neighborhood page, some history of the spring and the significance to native people.

“Aurora-Licton Springs was once heavily forested, filled with springs, bogs and marshes. The Duwamish Indians called the springs Liq’tid (LEEK-teed) or Licton. Liq’tid means “red-colored” or “painted” in the Puget Sound Salish language, referring to the red iron oxide that still bubbles up in the springs. The springs had spiritual significance to the Native Americans who camped and built sweat lodges nearby, using the reddish mud to make face paint.”

The hydrology of the site has changed over the years, and the use as a destination for Native and settlers gives special resonance to the fact that this remnant remains, however altered, and that it is so accessible as part of the park.  From the Seattle Parks and Recreation site for the Park:

“Historically, there were two springs within the park. The larger bathing spring at the park’s south end was filled with silt in the early 1960s. The smaller “iron spring” still exists today (somewhat modified) in the northwest corner of the park within the wooded area. Currently groundwater and drainage from Bitter Lake and nearby feeds the creek through an extensive ditch, culvert, and stormdrain system. It is uncertain whether this was the creek’s true historic source. Additional groundwater and drainage may have been rerouted in this current system configuration to Licton Spring Park and eventually to Green Lake in the 1920s or 1930s. Early plans from the 1920s show the springs only as the source of the creek that drained to Green Lake. However, plans from the 1940s and 1950s show the creek channel existing within the park and upstream of N 97th St. The creek evidently was directed to the sewer system for some time due to water-quality issues until flow was again redirected into the drainage system. Flow enters a Metro Pump Station directing water to Lake Union. Overflows from the pump station are directed to Green Lake.”

A few small portions of the route are firmly channelized, but most areas spread into moist wetlands, which at this time were punctuated by the bright greens and yellows of Western Skunk Cabbage emerging throughout.

The creek itself was not directly accessible, but was crossed at points with some bridges and boardwalks connecting a simple trail network woven throughout the park, connecting the lawn areas to the east with playground on the west.

The single channel splits again towards the south, with the lower end of the park to the west spreading into a wider wetland with edged with emergent vegetation, and a narrow channel flowing more directly to the outfall to the south.

The perils of exploring are evident, especially in a wetland in spring, where no water doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not hovering below the surface.  The result, nearly losing a shoe to the oozing muck.

The outfall was pretty obviously designed, with a bridge crossing a rock-lined channel planted with a mix of streamside vegetation.  A very weathered and hard to read interpretive plaque identified this “Healing Hands” by landscape architect Peggy Gaynor, creating some drama with ripples turning into the grand finale, a larger grated outfall creating a cacophony as it exited into the storm system.  I can’t find any information about the garden beyond the plaque, but hope to find some more, although Gaynor’s water work around Seattle is well known and will pop up in future explorations.

From the inlets to the outfall, the diversity of sounds ranged from a barely audible trickle to a roar, captured below in this short audio clip.

There were a pair of pesky Mallards that escaped my camera, but not a lot of visible wildlife present.  On the east side of the park, there is another somewhat sad looking sign showed the legacy of the Pacific Chorus Frog, adjacent to a wet margin, which, rightly as the State Amphibian of Washington, have perhaps been singing to inhabitants near this spot for centuries.  Very small and mostly nocturnal, I didn’t spot any mid-day, but do want to head over here some night to hear the singing.

The presence of springs throughout the neighborhood was also evident as I walked the perimeter, surprised by a sudden outflow from the curb across the street from the park to the west, which I suspect was the outfall for a sump pump from a perennially wet basement being evacuated onto the street.

Another interesting element is north of the park, where there are very subtle remnants of Licton Springs that are still visible within the neighborhood, and arcing segment of stream adjacent to houses and disappearing behind for only a few hundred feet.

The park itself is quiet, walking down by the water away from the more trafficked south and west sides, all I could hear was the ripple of water and the chirping of birds, punctuated by voices, car noises, planes and the rest of humanity.  I felt like it was an oasis, perhaps because I had been expecting heavy rains and only occasionally was sprinkled on, or maybe just because of it being a warm spring day, in a very wet year, bushwhacking through the undergrowth, connecting with the flows of nature in the city.


Moving south of Licton Springs Park towards the intersection of North 90th Street and Densmore Avenue North, the first of two interesting surprises emerged in the form of Pilling’s Pond.  On the route of Licton Springs, this is of those unique stories that emerge from these investigations, a small portion of daylighted creek carved into a Pond, adjacent to a busy street and next to a construction site of a new school.  Blink and you miss it, this ” is a privately owned urban waterfowl reserve and breeding ground… was created by lifetime resident Charles A. Pilling and has been a bird breeding site and a roadside attraction since the 1920s.”  And yes, there are still waterfowl hanging out at the far margins,

The interpretive signage on the site tells the story of Chuck Pilling, with a short excerpt from the Licton Springs Neighborhood page:

At around 1933, Chuck Pilling dammed the creek that runs through the property from Licton Springs. This enabled him to provide a habitat that still exists and sustains a broad assortment of waterfowl today. Chuck attracted worldwide attention as the first successful breeder of the hooded merganser, bufflehead and harlequin ducks. Chuck’s hobby has turned into a major community attraction. With people stopping to look at the unusual assortment of water birds, both tame and wild it is a truly unique treasure enjoyed by the entire community.

You can read about the history of this fascinating guy, the connection to Licton Springs, check out a video excerpt from the docmentary “Chuck Pilling’s Pond: A Seattle Legacy“.  Fun to stumble upon this.

The coda to that particular story is, as happened in 2003, and noted in a story on King 5 from early this year that the property is for sale.  Local residents rally to save the pond by making it a historic landmark.  As mentioned in the story, Kathleen Braden from the Licton Springs Community Council is quoted “”This little pond gave the neighborhood a really strong identity. I think people who have lived in the neighborhood a long time don’t want to lose that… It combines the wildlife, the history, the culture, the sense of the neighborhood.” 


While investigating the original path of Licton Springs, I was using some rudimentary maps that showed the current streams, but I was a bit perplexed by the GIS ‘Stream’ layer, which showed a contiguous waterway stretching from Licton Springs Park.  I was pretty sure there no stream connecting the park all the way to Green Lake, so it made more sense when I investigated the layer and separated the areas of open channel (dark blue) from those culverted or buried (light blue).

What it did leave were a few remnants beyond Licton Spring Park. One of these, Pilling’s Pond, we’ve discussed, but I had to make a return trip to see the stream that ran through the front yards of the block immediately to the south of this area.

It’s sort of an amazing feature to have a historic stream (albeit radically altered), still present, channelized through the front yards of an entire residential block.  The length of Ashworth Avenue North from North 90th to 88th Street, a small channel slices through the front yards, with various types of bridges spanning over the waterway.

The transitions from one property to another cut under fences.

The attention to the feature ranges from some simple rockery and plantings (many of which are unseen due to some large fences and hedges).

With others weaving the feature into lush landscapes.

The mysterious stream block was a unique find that rounded out the Licton Springs visit.  The experience of walking down the block is different, with the subtle sounds of rushing water or trickles emanating from over a fence, hinting at something that rarely exists today, probably not discernible to most, but visible enough to make one wonder.


The stream route continued south through residential neighborhoods, with little trace.  Based on the historic maps, the route either followed Densmore or Ashworth Avenues, and was you walk through the neighborhood, it’s pretty easy to discern the natural flowline, with streets sloping from the east and west to low points at intersections, such as here at Ashworth and 88th which from topography shows the natural valley between the hills of Greenwood to the west and Maple Leaf to the east.

The eventual route follows Ashworth, and historically daylighted (now all underground) at Green Lake, which will be the subject of a further investigation.  The exact point of outfall happens on the NW edge of the lake, similar to the original inlet location, near one of the swimming beaches.

While not the exact stream route of Licton Springs, the abstracted sequence at the Green Lake Wading Pool provides at least a trace of what used to be, with an inlet from the north cascading into a sinuous pool.

The outlet overflows into a small swale that connects to Green Lake, passing under the trail through a stone bridge.

Perhaps it captures a bit of the wild from the former Licton Springs and it’s connection from the source at Licton Springs Park to it’s former outfall at Green lake.  Unknown to most, walking the bridge is a connection to this historic creek for thousands of visitors.  Hidden, somewhat forgotten, but right underfoot.  An apt metaphor for hidden hydrology and worthy of more exploration.

Photos and current maps (excepting images of historic 1850s Cadastral and 1894 USGS Topo Map) Copyright © 2017 – Jason King, Hidden Hydrology;