Seattle Now & Then: 30 Years of Dorpat

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: The tarnished recording of Sara and Henry Yesler’s home in Pioneer Square is the oldest surviving photographic evidence of any part of Seattle. It is conventionally dated 1859, or seven years after the first settlers on the eastern shores of Elliott Bay moved there from Alki Point. (Courtesy, Seattle Pubic Library)
NOW: Jean Sherrard stands close to the prospect of the historical photographer. James Street is still on the right, and Henry Yesler’s Pioneer Building is behind Jean’s other subjects, left to right, Rich Berner, and this writer.

A few Pacific Northwest veterans among you with keen memories may recognize this “now” as a repeat of itself.  That is, this subject first appeared in this feature 30 years ago, minus nine days.  Pioneer Sara Yesler stands on the front porch of her and her husband Henry’s home at the northeast corner of First Ave and James Street.

This is the oldest surviving photograph of any part of Seattle, and E.A. Clark, the pioneer photographer who recorded it, was also a sometime school teacher, justice of the peace and King County auditor. Several copies – and copies of copies – have been made, but it seems that the original Daguerreotype or Ambrotype (it is not certain which) did not survive the bumps of pioneer life.

I chose this “oldest photo” as a marker for thirty years of what has been a weekly responsibility that brought with it for me a life of guaranteed zest.  What wonderful people and subjects I have met!  And, if they will allow it, I thank my editors, Kathy Triesch Saul and Kathy Andrisevic.  It was the latter of  “the two Kathies” who decided to give this “now-and-then” idea a try in late 1981. I also thank Times writer Erik Lacitis who acted as my go-between then.  Those of you who read bi-lines and/or credits know that they are all still at work.

Finally, I thank my friend Jean Sherrard who started helping with the “repeats” and suggested subjects in 2004.  I am standing in the “now” at Jean’s recommendation (honestly) and posing with my mentor Rich Berner.  When I started studying regional history in 1971, Rich, the founder and head of the University of Washington Archives, was welcoming.  Rich is now a lesson in productive longevity. Born in Seattle in 1920, this graduate of Garfield High wrote and published his trilogy on community history titled “Seattle in the 20th Century,” following his retirement from the archives in 1984.  Rich and I are now at work assembling illustrated versions of all three volumes – with one down and two to go.



Happy 30th Anniversary, Paul! For your enjoyment, I’m adding a shot I took of you and Rich at Ivars only minutes after we took the ‘Now’ that appears with this Sunday’s column.

Rich Berner and Paul Dorpat celebrating 30 years of 'Seattle Now & Then'

Anything to add, Paul?

A few more features – four or five of what may be more than thirty features I’ve included in the past thirty years that concentrate on Pioneer Place (or Square) subjects.  My hopes to also make a numbered list of the total opera so far – about 1548 features – got a start early this week but soon sputtered when I realized that it would take most of the week to edit, and number even that small horde.  At least I now have a start on it.

First I will reprint that “First Photo” story from 30 years ago, and it will include a full confession of my errors at the time.   Please be kind.

This clipping clarifies the differences between the first and second photos.
A full - I believe - version of the First Photo (and not the second) by E.A. Clark


(First appeared in Pacific, Jan. 24, 1982)

Henry and Sara Yesler pose on their front porch for King County’s first photographer, E. A. Clark. Their home sat on the northeast comer of Front Street (now First Avenue) and James Street, since 1889 the site of the Pioneer Building. Behind them two and a half blocks of stump-strewn clear-cut land extend to the line of virgin forest beyond Third Avenue.

The year was 1859 and, although this is most likely not the first photograph Clark took of his community, it is’ the earliest to survive.

(This claim, we now know, is wrong.  Rather Mia Culpa. An earlier view of the Yesler home recorded by Clark survives and is also published here.  Conventionally the earliest is dated 1859 and the other, one year later, sometime in 1860.  How I missed this in 1982 when I first submitted this to Pacific mystifies me now.  In 1982 I had been studying local history for eight years, concentrating on its photographic evidences.   That I could miss and mess-up this important distinction between the first and the second surviving photographs of any part of Seattle is now, I repeat, stumping me.  I may have half-wittedly took another’s authority on No.2, describing it as the “first.”  But both of Clark’s Yesler home subjects were printed in Pacific for that Jan. 24, 1982 edition.  It was my second (not first) contribution of now nearly 1550 features.  I might have blamed my editor for mixing up the two Clark photos, but she did not.  My text  refers to Henry and Sara Yesler standing on the front porch.  They appear together only in the ca. 1860, or second, photo.  Sara is alone is the first photo recorded in 1859.  I have no “out” – no relief.  This miss also suggests that my readers were generally no more experienced on this subject than I, nor more attentive to the problems actually evident in this second contribution to Pacific.  I got no letters.)

This is Clark's Second Photo and NOT the First Photo as indicated in the 1982 feature.

E.A.Clark left Pennsylvania in 1850 and went to California – probably for gold. When he moved to Seattle in 1852, he came as a typical pioneer: poor of cash but rich in labor. He also might have come – uncommonly – with a camera. At least, he eventually got one.

E.A. Clark, perhaps a self-portrait

Clark set an early claim on the shores of Lake Washington, but later moved into a Seattle home he either built or bought. He named it his. “What-Cheer-House.” Almost immediately Clark got into school, as a teacher, and into trouble, as the leader of a vigilante gang intent on hanging a native accused of murdering a white man. Luckily for both Clark and the Indian, Sheriff Carson Boren arrived in time to stop the lynching. The schoolteacher eventually became a justice of the peace.

As far as is known, only one other photograph of Clark’s still exists. It also is of Yesler’s residence and was taken less than a year after the first one. Both the scene and perspective are similar, except the town’s first water system has been added. Its flumes extended down James from a spring in the side of First Hill. [Again, that’s photo number 2 printed here directly above Clark’s portrait.]

Now most of those “numerous traces” of his photographic art are lost. But rather than mourn, we are amazed with what survived: those two rough images of Yesler’s home, and the first of Seattle.

(This is getting more embarrassing.  The “other photograph” referred to is, of course, not the second photo from about “less than a year after the first one” but the first one itself.   And there is so much to prove it.  First in the actual second photo the Yesler Home has got an addition to the north (left), and then, as the text notes, the elevated flumes that run down James in 1859 have been cleared away, and water is now delivered to the Yesler Home and the Yesler Mill, and probably the neighbors too, by a bored-log pipeline laid underground.  Now, if I were my own child I’d be tempted to slap my knuckles with a ruler, instead I’ll wring them.)

On April 27, 1860, some few weeks or months after taking his second photo of the Yesler home, the still young county auditor died.  Clark’s obituary printed in The Pioneer and Democrat read in part: “He has been engaged in the Daguerrean [sic] Business for several years and leaves numerous traces of his skill in that art. He was about 32 years of age and leaves numerous friends to mourn his loss.”

Foundation work for the Pioneer Building began before the Great Fire of June 6, 1889 destroyed the business district. This is an early view of it when nearly new.
Pioneer Place and the Pioneer Building in their down-and-out years. Lawton Gowey's slide dates from April 4, 1961.




(First appeared in Pacific, July 23, 1995)

In 1859 Seattle’s first photographer took its first (surviving) picture. The subject was the home of the city’s first capitalist, Henry Yesler.  His wife Sarah – only –  was standing on the front porch.  Here 24 years later are Sarah and Henry back at the same northeast corner of Front (First Ave.) and James Street, beside their home but not on its porch.

Henry is whittling.  The mill owner was famous for it.  The firs behind the couple and to the left were common pioneer decorations, as were the garlands above their front porch and the Japanese lanterns strung across Front Street (First Avenue). The occasion is probably Independence Day 1883.

While the Yeslers posed, construction was beginning on their mansion in an orchard three blocks behind them. Although fond of Sarah’s apple pie, Henry professed that his “finest fruit” came from the maple trees along his old home’s parking strip (behind the gas light, right). He was referring to the three accused murderers lynched from these “hanging maples” a year earlier. Reported nationally, the lynching and Yesler’s applause supported Seattle’s reputation as a center for the Wild West. In the published cartoon of the lynching, Henry is again depicted whittling.  A.W. Piper, the artist, was the community’s favorite confectioner.  His Piper’s Dream Cakes were especially popular.  Piper was also known for his socialism and his sense of humor.  At once costume ball he dressed so convincingly as Henry Yesler that the real Yesler returned home to make a sign reading “The Real Henry Yesler” to wear on returning to the ball.

The whittling Henry appears at the bottom, right-of-center. The view looks north over James Street to the hanging trees.

The Pioneer Building built on this Yesler home site after the “Great Fire” of 1889 was Yesler’s last creation. It was constructed at a slightly higher grade than the Yesler home, and in its basement is Underground Seattle’s museum and gift shop. This Romanesque fancy in brick and stone was at least in part saved by the preservation humor of Bill Speidel’s Underground Tours. I remember that Bill also loved his pies.

Another couple on First Avenue and in front of the Pioneer Building. Sarah and Yesler would have been at the end of the block, and a little to the west or right because the street was widened following the 1889 fire. It was also raised a few feet - just a few. We have yet to figure out actually how many here on the old Yesler home site.
The Yesler's mansion facing Third Avenue, north of Jefferson Street. They built is on the site of their orchard and kept many of the trees.
Lawton Gowey captioned this slide "new lights" and dated it Nov. 14, 1972. Some of the park's cobblestones are in place, the Pioneer Building, however, is still waiting for its restoration. Considering the widening of First Ave. after the Great Fire of 1889, Gowey is standing near the positions taken by Sarah and Henry Yesler, eight-nine years earlier.
Looking south across Pioneer Square, Frank Shaw records a pile of cobblestones, a draped pergola, and a ruined Olympic block across Yesler Way. Shaw dates his slide, Jan. 14, 1973.
In styles fitting, we assume, for 1974, four men march across James Street in Lawton Gowey's slide from Feb. 14, 1974. (I remember in the early 70's we had a spell of balmy Februaries.) In the still unkempt Pioneer Building the House of Bargains still holds the corner.
Also on Feb. 14, 1974 Lawton Gowey photographed the still painted stone at the Pioneer Building entrance. He returned, below, on Aug. 8, that year to record the effects of sandblasting in removeing the "bad" paint.



I have temporarily hidden the photos I took of the downed Pergola, which would have fit better the opening text of the feature below.  For the moment, in the place of ruins we will use the above recording of the Pergola when it was nearly new.  It is a Webster Stevens negative and along with Jean’s “now” below, is part of the Repeat Photography Exhibit we put up at MOHAI with Berangere Lomont, who contributed its Paris introduction.   A reminder that the exhibit is up until or into June of this year.  Best to call first because although big it is mounted in a room that is sometimes used for banquets and large meetings, and in those events the exhibit is not open to regular museum visitors.


(First published in Pacific, Feb. 25, 2001)

It was the ill-rigged morning of Jan. 15 that teamster Pete Bernard turned his big 18-wheel truck into an urban-renewal juggernaut and just clipped – like a minor soccer violation – the Pergola. Promptly the filigreed arcade folded and collapsed to the cobblestones of Pioneer Place (or Square, if you prefer). Stepping down from his big truck, Bernard was some combination of confused, embarrassed and lost. Now, only weeks later [in early 2001], we are beginning to thank Bernard and compare him to other ironic iconoclasts whose momentary clumsiness led to local revivals. Former Seattle Times reporter David Schaefer likens him to Capt. Rolf Neslund, who drove his ship into the old bascule bridge over the East Duwamish Waterway and thereby gave us the high bridge to West Seattle.

I’ll compare Bernard to John Back, the carpenter who burned down the city. When Back dropped a pot of boiling glu onto a floor littered with shavings, he started a conflagration that in about three hours reached the same corner where 112 years later Bernard’s 18th wheel went out of bounds. The fire of June 6, 1889, flattened more than 30 fire-trap blocks; it also left opportunity for the architecturally distinguished, fire-resistant neighborhood that since 1970 has been officially protected as historic.

Looking directly north on First Avenue from Yesler Way and so through the future location of the Pioneer Square Pergola.

Just so, Bernard’s single strike did in an instant what it would have required the city’s fathers and mothers years of soul-searching anguish to attend to and pay for. The Pergola, Bernard demonstrated, was held together by paint and primer. And the trucker was insured.

Given the public concern, Bernard has also reminded us of what a spiritual place is Pioneer Square, with the collection of historical artifacts that stand or have stood there. Certainly, no other Seattle site is such a ritual space, and it is unlikely even the most dogged researcher could list all the special structures – arches, platforms, poles and imaginative constructions  – that have been erected at or near this five-corner intersection.

Perhaps the first of these was the flagpole that flew the Stars and Stripes above the intersection during the Civil War. It showed the locals’ strong preference for the Union side. John Denny, father of the town’s own “father,” Arthur Denny, was an old friend of Abraham Lincoln.

The first special ceremonial structure of which a photograph survives is the welcoming arch put across Mill Street (Yesler Way) for receiving guests – most from Olympia – to Seattle’s Independence Day celebrations for 1868.

The Yesler home is on the left and the Occidental Hotel on the right. The arch welcomes celebrants from Olympia and Whatcom to Seattle's 1868 Independence Day festivities.

Grand but temporary arches were raised again in 1883 for the brief-visit of Henry Villard, builder of the transcontinental Northern Pacific railroad, completed that year to Tacoma, and in 1891 for the arrival of Benjamin Harrison, the second president to visit Puget Sound.

This week [Feb. 25, 2001] we feature constructions that were put up in the triangle between 1893 and 1902 and, perhaps with one exception, soon taken down.

The earliest of these is the grandest. Raised in 1893, the “Mineral Palace” was constructed to celebrate the June arrival of the transcontinental Great Northern Railroad. The palace was well stocked with elegantly arranged examples of Northwest products. Our view of it looks down across Yesler Way from an upper floor in the building that still holds the Merchants Cafe.

The next scene also looks down from an upper floor of the Merchant’s Cafe at the foot of First Avenue onto the Fourth of July parade for 1898. It would be hard to overestimate the excitement and noise of this celebration. Seattle was then already enlivened by the Yukon Gold Rush. And more than Independence Day, the crowds are celebrating the great U.S. Navy victory over the Spanish fleet at Santiago harbor in Cuba.

A day earlier the morning paper described the Pioneer ·Square preparations. “The Mutual Life building (here on the left) is one of the most elaborately decorated fronts in the city and makes a fine background for the waving riot of flags and lanterns and bunting that hangs in midair above the triangle.”

The third photo also has to do with the Spanish-American war or a “spin-off” from it. Sixteen months later, locals again bedecked the triangle with arches, a speaker’s stand, heroic portraits and bunting to celebrate the return of Washington’s own volunteers from Companies Band D returning from the Philippines on Nov. 6, 1899.

The observant may notice to the left and just behind the illuminated flags the gleaming back of the Alaskan totem pole stolen earlier that year from a Tlingit village on Tongass Island by a “goodwill committee” sent north to report on Seattle’s role in the great Alaskan gold rush. The old but freshly painted totem was dedicated in Seattle on Oct. 18.

In the most recent historical scene included here, a ball covered with a cluster of electric lights temporarily tops the totem pole. The bandstand below is certainly one of the most beautiful structures to have ever occupied the triangle. How long, I do not know. There is an 1895 reference to Wagner’s First Regimental Band performing in a bandstand in the place, but there is no bandstand in either the 1898 or 1899 photographs.

What we have is a 1902 scene showing Wagner’s First Regimental Band marching north on First Avenue in front of the again-decorated Mutual life building on the right.  The occasion is the Elks Seattle Fair and Carnival and the event most likely the Aug. 18 Seattle Day parade. The drapery attached to the Mutual Life Building is the work of Morrison and Eshelman, a real~ estate agency with offices in the basement. A full-page advertisement for the firm in the 1903 City Directory includes these forward-looking observations: “You can’t miss it by putting your money in Seattle. Forces are at work that will surely make her one of the great cities of the world.”

In that boom time there was very little looking back in Seattle. The city was only 50 years old, and most residents were raw. In 1906, Fred Stanley Auerbach, a young visitor scouting real estate opportunities for his parents, wrote home (in a correspondence uncovered by local historian Greg Lange): “This is the damnedest town I ever saw . . . I never was in a city in my life where I felt such a stranger and I think the reason is that nobody has been here long enough to feel at home . . . It is all business. You couldn’t imagine anyone saying ‘dear old Seattle’ . . . If you ask anyone on the street where such and such a street is, one out of every three will say ‘I don’t know I am a stranger myself.’ ”

The building of the Pergola three years after the young Auerbach’s visit may represent the beginning of a “dear old Seattle.” In the late 1960s architect Victor Steinbrueck shared his delight in the half-century-old Pergola. “A bit of architecture which I regard with particular affection is the old iron loggia or pavilion at Pioneer Place. This most historic spot has sentimental value to me as a Seattleite and as an architect . . . Pioneer Place is one of our very few open pedestrian spaces and the only one which retains the character of early times – perhaps not so early, but still the earliest remaining . . . The dark blue-green all-metal loggia has achieved the patina of age with the help of Seattle weather and many pigeons . . . Derived freely from the Renaissance, the cast-iron columns and elaborate wrought-iron ornamentation symbolize the change from past to present technology and ideology. The loggia also serves to remind us that architecture is really for people – to enhance their lives – and it to be measured by what it does to people.”

Soon the Pergola will be back in its place. It will look the same, only brightened. Its formerly hollow and corroding cast-iron posts will be filled with stainless-steel cores so that when that big earthquake rolls through the historic heart of Seattle, the Pergola will stand up to it. Perhaps then we will put an embossed plaque beside the Pergola with its history, an appropriate epigram in a classical language like Latin or Coast Salish, and our sincerest thanks to Pete Bernard.

A Pioneer Place Teepee raised during one of the early summer Potlatch Festivals, 1911-1913.



(First appeared in Pacific, July 19, 1998)

My first approach to Pioneer Square for the contemporary or “repeat” side of a now-and-then feature was a wet but not terribly cold mid-January afternoon in 1982.* Through the intervening 16 years [in 1998] I’ve returned to this intersection at First Avenue, James Street and Yesler Way surely more than a dozen times. Pioneer Square is, after all, the center of Seattle and King County’s historical compass, and the landmark district that surrounds it is almost everyone’s second and, for a few, still first -neighborhood.

The elegant four-story landmark in the older view is the Occidental Hotel. Designed in 1882 by Portland architect Donald MacKay in the popular Second Empire style and completed early in 1884, it survived only five years. On the evening of June 6, 1889, heat from the city’s “Great Fire” that day burst its windows before jumping James Street (here on the left) to set the hotel ablaze.

The Occidental Hotel ruins following the June 6, 1889 fire. (Courtey U.W. Library, Special Collections)

The pre-fire view probably dates from the summer of 1888, the year the Occidental was enlarged at its rear, east to Second Avenue. Some of the scaffolding of that work appears just right of the man with the white shirt and vest standing in the bed of the open two-wheel delivery wagon.

Pioneer Square 1909 during that summer's A.Y.P. celebration. The Occidental Hotel was replaced by the Seattle Hotel, center. The Pioneer Bldg is on the left. This image was used in Jean and my book Washington State Then and Now, as was the "now" view that follows and repeats it.

The history of this flatiron block is told in more detail on a new [in 1998] Web site called History Link [historylink]. The hope of this nonprofit project is to use the Internet to write our historical diary. The first step is to list Seattle and King County’s historical canon – our oldest historical texts, photographs and artifacts – as the groundwork for sharing personal, institutional and neighborhood history. For a demonstration, go to To move quickly to this historical corner, click on “Magic Lantern.” [I’m not certain that the “Magic Lantern” direction will still work, but historylink certainly is working.  It is a great addition to local heritage, its delights and lessons, and has long since expanded to cover Washington State as well.]

Lawton Gowey dates his slide June 8, 1961. The destruction of the Seattle Hotel is widely considered the cracked act that led to the saving of much of the neighborhood and the establishment of the city’s preservation offices and rules.
A slice of Pioneer Square framed by a Pergola with green Corinthian columns (only). Frank Shaw recorded the scene, but I"m not sure when. The tree planters suggest sometime early in the park's renovation. First Avenue still enters or intrudes thru what will be park land on the right. I remember very well the gaudy Wax and Raine signage.
Robert Bradley's mid-afternoon look through Pioneer Place on Aug. 9, 1958.
Roughly a conincidental repeat for the Robert Bagley slide above it. I recorded this in Aug. 1996.


* Below and copied from a clipping is that first Pioneer Square “now.”

Copied from a clipping, this was the first "Now" I recorded of Pioneer Square, and the second repeat for this feature. It was meant to repeat one or the other of the Yesler home photos by E.A. Clark seen at the top of this Sunday's blog. It was a raining Dec. 1981 afternoon, but not so cold, as I remember it.


6 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: 30 Years of Dorpat”

  1. Have always enjoyed your work. From Washington, but living in Portland Metro area for 30 some years. Often pickup the Sunday Seattle Paper and look for your photos. Have to admit, it has been a few years since doing this. But now have your blog bookmarked and will revisit.

  2. My father worked in the Smith Tower from 1953 to 1979 with the State Health Dept. For a spell my mother worked in another office there as well. She once recalled a day with fog so thick one couldn’t see the Seattle Hotel that was just across the street.

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