Looking Back: Mountlake Terrace and the Ballinger story


Judge Richard Ballinger

Even though Judge Richard Achilles Ballinger died 32 years before there was a city known as Mountlake Terrace, he can be remembered as the first to see the possibilities for the land around Lake McAleer becoming a great place to live or play. In our time, thousands of people do find enjoyment in this scenic area that once belonged to Judge Ballinger. Today, Lake McAleer is known as Lake Ballinger, and ownership of the lake is shared by Mountlake Terrace on the east and Edmonds on the west side—with the major part of the lake belonging to the City of Mountlake Terrace.

As told in the first of this Looking Back series on Mountlake Terrace, in 1902 when Judge Ballinger purchased the island in the lake from Ira and Julia Bartholomew — the original homesteaders — his father Col. Richard Henry Ballinger, a devout sportsman, made the island his permanent home until his death in 1906.  Judge Ballinger also acquired title to the lake itself and also to over 400 acres of the surrounding land. He renamed the lake in honor of his father. After his father’s death, Judge Ballinger and his wife continued to use the island cottage as their summer home.

Beyond his position as a major landowner in South Snohomish county, Judge Ballinger was a respected Seattle jurist, as well as a public figure in the city. He also became a national figure in Washington, D.C., and a bright hope for the Republican party.

Born July 9, 1858 in Boonesboro, Iowa, Richard Achilles Ballinger was the son of Civil War veteran, Col. Richard Henry Ballinger (1833-1906) and Mary Elizabeth Norton (1838-1912). His father Col. Ballinger read law in the Illinois law office of future president Abraham Lincoln. With the beginning of the Civil War, Col. Ballinger left his family and his legal work behind to serve as an officer in the military on the side of the North.

From cowboy to Seattle mayor

After the war, safely home, Col. Ballinger changed course and tried sheep-raising. With this, young Richard Achilles Ballinger at the tender age of 7, became a sheep herder. Next, his father became postmaster in the small town of Virden, Illinois. In addition, he became the owner and editor of the country newspaper. As a young lad, Richard learned to set type for his father’s newspaper, and also operated a news stand.  Evidently, still looking for a permanent place to settle, the roaming Ballinger family then made the journey to Kansas where Col. Ballinger tried cattle ranching, and young Richard became a cowboy.

Still a young man, Richard Achilles Ballinger decided on a career in the legal field. He studied law in the towns of Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas, and after a lot of hard work, finally earned admission to prestigious Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he graduated in 1884 at the age of 26. He first practiced law in Illinois and then in Morgan County, Alabama. In 1886, he married Julia Albertson Bradleya young lady from a Massachusetts family.

In late 1889, the entire Ballinger family traveled to the brand-new state of Washington, where Richard Achilles Ballinger and his wife and son settled. He began practicing law in Port Townsend, and eventually became a superior court judge for Jefferson County, earning the lifetime courtesy title of judge. In 1904, Judge Ballinger and his family moved to Seattle, where he opened an office in the city. His law firm became known as Ballinger, Battle, Hurlburt and Shorts. Very well-versed in the law, Judge Ballinger authored several important legal works, including the much-respected Ballinger on Community Property.

In 1906, he was elected to serve as the reform mayor of a still young Seattle — a town considered to be a little on the wild side.  He was credited as having played a major role in cleaning up the bad influences in the lively town.

While serving as mayor of Seattle, Judge Ballinger’s talents were noted and he soon became a national figure when he attracted the attention of the administration of President Theodore Roosevelt, and in 1907 he was appointed commissioner of the United States General Land Office. In 1909, he was back home in Seattle where he became president of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition World’s Fair.

Rumors and mudslinging

Later that year, during the administration of conservative Republican President William H. Taft, Judge Ballinger — also a conservative Republican — was appointed to the important cabinet position of Secretary of the Interior. While serving in that capacity, Judge Ballinger expressed strong ideas regarding making public resources more available for private interests. He ran afoul of some powerful progressives in the Taft administration who had their own strong ideas on conserving those lands solely for public use.

Rumors and mudslinging by those opposing the outsider Judge Ballinger led to falsehoods and speculation, even a scandal suggesting that Ballinger had a personal and self-serving agenda involving the use of public lands. Referred to by the press as the Ballinger-Pinchot scandal, this volatile controversy in the Republican Party over the public land issue and Ballinger’s inferred personal agenda caused a split in the Republican Party and eventually led to his resignation. Even though President Taft sided with Judge Ballinger, in 1911 — in order not to cause further embarrassment for the president — Ballinger resigned, claiming health issues.

Worn down from all the bitter and baseless accusations thrown at him, his health deteriorating, a much-discouraged Judge Ballinger left Washington, D.C. under a cloud of innuendos. He went back to his Seattle home and announced that he was finished with serving in public office. He then resumed his private law practice.

The Ballingers Seattle home on Capitol Hill.

Judge and Mrs. Ballinger did own a beautiful home on Capitol Hill in Seattle; however, after retiring from public life, they began spending more time at their summer home on their secluded little island in South Snohomish County.

During his years of practicing law and involvement in public service, Judge Ballinger had little time to spend on the development of his Lake Ballinger properties. He mainly leased a portion of the land to timber companies for the clearing of the forests, and also to sawmill interests. However, in 1912, following his forced retirement, Judge Ballinger began making different plans for his properties. Before he was able to see the fruition of those plans, his health did fail, and at the early age of 63, Judge Ballinger died June 6, 1922 in Seattle, the result of a heart attack.   He is buried at Seattle’s historic Lake View Cemetery.

Through the years, government officials, including President Taft himself, attempted to atone for the slanderous treatment Judge Ballinger had suffered. However, it wasn’t until many years after Judge Ballinger’s death that his wife and family realized final closure. In fact, vindication came during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, when on May 25, 1940, the Saturday Evening Post published anarticle about the Ballinger-Pinchot debacle. Entitled “Not Guilty” and written by then-Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the article fully exonerated Judge Ballinger from all the charges that had been leveled against him.

The Ballingers’ Edmount Island home in 1915.

At her Edmonds home on the west shore of Lake Ballinger, where she lived with her youngest son Richard Talcott Ballinger, Judge Ballinger’s widow Julia had continued through the years to harbor unpleasant feelings regarding the accusations against her husband and the besmirching of the Ballinger name. During a 1940 interview with Howard E. MacDonald of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Mrs. Ballinger acknowledged that the Saturday Evening Post article had helped her and the family in overcoming their anguish.

Julia Ballinger lived a long life. She died in a Seattle hospital the day before Christmas in 1961 at the age of 97. She is buried next to her husband at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle. Two sons, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren survived them.

Mountlake Terrace-owned Edmount Island, the Ballinger’s former island home, is currently closed to the public as the result of a stubborn peat bog fire which engulfed the island in flames during the summer of 2009.

The next issue of this Mountlake Terrace series will cover more about the lake and the land in the early days, as well as Judge Ballinger’s Lake Ballinger Land Company and the development of his properties.

— By Betty Lou Gaeng

Betty Gaeng is a long-time resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, coming to the area in 1933. She researches and writes about the history and the people of early-day Edmonds  Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace.


  1. Thank you, Betty, for another fascinating, well researched article. Every time a piece of yours appears, it takes me on a trip of further exploration into the history of our area. How many times have I passed Lake Ballinger without knowing how it got its name? Now, I’m on to finding out more about Edmount Island…and eagerly awaiting the next article about Judge Ballinger. I hope it’s not too long a wait!

  2. Thank you for an interesting article! I lived right down the street from lake Ballenger and swim, played and grew up right there. I was wondering if there is any more info. on the house that was abandoned on the Lake Ballenger island. We kids used to swim out there and play around in the old house. It was kinda spooky but so much fun! Thanks again
    Ron Foos

    1. I also used to play, swim, fish on lake Ballinger. I had a friend that lived on the lake on the 205th.
      Don’t remember his name any more – we moved to edmonds in 1954 I think on 76th ave.
      I used to walk the golf corce behind Mason Lodge – there was a stream that had possums in it- they would hiss at you
      I had a paddle boat There are some Model A’s at bottom of the lake – when it would freeze up people would drive their cars on the ice – sometimes the cars would go through the ice back in the 30-40’s.
      Tthe island was kinda boggy. I also use to go to Chase Lake – there was lots of bogs there – once I went through the bog, lost my shoe. We would make log boats and make oars out of whatever we could find. Other kids said it was a bottomless lake. I fell in once, felt a large fish rub my leg – I think it was a sturgeon. We also built a camp under the bridge – it was there for a long time – might still be there.
      I am no longer there – moved to Hawaii, Grants Pass, Ore. now to New Mexico.

  3. Yes, thank you for a wonderful read about judge Ballinger now I am wondering if the Ballingers I knew in Edmonds were his descendants? Loved the pictures too and though I have lived here most of my life didn’t know about the lake. Thank you for caring enough about history to write so beautifully about it. Carolynne Harris

  4. Yes, the family continued to live at the lake on the west shore for a time, and I believe at least one of them moved closer to town. I was at Edmonds High School at the same time as Judge Ballinger’s granddaughter. She was one year behind me in school I believe she went to the old Esperance Grade school. She graduated in 1946 from EHS, and I believe her older brother graduated several years earlier.

    The old house on the island probably was destroyed in the fire.

  5. Oldest son of “The Judge” was Edward Bradley Ballinger, later to be “Sr” after his son, my dad, Edward Bradley Ballinger Jr was born in 1915. My dad was the oldest son ALSO…I’m last son living in Grants Pass, Or….I still have many antique heirlooms….

  6. Hello Betty, I discovered an interesting piece of Ballinger family history while researching my upcoming book, “Lost Roadhouses of Seattle.” As you’re aware, The Ranch roadhouse on Hwy 99 was started by Doc Hamilton, who then sold it to O.W. Owen, who was known to be the boss of the Hwy 99 roadhouses as he also ran a couple other nearby inns. Alexander Ballinger (nephew of Richard) and Owen were involved in a head-on car collision in 1937 in which Owen was killed. There were accusations that Alexander was drunk prior to the crash but this was never proven. Owen’s widow did file a suit against the Ballinger family and won a decent settlement. A few months later, in what could be seen as a redemptive act, Alexander saved a couple from drowning after their boat capsized in Lake Washington. At any rate, an interesting but forgotten footnote in local roadhouse history involving one of the area’s most prestigious families.

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