John Collins 1835-1903. Mayor of Seattle.Photo: Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives

Seattle’s first Irish Mayor was a Cavan native

Seattle City is famous the world over as the birthplace of the musician Jimi Hendrix, it is the home of Grunge music, the place where the first Starbucks café opened in 1971 and is headquarters to the multi-billion-dollar technology companies Amazon and Microsoft. The Lonely Planet Magazine calls Seattle a ‘Pacific Rim city built in the shadow of the Cascade Mountains … a veritable hub of bars, music venues and, of course, coffee'.

The city is situated on a strip of land between the ‘salt waters’ of Puget Sound and the ‘fresh waters’ of Lake Washington and accompanied by two mountains, the rugged Olympics in the west and the Cascades in the east, says the Seattle Government website.

Seattle’s luscious greenery is almost an extension of Washington States honorary title as the ‘Evergreen State', since Seattle City is known as the ‘Emerald City’ and it was to this city that the first Irish-born Lord Mayor was elected in 1873. John Collins who became an important entrepreneur in Seattle was from the lake county of Ireland, that is Co Cavan.

John Collins was born on November 26, 1835, in Cootehill, the son of Patrick and Mary Collins, who at the age of 10 years, along with his parents, emigrated to America. As a young man, Collins lived in New York for six years, supporting himself through whatever work came his way and then, in 1851, he got employment with a lumbering company in Machias, Maine, where he excelled in that trade before turning his attention to working for the lumbering companies of the Pacific North-West.

In 1857, Collins went to San Francisco and got a job with the Puget Mill Company at their milling operations in Port Gamble. Through his clever business choices John Collins soon amassed a fortune, which he invested in real estate and for his next project he built a hotel of his own in Port Gamble, which he continued to run in the years ahead. Later he began investing in property in Seattle from 1865. Eventually, he went to live in Seattle whereupon he took up management of the Occidental Hotel of which he was part-owner, having invested a two-thirds interest in the business.

In volume two of Julian Hawthorne’s ‘History of Washington: The Evergreen State, from Early Dawn to Daylight', we are informed of Collins, ‘there are few businessmen more favourably known in the city of Seattle than the gentleman of whom we write. A resident of the sound country from early manhood, he has ever been one of the most helpful and powerful factors in many of the most important enterprises connected with the growth and development of the city from its infancy to its present stalwart growth.’

In character Collins was considered ‘positive and aggressive’ in his pursuit of a correct course of action, a man of integrity, whose business pursuits and ideas were progressive. The city faced one of its worst days on June 6, 1889, when downtown Seattle went on fire and such was the severity that the firefighters could not bring it under control until it had devastated about thirty blocks before the flames died down. The effects of the fire caused the loss of 5,000 jobs, but thankfully, nobody lost their lives.

The cause of the fire was never proven, although the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on June 7, 1889, crudely pointed the finger, naming a glue pot allegedly housed in a paint works belonging to a Co Monaghan man called James McGough. The said glue pot was actually in Clairmont and Company cabinet makers and not in McGough’s shop and, although the newspaper retracted their story, the mud stuck with the innocent Mr McGough unfairly blamed. With the total destruction of the Occidental Hotel, Collin’s business interests did not do well that day.

Collins the entrepreneur invested his great fortune in hotels, coal, banking, publishing and utility companies. His profile in the business world soon led him to an interest in politics and, between 1869 and 1883, he served four terms as a Seattle City Councillor.

On July 14, 1873, he was elected by voters as the city’s fourth Lord Mayor, and as John F. Keane pointed out in his book ‘Irish Seattle’, … ‘a rare Catholic Democrat among the city’s Protestant Republican ruling class’ had achieved political success.

When an Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, spoke at a Team Ireland lunch in November 2017 at the Chihuly Garden and Glass House, Seattle, he specifically mentioned ‘the considerable contribution’ to Seattle’s development by ‘John Collins from Co Cavan', the city’s first Irish-born Mayor, he emphasized. In 1881, Collins made a short return as Mayor, in an acting role, which lasted one month. His civic duties continued for a further twenty years and, in that time, he served as part of a commission appointed to write a new city charter.

An essay by David Wilma and Cassandra Tate, published on, notes that Collins was one of four investors in the Talbot Coal Mine, which opened in 1874 in the Newcastle district, boasting a tunnel 16-feet wide, 11-feet high and 450-feet long from where coal was transported by rail to ‘a landing on the Black River’ to be shipped on to Seattle.

Other investments by him included the Seattle Gas Light Company, which was under contract by the town council to supply gas for 25 years and to provide lighting for streets, private houses and business properties. Collins helped finance the Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad and Transportation Company, which was formed in 1873, in opposition to the Northern Pacific Railroad when they failed to open a terminus in Seattle. However, John Collins' foray into publishing was a less prosperous venture and, having temporarily owned the Seattle Daily Telegraph, and the Press Times, he soon off loaded them, by selling them on to other buyers.

Following a stomach illness of two years, Collins died on April 22, 1903. The Collins Building still stands on the site of his former home, destroyed in the fire. It is a five-storey building, situated on a slope on the corner of 2nd Avenue and James Street, and is of an ‘Richardsonian Romanaesque’ design. It was built between 1893 and 1894.

John Collins was survived by his wife Angie B. Collins (they married in 1877) and their children, Emma L. Collins, Edana Sophia Collins, John Francis Collins, Bertran Edward Collins and Catherine Collins. He also had a daughter from a previous marriage named Emma Collins Downey.