Seattle Now & Then: Colman Dock

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: The modern tower of the new deco-styled Colman Dock is seen from the Railroad Avenue (Alaskan Way) overpass soon after the remodeled dock's completion in 1937.
NOW: Jean Sherrard used the Marion Street overpass as well for his second-floor record of passenger access to Colman Dock. Far left and below the waving flags and telling time is the big clock from the old Colman Dock Tower. (For it early fate see "Iron into Wood" below.) The clock was removed in the mid-30s for the dock's Deco renovation. Forty years later it was found in parts, which the Port of Seattle purchased and restored as a gift to the Department of Transportation. It was reinstalled at Colman Dock in 1985, although not in a tower, but first inside the waiting room, but then moved to here.

When the brilliantly industrious Seattle pioneer James Colman started to build his namesake dock on the waterfront in the early 1880s, it was hindered by another namesake, Yesler’s Wharf.

Except for specialties like coal and lumber, there was not much need for more docks on the pioneer waterfront because Yesler’s was huge and made an elbow turn north, half-blocking access to Colman’s new endeavor.

Colman took Yesler to court, but Seattle’s Great Fire of 1889 did more to resolve the problem than any judge. It destroyed the waterfront south of Seneca Street, and Yesler’s wharf was rebuilt without the elbow. Colman rebuilt his dock, too, with an impressive facade on Railroad Avenue, which, however, hid two stubby piers behind it. The big change came in 1908 when, in part preparing for the coming summer volumes expected with the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Expo, Colman Dock was extended 705 feet into the bay and fitted with a handsome tower and domed waiting room.

Colman Dock quickly became the center of intra-Puget Sound transportation and remains so today.

The 1908 pier shed was replaced in 1937 with the Art Deco expression seen here. It complemented the Black Ball Line’s new streamlined flagship, the Kalakala. After the opening of the Oakland Bay and Golden Gate bridges, also in the mid-1930s, a flotilla of bargain-priced ferries came north to work on Puget Sound. All but one (I believe), the San Mateo, were given local names.

After 15 years of rate hikes, strikes and withdrawals of service, the Black Ball Line was sold to the state in 1951. Ten years later, the Deco dock was replaced with the towerless one still in use and expanding.


Walking a few steps north, I took another photo of the ferry line:

Headed for Winslow

Anything to add, Paul?  YES Jean.  I have reached into the files and pulled out five previously published features – and they sometimes repeat each other because they all involve Colman Dock – and a few other related photos.

Both views look down on the parking lot for waiting motorists at the north side of Colman Dock near the waterfront foot of Marion Street. Dedicated in 1965, the contemporary ferry terminal is wider than the 1908 structure shown in the “then” view. The parking lot was also pushed north and is considerably wider than the eight lanes available in the 1930s. (Historical photo courtesy of Waterfront Awareness.)


Most likely a motorcar historian who knows the models of most brands (as ancient even as the Stanley Steamer which is generally believed to be the first auto ferried across Puget Sound — in 1906) can quickly peg the year this photograph was recorded at Colman Dock.  With little interest in cars since high school I have only two “outside dates” to offer.  In 1937 a new Arts Deco ferry terminal replaced the 1908 vintage wharf shown on the right.  The older view also dimly reveals part of the west façade of The Exchange Building – at First Avenue and Marion Street – in its upper left corner.   It was completed in 1930.

When constructed in ‘08 with a landmark Romanesque tower at the water end, at 700-plus feet long Colman Dock was fitted to its sides with fourteen slips that could be raised and lowered with the tides.  It was by far the busiest “Mosquito Fleet” landing on Puget Sound.  Six of the dock’s births snuggled against its north side, directly where the cars are here parked in the early or mid 1930s.

This extended stage for parking was constructed in the mid-1920s when many of the sleek Puget Sound “Mosquito Fleet” passenger steamers were being humbled with conversion to ferries.  Their pointed bows were cut open and their slim decks fattened over sponsons for cars.  By 1923 the dock’s tenant, the Puget Sound Navigation Company – AKA the “Black Ball” line – figured that it had already handled 28,000 “machines” on the “Navy Yard Route” between Seattle and Bremerton.

In 1935 the streamlined “Kalakala” began landing here.  Built on the burned-out hull of a California ferry, the Black Ball flagship was soon followed by seventeen more Golden Gate ferries, moved to Puget Sound after the opening of the suspension bridges on San Francisco Bay made them obsolete there and cheap here as salvaged goods.  (The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, opened in late 1936, and the Golden Gate Bridge, the following summer.)


The Spanish-style Colman Dock with its landmark clock tower was only four years old when the steel-hulled Alameda cut through its outer end in an outsize docking blunder. Overhauled with a new tower the 1908 the pier was next renovated in the mid 1930s as a moderne terminus for the Kalakala “the world’s first streamlined ferry.” The contemporary Colman Dock dates from 1961.

I was recently reminded by Scott Morris who sometimes helps crew the Virginia V, the last of Puget Sound’s “Mosquito Fleet”, that the reason so many of the ports of call around the Sound were called “landings” is because bringing an unwieldy steamer along side them was a kind of “controlled crash.”

Here is evidence of an uncontrolled crash at Colman Dock on the night of April 25, 1912.  It ranks high on the waterfront’s list of remarkable blunders.  The culprit was not a small Puget Sound steamer but human communication aboard the Alameda, the Alaska Steamship Company’s ocean-going liner.   With the Alameda resting about 250 yards west southwest of the pier head Capt. John (Dynamite) O’Brien acting as port pilot gave a “full astern” order to Third Assistant Engineer Guy Van Winter who in turn relayed it verbally to Second Assistant Robert Bunton.  Bunton, who was at the throttle, either heard or understood the order as “full ahead” and quickly jerked the Alameda into action with these results.

Coming at it from an angle the iron-hulled ship crunched through the end of Colman Dock dropping its tower into the bay and exposing the passenger waiting room beneath the dock’s dome.  Slowed but not stalled the ship continued slicing, sinking the stern-wheel steamer Telegraph that was berthed on the north or opposite side of the pier.  The Alameda might have gone up the waterfront smashing into other piers but for the quick thinking of O’Brien.  When the ship surged forward the captain shouted for the anchors to be dropped and after 125 fathoms of chain were out, the starboard anchor caught and the next pier north – the Grant Trunk Pacific Dock, then the largest wooden pier on the coast – was momentarily saved.   It burned down two years later.

No one was killed although a few were injured and/or dumped into the bay.  The hardy Alameda was merely inconvenienced, continuing its scheduled run to Alaska only a few hours late.  When the Colman tower was found at sunrise floating in the bay the hands on its big clock read 10:23.


The sternwheeler Telegraph stirs beside the Colman Dock clock tower only weeks or days before the one was sunk and other toppled together. In the mid-1960s the contemporary Colman Dock was constructed and its staging area for vehicles completed over the slip shown in the historical view. (Historical view courtesy of North Idaho Historical Society.)

This slender representative of the Puget Sound “Mosquito Fleet” was constructed in Everett in 1903 for the Seattle-Tacoma run.  The Telegraph was one of the last sternwheelers built beside these waters.  She drew only 8 feet of water, was 25.7 seven feet wide and 153.7 feet long – more than twice as long as the 72 foot Colman Dock tower seen here behind.   On the evening of April 25, 1912 the tower and the sternwheeler  shared the same fate.   This photograph was taken a few days or weeks earlier.

Here the clock in the tower reads 12 straight up.  The Telegraph is churning the bay with her paddles perhaps beginning its noon departure for Bremerton, its regular destination since 1910 when its Portland builder Capt. U.B. Scott sold her to the Puget Sound Navigation Company.  When the Colman Tower was fished from the bay after sunrise on April 26, 1912 the clock read 10:15.  It was the very minute of the collision the night before.

On the evening of the 25th while Captain John “Dynamite” O’Brien was preparing to land his ocean-going steamer Alameda to the south side of the Alaska Steamship Company’s Pier 2, one wharf south of the Colman Dock, he was waved off to the north side.  Instructing his assistant Robert Bunton to go “full speed astern” Bunton went full speed ahead instead.  Like a hot knife through butter and with hardly a scratch to its steel hull the Alameda drove through the outer end of Colman dock.  Before it was stopped by its own anchor she dropped the tower into the bay and drove the Telegraph — parked then, as here, along the pier’s north side — as far as the Grand Pacific Dock before it sank the sternwheeler.

Remarkably no one was killed.  And aside from a few scratches and brief dunkings no one was hurt.  Without tragedy this collision soon became a cartoon in the retelling.  An expensive cartoon.  After the owners of Telegraph instructed the owners of the Alameda to pay them $55,000 in damages a federal court made them settle for $25,000 on the grounds that sternwheelers were no longer popular.   Still the Telegraph was raised and repaired and the tower replaced.

Colman Dock in the foreground with the Grand Trunk Pacific dock and its tower the next pier north. The floating remnants of the crash hand around the pier.
Rebuilding the waterfront end of Colman Dock, 1912.
The Original Tower ca. 1909 with the Alaska Buildling to the left.
Replacement Colman Dock Tower with Smith Tower
Grand Truck Pacific Dock and rebuilt Colman Dock, left to right, ca. 1912.
Smith tower topped but still to be clad with its terra-cotta skin. Hoge Bldg on the left, with Grand Trunk Dock and 2nd Colman Tower. (Courtesy MOHAI)
Waterfront from Alaska Pier 2 at the foot of Yesler Way north, ca. 1913 or early 1914, but certainly before the July 4,1914 dedication of the Smith Tower, the prospect.
The Victoria pulls away from the slip between Pier 2 (51) and Colman Dock sometime in the early teens. (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey)
The modern Colman Dock from the 1960s is without tower – except for the advertising spire near the sidewalk – and the open water slip along its south side has long since been covered for vehicular access to the Washington State Ferries.


With “clues” from the tower, upper-right, and a scribbled negative number, lower-left, it is possible to, at least, compose a general description of this crowded scene.  The clock turret, here partially shrouded in the exhaust of the disembarking steamer S. S. Victoria, replaced the Colman Dock’s original tower in late 1912.  That spring the first tower was knocked into Elliott Bay by the steel-hulled steamship Alameda during a very bad landing.  The second clue, the number “30339” penned on the original negative by the Curtis and Miller studio, dates the scene – still roughly – from 1914 or 1915.

In 1908 the by then already venerable Victoria was put to work on the Alaska Steamship Company’s San Francisco-Seattle-Nome route.  Considering how packed are both the ship and the north apron of the Northern Pacific’s Pier 2 (at the foot of Yesler way) it is more likely that the Victoria is heading out for the golden shores of Nome rather than the Golden Gate.

The 360-foot-long Victoria was built in England as the Parthia in 1870 and made her maiden voyage that year to New York as the finest ship of the British Cunnard Line, for many years the dominant North Atlantic shipper. With compound engines she required half the coal of her sister ships, and with the gained room was the first Cunnard ship to have, among other niceties, bathrooms.  Eighty-six years later the Victoria (She was renamed with a 1892 overhaul, again in England.) was sold to Japanese shipbreakers and in 1956 her still sturdy hand-wrought iron hull was salvaged for scrap in Osaka, Japan.

Most likely a few Pacific readers will still remember the Victoria from the depression years of 1936 to 1939 when she was laid up in Lake Union unable to meet the cost of U.S. fire and safety regulations.  A least a few eastside readers will recall the steamer from the summer of 1952 and following.  On Aug. 23rd of that year the then oldest steamer in the U.S.A. was tied to the old shipyard dock at Houghton (Kirkland) on Lake Washington where she waited first for an ignoble 1955 conversion into a log-carrying barge, and briefly renamed the Straits, before taking the last of her many trans-Pacific trips.  That most fateful of journeys was her first trip under tow.

The Athlon resting in the slip on the south side of Colman Dock. No tower shows. This is either between towers or the first tower is low enough to be missed from this position.
Another look at the Deco Colman Dock. This impression by A. Curtis.
Colman's deco interior, also recorded by A. Curtis.
Days before the Alaskan Way Viaduct opened to traffic in 1953, pedestrians were given a chance to walk it first. This view of Colman Dock on the right with the Kalakala beside it was, most likely, photographed by Horace Sykes. (There is a slimmer chance that Robert Bradley was the photographer.)


Turn-of-the-Century Colman Dock facade ca. 1903 seen across a rough Railroad Avenue. The first tower and new pier were constructed in 1908.
Similar point-of-view as the ca. 1903 record above it. This worn deco pier was razed for the surviving modern dock, included here directly below.
The most recent Colman Dock.

Here – three photos up –  is Railroad Avenue circa 1903.   With this extended  outer-part there are no tracks and so it is relatively safe for the few suited men shown here to be heading in every direction.  This new section for wagons and pedestrians was built after a tidelands replat reordered the waterfront in the late 1890s. Dock owners like the pioneer engineer and millwright James M. Colman were given the time they needed to conform their  property to the replat.   Because of the prosperity that came also in  the late 1890s with the Yukon-Alaskan gold rush, by the time this photograph was recorded practically the entire waterfront between King and Pike Streets was made over with new piers and a wider trestle.

The first floor businesses on Colman Dock begin on the left with what appears to be a produce stand beneath a striped awning that reads across its hem “parcels checked.”  Next door is the Sunde and Erland Sail Makers and Ship Chandlers, one of the long-lived residents of this dock.  The “electric contractor” Frank H. Folsom is next.  Besides dynamos Folsom offers poles and piles, tug boat services, and “monthly sailing vessels to all California Coast Points.” At the far end is the Loggers Supply Company and to this side of it the furrier Charles Wernecke.  In 1904 Ye Olde Curiosity Shop began its long hold on Wernecke’s storefront, decorating it with whale bones, totems and other Indian artifacts.

In 1903 the roughness of Railroad Avenue itself inspired a muckraking campaign by the upscale businessman’s “Commonwealth Magazine. ”  Quoting, in part, “Few know its dizzy danger . . . [which] has been doubled at night by the lack of light . . .    Strangers arriving in the city for the first time grope around in the darkness and splash into the pools of slimy water or slip through the muddy ditches, as they go up and down to avoid climbing over or under the freight cars  .   . and wonder if they have gotten off at some  small country town by mistake.”   Add the Commonwealth’s exploration into the rotting rubbish beneath this wide trestle (not included here)  and it makes for some retching reading.

Towerless and gray the Grand Trunk dock holds the center of this partial pan of Seattle from Elliot Bay on June 17, 1962, Century 21 Summer. Ivar's Acres of Clams, on the left, has been freshly painted for tourists. The Deco Colman dock is on the right, directly below the Smith Tower. The Alaskan Way Viaduct is here 9 years old.


Perilously stuck between the Alaska Steamship pier on the right and the blazing Grand Trunk dock on the left, the smoldering tower of Colman Dock is the centerpiece of this 1914 scene shot from off shore.

The destruction of the Grand Trunk Dock at the foot of Madison Street on July 30, 1914 was the most spectacular single fire in the history of the Seattle waterfront.  The “single” condition is important, for the city’s “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889 consumed the entire waterfront south of University Street – about 15 blocks worth.  That inferno did not discriminate.  (Lest someone complain, I have not included the 1910 fire on Wall Street in this ranking because a stiff wind off Elliott Bay kept its impressive incineration to the east side of Railroad Avenue.)

On the far left – nearly out of the picture – is the 108-foot blazing skeleton of the Grand Trunk tower.  This view of its destruction is unique, for the unnamed photographer has turned to shoot what then may have seemed to be the imminent destruction of Colman Dock. And the fireboats Snoqualmie and Duwamish have joined the photographer to also shoot the dock that is not yet doomed. It seems two of their three visible streams are aimed at Colman Dock, one of them reaching the clock tower that is as yet merely smoldering.

When its namesake Canadian railroad completed the Grand Trunk Pacific Dock in 1910 it was the largest wooden finger pier on the West Coast.  Four years later its charred piles were recapped and topped with another long and ornate terminal of the same footprint but without the tower. (This somewhat less distinguished replacement survived until 1964 when it was cleared away for an expanded loading lot north of Colman Dock.)

With the fireboats help Colman Dock escaped its neighbor’s fate.  Badly scorched, the top of the tower was rebuilt and survived until this Spanish-style home of the Black Ball fleet was replaced in the mid-1930s with an art-deco terminal in the style of the fleet’s then new flagship, the Kalakala.

ABOVE: The Colman Dock with its second tower and in its last year before conversion to the Deco-Modern version.  The date: July 16, 1936.  It’s written  along the bottom.  On the far right is Pier 3 later renamed Pier 54. Since 1946 the home of Ivar’s Acres of Clams.  In between Pier 3 and Colman Dock is the Grand Trunk Pacific dock as rebuilt after the grander Canadian dock was razed by the fire of 1914.

The first Colman dock without a warehouse, bottom right corner. Yesler Wharf is beyond it and making access to it difficult. It was something Colman took Yesler to court over. This view from before a 1887 fire on Yesler Wharf, ca. 1885-86.
John Colman
The modern Colman Dock seen from the Smith Tower in 1976. On the left are the old Alaska Piers (formerly site of Yesler's Wharf) stripped of their warehouses for parking and the Polynesian. Between Colman Dock and Ivar's Pier 53 is the former site for the Grant Trunk Pacific Dock, here removed for more ferry parking. Photo by Lawton Gowey

4 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Colman Dock”

  1. Paul, As always I enjoyed your Colman Dock article. Some addition is in order. California imports which were mot renamed include Shasta (sister ship to San Mateo) and City of Sacramento. These three and Malahat remained in service as steam ships.
    Bob Sexauer

  2. Thanks for the reminder Bob. Perhaps the San Mateo was the only one not renamed among its “group” of sold San Francisco bay vessels. Or perhaps long ago I got a bum steer and did not question my source. I know I didn’t make it up. But now I’ll drop it too.

  3. Around 1970-71 I vaguely recall looking down into the water on the south side between Colman dock and the the pier next to it with the Polynesia restaurant, and seeing the remains of a sunken paddlewheel-type ship that had obviously been there for years. Anyone recall that/know what it was about?

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