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Seattle Now & Then: First Avenue South

(click to enlarge photos – and often CLICK TWICE for the full enlargement.)

THEN: After the city’s “great fire” of 1889 First Avenue south of King Street was extended far and wide into the tideflats. An exception to the city’s post-fire “brick rule” the first structures here were made of wood, and so replaced by masonry early in the 20th Century. (Courtesy Museum of History and Industry.)
NOW: Jean’s cityscape of First Ave. south of King Street glows with a mixed lighting of sunset and Seattle City Light. With a combination of his long frame and a 10-foot extension pole he approached the lofty prospect of the railroad trestle used by the Webster and Stevens studio to record one of its earliest images, most likely in 1903.

Between 1877 and 1903 a King Street trestle crossed First Avenue here.  It was built for a narrow-gauged railroad that carried mostly coal from the east side of Lake Washington to the bunkers on the King Street Coal Wharf.   The trestle offered this prospect south in line with First Avenue through a strip of small hotels, bars, cafes, laundries and storefront businesses for sharpening saws, supplying sheet metal and other light manufacture needs.

Especially in these first blocks south of King it was a short-lived street scene built of wood in the decade following the city’s “great fire” of 1889.  The post-fire building codes that required brick construction did not apply to these blocks, which in 1889 were still tidelands south of King Street and so ordinarily under water.

1903 is the likely year for this scene. Many of the small business here, like the Chicago Bar on the left, appear in the 1903 Polk City Directory, but then move on or fall away.   It is also the first year that the photographers Webster and Stevens are listed.

The Seattle Everett Interurban began operation thru these blocks in the fall of 1902, the year Chamber of Commerce’s Tidelands Improvement Company began promoting public works improvements south of King Street.  Here the Interurban tracks are temporarily blocked as First Ave. South is being prepared for a pavement of vitrified brick.  Contractor bids for this work were accepted by the Board of Public Works “up to 11 o’clock a.m. Monday July 6, 1903.”

Enlargements of both this and last week’s “then,” also on King Street, are new additions to “Repeat Photography,” the exhibit that Jean and I, along with our Parisian ally, Berangere Lomont, prepared for the Museum of History of Industry. The Seattle Times is one of the sponsors of the show, which will be up until June 3, 1912.  Contact MOHAI for details.


Anything to add, Paul?

A few more from the neighborhood around First and King.   Again, most of this is grabbed from now-then’s done down the years (since 1982).  And here I’ll have the same blog failing – I wont always be above to find (easily) the “now” for some historical image for which I still have the text.   Perhaps organizing past “nows” will be something to get to next year – post Keeping Clam with Ivar.

First we will go out to the far west end of the King Street Coal Wharf and look to the east-southeast.  The wharf began its service of accepting coal from Renton and Newcastle in 1878.   The first of these is from the early 80s, and the snow scene was taken, I believe, during a 1884 snow, and so not the bigger 1880 one.    Beacon Hill is in the horizon (note the first homes built there), and the tides still push against it.  The lumber mill is Stetson-Post.

The railroad trestle connecting the King St.wharf with the worm-free slope of Beacon Hill was used until 1903 (or thereabouts) when the coal wharf was moved south to Dearborn Street and a new trestle connected with it.  King Street was then developed for the Great Northern’s Union Depot, which could not be bothered with a narrow-gauged coal road cutting through it.   The next image looks west on the King Street trestle in the 1890s.   All of this replaced what was burned to the bay during the “great” 1889 fire.   Note the height of this trestle.  It was also from this scaffolding that the historical photograph was taken looking south on First Avenue.   Here the pier that is about one-fourth of the way into the frame from its right border – one of the two pier sheds with a curved roof – would thru the years be rebuilt into what is now Pier 48, that part of the historical waterfront’s sold survivor from the 1890s.  It is near the foot of Main Street.

The coals of Renton were often delivered to the bunkers on the King Street Wharf. (As always, Click to Enlarge)

Next we will copy the Pacific clipping of a tideland story first publish there on July 22, 1990.   The contemporary photo was taken from within the old Kingdome.

This is used courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries - its Special Collections.

Best to CLICK TWICE for what follows.

There was a filling of the tideflats from the beginning of settlement, but the systemic work of dredging Elliot Bay for  vast amounts of the muddy sands needed to reclaim the flats to an elevation high enough above high tide to be safe began in 1895.


(First appears in Pacific, May 16, 1993)

The empty foreground of this scene is its subject. “Tide flats” is written on the original negative. What’s being dumped upon these tidelands is of greatest interest – mud. The mud-spurting pipe is included just left of center (in the left panel of an imperfect merge of two parts).

The date is May 1896, 10 months since work began to make new land on the tidelands south of King Street. The first dredging, July 29, 1895, was accompanied by speeches, band music and cheers, especially when the first waters propelled by the pumps of the dredge Anaconda erupted from the half-mile-long pipe. “Soon the stream became slightly discolored, and the dash of black announcing the sand called for a redoubled cheer,” the Post-Intelligencer reported the next day. “Then the stream became black and blacker until it seemed to burst out of the vent in great blotches of liquid mud.” These dredgings would drain and dry as they rose above the tides protected behind bulkheads of pilings and brush.

It required much more than the mud from the bottom of Elliott Bay to fill in the more than 2,000 acres of sandy tidelands between Beacon Hill and West Seattle. Other sources included gravel from the city’s bigger regrades, including those at Jackson and Dearborn streets and the Denny Regrade. The fill used to finally reclaim these acres in the 1930s was construction junk, yard waste and all manner of disposed stuff that was once regularly dropped into the old city dumps or sanitary landfills.

Three landmarks ascending the horizon in the historical view help approximate its contemporary repeat (when I find it): South School at 12th near Dearborn, far right; the spire of Holy Names Academy at Seventh near Jackson, right of center; and the King County Courthouse, far left. At Seventh and Alder the courthouse filled a block that is now part of the relatively new addition to the west side of Harborview Hospital. The top of the hospital’s central tower is a minutia on the far left of the “now” scene. (Most of the “now” view as printed in Pacific is filled with the west side bulk of the old Kingdome – R.I.P.)

Now follows something about the Centennial Mill, one of the first industries to build on the reclaimed tidelands. (Click to Enlarge)

Best to CLICK TWICE for what follows.

We discovered another feature that was the first milling of much of the grist included in the top story here.  What follows first appeared in Pacific on Aug. 18, 1991.

(Best to still  CLICK TWICE for what follows.)

Another First South feature from pretty much the same time, although inserted in Pacific long ago - on Aug. 18, 1991. So - again - the our top story is, in part, a regrinding of this grist.
Here we look south thru Pioneer Square to the tidelands and nearly in line with First Ave. South, ca. 1906-7. This - I'm speculating - was taken from back of the Empire Building, and so above the alley between Madison, Marion, Second and Third. Note what was then the commonplace polution streaming from the steam plant stack on Post Alley.

For the map below CLICK TWICE.

Mapping the tidelands - and more - in 1905. Note how First Avenue confidently extends south into the new and often undeveloped reclaimed neighborhood we sometimes refer to as our first "industrial" park, and now also, in part, as SODO.

Now we ascend again to the top of the King Street viaduct in its last days and look north with help from a Webster and Stevens photographer.

Courtesy: Museum of History and Industry aka MOHAI


(First appeared in Pacific on NOV. 24, 1985)

Photographers are opportunists, and sometime (probably) in 1903 one grabbed the chance to climb high above the center of First Ave. S., point a lens north and shoot this historical scene from the last of the coal railroad King Street overpass, which carried coal cars to the King Street Coal Wharf and Bunkers.  The view, then, looking north from King St. is wonderfully revealing. We will start at the bottom.

The tracks that cut diagonally across the scene are part of what was then still the main railroad line through town. The Great Northern did not begin cutting its tunnel beneath the city until May of 1903, and it took two years more to complete it. That tunnel was bored to ease the congestion of boxcars on the waterfront and the frequent interruptions of traffic here on First Ave. S. The year 1903 is a good guess for dating this scene. Here’s the evidence. In the hole on the right at the southeast corner of First S. and Jackson St., foundation work is beginning on a building that was completed in 1904. Now it’s called the Heritage Building after the Heritage Group that recently (in 1985) renovated it. However, we remember it best as the recent home of Standard Brands and before that of Wax & Rain, another paint supplier.

Beyond the pit is another clue for this date-of-choice, the electric trolley on Jackson St.  Although its markings are too small to decipher in this printing, a magnified inspection of the original photo reveals the number “324” on the trolley’s side. Car 324 was built in St. Louis in 1902 for the Seattle Electric Co., but was soon sold to the Puget Sound Electric Railway for service on its then new Seattle Tacoma Interurban line. Here, en-route to Tacoma, it will turn off Jackson onto First S. and soon pass on the tracks, right of center, just beneath the photographer’s perch. Behind Car 324 is the Capitol Brewing Co. building. Built in 1900 it was the Seattle office for Olympia Beer and home of the Tumwater Tavern. The familiar brewery symbol of the horseshoe-framed waterfall is stuck to the stone just left of the trolley. This pleasing three-story combination of brick and stone is still standing and renamed the Jackson Building.

Years later, a Seattle-Tacoma Interurban car waits at its station on Occidental Avenue. The Interurban Building is behind it to the right (at the southeast corner of the Yesler and Occidental), and the old Seattle Hotel, behind it to the left.

The old Olympia sign is gone and in its place there should be (but was not in 1985) a plaque telling how the architect Ralph Anderson boldly bought this modest neoclassical structure in 1963 and, with help from a lot of preservationist friends, began the fight to save this entire neighborhood. Bill Speidel soon joined him with the above ground offices for his Underground Tours, and Richard White, who now owns the building, opened his first gallery here. Their long battle was largely won with the institution of the Pioneer Square Historical District.

But the fight continues. A recent victory (in 1985) is on the photo’s left. Just across First Ave. S. from the Jackson Building, the elegant Smith Building was also built in 1900. For half a century it was the home of Steinberg Clothing. In 1982 it was lavishly renovated into 24 large loft studio apartments where photographers and graphic designers have enough undivided room beneath l6-ft. ceilings to both live and work.

In 1903 there were so few motorcars around that if one sputtered by, you might run out to see it. In this scene, aside from the trolleys, everything is still, to quote the contemporary master saddle-maker Jack Duncan, “Horse, Horse and Horse.” That’s Jack Duncan at the bottom of the “now” photograph and above him is Seattle’s last horse. Jack Duncan helped me out. I was not so lucky as the historical photographer to find a temporary platform above the center of First S. at King St., and so I moved one block south for Duncan’s horse, hospitality, and loan of a ladder. There I took the contemporary shot leaning against the family business that has been making “Everything For The Horse Since 1898.”  (Apologies for the ink-smudge that is the “now” repeat.  When the original negative surfaces I’ll make a redemption.)

Next we stay at the same intersection, and not long after.  The trestle is gone but the Schwabacher warehouse is in ruins.

Best to CLICK TWICE for what follows.

. . . and staying at the corner.

THEN & NOW CAPTIONS together.  Both views look north of First Avenue South from King Street.  All the buildings that appear in the ca. 1908 view survive, although now their architectural pleasures flirt with pedestrians through the trees that line the center of First Avenue.  They were planted in the 1970s as part this oldest neighborhoods’ dedication as a historic district.


(First appeared in Pacific Jan. 22, 2006)

For the few years that the photographer Otto T Frasch explored the streets of Seattle he managed to publish postcards of many – perhaps most – of the city’s landmarks.  The results are often the best records of early 20th-century boomtown Seattle that survive, and local postcard enthusiasts are pleased to now show each other their Frasch collections.

This view is unique for Frasch.  It is less a landmark than an event – or the beginning of one.  Sometime after the 1902 opening of the Meadows Racetrack, the Seattle Electric Company devised this cheap way of transporting betting men to the Georgetown track in a style accustomed to cattle.  The passengers that are busy boarding this odd train do not require plush seats or even closed cars to enjoy their journey to the excitement of racing and the snickering promise of its riches.  These men are universally covered with hats and the husbands among them carry more cash in their pockets than homemaking wives would ordinarily condone.

The Meadows in Georgetown

With its covered grandstand, and stables, the one-mile Meadows track was built in the embrace of one of the many serpentine curves that were the Duwamish River before it was straightened into the Duwamish Waterway.  The 1907 incorporation into Seattle of the regulatory-lax Georgetown put a muzzle to the medley of vices sometimes associated with gambling (and more recently smoking cigarettes) and with the 1909 state ban on gambling the track’s chargers moved to other pastures.  The Meadows site, once on a meandering floodplain, is now one small part of an industrial gerrymander: the cheap-tax “Boeing Bulge” that pushes well into the city’s southern border.

Frasch photographed these traveling men sometime after the mid-block construction of the Seller Building in 1906.  The here (far left) vacant lot at the northwest corner of King and First Ave South was filled in 1913 with the surviving Hambrack Building, a name hardly remembered as it, the Seller and the Pacific Marine Schwabacher Building at Jackson Street are since the mid-1980s all parts of the flashy “high-tech office campus” called Merrill Place.

If you happen to have one of Otto Frasch’s cards you probably know that it is a “real photo postcard” continuously toned with real grays.   Most printings of images – postcards included – show illusory grays made from fields of little black dots of diverse thickness.  Mixing with white spaces between them these black dots produce the illusion of gray to the unaided eye.  (For a look into this trickster’s universe of black-as-gray the reader may wish to search at the accompanying photographs with magnification all the while searching hard for some gray.)

Follows three survey’s of the tide flats, all recorded from Beacon Hill.  The oldest dates from the 1890s, the next from 1914, and the last from 1968.  This last is a combo of two slides taken by Lawton Gowey.

The 1914 view above includes the Centennial Mill on the left, Luna Park at the Duwamish Head, the Moran ship-building yard at the center, the coal wharves (now two of them) relocated from King Street to Dearborn Street, on the right, and the north-south avenues heading across the tide flats still on trestles in anticipation that they will always need to pass above the trains.  These elevated fly-overs were later forsaken for streets, parking lots and loading docks all at the same level as the trains that use them (or merely pass by on their way to the nearby stations at King Street.)

And now come three examples of real estate ads, invisible hands marking and extolling the attractions and prosperous here-afters of these acres made from mud.  One is copies from a bound two pages and so the center of the message is hidden in the fold – but still can be easily inferred.   Another refers to “Papa Hill.”  That is James Hill the builder of the Great Northern Railroad, the tunnel to the tidelands, the depot on them and much of the reclaimed neighborhood south of King Street.  Hill used several agents to buy them up “secretly,” that is, without coordinating among themselves and without knowing for whom they were ultimately  purchasing the freshly made land.  By these means he meant to keep the prices lower – and did.  (click – sometimes twice – to enlarge)

Ca. 1902 is my best date (at now and perhaps forever) for this look north into the city across the developing parts of its tidelands. A portion of this is used in the adver. directly below. (Click TWICE to Enlarge)

The 1913 relocation of Sears onto the tide flats was a considerable boost for both, although much of the immediate land to the sides of the new distribution center for catalog sales was often still under water.

(Best to CLICK TWICE for what follows.)

Reaching now to conclude, in the late 1970s I was part of an artist’s collective that rented and divided the top floor of the Cork Insulation Building – a long block north of Sears between First S. and Utah Street – into studios.  I distributed my first two “Glimpses” books on local history from a studio space that looked down on First Avenue and east to Beacon Hill.  Especially on vacant Sundays I liked walking through the neighborhood, perhaps to visit St. Vinnies or Good Will, both almost nearby.  I sometimes carried a camera with me and the stepping sawtooth roof (for vertical skylights) of the weathered warehouse below was taken then.  I do not, however, remember where in the district it is – or perhaps was.  Here it will represent that part of the flammable construction that can still be found on the flats.   The brick higher rise below it is an example of how First Ave. S. was respected sufficiently to get some spirited brickwork even on the tide flats.  That one is a tax photo from the late 1930s W.P.A. inventory of all taxable structures in King County.  Like all the others the legal description is written on the print (actually the negative) and sometimes the address too.  [If you have a pre-1938 property you wish to research and wonder if this WPA archive has a picture of it, it probably does.   With legal description in hand –  Addition-Block-Lot or tax number – call Greg Lange at 425 634 2719.  Greg is the Washington State Archivist who has the most to do with the collection, and he can let you know the costs – modest – and whatever else.]






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