In 1910, an unscrupulous real estate baron proclaimed that “the markets of Puget Sound, the Pacific Coast and the whole world” would be “on the doorstep” of his new town of Birmingham – an ambitious development he proposed south of Port Susan Bay. from Stanwood.
Although a few publications have touched on what happened all those years ago, the notorious history of Birmingham, now known as Warm Beach, would most likely be forgotten were it not for the tenacity of a retired teacher from Stanwood.
Penny Buse, 73, grew up in Kirkland but spent weekends, summers and just about every childhood holiday with her grandparents in Warm Beach.
During these visits Buse met many alumni who sparked his imagination with their stories of the fantastic city of Birmingham.
“It was the grand scheme of CD Hillman, a wealthy Seattle developer with a troubled past, who promised working-class people the moon if they invested in his new city,” she said.
Over the years, Buse continued to collect stories and research to piece together the intriguing story behind Hillman’s audacious fraud – a grand scheme that can still be felt in the area today.
Clarence Dayton Hillman was born in humble circumstances on a small farm in Michigan in 1870.
As a young man, Hillman pursued land deals in Chicago and eventually decided to “head west” to Seattle in 1896 to strike it rich.
Hillman arrived in the area at the right time, said Seattle historian Feliks Banel.
“The late 19th century in Seattle, especially once the effects of the Panic of 1893 begin to wear off and the Klondike Gold Rush begins, is a boom time unlike anything the city had experienced before or since,” he said. “Seattle’s population doubled between 1890 and 1900, and that number of 1900 tripled in 1910.”
Hillman, along with other savvy real estate entrepreneurs, took advantage of the economic opportunity that booming growth presented and, as a result, became very wealthy.
He left his mark on Seattle.
“Hillman’s legacy is present today in developments like the Hillman City neighborhood along Rainier Avenue and the Kennydale area north of Renton,” he said.
He also built a subdivision around Green Lake, where he built a lavish lake house for his wife and three children.
Hillman heads north
After his prosperous time in Seattle, Hillman set his sights on the northern part of Puget Sound.
In 1907 he purchased over 6,000 acres of recently farmed land about 6 miles south of Stanwood.
This barren and relatively remote plot was considered by most developers not to be particularly valuable, and it was acquired for a song by the shrewd real estate entrepreneur.
Hillman had big plans for this huge expanse that stretched north to Florence, south to Kayak Point and east from Port Susan Bay to the Seven Lakes region – encompassing more than 9 square miles.
In 1909 he submitted his development with over 7,000 lots to the Snohomish County Planning Department.
The proposal was titled “C.D. Hillman’s Birmingham Waterfront Addition to the City of Everett.”
Birmingham’s name comes from a Michigan town near Hillman’s birthplace.
Lot sizes ranged from 5 acres for farms and potential industries to much smaller lots intended for residential use, some being less than 20 feet wide.
There was shore land, both on Port Susan Bay and on the lakes to the east, many of them irregular in shape and size.
The land magnate then set out to create Birmingham.
“Hillman planted Himalayan blackberries and elephant grass to hide the logging remains that covered the area,” Buse said. “He built three piers on Port Susan Bay and a 2-mile promenade along the shore for potential buyers to wander around while admiring what appeared to be new storefronts and industry that included a sawmill and a cannery. “
In early 1910, he launched an advertising campaign to generate interest.
Details of a booklet distributed by Hillman’s Birmingham Land Co. are given in “The Stanwood Story, Volume II,” by Alice Essex.
He described the area as featuring a “beautiful wharf” with a railway that extended to “the ideal agricultural community” and land “ideally suited for industrial development”.
The brochure boasted a sawmill “equipped with modern machinery” and stated that “free waterfront pitches will be given to worthy undertakings”.
He said Birmingham needed ‘just a few more miles of track’ to connect to major railways.
The land rush begins
In June 1910, Hillman began offering free tours via steamboat from Seattle, and a host of excited landowners jumped aboard.
Hillman had a specific buyer audience in mind for his lots starting at $65 with generous loan terms from Birmingham Land Co. of just $2 a month.
“The type of customer that CD Hillman was targeting and the ads were aimed at were new residents recently landed in Washington who had few resources and were looking for the ‘promised land,'” Buse said.
Upon arrival in Birmingham, tours were arranged for potential buyers in the brand new city.
“When visitors got off the boats, they were invited to see the new department store, the two general stores and the newly built sawmill,” Buse said. “In addition, a church and a school building had been constructed.”
Initially, business was booming, and Seattle newspapers reported that the Hillman Land Co. had sold thousands of lots.
Everything seemed too good to be true.
“Much of Birmingham had been staged to impress potential buyers,” Buse said. “Thriving stores were props with actors and the sawmill didn’t work.”
Throughout his Birmingham scheme, Hillman continued to rely on false advertising.
“Everything from claims of booming industries looking for workers to farmlands that produced bushels of golden wheat and strawberries as big as ‘teacups’ were part of Hillman’s deception to lure buyers real estate,” Buse said.
Many who bought land felt cheated when they discovered the reality of Birmingham – recently worked land that had little beyond dirt, rocks and stumps.
Fraud complaints began to pile up.
The Crowbar Hotel for Hillman
Due to questionable real estate practices during his time in Seattle, the federal government had kept tabs on Hillman.
“The United States District Attorney has closely followed Hillman’s business dealings,” Buse said. “The government couldn’t do anything about them until Hillman began mailing out documentation containing fraudulent claims.”
In August 1910, Hillman was charged and later convicted of mail fraud.
The real estate mogul was sentenced to 2½ years behind bars at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary near Steilacoom.
In late 1913, after serving 18 months, Hillman’s sentence was commuted by US President William Howard Taft – whose campaign Hillman had generously supported.
Hillman joined his family in California and resumed riding and selling land until his death in 1935.
Hillman’s impact is still felt at Warm Beach today
Birmingham’s name was changed to Warm Beach in 1924 to avoid confusion with other towns with the same name, according to Stanwood Camano News records.
Today, Warm Beach is part of unincorporated Snohomish County.
According to Jennifer Lenz, a land development specialist with the county’s planning department, problems with Hillman’s questionable practices persist.
“There are still times when a person buys a plot in this development where they are unable to build a single family residence for one reason or another, whether the ‘yards’ allowed have been maxed out or the plot is just too small or narrow to meet all bulk regulations such as setbacks and lot coverage,” she said.
For Buse, Hillman inspired decades of interviews and time spent perusing documents in museums and libraries. Along the way, she has published articles and often spoken to community groups about her findings.
“People were so interested in this relatively unknown Warm Beach story,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been encouraged to put it all together in a book.”
Towards the end of her teaching career, she did just that.
“I called my book ‘Stuck in the Mud’ because so much has been literally and figuratively stuck in the mud of Warm Beach,” she said. “Everything from Captain Vancouver’s ship that ran aground in Port Susan Bay in the late 1700s to grand plans for an oil refinery development in the 1970s that stalled and came to nothing .”
Despite Warm Beach’s somewhat checkered past, Buse has only the fondest memories of where she called her home for decades.
“I grew up here visiting family, and my husband and I bought a house and raised our son here,” she said. “I think Warm Beach is about the prettiest spot around and it’s pretty hard to imagine a better place to get stuck in.”