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caption: A biker on the Burke-Gilman Trail. 
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A biker on the Burke-Gilman Trail.
Credit: Flickr Photo/King County Parks Your Big Backyard (CC BY NC 2.0)/

Who were Burke and Gilman, and how’d they get their names on our trail?

If you live in Seattle and own a bike, you’re probably acquainted with the Burke-Gilman trail. But are you acquainted with Burke and Gilman?

KUOW Local Wonder listener Kristin Simpson wanted to know about the history of the trail: “Why does the trail have their name?”

To answer that question, you must know the route snakes from Seattle up to the northern shore of Lake Washington and eventually connects with the Sammamish River Trail in Bothell.

It wasn’t always a trail. Not too long ago, it was a railroad.

The Burke-Gilman trail runs in the footprint of the now-extinct Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway. Founded in 1885, the railway was an effort to connect Seattle with Canada — and to give Tacoma a run for its money as the region’s economic center.

“The railroad had grand plans to be a transcontinental, but that wasn't in the cards,” said Jessie Cunningham, deputy director at the Northwest Railway Museum. “There wasn't the capital to support such a grand vision.”

But the rails did run east to North Bend and north toward Sumas, where they connected with the Canadian Pacific Railway.

“It opened up all sorts of economic opportunities for the communities along the line, as well as Seattle,” said Cunningham (who’s working on an exhibit about the railroad, set to open this summer). “The Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern really helped to put Seattle on the map.”

So, what about Burke and Gilman? They were Judge Thomas Burke and Daniel Gilman, Seattle businessmen who were among a group of investors who helped secure funding for the railway. (Yes, that’s the same Burke whose name is on the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. And Eastsiders probably know Gilman from Gilman Village in Issaquah.)

Burke campaigned for the railway in Seattle, and Gilman secured funding from East Coast investors. Their contributions were big enough to land their names on the trail that followed many years later.

Although, to understand how that happened, you have to fast-forward a few more decades.

In 1971, the tracks that ran on the route of what is now the Burke-Gilman were part of the Burlington Northern railroad network. That’s the year the railway announced plans to decommission that branch of tracks, and a group of neighborhood activists banded together to lobby for a walking and biking trail in its place.

Merrill Hille, a former Matthews Beach resident, organized a “Hike In” along the tracks to bring awareness to the trail proposal. She recalls that not everyone was in favor of the trail; some homeowners along the railroad tracks were concerned a public walkway would lead to break-ins and other crimes.

“Some people sold their houses, they were so afraid of people running by on the trail,” Hille said. “They said someone would run by and run in their homes and rob them.”

Hille and a few of her activists friends are the reason the trail is named for Burke and Gilman. As part of their research, they read a book called “He Built Seattle” by Robert Nesbit, which tells about Burke’s contributions to the city. They were inspired to name the trail after the men who advocated for the railway.

“We became the Burke-Gilman Trail committee,” Hille said.

The name stuck, perhaps a little too well. Hille recalls that before the City Council officially voted to name the trail, the Seattle Parks Department spent $10,000 on signage featuring the Burke-Gilman branding.

“The next day, the City Council had to vote on approving the name,” she said.

Nearly 50 years later, the trail is still changing. Earlier this year, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced a plan to close the trail’s 1.2 mile “missing link” in Ballard.

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