How Did Ballard Get So Scandinavian? You Asked, We Answered

When Seattle’s old-timers think of Ballard, the first thing that comes to mind might be lutefisk. Or Aquavit. Or freshly baked Kringle. Scandinavian culture has been a fixture of the neighborhood for decades, but a question from reader Ian King asked us to dig into the “why”:

“Why did Ballard become identified with Scandinavian residents?” Ian asked. “What brought them to Ballard in the first place?”

We went searching for answers at the Nordic Museum — Ballard’s one stop shop for all things related to Scandinavian history and culture.

(By the way, Scandinavian = Danish, Swedish and Norwegian. Nordic = Those three plus Iceland, Finland, and three other autonomous regions.)

While there, we chatted with Fred Poyner IV, a local historian, author and the museum’s collections manager. After meeting with Fred, and going down some rabbit holes on HistoryLink, here’s what we learned:

The land along Shilshole and Salmon bays was originally home to the Duwamish people, specifically a community called the Xacho-absh or “Lake People.”

Immigrants from the Nordic countries began moving to Ballard back when it was its own incorporated city. Political and economic strife in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to a mass migration of people from Northern Europe, and those who immigrated to America usually arrived on the East Coast before making their way west.

In the Pacific Northwest, Scandinavian migrants found a natural landscape that reminded them of the fjords and forests back home, along with booming industries that aligned with the trades that had been in their families for generations. For the Danes, it was farming and agriculture; the Swedes became lumberjacks; and the Norwegians fished and built boats.

“It was in their blood,” Poyner said. “These people were no strangers to work.”

Ballard’s shipyards and marinas were a natural fit for those who worked in the maritime industries. In 1946, 400 Norwegian fishermen and their wives each contributed $300 to form Pacific Fishermen Shipyard, a business that still exists today.

As the newcomers set up shops, schools, and churches, they attracted their fellow countrymen. Between the 1880s to 1910, roughly 1 out of 10 Ballardites were Scandinavian, Poyner said, and Norwegian was taught in Ballard schools at the start of the 20th century.

Around the same time, Nordic enclaves also formed outside Seattle in places like Poulsbo, Stanwood, and Kirkland’s Finn Hill.

The number of Ballard’s Scandinavian residents may have declined in recent years, but there are still many reminders in and around the neighborhood. Although Ballard has lost several Scandinavian mainstays in recent years, new businesses are popping up to take their place.

And soon, you’ll be able to take in our region’s Nordic heritage from the benches of a traditional Finnish sauna. The Nordic Museum has relocated and restored the 1914 structure from its original home on Finn Hill and plans to introduce it to the public as a “living history experience” sometime this summer.

Here are a few spots to discover Ballard’s Nordic food and culture:

Bergen Place: Located smack-dab in the middle of downtown Ballard, Bergen Place honors Seattle’s ties to sister city Bergen, Norway. The plaza was dedicated in 1975 by King Olav V and includes flags from the five Nordic countries.

The Dane: This Scandinavian-inspired café hosts monthly meetups (on hold due to COVID) with the Northwest Danish Association.

Larsen’s Bakery: A Ballard favorite for 41 years, Larsen’s Kringles are a treat around the holidays — or anytime, really.

Leif Erikson Lodge: The Sons of Norway community center holds events all year long and an open house during the annual Syttende Mai festival.

Nordic Museum: The glistening new museum features regular exhibits, special installations, and a full calendar of cultural events. You can also sample Scandinavian fare at the adjacent Freya Café.

Scandinavian Specialties: Pick up some canned fish balls or dine on lingonberry waffles and Smørbrød (open-faced sandwiches) in the café.

By Caitlin Moran
Caitlin writes newsletters and stories for The Evergrey. She's worked as a journalist in and around Seattle since 2010 and is a proud resident of Capitol Hill's Summit Slope neighborhood.