Seattle Now & Then: "New Land, North of the Columbia"

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: A page copies from one of pioneer historian Thomas Prosch’s two albums of early Seattle scenes. Prosch’s own captions add both directions and personal tone to his albums. (Courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections)
NOW: Another good service from Jean Sherrard’s extension pole. Like the historical scene, Jean’s looks northeast above the intersection of First Ave. S. and Washington Street.

We’ll begin with the complete and descriptive title of Lorraine McConaghy’s newest book: “New Land, North of the Columbia, Historic Documents That Tell the Story of Washington State from Territory to Today.”   In the book’s introduction she calls it our “paper trail from the territory’s very founding with President Franklin Pierce’s appointment of his political cronies to the patronage jobs of the new territory.”

The historian’s own paper trail began first with letters and notes made from phone calls and then with bus and train tickets and rides with friends.  McConaghy doesn’t drive, so she spent an adventurous year crisscrossing the state by other means, visiting archives, museums and libraries with her digital scanner and making copies to share from the state’s “magnificent common treasury of file folders . . .”  The book’s many pages are elegantly arranged with Washington ephemera like “housing treaties and patent drawings, political cartoons and FBI files, personal correspondence and business records.”

With her abiding métier as the Museum of History and Industry’s resident historian, Dr. McConaghy had been impressively productive as a teacher, curator and author.  This time, she explains, “My intent is to turn peoples attention to the archive.”  She wants us to not only “be proud of our shared archival heritage” but also to be “grateful to the archivists.”  When she made her earliest contacts with the same, she asked, “Show me cool things that you have that tell great stories.”  They and she have succeeded.  Surely, “New Land, North of the Columbia” is a merry journey of discovery.

Early in the book (page 15) McConaghy features a full page from one of pioneer historian-chronicler Thomas Prosch’s two photo albums filled with early recordings of Seattle street scenes and other settings.  Like McConaghy, Prosch was prolific. With his own caption he dates and locates the subject at First Ave. S. and Washington Street (looking northeast) in 1873, and then in his 1901 two-volume manuscript, “A Chronological History of Seattle,” Prosch shares eight well-packed pages on touchstone Seattle events in 1873.  Prosch’s albums and chronology are both kept in the archives of the University of Washington library.  Should you choose to visit the library for a closer look, you may want to also thank the archivist.


Anything to add, Paul?

Yes Jean, more old news from the neighborhood.

But first some links provided by Ron Edge that will take our readers into PDF displays of both Prosch Seattle albums, a Washington State Album, which includes lots of Seattle subjects as well,  and then (wonder of wonders!) Prosch’s  type-written chronological history of Seattle – EVERY PAGE!   Then for desert Ron adds a couple of examples of newspapers that Prosch edited in 1872 and 1875.  (This, of course, is all in the spirit of Lorraine’s new book – as well.)

Thomas W. Prosch History References:

Seattle Views AlbumVol 1 (Courtesy U of W Digital Collection)

Seattle Views AlbumVol 2 (Courtesy U of W Digital Collection)

Washington View Album(Courtesy U of W Digital Collection)

AChronological History of Seattle 1850-1897 (Courtesy Seattle Public Library)

Thomas W. Prosch Newspaper Editor:

DailyPacific Tribune October 17, 1872 (Courtesy Ron Edge)

WeeklyPacific Tribune May 28, 1875 (Courtesy Ron Edge)

Back on Commercial Street, our opportunities run over and on and one for of all the subjects covered over the past thirty years (shy about 8 weeks) of weekly features in Pacific no part of Seattle has got more attention from this rocker than the pioneer three blocks extending south from Yesler Way on what was first called, I know you know, Commercial Street.   We will show a mere ten of them – unless I bring it to a dozen or so – and we’ll start with Yesler’s Cookhouse, which is one of the oldest surviving photos of any part of Seattle.

Next to Henry Yesler’s sawmill his cookhouse was the most legendary of pioneer Seattle structures.  Built during the inordinately cold winter of 1852-53 it was razed in mid-July1866.  Photo courtesy of MSCUA, UW Libraries.


Before first operating his steam sawmill early in 1853 – the first on Puget Sound – Henry Yesler quickly constructed his cookhouse.  While for years the mill supplied Seattle with it principal payroll, the rough-hewed cookhouse gave it much more than hot meals served beside a broad fireplace.   This was a 25-foot square stage for sermons, trails, political caucuses, parties, hotel accommodations, military headquarters (during the 1856 Indian War), elections, the county auditor’s office and civic meetings of all sorts.   And until his wife Sara joined him in 1859 it was also Henry’s bunkhouse.

But where was it?   Seattle historian Greg Lange has recently converted me from my mistaken belief that it rested at what is now the northwest corner of Yesler Way and First Avenue.   Although others and I have liked it there Lange has confirmed Cornelius Hanford’s 1924 directory of 1854 structures.  Hanford puts the cookhouse on the west side of Commercial Street (First Ave. S.) on the second lot south of Mill Street (Yesler Way.)

Lange’s evidence supporting the pioneer historian’s claim is impressive.  First Lang uncovered a notice in the Dec. 17, 1866 issue of the Puget Sound Weekly stating that “a new building . . . on Commercial Street . . . has arisen on the spot where the famous old log cookhouse stood.”  Next Lange found the site confirmed again in 1889 affidavits connected with a court case between Yesler and “city father” Arthur Denny.  Although this is enough for any contrite conversion Lange also discovered that the cookhouse was first located on Commercial street (before the street was there) and later moved to where we see it retouched but still smoke-stained.   Here it faces the street beside the home of Seattle’s first photographer E.A. Clark, and it is a good guess that Clark took the picture sometime before the 32-year-old photographer died on April 27, 1860.

This, the only photograph of the cookhouse, appears in “More Voice, New Stories” where it is used as an illustration for Coll-Peter Thrush’s* essay “Creation Stories, Rethinking the Founding of Seattle.” The attentive eye will notice that most of the group posing here are Native Americans. Perhaps all worked for Yesler in the mill.  The new sesquicentennial book’s twelve essays on “King Count, Washington’s First 150 Years” were written by members of the Pacific Northwest Historians Guild and published by the King County Landmarks & Heritage Commission.   You may purchase a copy directly from the guild.  Call Guild President Chuck S. Richards at (206) 783-9245for details.



First appeared in Pacific, Feb. 7, 1982

The Gazette, Seattle’s first newspaper, reported in 1865 that E.M Sammis, the town’s first resident professional photographer (however briefly), had just returned from a stay in Olympia and would “be ready in a few days to take pictures of everybody at his splendid new gallery over Kellogg’s Drug Store.” Although not “everybody” responded, the number of citizens who did was probably more than the seven or eight whose portraits have survived.

The University of Washington’s Historical Photography Collection preserved traces of Sammis’ work also include cartes de viste (small view cards) of the young town’s two architectural showpieces, the Territorial University and the Occidental Hotel, and a card of Sammis’ “splendid new gallery,” which was where the Merchant’s Cafe is now on Yesler Way. Surely the most extraordinary image in these few remains is one lovingly described by Dennis Anderson, formerly in charge of the collection, as “a bent, torn, soiled, little rag of a photograph but the earliest surviving original panoramic view of the city.” The original measures 2.5 x 4 inches.

This was copied from a book with a stapeled gutter, and so part of the text is lost on the right. I believe - merely - that these identifications were gathered by Clarence Bagley, Seattle's most prolific pioneer historian.
Plummers store with Snoqualmie Hall above it at the southwest corner of Main Street and Commercial (First Ave. South.) Duwamish Head is across the bay. (click to enlarge)

Sammis took his panorama from Snoqualmie Hall, above the southwest comer of Commercial (now First Avenue S.) and Main Street. The view is to the north extending from the still-forested eastern slopes of Denny Hill on the left to the residence and barn of settler Charles Terry, on the right, on the block that until recently held the Public Safety Building.  On the horizon at center left, the Territorial University looks down from Denny’s Knoll at the northeast comer of Fourth Avenue and Seneca Street. (Denny’s Knoll is not Denny Hill. Again, the southeastern forest slope of the latter can be seen on the far left.) The little “White Church” in the center of the photograph was Seattle’s first, and directly below it is the Masonic Hall near the southeast comer of Front (now First Avenue) and Cherry. A bit less than a block farther south and across James Street is the white Occidental Hotel. (A flagpole reaches another thirty feet or so up from its roof.)

The normally busy Commercial Street seems void of human activity not because Sammis requested everyone to stay inside. Rather, the fIlm in his camera required such a long exposure that busy persons on the streets would not hold still long enough to be recorded.   Therefore, loggers heading for McDonald’s Saloon, in the lower right comer of the photograph, riders moving up the street to Wyckoff’s Livery Stable, the only two-story structure on the east side of Commercial, and even the idlers that commonly hung out around the flagpole where Commercial ran into Yesler’s mill, they are all invisible.

Because of cash-poor times, paying customers were usually invisible to Sammis. A year earlier, in 1864, Sammis was in Olympia advertising his photographs at “six dollars a dozen or fifty cents each.”

With his return to Seattle in the spring of 1865 he carried with him into his new studio a hope that business would improve. However, the editor’s announcement in the August 12 issue of the Gazette reveals that by mid-summer Sammis was relaxing his cash-only policy: “E.M. Sammis, photographer, wishes to say to the farmers and country people in the vicinity of Seattle that he will take all kinds of country produce in exchange for pictures. He says, “There is no excuse now. Come one come all.”

Within a year Sammis would be gone, but he left his panorama and those few other dog-eared traces of his photographic art that survive.

Sammis' portrait of Chief Seattle, the chief's only sitting portrait. Seattle may appear in a group shots taken in Olympia, although the identification in that case is not certain.

Sammis’ “drug store” portraits do not include his recordings of both Doc Maynard and Chief Seattle.  Some may consider the latter especially, as his most important contribution to our memory.  He did those portraits at another and earlier studio, one at the southeast corner of Main Street and First Ave. South, which was still the home of the Elliott Bay Book Store when this feature was first published in 1982.

A photographer from Victoria B.C. named G. Robinson visited Seattle in 1869 and recorded this look north up Commercial Street with his back near Jackson.  On the left is Plummer’s Snoqualmie Hall, revealing the roof’s ladder, directly over the sidewalk, that Sammis climbed to record his panorama.  Robinson also went into the hall to make a pan of the city in 1869, although he did not climb to the crest of the roof.   Instead, he used a second story window and one further back – or west – in the hall.  (We include it directly below.) The Illustrated History of the Seattle Waterfront, which we feature as a pdf file found on this blog’s front page, discusses both the Sammis and Robinson pans, and in considerable context.

The Robinson 1869 pan recorded from the second floor of Plummer's Snoqualmie Hall at the southwest corner of Main St. and Commercial St. (First Ave. South.) Courtesy Washington State Museum in Tacoma. (Click to Enlarge)


North on Commercial Street towards the intersection with Main Street, circa 1874.
Looking north on Commercial from mid-block between Main & Washington Streets. The Dextor Horton Bank, a one story brick structure on the northwest corner of Commercial and Washington, appears on the left. Its ruins from the 1889 fire is featured near the bottom of this list.
North on Commercial with the photographers prospect near Main Street. Both Central School, and the University of Washington appear on the center horizon.
An Oct. 28, 1878 clipping describing grading work on Commercial Street. Below it another on its progress from a few days later. (Thanks to Ron Edge and his newspaper collection.)


Another Prosch album artifact, with some of his text included for “proof’ only.


(First appeared in Pacific, Jan. 1, 1984)

Resembling, perhaps, a set for a Hollywood Western, the empty street and the waiting “extras” scattered down the sidewalks seem suspended just before the director’s command releases a gang of hooligans or a stampeding herd of longhorns from behind either the camera or the distant corner onto the two busiest blocks in the gas-lighted commercial heart of Washington Territory’s largest town. This was Seattle’s Commercial Street (now First Avenue S.).

In these two blocks between Main and Mill (now Yesler Way) streets, most businesses opened at six in the morning and stayed that way until nine or ten at night. Laboring here were two jewelers, four hardware merchants, a tailor, a sign painter, a fish merchant, five tobacconists, a bill collector and a ship chandler; there was also a combination gun and toy shop (See how it starts?), a hotel, four bars, an opera house, two barber shops, two banks, two restaurants, and four clothing stores, And, as the newspaper ads then often exclaimed, there was “much more than there is room here to tell.”

The year is probably 1881. That’s the dating ascribed by Thomas Prosch in his pioneer photo album of Seattle. And Prosch would likely know, for in 1881 he was just around the corner on Mill Street editing either the Intelligencer or the Post-Intelligencer. On October 1, 1881 the Daily Post consolidated with Prosch’s Intelligencer, and he came along as editor and part owner.

Unlike the first, our second and somewhat earlier view of Commercial Street is not deceptively still. Rather, the “Big Snow” of 1880 has silenced it.  The storm began on January 6 and within a week was piled in six foot drifts. On January 8 John Singerman, unwilling to wait for a total meltdown, dug a channel across Commercial and, as the Intelligencer reported, “began removing the extensive stock of the San Francisco store into its new rooms in the Opera House building.”

The two across-the-street locations of the capacious and elegant quarters in the Opera House were the largest in the city. With this move the San Francisco Store became the city’s first department store, keeping its boots, shoes, and clothes in one room, with dry goods, fancy goods, and general merchandise in another.

Squire’s Opera House (on the right) was put up in 1879 by the future governor and senator Watson C. Squire. Its biggest night came in 1880 when Rutherford B. Hayes, the first president to visit the West Coast, shook 2,000 hands in a reception there. The highlight of 1881 was the five night stand of Gounod’s Faust by the Inez Fabbri Opera Company. To save voices this touring company carried a “double cast of star performers” who sang on alternate nights.

The full Peterson & Bros Stereo. (Courtesy Michael Maslan)

Across the street (on the left) the New England House, as an 1881 Seattle Chronicle ad claimed, was “eligibly located and its accommodations for families unsurpassed.” Actually, the city directory of 1882 reveals that it was mostly single men like George Elwes, music teacher; J.H. Morris, stonemason; J. Jasques, shoemaker; William Downing, speculator, and J.D. Leake, compositor at the Chronicle who lived there and boarded on the European plan.

The Miners Supplies down the street was most likely one of the few businesses on this commercial pay streak whose 1881 profits were petering. The Skagit River gold rush of the previous year was by now a disappointing bust, and there was not much call for outfits, although there was for beer next door.

Throughout the 1880’s Commercial Street was the stage for many parades and one riot. The”Anti-Chinese Riot” of 1886 flared at this Main Street intersection in the scene’s foreground. Three years later the great fire of 1889 scattered Commercial Street with the remains of its flattened commerce. Within three years it was rebuilt wider, higher, sturdier, and into the neighborhood of brick we now have the wise urge to preserve and enjoy.

The Brunswick Hotel and Squire Opera House, left of center. The two story structure on the right is the same as that appearing directly below in a 1883 recording from the intersection of Main and Commerce, taken during the visit of Villard and his entourage of notables who were carried to the American Far Northwest on the first transcontinental of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Villard brought it to completion.
For this 1883 look north thru the intersection of Commercial and Main we will quote from Kurt E. Armbruster's newest book (page 29) BEFORE SEATTLE ROCKED - A City and Its Music. "Henry Villard drove the last spike on the Northern Pacific Railroad in September 1883, then rode his private car to Puget Sound, prompting the biggest bash yet seen on Elliott Bay. The Pacific Cornet Band, the Queen City Band, and the Carbonado Cornet Band vied to out blow each other on 'Garry Owen,' and even after the party ended, the festive mood lingered. The tinny wail of the cornet was nearly as pervasive as the steamboat whistles, and any excuse at all - a wedding, a funeral, a store opening, a new fire engine - was good enough for a parade and a band." Which band is this? I don't know. We'll see if Kurt knows - I hope.


I did, of course, record a "now" for this. I took it from Jim Faber's office in the second floor of the Globe Building at the southeast corner of First S. and Main Street. On the day I get organized - or soon after - I'll find and insert it. Meanwhile with fond memories of this old friend, now gone for nearly a quarter-century, I'll include two of him.
Jim was the first publicity director for Century 21. Here he is in 1959 studying a rendering of the fair grounds that bears little similarity to what was built. He gave up his role as deputy director to answer the call to the other Washington, as the press secretary for the Department of the Interior during the Kennedy Administration.
Here's Jim, on the right, after crowing Ivar "King of the Waterfront" with a crown improvised from a Captain's Table napkin and a toothpick (for structure).


(First appeared in PACIFIC, May 11, 1986)

What are they waiting on?  One user of this scene has described it as part of the 1881 reception for President Rutherford B. Hayes. Another agrees about the “greeting” but not about for whom.  The second caption has the crowd waiting on the 1883 visit of Henry Villard and his entourage, celebrating the completion that year of the transcontinental Northern Pacific.  Both appear to be wrong

There no telephone or power poles lining Commercial Street for Hayes’ visit and in 1883 the three-story brick building on the scene’s far upper right was not yet constructed. Most likely the crowd is saluting Uncle Sam on an Independence Day in the late 1880s. July 4, 1887 is my almost confident guess.

Electric lights were first in limited use on Seattle streets in 1886. Here at the intersection of Commercial (now First Avenue South) and Main streets, there is a bulb hanging left of the pole that stands before the packed balcony of the New England House hotel. Also, records show the weather was cloudy on the Fourth of July in 1886, but the sun shone on the 1887 festivities. Further, there were evergreen branches lining the parade route. Both appear to be the case in the disputed photo.

Seattle’s Fourth-of-July celebrations tended to keep to form.  They began with a late morning parade of dignitaries and military units through the city streets and ended at an open-air meeting on the University of Washington campus (still, downtown then). Several speakers gave somewhat long-winded and loud (there was as yet no amplification) testimony to their patriotism. A reading of the Declaration of Independence was always included and, of course, there was plenty of patriotic music.

(Follows another parade on Commercial, that one as seen looking south from the rear of Yesler-Leary building.)


Above and below: Seattle was first developed along the four blocks of Commercial Street decorated here with small fir trees for a parade in 1888.  Following the city’s “great” 1889 fire, Pioneer Seattle’s two principal commercial streets, Commercial and Front (First Avenue) were joined directly here at Yesler Way and run through the site of the old Yesler-Leary building.  Consequently, Jean Sherrard needed his ten-foot extension pole to approach – but not reach – the prospect of the unnamed historical photographer.

COMMERCIAL STREET, 1888, South Over MILL STREET (Yesler Way)

(This first appeared in Pacific recently enough that it probably has also appeared previously in this blog.  But, as my own mother advised me, “Repetition is the mother of all learning.”)

For looking south through the full four blocks of Seattle’s pioneer Commercial Street (First Ave. south from Yesler to King) an unnamed photographer carried his camera to the top floor of the Yesler-Leary Building.  The occasion was a parade heading north towards the photographer and considering the array of small American Flags strung across Commercial this rare view was most likely recorded on the morning of July 4, 1888.

There was then both a physical and cultural jog here at ‘Yesler’s Corner” (later Pioneer Square). It required all traffic, (including marching bands), to go around the Yesler-Leary building in order to continue north on Front Street (First Avenue).  Yesler Way was also the border or line between the grander, newer, and often brick-clad Seattle facing Front Street (behind the photographer) and the old pioneer Seattle seen here  “below the line.”  Generally Yesler was a gender divider too, for only women with business there ventured “below the line.”

An 1888 Commercial Street sampler includes seven of the city’s dozen hotels, three of its four pawnbrokers, and three of its four employment agencies, nine of its forty-one restaurants, four of seven wholesale liquor merchants.  The tightest quarters were in the block on the left where fourteen storefronts crowded the east side of Commercial between Yesler and Washington Streets.  Among those quartered were a cigar store, a barber, a hardware store (note the “Stoves and Tinware” sign), a “pork packer”, two “chop houses”, two saloons and the Druggist M.A. Kelly whose large and flamboyant sign shows bottom-left.

By contrast Front Street featured more of the finer values and “fancy goods”, like books & stationary, dry goods, confections, jewelers, photographers, physicians, tailors and an opera house.  Of the thirty-seven grocers listed in the 1888 city directory, eighteen have Front Street addresses, while on Commercial there was apparently nowhere to buy an apple or a bucket of lard.

In another eleven months and two days everything on Commercial Street and most of Front Street would be destroyed by the city’s “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889.


The Front Street Trolley tracks had been sprung and curled by the heat of the June 6, 1889 “Great Fire” here on Commercial Street (First Ave. South) looking south from Mill Street (Yesler Way.)   Although scorched the thick street planks survived the fire.  The “now” below was scanned from a processed print because, again, I cannot readily find this “repeat.”

FIRST AVE. South From YESLER WAY June, 1889

(First appeared in Pacific, Dec. 2, 1984)

Although today’s photos both look south from Yesler Way, they were taken from different elevations, for first Avenue was raised above its old level after the Great Fire of 1889.   (How much it was raised continues to be a clouded figure.) Before the fire, this portion of First Avenue was Seattle’s retail shopping district and, appropriately, was called Commercial Street. It was a four-block-long strip where shoppers strolled, horse races (before they were outlawed) were staged and at least one riot broke out.  It then ran only as far south as King Street where it fell over a low bluff to either slip or submerge into the tideflats, depending on the tide.

The historical photo was taken only a few days after the fire. It shows only part of the more than 35 city blocks that were consumed that day and night of June 6 and 7, 1889.  Most of the shops and hotels that lined the street, many of them clapboard structures, burned to ashes. One exception was Seattle’s (and Dexter Horton’s) first bank. It is the surviving stone shell on the scene’s far right.

The Dexter Horton Bank ruins at the northwest corner of Commercial and Washington.

Built in 1875 as one of the city’s first ceramic structures, the bank also was razed in 1889, finished off not by flames but by city ordinance of that same year. The ordinance called for widening Commercial Street nine feet on both sides. It was also then renamed First Avenue. The post-fire alterations and lifting have  helped create the popular Seattle Underground tourist attraction.

Looking northeast over the ruins of the '89 fire, including the Dexter Horton bank at the northwest corner of Washington and Commerce, and beyond the ashes and rubble to part of Seattle that survived to the east of Second Avenue and up the First Hill slope.
Ruins from the 1889 fire looking north on Commercial Street from Washington Street. The standing wall at the scene's center is the west facade of the otherwise razed Yesler-Leary Building at the northwest corner of Front (First Ave.) and Mill (Yesler way).

Maynard Building that replaced the Dexter Horton Bank at the northwest corner of Commercial and Washington. The "now" below dates from sometime in the late 1990s - if memory serves.

The Maynard Building is caught here with a snapshot by Max Loudon of a parade turning the corner onto Washington ca. 1914.
A ciipping of another fire on First Ave. S.


The Langston’s Livery Stable was a busy waterfront enterprise through most of the 1880s, Seattle’s first booming decade.  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.” (Historical photo courtesy Museum of History and Industry.)


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.


The above photograph was recorded shortly before the elevated line was completed on September 4, 1919. Both the special car and the tracks have workmen on them, and the motorman seems to be posing. On the left, some of the men lined up under the old J & M Cafe’s Washington Street entrance may be idle ship-workers seeking work through the C.M. & St. P . Employment Agency in the little Collins Building just left of street car No. 103. Now both the Milwaukee Road and its employment agency are long gone.  Directly below is a later look directly west on Washington and up the elevated ramp.


(First appeared in Pacific, April 30, 1995)

On September 4, 1919 the Seattle Municipal Street Railway completed the building of its elevated line above Railroad Avenue. The event was remarkably subdued. There were no brass bands, no speeches amplified by public spirit, and no ceremonial first rides. Only a short bit buried on an inside page of the Times noted “Cars on Elevated.” The reporter speculated that once the somewhat wobbly operation proved safe, the streetcars would be running up to speed and that then the trip to Alki and Lake Burien would be cut by as much as 15 minutes.

When the line was first proposed in 1917, it was not designed to get West Seattle residents home from work a quarter hour sooner. It was promoted to beat the Kaiser.

When the U.S. entered the First World War in April 1917, Seattle’s southern harbor was already mobilized and setting speed records in shipbuilding. But while the workers were fast on their jobs, they were slow getting to their war work. The then privately owned street railway system was dilapidated, and its service to South Seattle inadequate.

Encouraged by the federal government’s Emergency Fleet Corporation, Mayor Hiram Gill proposed that the city build its own elevated service to the shipyards. In 1918 he put the plan to a vote. The voters chose the elevated but not Hi Gill who lost his reelection bid to a gregarious politico named Ole Hanson.

The ambitious Hanson took up the task of forwarding both the trestle’s elevation and his own. The new mayor boarded the civic bandwagon for municipal ownership of the entire street railway system. This was put to a vote and the enthused citizens agreed to the purchase price of 15 million, or three times the deteriorated system’s appraised worth.    Armistice Day came only one week after the November 5th election, and when the international hostilities subsided, the local ones heated up. Without war orders the once frantic south bay shipbuilding took a dive. Layoffs and wage cuts followed. The trestle, which was still under construction, began to stand as a white elephant. It, like the shipbuilders it was built to transport, was not so needed.

The waterfront strike, which followed in January of 1919, soon spread city-wide to a four-day general strike. Mayor Hanson characterized this “revolution” as a “treasonable Bolshevist uprising.” His “heroic struggle” against these “red forces” got him a lot of world press, and the mayor was briefly catapulted into the national limelight. It also deflected local criticism against him as the highest-placed early proponent  of  the  debt-ridden  and still dilapidated  Seattle  Municipal  Street  Railway.

His honor liked both the publicity and the protection from public criticism so much that he resigned, took off on a national lecture tour, and in a moment of gracious megalomania made himself available for the Republican presidential nomination. In a no-contest, the almost equally anonymous Warren Harding beat him out of it.

On October 12, 1929, or only ten years and eight days after it was completed, the Railroad Avenue Elevated was condemned and sold for salvage for $8,200. By then Ole Hanson had long since moved to southern California and founded a new town, which would many years later put his name in touch again with the presidency. He named his seaside community San Clemente.

Two looks at the abandoned elevation on May 12, 1930.  Above, looking east on Washington Street and, below, looking south on Railroad Avenue from the curve above Washington Street.


FIRST AVE. South ca. 1900

(First appeared in Pacific, March 22,  1987)

Whichever turn-of-the-century photographer got up early to make this record of First Avenue S. did us a favor. In this view, which looks north from Main Street, a morning light bathes both the nearly new masonry of this harmonious street and the energy of its users. Although not crowded, the street is busy. However, considering the pace and hypnotic patter of its horse traffic, this business is somewhat less rushed than our own. The clunking trolleys helped. And like the First South of today, we can tell from the historical photo that then too this was a fine avenue for idle sidewalk talk.

This is also the oldest street in town and its first face was, of course, the funky frontier strip that was quick fuel to the 1889 Fire that flattened it and much more. Almost instantly this distinguished Romanesque neighborhood was put up in its place. It was built to last and we still have it, and with few alterations. But from its status as the city’s first commercial center, First Avenue South is even here beginning to slip. A closer look at the signage in this foreground block between Main and Washington streets reveals a format of bars on the sidewalk and hotels upstairs. Only a decade after it was designed for mixed commercial use, this architecture is beginning to specialize in servicing the basic needs of mostly single men. Where are the women? Not on this sidewalk but north of Skid Road (YeslerWay) on Second Avenue where the city’s new respectable center was building.

Ironically, this neglect of First Avenue South, which began already in the early century, had its benign side. For the architectural character of this abandoned pioneer center was too formidable to be rashly destroyed in a hasty act of urban renewal. Preserving itself, Seattle’s first historical district waited to be rediscovered in the early 1960’s and thereafter, lavishly restored and most often enjoyed.

Bluegrass DJ and oversized (giant) political candidate, Tiny Freeman poses at the front door to the Central Tavern a popular historical district dive on the west side of First Ave. S. south of Washington Street and the J.& M. Tavern, another frequent watering hole on the old Commercial Street, but one now failed and gone.

Above: The J&M in a 1937 tax photo.  Below: Inside the J&M’s “newspaper room.”  Nancy Keith is on the left and Sheila Farr on the right.  Nancy was once a manager of KRAB radio, and later of the Mountains to Sound non-profit that labors to preserve a greenbelt from Snoqualmie Pass to Puget Sound.  She was also among those who helped start the weekly tabloid Helix in 1966-67.  She is presently off working as a volunteer in Ghana.   Sheila – “from Juanita” – worked for several years as the art critic for The Seattle Times and before that for The Weekly.  She is presently writing a book on the history of modern dance, and was once a dancer herself.  (Well, perhaps she still dances on occasion.)    I snapped this most likely sometime in the mid-1970s – or late.


To conclude with a smooth transition back to Ivar – as I labor to finish the book “Keep Clam” sooner than later – here more of the neighborhood, this time looking west on Washington Street from Second Avenue.

(Above and Below) Besides the street trees and the historic three-ball light standard on the right the obvious difference in the “now” is the parking lot that in 1969 replaced the storefronts that held the northeast corner of Occidental Avenue and Washington Street when, toting his camera, Werner Langenhager visited the block fifty years ago. (Historical photo courtesy of Seattle Public Library.)


We may celebrate the photographer Werner Langenhager’s sizeable and sensitive record of Seattle with this “golden anniversary” example of his work.  With his back to Second Avenue Langenhager looks west on Washington Street to its intersection with Occidental Avenue where, most obviously, the big block letters for Ivar’s fish bar hold the northwest corner.

Ivar was sentimental about these pioneer haunts.  During his college years in the 1920s he wrote a paper on the Skid Road for his class in sociology.  To get it right Ivar spend a week living in a neighborhood hotel, visiting the missions, and betting in the Chinese lotteries.

For his first try at returning to the neighborhood as a restaurateur Ivar bought the old popcorn wagon in Pioneer Place (then the more popular name than Pioneer Square) in the early 1950s.  He planned to convert it into a chowder dispensary.  And he proposed building a replica of Seattle’s original log cabin also, of course, for selling chowder.  For different reasons both plots plopped and instead in 1954 he opened this corner fish house.  He called it his “chowder corner.”

Consulting the Polk City Directory for 1956 we can easily build a statistical profile for Ivar’s neighbors through the four “running blocks” of Occidental between Yesler Way and Main and Washington between First and Second.  Fifteen taverns are listed including the Lucky, the Loggers, the Oasis and the Silver Star.  But there were also ten cafes (including Ivar’s), six hotels, four each of barbers and cobblers, three second-hand shops, two drug stores, one loan shop, one “Loggers Labor Agency” and five charities, including the Light House.

The 1956 statistic for these four blocks that best hints at how this historic neighborhood was then in peril of being razed for parking is the vacancies.  There were twelve of them.

Another Langenhager recording kept by the Seattle Public Library. This one looks north on Occidental and thru its intersection with Washington Street. The date was typically noted by the retired Boeing engineer. It is April 5, 1958.

In conclusion we return below to Jim Faber.  Here he is the dining room of Ivar’s Salmon House.  Jim often helped Ivar with his promotions and hoaxes.






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