3.62 cubic ft. (9 boxes and 1 oversize volume) 8 microfilm reels
Location of Collection:
Materials are located in Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries. For more information about this collection including links to additional inventories and container lists, please connect to the finding aid on the University of Washington website.
lawyer, businessman, and politician.
University of Washington Libraries
Collection materials are in
Funding for encoding this finding
aid was partially provided through a grant awarded by the National Endowment
for the Humanities.
John Jay McGilvra was born in Livingston County, New York, in 1827 and
moved with his family to Illinois in 1844. After teaching school for several
years, he began reading law, was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1853, and
entered private practice in Chicago. In 1861, McGilvra was appointed U.S.
attorney for Washington Territory, a post he held until 1865, when he returned
to private pratice and politics. McGilvra was elected to the territorial
legislature in 1866 as a Republican. The most notable accomplishment of his
single term was the passage of enabling legislation for a wagon road over
Snoqualmie Pass, the first trans-Cascade connection between eastern and western
Washington. Following the Northern Pacific Railway's announcement in 1873 that
Tacoma would be its West Coast terminus, he joined with other prominent
Seattleites in organizing the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad Company. Even
after the failure of his railroad venture, McGilvra lobbied and litigated
against the Northern Pacific and remained one of its most vocal critics.
McGilvra, one of the first attorneys in Seattle, spent most of his
career in private practice but served a short time as city attorney. In
addition to practicing law (he would eventually earn the title of "Judge" as a
tribute to his longevity), McGilvra speculated in real estate. He and his wife,
Elizabeth, purchased a large tract of land bordering Lake Washington, becoming
the first white settlers in what is now the Madison Park neighborhood in
Seattle. He built what became Madison Street to link his property with downtown
Seattle and organized the Madison Street Cable Railway Company. McGilvra was
also an advocate of municipal improvement and civic reform in Seattle,
remaining active in civic affairs even after his retirement in 1893. He was a
primary backer of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and promoted the concept of
bringing Cedar River water to Seattle. He and other community leaders
established a Municipal League in 1894, although it was soon disbanded. Oliver
McGilvra, known to his family as Max, followed his father into the legal
profession. McGilvra's elder daughter, Caroline, married his former law
partner, Thomas Burke. John McGilvra died in 1903.
The John J. McGilvra Papers document the career of the lawyer, elected
official, businessman, and civic activist.
The general correspondence is arranged chronologically and spans the
years 1861-1907. The contents relate to both personal and business topics.
Letters from the early 1860s discuss matters arising from McGilvra's duties as
U.S. attorney. They include the investigation of suspected embezzlement by the
customs collector in Port Townsend, Washington, settlement of land claims, and
enforcement of the Indian Intercourse Act. Letters from the 1870s and 1880s
address McGilvra's legal battles with the Northern Pacific Railroad as well as
his general legal business. Much of the correspondence from the 1890s until his
death in 1903 deals with civic matters, including the Lake Washington Ship
Canal and Cedar River water line, and Republican politics. Major correspondents
include Caroline McGilvra Burke, George Goss, and Oliver McGilvra. The outgoing
letters are in the form of five letterpress books, 1873 to 1890, from
McGilvra's law practice. They include correspondence from McGilvra and Burke
(1875-1876); McGilvra and Blaine (1885-1889); and McGilvra, Blaine, and DeVries
(1889-1890), law partnerships McGilvra formed during the course of his career.
They constitute a daily record of economic conditions, legal practice, and
politics in the Puget Sound region.
Court papers, largely legal briefs and notes, are grouped by subject,
with the balance being catagorized as miscellaneous. The materials in this
series represent the full range of McGilvra's law practice and include
materials from his years practicing in Illinois. Legal documents include
various contracts, article of incorporation, and affidavits. Also included are
his reports as U.S. attorney for Washington Territory. The speeches and
writings date largely from the 1870s and beyond and are grouped by topic,
including the Lake Washington Ship Canal, Republican politics and Seattle
municipal affairs, and the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. The series
includes notes as well as complete speeches and writings.
The collection also contains several subgroups representing the papers
of the McGilvra estate and several family members. There are also small
subgroups containing the correspondence of McGilvra and Baxter, another of his
law partnerships, and law partner Elbert F. Blaine. Blaine has been called the
"father of the Seattle park system." Included in the Blaine subgroup is the
1903 report from the Olmsted Brothers of Brookline, Mass., to Blaine (in his
capacity as chairman of the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners) outlining a
comprehensive parks plan for the city.
The McGilvra collection also includes two 4-reel sets of positive
microfilm which contain McGilvra's general correspondence and outgoing letters.
The microfilm targets misidentify a few dates. The terminal date for reel 1
should be May 29, not June 2, and the starting date for reel 4 should be 1896
rather than 1895.
Use of the Collection
Restrictions on Access :
The collection is open to all users.
Restrictions on Use :
The creator's literary rights were not transferred to the University
of Washington Libraries.
The John J. McGilvra Papers were a gift of the Thomas Burke estate in
Processing Note :
The McGilvra Papers were part of a gift from the Thomas Burke estate
which included the Thomas Burke Papers and Daniel H. Gilman Papers. The
McGilvra Papers and the Gilman Papers were made separate collections. In 1965
each correspondence series was rearranged into a simple chronological
The microfilm in this accession was filmed from the originals in 1965
at the University of Washington under a grant from the National Historical
Twenty photographic prints were transferred to the McGilvra Family
Photograph Collection, PH. Coll. 487, in the division.
Two scrapbooks were relocated to the division's scrapbook
collections in 1981. One is political; the other belonged to McGilvra's wife,
Elizabeth, and contains clippings about her family, recipes, stories, jokes,
and pressed flowers.
King County Bar Association,
Addresses upon the Life and Character of
John J. McGilvra (Seattle : Lowman & Hanford,
Doig, Ivan C.,
"John J. McGilvra: the Life and Times of an Urban
Frontiersman, 1827-1903" (Ph.D. diss., University of Washington,
Doig, Ivan C., "John J. McGilvra and Timber
Tresspass: Seeking a Puget Sound Timber Policy,"
Forest History, 12 Jan.