Seattle Now & Then: When the Circus Came to Town

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: In the first years of the twentieth century, visiting circuses most often used these future Seattle Center acres to raise their big tops.  After 1911 the favored circus site was moved to the then freshly-cleared Denny Regrade neighborhood (Courtesy, Mike Cirelli)
THEN: In the first years of the twentieth century, visiting circuses most often used these future Seattle Center acres to raise their big tops. After 1911 the favored circus site was moved to the then freshly-cleared Denny Regrade neighborhood (Courtesy, Mike Cirelli)
NOW: In a service “pit” west of the north bleachers of the High School Memorial Stadium, Jean stands at least near the prospect of the historical photographer
NOW: In a service “pit” west of the north bleachers of the High School Memorial Stadium, Jean stands at least near the prospect of the historical photographer

After calls for help and hours of research on line and off, this subject still puzzles me.  The prospect is easy enough to describe, and I soon will.  Rather it is the subject: seven women sitting on handsome horses who have been trained to stay balanced on those odd pedestals. Who are they – the women and the horses?  That the riders are dressed up in the style of the time – ca. 1910 – we can corroborate by comparing them to the tiny pedestrians, far left, walking west beside Republican Street. They are draped the same.

The Roslyn Hotel, 1930, southeast corner of 5th Ave. and Republican Street. (Courtesy, Seattle Times)
The Roslyn Hotel, 1930, southeast corner of 5th Ave. and Republican Street. (Courtesy, Seattle Times)
The first Seattle Times listed classified for the Roslyn Hotel,
The first Seattle Times listed classified for the Roslyn Hotel, ;Feb. 3, 1909.
Another Times classified for the Roslyn Hotel, this one from Oct. 17, 1927, indicates that in the eighteen years that separates them inflation has, it seems, little effect.  In two more years with the Great Depression, lodgings at the hotel may well have depressed as well.
Another Times classified for the Roslyn Hotel, this one from Oct. 17, 1927, indicates that in the eighteen years that separates them inflation has, it seems, had little effect. In two more years with the Great Depression, week-long lodgings at the hotel may well have depressed as well.

This prospect can be figured within a half-block.  Looking east, Capitol Hill is on the horizon, and the three-story structure above the posing line of equestriennes is the Roslyn Hotel at the southeast corner of Republican and Fifth Avenue.  A Roslyn classified first appeared in The Times for Feb. 3, 1909, promising “elegant furnished rooms, electric lights, steam heat, hot and cold water in every room, absolutely the best in Seattle: rates $3 to $5 dollars per week; only 50 cents extra for two persons in the same room.”

A Seattle Times clip from March 1, 1932.
A Seattle Times clip from March 1, 1932.

The hotel’s sign is centered along its rooftop cornice, just above rider number two – from the left – one of the three riders in white and mounted on dark horses.  A friend, the writer-collector Stephan Lundgren, first alerted me to the “gray scale rhythm” of this tableau. It alternates women in white on dark mounts with women in black on white ones (in black and white photography). Lundgren concludes, “That’s not random, those are costumes.”  The novelist is pleased that the one dappled steed, third from the left, syncopates the otherwise regular rhythm of the line.

Getting situated, the Troy Laundry, far left, was near the northwest corner of 4th Ave. N. and Republican Street.  So the unnamed circus big tops are between Republican and Mercer Streets and at least west of 4th Avenue.  (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey)
Getting situated, the Troy Laundry, far left, was near the northwest corner of 4th Ave. N. and Republican Street. So the unnamed circus big tops are between Republican and Mercer Streets and at least west of 4th Avenue. (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey)
Looking west on Republican Street from near Hob Hill Avenue.  The two story frame building top-center, sat at the northwest corner of 3rd Ave. N. and Republican.  We have dated this too, circa 1912.   The Photographer was Max Loudon.
Looking west on Republican Street from near Hob Hill Avenue. The two story frame building top-center, sat at the northwest corner of 3rd Ave. N. and Republican. We have dated this too, circa 1912. The Photographer was Max Loudon.
Looking north from what is now the northeast corner of the Seattle Center Buildling (aka Food Circus or Armory), so Nob Hill Ave. is on the right and Third Ave. N. on the left.   This is another unidentified circus at the "old grounds" on the future Seattle Center.
Looking north from what is now the northeast corner of the Seattle Center Building (aka Food Circus or Armory), so Nob Hill Ave. is on the right and Third Ave. N. on the left. This is another unidentified circus at the “old grounds” on the future Seattle Center.
Years later, looking north on 3rd Ave. N. from its southeast corner with Harrison Street, and showing the commercial box, again, far left, at the northwest corner of 3rd and Republican.  The public works photo was recorded on Jan. 9, 1928 as early evidence of work on the new Civic Auditorium.  Some of the same homes on the north side of Mercer Street, included in the subject above this one, appear here as well.  (Courtesy, Municipal Archives.)
Years later, looking north on 3rd Ave. N. from its southeast corner with Harrison Street, and showing the commercial box, again, far left, at the northwest corner of 3rd and Republican. This public works photo was recorded on Jan. 9, 1928 as early evidence of work on the new Civic Auditorium, far-right. Some of the same homes on the north side of Mercer Street, included in the subject above this one, appear here as well. (Courtesy, Municipal Archives.)

The pedestrians, far left, in the featured photograph at the top, are almost certainly either headed for a circus or leaving one.  But which circus and when?  Two experts (and past subjects of this feature) might have helped, but both died years ago.  Michael Sporrer knew circus history hereabouts in great detail, and it was the historian Mike Cirelli who first shared this photograph with me.  At that time, without much study, Cirelli knew where it was but not yet, very well, who or what it was.

Two from The Times on the Norris and Rowe circus during their May, 1909 visit to the "old grounds."
Two from The Times on the Norris and Rowe circus during their May, 1909 visit to the “old grounds.”

x ST-May-19,-1909-Big-Circus-Comes-Tomorrow-old-grounds-in-N.SEATTLE-WEB

After studying the Seattle Times for the years 1909 thru 1913 – I used The Seattle Public Library’s access to the newspaper’s archive – I conclude that in those years there were three “big top” circuses that set up their train loads of animals, performers, canvas, and feed.  The biggest, Barnum and Bailey, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” performed on this site in 1910, 1912 and 1914.  The other two were the Sells-Floto Circus, last here in 1913 for its fourteenth annual Seattle engagement, and the Norris and Rowe Circus, which last performed on these grounds in 1909.

From The Seattle Times, May 29, 1910
From The Seattle Times, May 29, 1910
A Seattle Times clip on the June 1, 1913 visit of the Sells-Floto Circus to Seattle.
A Seattle Times clip on the June 1, 1913 visit of the Sells-Floto Circus to Seattle.
The Seattle Times clip dated May 22, 1909.
The Seattle Times clip dated May 22, 1909.

Although the smallest of the three, Norris and Rowe came on two trains to these “old circus grounds at Fourth Ave. and Republican Street” with “herds of elephants, camels, and llamas, two rings and an elevated stage, one four-mile hippodrome track, acres of tents and seats for all.”  In 1909 the trains also transported 600 persons and 500 ponies and horses, including, perhaps, these fourteen.

A Times feature on the Ringling Brothers Circus for their visit in   .  This circus survived.  I remember it visiting Spokane in the 1940s.
A Times feature on the Ringling Brothers Circus for their visit in 1912 . This circus survived. I remember it visiting Spokane in the 1940s with its “freak show,” “menageries of wild and exotic animals,” three rings of performance, and the clowns, certainly .

WEB EXTRAS

Anything to add, Paul?  We love to answer “yes” Jean.  Ron’s links to other relevant features will go up first.   Since we did that Golden Anniversary reporting on Seattle Center in 2012 we are well stocked with features from ground-sixty-two, but will only feature two of the twenty-plus “Fair and Festival” offerings from 2012.  One could key-word the others.   We have included here four other features that relate – two of them about circuses.

[A Prompt Reminder: The next SIX photographs are LINKS TO DISCOVERIES, if you TAP THEM.]

 MORE ABOUT HORSES

An encore for one of the 498 Kodachrome slide by Horace Sykes that we ran one-a-day until we reached 498 (or near it) when we decided to stop short of 500, giving us an opportunity later to return.   Here Horace is somewhere in the Palouse in the 1940s, most likely.
An encore for one of the Kodachrome slide by Horace Sykes that we ran one-a-day until we reached 498 (or near it) when we decided to stop short of 500, giving us an opportunity later to return. Here Horace is somewhere in the Palouse in the 1940s, most likely.
Still in the Palouse, here for the 1909 horseshow on the main street of Waitsburg.  Compliments of the local historical society, Jean and I used this in our book of a few years back, "Washington Then and Now."  Below is Jean's repeat.   For the fuller story, please consult the book itself.
Still in the Palouse, here for the 1909 horseshow on the main street of Waitsburg. Compliments of the local historical society, Jean and I used this in our book of a few years back, “Washington Then and Now.” Below is Jean’s repeat. For the fuller story, please consult the book itself.

h WAITSBURG-1909-Horse-show-NOW-WEB

h-Brown_-Indian-Horse-Signs-FenceWEB

A motorcar saved by horses.  This, I believe, is a popular MOHAI print and the subject is somewhere on the road to Stevens Pass still years before it reached the pass.
A motorcar saved by horses. This, I believe (or imagine), is a popular MOHAI print and the subject is somewhere on the road to Stevens Pass still years before it reached the pass.
The photo above was mailed to me in 1991 with the letter attached below.
The photo above was mailed to me in 1991 with the letter attached below.

h-Fire-wagon-mock-horse-LETTERWEb

From the Lowman Album (Courtesy of Mike Maslan) used here many times before, an evocative look into a tranquil equestrian scene, and a fitting illustration for the clipping printed below.
From the Lowman Album (Courtesy of Mike Maslan) used here many times before, an evocative look into a tranquil equestrian scene, with dog, and a fitting illustration for the clipping printed below.  CLICK BOTH TO ENLARGE
Most like another EDGE CLIPPING, this instruction on how to handle a horse was printed first in the Puget Sound Dispatch for December 18, 1871.  CLICK TO ENLARGE
Most like another EDGE CLIPPING, this instruction on how to handle a horse was printed first in the Puget Sound Dispatch for December 18, 1871. CLICK TO ENLARGE

 

In the rich beastiary of comparing individuals to animals they may resemble, I am often compared to a bear and sometimes to a Neandrethal.  The Swedish artist Charlotte Hellekant is one of my favorite contraltos and also, surely, in this like a very fine horse.
In the rich bestiary of comparing individuals to animals they may resemble, I am often compared to a bear and sometimes to a Neandrethal. I look up to Jean less as an animal than as a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Swedish artist Charlotte Hellekant is one of my favorite contraltos and also, surely, a very fine horse.
A mountain that to some resembles a horse, a white one.
A mountain that to some resembles a horse, a white one.
HIS MARK
HIS MARK & MOTO

4 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: When the Circus Came to Town”

  1. These are Liberty Horses, an act of from 6-20 (or more, depending on the size of the circus) horses working in a ring with no reins being used by the trainer. The act featured drills, hind-leg walks, pirouettes, etc. The black and white horses worked in matched sets; the gray dapple is a nice touch, unusual; you might be able to trace the circus through the dapple. Circus history is preserved at the old winter quarters of Ringling Bros. in Baraboo, WI. See circusworldbaraboo.org. You can watch a Liberty Horse act on You Tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhSZGWCGsTc

  2. The horse in the middle (the “dapple grey”) actually looks to be a pinto. Also note that some of the riders are astride while others are sidesaddle, including the woman riding bridleless (3rd from right). Great photo and article! I love reading your column every Sunday.

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