Seattle Now & Then: Dexter Horton's Ruin

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: After the city's big fire of 1889, its first bank, Dexter Horton's at First Avenue South and Washington Street, although gutted, was still secure in its back-wall vault -both used and guarded.
NOW: Repeating the "basket handle" arching of the burned bank's windows, the Maynard building replaced it in 1893.

Sixty-three safes were counted in the ruins south of Yesler Way after the city’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889; 63 plus one.

The Dexter Horton Bank, Seattle’s first bank, at the northwest corner of Commercial Street (First Avenue South) and Washington Street, was still standing, although without a roof and stripped of its lacquered appointments such as tellers cages, furniture and window casements. But in the back was the vault, the bank’s own safe, seen here over the shoulder of a guard standing at the missing front door. There the valuables survived, and the room and its locks were kept working and guarded for a few weeks after the fire.

Dexter Horton arrived in Seattle penniless but fortunate: He came early in 1853. By working hard in Yesler’s sawmill, and saving his pay, Horton managed to start a store and then, in 1870, a real bank at this corner with a real safe, one he brought back from an extended visit to San Francisco to study banking. Five years later, in 1875, he replaced his timber quarters with this brick and stone creation, one of the first in Seattle.

Before he was a banker, Horton got a reputation for honesty by taking care of working men’s savings as they were off exploring. He secreted their wealth about his store in crannies and most famously at the bottom of a barrel filled with coffee beans.

A few days after the 1889 fire, The Seattle Times suggested that it had, “perhaps, been more beneficial to that portion of the city around Washington Street so long inhabited by prostitutes . . . It may be well to notify the painted element here now that cribs will no longer be tolerated.” In this case, the paper was, of course, half wrong. Both the prostitutes and the bankers returned.


Not many extra photos on my end this time, Paul.  Just this one, as per your request, with a slightly wider angle, revealing the ‘For Lease’ sign on the second floor:

What about you? Anything to add, Paul?

Yes Jean, and no.  As you know, and now the reader will too, you have at your place the opera of the nearly 1500 now-thens done over the past 29 years as you study them to make choices for the Repeat Photography book we intend to do in concert with a show/exhibit on the same subject at MOHAI.  It opens next April and my! we have lots to do.  You will need to take more than a hundred “nows” (repeats) for the book and exhibit, as well as some more “nows” for new stories in Pacific Magazine through the coming year.   But first you must winnow the horde of now-then stories for the few you prefer, and since you have them all – the clippings – I don’t.   And this returns us to Dexter Horton.  There are three or four apt early stories – from the 1980s – for which I have not digital files Jean (as you know), just the clippings.  So, for the moment, those relevant additional features will not be added.  Instead we might have one story – a more recent one – and a few photographs with captions.


Looking north on Commercial Street (now First Ave. So.) probably in 1876. The Dexter Horton Bank appears on the left at the northwest corner with Washington Street. (Click to Enlarge)
Across the intersection of Washington and Commercial (First S.) to Dexter Horton Bank on the northwest corner.

Soon after the '89 fire. (Courtesy Seattle Public Library)
Start of June 6, 89 "GREAT FIRST" looking south from Spring St. and Front St. (First Avenue.) The Frye Opera House, at First and Marion, is left-of-center, and just catching fire.
The fire reaches the foot of Columbia Street and the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Depot. (A feature was also composed for this image, but for the moment is not in its place.)
The ruins looking north on Front Street (First Ave.) from near the foot of Cherry Street. It is a puzzle to me how the photogapher got this hight above the street in all that wreckage. Note how the street ends drop gradually into Elliott Bay supported by rubble. This is pre-fire rubble. When the city got further into clean up after this "great fire" much more was added at the street ends.
Looking south along the ruined waterfront. The prospect is from the Front Street (First Ave.) sidewalk in the block between Seneca and University Streets. The large ruin left-of-center is the remains of a cracker factory. The foundation at the bottom right corner is not a ruin, but rather new. It was an important fire-fighter - blocking the northerly advance of the fire along the waterfront. It is the beginning construction on the Arlington Hotel, which was first named the Gilmore Bldg, and last the Bay Building and is now part of Harbor Steps.
Pre-fire (shortly before) look to waterfront from a point near First (Front) and Union. To the right of center two railroad lines nearly touch - the "Rams' Horn" on the left and the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern on the right. It is there near the waterfront foot of University Street that a bucket brigade was able to thrown enough water at the two trestles to prevent the fire from continuing north along them.
A two-part panorama of the "great fire" ruins taken (I believe) from Mayor Woods home at the northwest corner of Union and Front (First). Note the Arthur and Mary Denny home across First at the southeast corner of Union. Some tents are up, trestle building and planking is well along on the waterfront, and the Front Street Cable Railway is in service. The lines of both the "Ram's Horn" and the SLSE can be detected, although the former is a phantom and will soon be shut off by developers building over it to the dismay and complaints of the unpopular railroad's owners. Beacon Hill is on the horizon.
Rebuildling on Second Ave. north of Spring Street. (A feature story for this is also off alone somewhere.)
Waterfront ruins from Second Avenue near Cherry Street.
An improvised kitchen
"I sit guard."
A mix of ruins and tents seen looking southwest from City Hall, which faced Third Avenue between Jefferson and Yesler. The Dexter Horton ruin appears near the scene's center.
The burned district - part of it - seen from First Hill. The Dexter Horton bank is in the picture, far right, although it does not stick out. Look hard, or compare this view with the one above it - for clues. The view looks southwest to the tideflats - or part of them. The street running through the middle of the scene is Mill Street, renamed Yesler Way. The big-roof building on the right is Turner Hall - for meetings and entertainments. Just above it the roof line of City Hall (Katzzenjammer Kastle) is seen. The white church at the center is the Roman Catholic Our Lady of Good Help parish at the northeast corner of 3rd (now) and Washington Street. On the far left and reflecting the morning sunlight is the first brick home built in Seattle - with the ornamental crest. We will put up a now-then just below for it, but as yet not story - it seems - until I get the clippings back from Jean. (I have not memorized this stuff.)
The first brick home in Seattle when nearly new ca. 1890. South side of Terrace Street just west of 6th Avenue.
The site of the first brick Seattle home is not like this, but it was. That small greenbelt between 5th and 6th Avenues just south of Terrace Street is now filled with another government related structure, I believe. I've not been to this site since I recorded this little forest.

From Left to right, Roland Denny, B.E. Briggs, Dexter Horton, Charles Denny, Arthur Denny, N.H.Latimer. There is more about Latimer below. (Courtesy, MOHAI)
Dexter Horton home at northeast corner of Third Avenue and Seneca Street with the Territorial University to the rear, across Fourth Avenue.
Horton Home site "now" - about six years ago.


Sometime in the 1870s, Dexter Horton moved with his second wife, Caroline Parsons, (his first wife had died) into their new home at the northeast corner of Third Avenue and Seneca Street. From their back porch they could look up at the classical cupola of Territorial University’s main building less than a block away. Except for the low fence that enclosed the campus, the landscape was continuous because Fourth Avenue was then still undeveloped between Seneca and Union streets.

Horton arrived in Seattle in 1853 with little more than the clothes he wore. Like most others, he eventually worked in Henry Yesler’s sawmill. His first wife, Hannah, worked for Yesler as well, managing the cookhouse attached to the mill. With their combined incomes, the couple opened a general store near the mill and even ventured to San Francisco to try their hand in the brokerage business. When they returned to Seattle in 1869 or ’70 (sources disagree), they brought with them a big steel safe and the official papers to start Seattle’s first bank.

The popular story that Horton’s first safe had no back was discounted much later by his daughter, Caroline, who told off Seattle Times reporter Margaret Pitcairn Strachan: “You don’t think my father was that stupid do you?” The daughter speculated that the backless safe was one of her father’s jokes, since he was well known “for telling stories and laughing heartily at them.”

For all its loft and ornament, the banker’s distinguished home was the scene of a constant battle to stay warm in the colder months. Three fireplaces were the entire source of heat. The home’s many high windows admitted drafts at all hours.

But when Dexter Horton died in 1904, a few months short of 80, he was still living here.


Latimer home at southwest corner of Terry and Marion. When Norval Latimer (in the front seat) married Margaret Moore (in the back seat) in 1890 he was the manager of the Dexter Horton bank. When they posed with three of their children for this 1907 view on Terry Ave. with the family home behind them, Norval was still managing the bank and would soon be made both president and director as well.
Margaret Latimer Callahan, the child in the motorcar above, now. The Frye Art Museum is directly behind the photographer.


[This feature first appeared in Pacific in 2006.]

There are certainly two artifacts that have survived the 99 years since the historical view was recorded of the Latimer family – or part of it  – posing in the family car and in front of the family home on First Hill.

We are confident that the scene was recorded in 1907 because a slightly wider version of the same photograph shows construction scaffolding still attached to the north side of St. James Cathedral’s south tower, far right.  The Cathedral is the most obvious survivor.  By the time of the church’s dedication on Dec. 22, 1907 the scaffolding was removed.              The second artifact is the stonewall that once restrained the Latimer lawn and now separates the Blood Bank parking lot from the sidewalks that meet at the southwest corner of Terry and Columbia.

In the “now” Margaret Latimer Callahan stands about two feet into Terry Street and near where her banker father Norval sits behind the wheel in the family Locomobile.   Born on July 22, 1906, Margaret is the youngest of Norval and Margaret Latimer’s children.

For a while, Margaret, it was thought, might be a third visible link between the then and now — although certainly no artifact.  The evidentiary question is this.  Who is sitting on papa Norval’s lap?  Is it his only daughter or his youngest son Vernon?  After polling about – yes – 100 discerning friends and Latimer descendents the great consensus is that this is Vernon under the white bonnet.   And Margaret agrees.  “I was probably inside with a nurse while three of my brothers posed with my parents.”

Margaret also notes that her father is truly a poser behind the wheel, for he was never a driver.   Sitting next to him is Gus the family’s chauffeur with whom he has traded seats for the moment.

The clever reader has already concluded that Margaret Latimer Callahan will be celebrating her centennial in a few days.   Happy 100th Margaret.



The Langston’s Livery Stable was a busy waterfront enterprise through most of the 1880s, Seattle’s first booming decade. (Courtesy MOHAI)
After it was destroyed during the Seattle fire of 1889, the St. Charles Hotel, seen in the “now,” was quickly erected in its place facing Washington Street, and was one of the first “fireproof” brick buildings built after the “Great Fire.”


Helen and John Langston moved to Seattle from Kent in 1882 and soon opened their namesake livery stables on the waterfront at Washington Street.  Like all else in the neighborhood it was, of course, destroyed in the city’s Great Fire of 1889.   Sometime in the few years it served those who wished to park or rent a horse or buggy downtown a photographer recorded this portrait of a busy Langston’s Livery from the back of the roof of the Dexter Horton Bank at the northwest corner of Washington and Commercial Street (First Ave. S.).

In Helen’s 1937 obituary we learn from her daughter Nellie that Helen was “known for her pen and ink sketches of horses and other animals and scenic views.”  Perhaps the livery stable sign, far right, showing the dashing horse with buggy and rider is also her work.  It was Helen who saved the family’s business records from the fire and was for this heroic effort, again as recalled by her daughters, “severely burned before she left the livery stable.”  After the fire the couple quickly put up the St. Charles hotel, seen in the “now.”

Helen married the 38-year-old John in 1870, the same year he began providing ferry service across the White River at Kent and three years after he is credited with opening also in Kent “the first store in King County outside Seattle.”  During these pre-livery years in the valley the Langstons also managed to carve a model farm out of the “deep forest.”  Before they sold it in 1882 their farm was known county-wide for dairy products produced by its “75 excellent milch cows.”

After the fire the Langston’s soon opened another Livery Stable uptown beside their home at 8th and Union.  In the 1903 collection of biographies titled “Representative Citizens of Seattle and King County” John Langston is described both as “now living practically retired” and also busy “in the operation of his magnificent funeral coach, which is one of the finest in the northwest and which is drawn by a team of the best horses.” Three local undertakers kept him busy.  For the moment we may wonder – only – if when he died in 1910 the then 68-year-old pioneer took his last ride in his own coach.



[And when we find the real photos that illustrate this story, we will plug them into it.]

2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Dexter Horton's Ruin”

  1. Another fascinating story, and, as always, great pictures. I’d never seen Dexter Horton’s original bank before. Now, when I walk each day past the Maynard Building, I’ll see Horton’s bank as well.

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