Seattle Now & Then: Seattle City Light Steam Plant

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: A municipal photographer recorded this view across Eastlake Avenue of the charming Lake Union Water Power Auxiliary Plant on the left, and on the right the first section of the Lake Union Steam Plant in 1917.
NOW: The Lake Union Steam Plant stopped its generating in the mid-1980s. After escaping a proposal in the early 1990s to convert the decommissioned power plant to condos, the still-grand factory was purchased in 1993 by ZymoGenetics. Bruce Carter, the biotechnology company's president, described his new acquisition as "the mother of all fixer-uppers."

The progressive citizen spirit of the 1890s created Seattle City Light in 1902-03 and the construction of the first publicly owned hydroelectric installation in the country. Soon, however, the rock-filled timber-crib dam on the Cedar River was inadequate to serve all the locals wanting their own electricity — which was also cheaper than the competing private company’s.

The two elegant factories, small and big, recorded here in the spring of 1917 were built in response to these surging public-power needs. First was the Mission style Lake Union Water Power Auxiliary Plant on the left. It generated power from water that fell with a head of about 300 feet from overflow at the Volunteer Park reservoir. Locals enjoyed the coincidence that here, too, as with the timber-crib dam, electricity was being generated by the Cedar River, for Seattle’s supply of fresh community water came by pipeline from that source as well.

Snug to the side of the charming “power factory” the much larger and better-known City Light Lake Union Steam Plant was constructed in 1914, enlarged in 1918 and again in 1921. Perhaps somewhat in the public spirit of this pleasantly sprawling City Light alignment, Daniel Riggs Huntington, their creator, was hired as city architect in 1912 and served the city until 1921.

Through its years Now & Then has featured a good sample of Huntington’s creations, including the Fremont branch of the Seattle Public Library (in the Mission style), the Gothic Firland Sanatorium, new concrete piers for the University (Eastlake) Bridge in the late 1920s, and the D.A.R. Rainier Chapter House on Capitol Hill. All of them survive and are well-preserved.

Anything to add, Paul?

Only a few photos Jean – a nearly random sample.

Under a cover of snow the first City Light dam on the Cedar River resembles, perhaps, a Buddhist retreat.
City Light pushing public power with its display upon the sides and roof the Lake Union plant.
Before the freeway (and here long before it) the Lake Union plant could be tracked from a block or two up the hill to the east. The Lake Union Dry Dock Co is just beyond and far across the lake the Aurora Bridge (1932) appears in a haze.
The southwest corner of the plant roasted but not razed by fire.
The plant in 1997 - a good portrait in which to compare the size of the stacks with those in the fire picture next above.
Not, of course, to be confused with the stacks above the Concrete plant at Concrete, Washington.

Jean, I’m revived after six hours of sleep with pleasant dreams.  Now I have more for the Eastlake location.

Not far north of the steam plant site, snuggled between the old Oceanography docks and the chain of houseboats, Terry Pettus park was added to the playing Lake Union sometime, I think, in the 1980s. At least I first stumbled upon it that then and took this snapshot on a summer afternoon. It sits at the foot of Newton Street. The immediate neighborhood also has an intimacy for me for I lived a block away on Newton in 1967-68, and also for a few weeks nearby in a houseboat. It is gratifying that the Seattle Park Department (if it is responsible) named this vacated street end park for Pettus, the depression-era radical journalist who later in his long life became the eloquent advocate of the houseboat community - the Floating Homes Association.

4 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Seattle City Light Steam Plant”

  1. I have a picture that I would like to send to you but I will have to get it copied by my daughter and email it to you. We found it when we were going through old pictures at my moms. It is a picture of my dad being shipped out to Japan. We think. I don’t know if you have any old pictures of army guys shipping out from the Seattle Port of Embarkment. I will get that done tomorrow if you like but I will need your email address. Thank you!

    Patty (This is a really cool building) I love the look of old architecture.

  2. Thanks Patty. I have seen a few pixs of the troops returning to bands and princesses and such but none to them disembarking from the Seattle Port of Embarkation or Embarkment (can’t remember.) During the war it was the busiest place on the waterfront. After after it for a while as well. Here’s my e-mail. Better than photocopy it – have it scanned. You don’t lose as much in the generation.

  3. Did you ever hear the story about the names of the six smoke stacks of the steam plant? Professor Paul Heyne, popular economics instructor at the University of Washington told this story to my class in the fall of 1979.
    He was riding a metro bus and two guys sitting near him and dressed in laborers clothing were having what seemed like a nonsensical conversation.
    First laborer: “Yesterday I was working on Monday but today I’ll be working on Wednesday and Thursday.”
    Second laborer: “I have to work on Sunday. It’s been giving us trouble.”
    Finally Heyne couldn’t stand it and turned to the two. “What in the hell are you two talking about?”
    Turns out that the smokestacks/boilers were nicknamed after days of the week. Much more fun than “Boiler #1, boiler #2, etc. I think of Paul Heyne’s story every time I drive by the plant.
    Almost True Stories of Life at
    This story IS true.

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