We will say that there are three subjects here: the steel one, floating at the center, and to either side of it two dark structures, both made of wood: the Oriental Pier on the right and the Bell Street trestle on the left.
The date for this look north on the waterfront from the Virginia Street Pier is probably 1910. That was the last year for the temporary Bell St. trestle, which was extended into the bay to carry thru a flume most of Denny Hill. By aiming powerful water canons at the hill it was transformed into flowing mud and carried far off shore.
The almost two-block long Orient Pier was built parallel to Railroad Avenue because Elliott Bay was too deep here to sink piles for finger piers. It was replaced in the 1920s with the also wide-bodied Lenora Street pier, which in the 1990s gave way to the Bell Harbor Marina in the “now.”
The U.S. Army Transport Burnside was war-happy America’s first big booty from the Spanish American war. Built in 1882 at Newcastle on the Tyne, it was sold in 1891 to a Spanish company that named it the Rita. With its capture off the coast of Cuba in 1898 it was renamed the Burnside and outfitted by the army for laying cable communications, first in the Philippines and then Alaska. For instance, in 1903 it strung underwater cable between Sitka and Juneau and the following year continued laying it to Seattle. With a breath of 36.7 feet the Burnside was about one-third the width of the cruise ship taking its place and much more in the “now.”
STRANGE ENCOUNTERS OF THE WATSON
On the morning of Sept. 29, 1915 the steam schooner Paraiso lost in fog tore an 18-foot long hole in the starboard side of the 253-foot long Admiral Watson along the south side of the Port of Seattle’s original Bell Street terminal. The Watson’s master Capt. M.M. Jensen saved the ship from slipping into the unusually deep water there by quickly ordering its stern lines cast off and its bowlines winched to pull the ship closer to shore. Jensen was the hero of the day that saw hundreds of locals catch trolleys and jitneys to visit the sunken Admiral – or at least the top of the steamship so recently refurbished that it was known at the “yacht of the Admiral Line.”
Launched in the east in 1901 the Watson was brought around in 1905 and worked the West Coast on various packets between Puget Sound and San Francisco and also to Alaska until it was sold to Japanese shipbreakers in 1934. Except for this 1915 accident and a temporary stranding in 1910 on Waada Island off Neah Bay the Admiral Watson with its 135 first-class accommodations, six deluxe suites, and 150 beds in steerage was a very safe and serviceable passenger steamer.
Its greatest encounter was with the legendary “giant seagull” off Willapa Bay. The famous bird landed on the Watson’s wireless antenna when the ship was transmitting the latest ball scores. Instantly electrocuted, the profound gull fell to the deck. The sailors quickly measured its wingspan at “six feet three inches tip to tip” and the bird weighed 28 pounds. For twenty years sailors had reported on the tinkling bell sound the giant made as it circled their ships, and the source for this mysterious music was revealed with the birds demise. Attached to one of its legs was a silver band and to the band a swinging metal tag. (For those who wish to learn more, this story is told in detail on p. 156 of the McCurdy Marine History of the Pac. Northwest.)
Another view of the Watson above, not to be confused with Emmett Watson, below left, conversing with Murray Morgan, the “dean of Northwest historians,” at the re-opening of the Ivar’s Acres of Clams on Pier 54 “at the foot of Madison” in 1987 – I believe. I snapped the bottom shot.
COSMOPOLITAN BEACH TOWN BELOW BELLTOWN
In the 1890s the waterfront from Pike Street north to Broad Street was developed into a community of shacks made from scrounged materials, including those deposited by the tides. There was only one break in the bluff separating this squatter’s strip from their Denny Hill & Belltown neighbors above them. The north entrance to this “Belltown ravine” shows on the far left of a scene recorded from the Great Northern RR trestle in 1898 or 99 by the Norwegian photographer, Anders Wilse. North of Bell Street a lower bluff resumed and petered away by Broad Street. Here the entrance to the ravine is crowded with the waterfront’s most ambitious grouping of shacks, appointed with their own seawall and flagpole.
A Post-Intelligencer reporter who visited this “strange beachcombers village” in 1891 noted, “you can hear a dozen languages and dialects. Heavy-faced Indians, black-eyed Greeks, swarthy-Italians, red-haired Irishmen and Danes, Swedes and Norwegians with flaxen locks are mingled in this cosmopolitan settlement. The men fish, do longshore jobs, pick up driftwood and lounge in the sun; while the women stand at their doors and gossip, and the children, too young to know social or race distinctions, dig holes in the cliff and the beach, make houses of pebbles and launch boats in the waves.”
Beginning in 1903, however, construction of the north approach to the Great Northern tunnel beneath the city uprooted this beach community, replacing it with more tracks and fill. Soon the ravine was also filled with Denny Hill dirt that included at least one native skeleton that was discovered at this site during foundation work on the Port of Seattle’s World Trade Center.
Following the extended commotion surrounding the gold rush of the late 1890s the Seattle waterfront settled into vocational routines that located much of the fish-processing north from and including the Pike Street. South of the Pike Street dock as far as King Street the central waterfront was used generally for transportation and shipping of all sorts. Not surprisingly many of the longer finger piers there – between piers 46 and 58 – were owned by railroads.
Both these “now & then” look north from the second floor of Pier 59 (at the foot of Pike Street). In the early 20th century scene Pier 62 – the Gaffney Dock – blocks the view beyond Pine Street. The short pier of the San Juan Fish Company is on the far right and berthed beside it are the company halibut steamers the Grant, at the center of the photograph, and the San Juan. The name was borrowed from the islands where James E. Davis, one of the company’s partners, was born in 1871, the first child born to any settler on Lopez Island it was claimed.
One of the venerable old plows on Puget Sound is on the left – the 154-ft. side-wheeler Geo. E. Starr. When launched near the foot of Cherry Street in 1879 she was the largest vessel built on Puget Sound. When she retired in 1911 the Starr was tied off shore to a buoy in Elliott Bay to store dynamite.
Following World War 2, Port Commissioner E. H. Savage described the central waterfront as “absolutely obsolete. It belongs to the Gold Rush period.” As a corrective the Port proposed to build long piers paralleling the waterfront to berth freighters of lengths that would dwarf the Starr. And in December 1945 the Port started in on this plan by buying up Piers 60 and 61, the home then of two fish companies called Whiz and Palace. Savage explained, “This property is too expensive for birthing fishing craft.”
When the “container revolution” revised the Port’s post-war vision the old working central waterfront turned increasingly to play. In 1975 Pier 60 was demolished for construction of the Seattle Aquarium. In the 1980s the pier sheds on the Gaffney dock and its neighbor the Virginia Street pier were razed to make room eventually for summer concerts. And in the 1990s a long quay was at last built. North – not south — of Lenora Street it was designed primarily for tour ships.
ARMORY ON WESTERN
From this prospect on the bluff below its battlements the military lines and slotted towers of the old National Guard Armory on the slope of Denny Hill stood out like the bastion it was not. The architectural style was strictly high military kitsch. It stood on the west side of Western Avenue and filled most of the block between Virginia and Lenora Streets. Now (top-right) from directly below, the site is hidden behind the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the railroad’s retaining wall that leads to the RR Tunnel’s north portal. Through the Armory’s 59 years the honeycomb of about 150 rooms within its 3-foot thick brick – about one million of them – walls saw more auto shows, conventions, athletics (in its own pool), and community services than it did military drills and standing guard in defense of Seattle.
Built just north of the Pike Place Market on Western Avenue the armory was dedicated on April 1, 1909 or two years after the market opened. Hence, our 1908 view, bottom-left does not show it, while our 1910 view, bottom-middle, does. A month later during an indoor Seattle Athletic Club meet an overcrowded gallery collapsed maiming many and killing a few.
The armory was outfitted with showers and free food services during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and during the ensuing Second World War it was used by both the Greater Seattle Defense Chest as a hospitality center for servicemen and by the Seattle General Depot as a warehouse. Earlier, in 1939, most of the military uses were transferred to the then new steam lined armory that survives as the Seattle Center Centerhouse.
Following WW2 the state’s unemployment compensation offices were housed within these red walls. In April 1947 a fire that began in the basement furnace room swept through the state offices postponing the payment of nearly 2000 checks to the unemployed and veterans. With only two exits the building had already in 1927 been tagged as a firetrap, still it was repaired following the ’47 fire, but not following the larger fire of 1962 after which it was merely shored up. In the January 7, ’62 blaze much of the west wall fell on the northbound lanes of the Alaskan Way Viaduct knocking holes in its deck and cracking its supports.
While asking to purchase the armory from the National Guard the Seattle City Council described its 1959 vision of the armory site that featured some combination of lookout park and garage but without the brick battlements. Nine years later when demolition expert John McFarland began tearing it down local preservationists, including architects Victor Steinbreuck, Fred Bassetti and Laurie Olin, put a temporary stop to it. The proposals that quickly followed featured either restoring what was left of the Armory for small shops or saving its “symbolic parts” including a surviving south wall turret for a lookout tower connected with the proposed park. Revealing a preservationist stripe of his own the contractor McFarland offered to save the armory’s grand arched entrance at his own expense. In this instance, however, the City Council turned a cold cheek to preservation from all quarters and instructed the wrecker to resume his wrecking.
(Principal historical photo, upper-left, used courtesy of Chris Jacobsen)
ABOVE: Three looks south on Railroad Avenue (Alaskan Way), before, during and after the mid 1930s construction of the seawall between Madison and Bay Streets. The top “before” view dates from June 22, 1934. The bottom “after” scene from 1936. Note the Lenora Street Pier on the right, and the Virginia Street Dock, right-of-center. The three were taken from the Lenora Street Viaduct or overpass. (Courtesy Municipal Archive)