Thomas Burke photograph collection, circa 1870s-1920s  PDF

Overview of the Collection

Burke, Thomas, 1849-1925
Thomas Burke photograph collection
circa 1870s-1920s (inclusive)
135 photographic prints
Collection Number
Photographs of Thomas Burke and Caroline McGilvra Burke
University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections
Special Collections
University of Washington Libraries
Box 352900
Seattle, WA
Telephone: 206-543-1929
Fax: 206-543-1931
Access Restrictions

Permission of Visual Materials Curator required to view originals. Contact Special Collections for more information.


Biographical NoteReturn to Top

Judge Thomas Burke was, for nearly fifty years, a central figure in the political and economic life of Washington State and especially Seattle. Burke arrived in Seattle in 1875 to make his fortune. He was a young man of twenty-five, lately admitted to the bar of Michigan. He had left home to make his own way at the age of eleven, so the prospect of beginning his career in a new city did not frighten him. Aside from his certificate of admission to the Michigan bar, Burke's tangible assets reportedly consisted of about $10 in cash.

Burke had come West because boosters predicted that a great manufacturing and trade center would inevitably rise on Puget Sound. According to the promoters, the only question was which of the towns on Puget Sound would grow into the predicted megacity. Seattle was among the leading contenders, but in 1875, it took some vision and confidence to place your bets there. With a population of just three thousand, the town rested on a narrow economic base formed mainly by San Francisco’s demand for lumber and coal. Nonetheless, Thomas Burke never doubted Seattle’s destiny. While he never hedged his bet on this, he did his best to tamper with the wheel of fortune in Seattle’s favor.

An astute lawyer and speculator, Burke soon acquired a reputation as a talented courtroom advocate among attorneys, businessmen, and government officials around the Sound. As a mark of his prominence, Burke was the candidate of the Democratic Party for territorial delegate to Congress in 1880--the most important territory-wide office decided by popular vote. While the Democratic nomination was a dubious commodity in a territory generally conceded to be solidly Republican, Burke conducted a vigorous, though unsuccessful, campaign.

Thomas Burke played a major role in the rivalry between Seattle and Tacoma. Soon after Burke’s arrival in Seattle, the Northern Pacific Railway announced it would make Tacoma its official western terminus. The firm determined to make Tacoma, where it owned substantial property, the metropolitan center of Puget Sound. Obviously, this had to be done at the expense of Seattle. In 1882 Burke took the lead in vigorously promoting a scheme to finance locally a narrow gauge railroad that would make Seattle its western terminus and extend over Snoqualmie Pass into the wheat-growing regions east of the Cascade Range. The railroad was to be called the Seattle, Walla Walla, and Baker City. The promotion did not get beyond the newspaper stage. It was rightly identified as a threat to wring concessions for Seattle from Northern Pacific President Henry Villard. In this it was successful, but the triumph was short lived, since Villard was forced out of the management of the Northern Pacific soon afterwards.

In 1885 a more ambitious scheme was promoted by Burke and a newcomer to Seattle, Daniel Gilman. Other Seattle residents were associated with the promotion, but Burke and Gilman led the project. This proposed railroad -- the Seattle, Lake Shore, and Eastern Railway Company -- was unique among the many paper railroads promoted to advance the fortunes of various townsites on Puget Sound in that it actually attracted Eastern capital and succeeded in building over 100 miles of operational line. Nonetheless, the railroad was not really a viable corporation because of the highly speculative nature of its financing and management, in which Burke and Gilman shared. Luckily for Burke, just as the Seattle, Lake Shore, and Eastern Railway Company was sinking in its own watered stock, he obtained help from a man who knew how to run financially sound operational railroads. James J. Hill, president of the Great Northern Railway, bought the Burke-Gilman venture and later made Seattle the western terminus of his railroad. Hill was impressed with the vigor and prospects of Seattle. He was equally impressed with Thomas Burke, who soon became Western Counsel for the Great Northern.

The Great Northern provided a direct link with the industrial and commercial centers of the East, securing Seattle’s position as the largest city on Puget Sound. Nonetheless, the railroads did not bring the manufacturing ventures and position of commercial dominance that Seattle pioneers had envisioned. Seattle grew in size, but it long remained an exporter of raw materials and an economic colony of Eastern capital.

Thomas Burke, however, adapted quite well to his new role as a satrap to the "Empire Builder," James J. Hill. Burke became Hill’s chief representative in Washington State. He successfully represented the Great Northern in a number of cases, and he beat back numerous legal and financial challenges to the substantial waterfront concessions that Seattle had granted the Great Northern. Burke’s power increased even more when Hill took control of the rival Northern Pacific system in the mid 1890s.

Burke’s connections with the railroads and with Hill offered him many opportunities to engage in profitable promotions. Burke led various efforts to develop mineral resources in Eastern Washington, and he vigorously promoted the Wenatchee townsite, which he and others had acquired during the Seattle, Lake Shore, and Eastern venture. Most of Burke’s speculations, however, centered in Seattle. With Daniel Gilman and others, he was involved in buying and promoting property in areas that are today known as Ballard, Interbay, Fremont, Lake Washington, and West Seattle. Burke accumulated over a million dollars in these and other Seattle real estate ventures. These successes allowed him to survive financial disasters, such as his failed West Street and North End Street Railway, built to tie Ballard to Seattle, and his purchase of the Seattle Telegraph, a daily newspaper meant to promote the viewpoints of Burke and Hill.

Burke retired from his position as Western Counsel for the Great Northern in 1902, although he continued occasionally to represent the interests of Hill and other clients, such as the utility combine of Stone and Webster and the Seattle Gas and Electric Company. After 1902, however, he primarily devoted himself to the management of his properties and to public affairs. In 1896 Burke had repudiated the Democratic Party on the Free Silver question and become a Republican. In 1910 he entered the Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat. Burke was identified with the Taft administration and the “Standpat Republican” position. Miles Poindexter of Spokane, a Progressive Republican, overwhelmed Burke and the other candidates.

During the fifty years of Burke’s residence in Seattle, he forcefully supported or opposed practically every issue of public interest. For example, he took a prominent part in opposing the Anti-Chinese Riots in Seattle in 1886. Burke's opinions carried weight and were repeated respectfully by the conservative press. Not surprisingly, Burke’s papers form a vital part of the record of many important political and economic developments on Puget Sound: the decisions to regrade Seattle’s hills and reclaim its tidelands; the building of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, the Bremerton Navy Yard, and Fort Lawton; the creation of Railroad Avenue; the establishment of the Port of Seattle; the consolidation of the Seattle street railways; the creation of City Light; and the emergence of the issue of municipal ownership of the Seattle water and transit systems. The growth of sentiment for public ownership outraged Burke, who repeatedly fought for private control. Burke, however, advocated certain public works projects, such as the Lake Washington Ship Canal, which could improve Seattle’s economy and enhance the value of his nearby properties.

Burke also took part in many charitable endeavors. He served on the Whitman College board of overseers for over a decade and was a patron of both Whitman College and the University of Washington. Andrew Carnegie in 1910 asked Burke to act as a trustee of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This was one of Burke’s most important duties and platforms during the remaining fifteen years of his life. Burke was stricken and fell dead while addressing the trustees of the endowment on December 4, 1925. His rich collection of personal papers, along with a substantial gift from his estate for the construction of the Burke Museum on the University of Washington campus, are among his bequests to succeeding generations.

Content DescriptionReturn to Top

The collection includes cartes de visite and cabinet card size photographs along with black and white snapshots and 8x10 images of the Burke family including Caroline McGilvra (Mrs. Thomas Burke), 1870s-1920s. See inventory.

Use of the CollectionReturn to Top

Restrictions on Use

Restrictions may exist on reproduction, quotation, or publication. Contact Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries for details.

Preferred Citation

The required credit line for use of images from Special Collections is: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, [plus the negative number].

The negative number is provided with the image and is a letter + number combination such as UW13452; Hegg 1234; or NA1275. A typical credit line would be, University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW13452.

Administrative InformationReturn to Top

Detailed Description of the CollectionReturn to Top


Container(s) Description Dates
1 Caroline McGilvra Burke (Mrs. Thomas Burke)
23 carte de visite and cabinet card size photographs of Caroline McGilvra Burke (Mrs. Thomas Burke). Photographers noted: George Moore, T. Peiser, La Roche, M.S. McClaire.
circa 1880-1890s
2 Caroline McGilvra Burke (Mrs. Thomas Burke)
12 carte de visite and cabinet card size photographs of Carolyn McGilvra Burke. East coast and European photographers
circa 1880s-1890s
3 Caroline McGilvra Burke (Mrs. Thomas Burke)
20 mounted and unmounted photographs and 1 photographic engraving of Caroline McGilvra Burke. Photographers noted: James and Bushnell. Includes 8 copy prints; originals are in Edward Curtis Collection.
circa 1900-1910
4 Tintypes
6 tintypes (1 colored) of Caroline McGilvra Burke, circa 1870s, 2 tintypes of "serving woman," Axel Lunn's Tin Type Gallery, Lake Washington, 1894.
circa 1870s, 1894
5 Thomas Burke
7 carte de visite, cabinet card size and mounted photographs, and 1 photographic engraving of Thomas Burke, circa 1870s, 1900. Photographers noted: La Roche.
circa 1870s, 1900
6 Travel photographs
9 black and white photographs of the Burke's travels in the Far East?, Egypt, and Europe.
circa 1880s
7 Burke family, residence and memorials
1 black and white photograph of Caroline McGilvra Burke in carriage, undated; 5 black and white photographs of the Thomas Burke Memorial; 1 postcard of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Burke; 2 postcards of the Burke residence, undated; 1 mounted photograph of Mrs. Thomas Burke in front of house; 1 black and white photograph of Chelan Co. Burke Memorial; 23 snapshots of Burke family with bicycles, posed in front of residences, circa 1900-1920s; 1 photograph of Thomas Burke summer residence; 2 mounted photographs of Burke jewelry.
circa 1900-1920s, undated
8 Miscellaneous.
Photocopies and copy prints of images in other collections including residences, signed portrait of Tsiainna, and Caroline McGilvra Burke dressed as Native American on porch of house (AYP), 1909.
1909, undated

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

  • Form or Genre Terms :
  • Photographic prints

Names and SubjectsReturn to Top

  • Subject Terms :
  • Visual Materials Collections (University of Washington)