Seattle Now & Then: Tacoma Interurban at Occidental

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: With his or her back to the Elegant Seattle Hotel an unnamed photographer looks south across Yesler Way to the busy terminus of the Seattle Tacoma Interurban Railway. (Pix courtesy of Lawton Gowey)
NOW: The contemporary “repeat” is printed somewhat wider in order to show off the red Colorado stand stone that architect John Parkinson imported to adorn the base of his 1890 creation, here on the left.

The intended Seattle terminus for the Tacoma Interurban was at Pike Street but that required a climb on First Avenue too steep for the line’s heavy three-car trains.  Consequently, for the duration – the twenty-six years it served between 1902 and 1928 – the principal common carrier to Tacoma and thru the Green River valley paused here instead, on Occidental Ave. between Yesler Way and Washington Street. Soon the block was proliferated by “Interurbans” – a hotel, a grocer, a café, and perhaps inevitably the grandest structure on the block, the bank building on the left, became known as the Interurban Building, and still is.

It is a trailing dark green Parlor Car that is parked here just south of Yesler Way.  One paid an extra quarter over the 60 cent fair to ride in it, but you got pillowed seats, a white-coated porter fussing after your comfort, and status.  At one of the more vibrant corners in town, this terminus sidewalk was often crowded.  Clearly hats were required – everyone seems to wear one.  The man far left under the conductor’s hat has at his feet another commonplace of the time, packages bound with string sensibly in plain paper.  At the center is another stock specialist for a busy corner – the newspaper “boy.”

We will figure the date here as sometime between or around the fall of 1906 and Nov. 28, 1908, when the Globe Medical Institute ran their first and last ads in the Seattle Times promising “quick cures, honest dealing, small fees, easy terms” from “Seattle’s most reliable specialists for all diseases of men.”  There’s a Globe sign in the Korn Building window upper-right.  Among other cheats, Dr. Lukens, the proprietor, gave perfunctory five-minute physicals for five dollars to unemployed men collard on the Skid Road sidewalks by “employment agents.”  The men were always in perfect health.  After directing the eager laborer’s to Lukens office for the required “exams”, the agent quickly and conveniently disappeared with the professed jobs, to return later, of course, for his cut.

A clipping from The Seattle Times, August 23, 1907. (click to enlarge)
Seattle Times clip from Nov. 2, 1947 - A review of "Four White Horses." (click to enlarge - still)

At the Washington Street end of the block, in the Interurban Hotel, the teenage hustler Violet McNeal got rich working another health hoax, this one selling magic potions concocted of Oriental herbs and beeswax.  She later confessed all in her book “Four White Horses and a Brass Band.”

It is often noted that it was in this block that Pioneer Square turned into Skid Road, a neighborhood attractive to quacks, hucksters, hustlers, suckers, and for a quarter-century passengers to Tacoma.


Anything to add, Paul?

Certainly but with some restraint compared to some of the previous hordes.   These five or six or seven (depending upon finding the images) features are all pulled from past Pacifics.  Mixed with them will be the supporting illustration that, of course, never made it into the newspaper where the space is a fraction of what this free media allows.   We will begin with the first attention that the Tacoma Interurban got in this now thirty year series of repeats.  It was first published on Nov. 6, 1983 and some of its “points” were used again, above.



(First appeared in Pacific, Nov. 6, 1983)

Two commuters recline at the observation end of the plush parlor car, using the ornamental brass railing as a prop. Another passenger to the right exhales a puff of cigar smoke; yet another looks back into the mahogany interior of the car. Inside are 58 pillowy seats where the Seattle and Tacoma Interurban’s more affluent or exuberant riders are attended by a porter. Although these parlor cars were painted the same dark green color as the rest of the Puget Sound Electric Railway’s rolling stock, they were obviously something special. For the classy ride, complete with an enclosed view from the observation deck, passengers paid an extra quarter over the regular 60-cent fare.     Using its corporate initials, the PSER advertised a ride resplendent with “Pleasure, Safety, Economy and Reliability.” The electrically propelled trip was free of cinders and smoke, smooth and fast: the trip included the thrill of “going like sixty. ”

Underway in the Green River Valley (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)

When the Interurban started service in 1902, the automobile was still a sporting novelty for a few of the well-to-do. The practical and preferred way of getting to and from Tacoma was via the Mosquito Fleet steamers that buzzed about Puget Sound. The second choice was via rail.

Heading either south or north, lnterurban passengers could glimpse the mountain Tacoma passengers called ” Tacoma” and Seattle riders called “Rainier.” The route passed through hop fields, dairy farms, truck gardens, coal fields, orchards, forests, one tunnel and an Indian reservation. It took an hour and 40 minutes to cover the line’s 32.2 miles. Some stops like Burts, Floraville and Mortimer are now as abandoned as the rail itself. Others like Georgetown, Allentown, Renton, Kent and Auburn are still familiar.

With the "Third Rail" on the right.

Within the city limits the Interurban ran over municipal rails and attached its trolley poles to electric lines overhead. But as soon as it crossed the city limits, a motorman would lower his pole and hook up with the mysterious third rail, or contact rail, that ran parallel to the other two.

This third rail was alive with electricity. School children were regularly warned not to touch it. Chickens, however, were sometimes encouraged to peck at the grain strategically sprinkled along its side. Interurban electrocution was a new way of preparing a fowl for plucking.

Running in Seattle with overhead electric power (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)

The Interurban hit its heyday in 1919 when more than 3 million passengers used the line. But within nine years the line’s haul dropped to less than a million. By 1917 highway 99 was finished and the Model T was commonplace. Service along the third rail was threatened.

The Tacoma Interurban heading north on First Ave. S. and approaching Yesler Way where it turned one block east to its terminus on Occidental.

At 11:30 Sunday evening on Dec. 30, 1928, the last Interurban cars pulled out from Tacoma and Seattle. The Tacoma bound car left from the intersection of Occidental Avenue and Yesler Way, for 26 years the location of the Interurban Depot.

Four interurbans parked at their Tacoma terminus (Courtesy Lawton Gowey)
Tacoma City Hall on the left with the Northern Pacific Headquarters Building, bottom-center, and a neon sign, lower-right, advertising the way to the Interurban during a visit by the fleet.


North on Occidental through its intersection with Washington Street. The southern facade of the Seattle Hotel on Yesler Way fills the center of this scene, which is included, in part, to show the original facade for the building in which the Star Theatre was fitted, and with a slicker modern facade. The building is the second from the left with the "J and H" sign. The one on the far left is the Interurban Hotel at its full height. The hotel was noted at the top. Not to confuse you but the Interurban Building (for the terminus) is on the far right. The Hoge and Alaska buildings peek over the top of the Seattle Hotel, left and right, respectively.

At 115 Occidental South Tats Deli now (2006) sells steaks and subs where the Star Theatre once offered “2 Big Features” for a dime.  The theatre photo dates from 1937.


(First appeared in Pacific, early 2006)

In 1937 John Danz was fifty years old and already in his 21st year of running the Star Theatre on Occidental Avenue a half block south of Yesler Way.   Dance immigrated from Russian with his parents.  Later he also migrated from running his Sterling Men’s Wear on 2nd Avenue South to building the largest independent theatre circuit in the Pacific Northwest.  And he kept the name Sterling, ultimately calling it the Sterling Recreation Organization or SRO for short.

It was with his purchase of the Star in 1916 that Danz made the fateful switch from running – with his brothers – a haberdashery with the lure of a nickelodeon at the front door to building a chain of dedicated theatres.   Since Danz was an independent he did not get first runs films, – at first – but drew his customers with low admission prices and double features.   Here the Star is open during the Great Depression – the photograph dates from 1937 – and a small crowd of men is reading the theatre’s broadsides at the sidewalk.   Above and behind them the cheap ten-cent admission is advertised famously in a big sign extending from the second floor over the sidewalk.   Another sign of the depression-time economy of the Skid Road is posted one door south of the Star (to the left) where S. Miyato, the proprietor of the Interurban Hotel, is renting rooms for 25 cents a night.

A year earlier in 1936 Danz purchased the Pantages Theatre at Third Ave and University Street.  Renaming it the Palomar the terra-cotta landmark added class to his chain of by then seven theatres.  The Palomar was also a long-time home for his operations.   By the 1950s SRO owned 25 theatres in or near Seattle.

In a 1922 Seattle Times nostalgia piece on “Old Time Buildings [that] Hold Realms (perhaps “reams” was meant) of Forgotten Stories, a Star Theatre is recalled. “The Star Theatre of today, [is] a two-story building whose exterior plainly speaks of better days.  In 1897 it bore the same name but ‘Flaky’ Barnett ran there also a dance hall [where] in a railed-off center space, gaily dressed girls danced with their partners, earning besides their salary, a share of each drink purchased by their partner.”  In that Star a dime might have got you a dance.

Another look north on Occidental from Washington Street with part of the future home for the Star Theatre, far left. Courtesy, Lawton Gowey


The print above of the by now familiar Interurban block on Occidental between Washington Street and Yesler Way is used as introduction to three Kodachrome slide taken by Lawton Gowey, an old friend whom I first met in the 1970s because we were both interested in local history, and especially in its illustrative side. Lawton was then still auditing the books for Seattle utilities with his office in the City Light Building on Third at Madison. We shared a lot of images, and he was especially astute in matters of transportation, the real authority with Leslie Blanchard, whom he helped with Blanchard's book on local trolley history. Lawton died of a heart attach not long after his retirement. He hoped to have a long one for pursuing his several zests for history, travel and making music. He was the organist for a Presbyterian church in the Queen Anne neighborhood. The following three repeats all look north on Occidental from Washington, and show the changes that followed the destruction of the Seattle Hotel (which is still intact in the first photo, but not for long) and the formation of the preservation movement and it neighborhood victories with the official forming of the Pioneer Square Historic District.
Lawton Gowey recorded this on Feb. 7, 1961, in expectation of the destruction of the Seattle Hotel at the subject's center.
Lawton Gowey dates this Fe. 20, 1967. Note that "Jesus Save" and so is the cost of parking in 1967.
Gowey's slide from Nov. 14, 1972 shows some of the early appointments of the then nearly new Pioneer Square Historical District. Jesus still saves.
Return to the Interurban. Courtesy Lawton Gowey - as was all the Kodachrome above it.


Occidental Ave. ca. 1972, looking north from near Main Street to the Occidental Hotel on the north side of Mill Street (Yesler Way).


(First appeared in Pacific, Aug. 3, 1986)

The first thing to note about this early Occidental Avenue view is that it is one of a kind. For it was a rare moment when a photographer took the time to step one block away from all the commercial bustle on Commercial Street (First Avenue South) and shoot the idle irregularity of this tiny side street.

Both the original negative and prints for this scene are now long sing gone missing. However, the flip side of the second-generation copy print in the University of Washington’s Historical Photography Collection still carries a caption, which adds three details to this scene. The caption claims that the photo was taken in 1872, that the prominent white clapboard on the right is Mrs. Frances Guye’s boardinghouse and that the shed on the left is A. Slorak’s saloon. That’s it.

A Hand-colored slide ca.1950s by photographer and Jeweler Robert Bradley, a friend of Lawton Gowey's.

Photos, of course, also speak for themselves and this one tells us how in 1872 Occidental Avenue still dipped a bit at Washington Street – or halfway between the photographer and the Occidental hotel two blocks to the north. Actually, not too many years before this scene was shot, that intersection was part of a tide marsh. As Sophie Frye Bass recalls in her Pigtail Days in Old Seattle, “Occidental Avenue was almost Occidental waterway, a way of tides and logs and drift from Yesler’s Mill, a way where Indians beached their canoes and where crows dropped clams on the rocks to break the shells and swooped down in a rush before watchful gulls could gobble them.” So what we see here in 1872 is Seattle’s first reclamation project – a relatively dry and tide-free Occidental Avenue.

The people-less view of the street was somewhat prophetic: In 1872 Seattle had its first bank failure and, oddly, the deaths in town outnumbered the births 21 to 18. But there was a luster in the gray clouds. The little city also got its first brick building and there were 25 marriages, suggesting both a sturdier and statistically brighter future.

Another circa 1872 view, this time looking west on Mill Street (Yesler Way) with the Occidental Hotel on the right and the interruption of the boardwalk by Occidental Avenue on the left. The Wisconsin House, also on the left, was a hostelry favored by Scandinavian bachelors, and run by Amund Amunds, an uncle of Ivar "Keep Clam" Haglund.
Twelve years later - 1884 - with the then new horse-drawn streetcar posing at Occidental and Mill (Yesler Way) with the new Occidental Hotel filling most of the frame behind it.
An earlier look at the Sinking Ship Garage - it took the place of the Seattle Hotel - photographed by Robert Bradley, and from close to the prospect used in 1884 for the horse car photo.


Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archive


(First appeared in Pacific, Aug. 9, 1992)

Even from two blocks to the south and looking north over Main Street the elegant conclusion of Occidental Avenue at Yesler Way is well-lit with the ornate facade of the Seattle Hotel. Behind it, the top floors of the Alaska Building top off the scene and the city. When it was built at Second Avenue and Cherry Street in 1904, the Alaska Building was Seattle’s first skyscraper, an elevation it maintained until the Hoge Building was put up in 1911, the likely year this scene was photographed.  The primary subject is most likely the first ornamental street-lighting system by the Seattle Lighting Department (precursor to City Light). Designed by the department’s head, J.D. Ross, the five-ball clusters on ornamental iron poles were described in the department’s 1911 report as “generally admired by tourists and visitors from all parts of the country . . . This design gives a beautiful effect of festoons of decorative lights along the sidewalks, and at the same time secures a uniform illumination on all parts of the street.”


Built in 1890 the often-notorious three-story brick block at the northwest corner of Second Avenue S. and Washington Street was prudently reduced to a single story following the 1949 earthquake. (Courtesy, Lawton Gowey.)


(Appeared in Pacific early in 2003)

In the mid-1990s frustrated by the chronic confusion over both the names and historic uses of the buildings of the Pioneer Square Historic District, Greg Lange and Tim O’Brian joined their years of research on the neighborhood and came up with an inventory.   For most of District’s landmark structures they agreed — but not on this 3-story brick at the northwest corner of Second Avenue S. and Washington Street.

Tim O’Brian called it “The Schlesinger-Brodek Block.”   John Schlesinger and Gustave Brodek built it in 1890 upon the ashes of the city’s “Great Fire” of 1889.  Greg Lange chose the name Consodine as a kind of landmark reward for its most famous tenant, the impresario John Considine.   The contrite and tea-totaling Considine operated the notoriously lewd and looped People’s Theater in the basement.   His career there and elsewhere is skillfully portrayed in Murray Morgan’s classic of Seattle history: “Skid Road” with his own chapter, “John Considine and the Box-Houses, 1893-1910.”

In this view the open stairway to the basement theater is behind the horses and beneath the sign that reads “Free Lunch Down Stairs.”  The two uniformed policemen standing in front of the mural-sized Rainier Beer sign mostly hide at knee-level the name “People’s Café.”  By this time – early 20th Century – Considine has likely moved on and up to run his national vaudeville circuit and left his basement box-house to sell beer with the lure of free nuts and sandwiches sans sin.

Billy’s Mug was this building’s second famous tenant.  His signs hang over the sidewalk both on the left and over the corner.  In his book “Early Seattle Profiles” Henry Broderick, local real estate tycoon, remembers William “Billy” Belond’s tavern  “where on a fifty foot long bar skillful bartenders would slide a filled beer mug along the sudsy bar ten or fifteen feet so it would come to stop in front of the customer.”

By the Lang-O’Brian inventory here are some other historic tenants.  The Apollo Café, the Oregon Hotel (see the sign upper-left), Barney’s Jewelry and Loan, the Iron Kettle, the Union Gospel Mission Bargain House, and since the late 1930s the Double Header.  The ambitiously named State Medical Institute, whose banner runs the length the building between its second and third floors, was a short-term tenant.  Most likely this “institute” was a collection of doctor’s offices more than a school operated by a learned association of physicians.


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 now fifty-six years ago.


We may celebrate the photographer Werner Langenhager’s sizeable and sensitive record of Seattle with this “golden anniversary” example of his work. [2006]  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.

Photographed from Main Street with a telephoto setting looking north thru Occidental Park to a congregation of fraternal pedestrians standing across Washington Street from the former home of Ivar's Chowder House at the northwest corner with Occidental.
At the same southwest corner of Washington and Occidental a demonstration from the late 40s or early 50s on several issues, including a "Six Hour Day" that "Frame-Up of the Communist Party" and the existence of Spain's dictatorship with Franco. The Community Party went underground in 1948. Perhaps this is before that. It is surely something to yet research.
A Viet Nam War demo in Occidental Park - looking northeast thru the park to the northwest. I recognize a few of these folk.
The fire fighters sculpture in Occidental Park
Victoria B. and Eric R. demonstrate some kind of joy as they scamper across Occidental Park, circa 1972, holding what appears to be a painting by the Irish-British artist, Francis Bacon - but probably isn't. (The truth is I no longer remember why I set up this shot. I don't recall doing fashions.) These two friends are in a space now occupied by the several serene totems shown below.


After the Seattle National Bank Building at the southeast corner of Occidental Avenue and Yesler Way became the depot for the Seattle-Tacoma Interurban railway in 1903 it became popularly known as the Interurban Building.  It is the name that is now preferred, although it has also been called both the Pacific block and the Smith Tower Annex.


(Appeared in Pacific, March 2006)

Not yet 30 the English-born architect John Parkinson moved to Seattle with fateful good timing.  He arrived in January 1889, a little less than a half-year before the business district was kindling for the “Great Fire” of June 6, 1889.  In the post-fire reconstruction Parkinson’s talent for design was soon patronized and his surviving Seattle National Bank Building displays, to quote the modern expert Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, “a remarkable level of coherence and repose in contrast to the agitated work of so many of his contemporaries.”

The most striking feature of this Romanesque landmark is either the Lyon over the bank’s corner front door or the building’s color: a coherent red from sidewalk to cornice.  At its base Parkinson used red sandstone shipped from Colorado rather than the commonplace gray stone quarried in the Northwest and used by most of the bank’s neighbors.

While Ochsner has the bank completed in 1892, that might have been the year for finishing touches.  This view may date from the spring of 1891 when the Pioneer Place (Square) neighborhood was decorated with fir trees – like those on the right — for the May 6 visit of Benjamin Harrison.  (The President rode a Yesler Way Cable Car – like Car #13 on the left – out to Leschi, boarded the lake steamer “Kirkland” to Madison Park, and returned to town on the Madison Cable Railway.)

In this view a book and stationary store, Union Hardware, and the Wilcox Grocery all face Occidental Ave.  The Queen City Business College is on the second floor, while the Washington Temperance Magazine, and several lawyers have offices upstairs.

After a stint as the first official architect for Seattle schools, Parkinson left for Los Angeles where he had more than considerable success.  Through his L.A. career the young architect grew old and counted both the city’s famed coliseum and city hall among his accomplishments.

A detail of the Interurban Building as seen over the top and open floor of the parking facility in the triangular block bordered by James Street, Second Avenue and Yesler Way, and popularly titled the "The Sinking Ship Garage." This juxtaposition was arranged to demonstrate the point made by the developers of the garage to soften those objecting to the destruction of the Seattle Hotel. The owners explained that the architectural details of the garage would repeat the fenestration (window design) of the historic buildings that surround it. They were, of course, referring to the arches in the bent pipe guardrail - a basket handle design - at the top of the sinking structure.
Not the ruins of the Seattle Hotel but of its predecessor the Occidental Hotel gutted by Seattle's "Great Fire" of June 6, 1889. The point of view here is the same as that above it, the one of the sinking ship, although this one is taken from a few yards further north on First Avenue.

When its first ornate section was built in 1883 the Occidental hotel was perhaps the principal architectural sign of Seattle’s then recent ascendancy as the most populated community in Washington Territory.  With its 1887 additions the hotel covered the entire flatiron block between Second, Yesler and James.  Destroyed by the “Great Fire” of June 5,1889, the Occidental was replaced by the Seattle Hotel whose unfortunate destruction in 1961 by many reckonings mobilized Seattle’s “forces of preservation.”  A small section of its dismal replacement, the “Sinking Ship Garage,” appears in the contemporary photograph right of center between the Pioneer Building and the trees of Pioneer Square.

(Appeared first in the Pacific, June 2004)
One hundred and sixteen years ago this morning on June 6, 1889 that part of Seattle’s excited population that tired of watching the flames through the night and had surviving beds to drop into awoke to these ruins and thirty-plus blocks of more ruins and ashes.  The Occidental Hotel’s three-story monoliths — perhaps the grandest wreckage — held above the still smoking district like illustrations for the purple and red prose of that morning’s Seattle Daily Press.

“The forked tongues of a pierce pitiless holocaust have licked up with greedy rapacity the business portion of Seattle . . . It was a catastrophe sudden and terrific. Besides the smoking tomb like ruins of a few standing walls . . . people are left living to endure with sheer despair . . . blackness, gloom, bereavement, suffering, poverty, the hideous remains of a feast of fire.”

Predictably, the reporter’s hideous remains were also fantastic and the city’s photographers were soon making sidewalk sales of scenes like this one.  If the best of these ruins had been allowed to stand it would have become both romantic and revered, but it was not.  The Occidental’s  “towers” were blown up on the evening of the eighth.  (Most likely it was either on the 7th or 8th that this record of their silhouette was captured for the district was still generally hot and smoldering on the sixth.)

The fire started at about 2:30 in the afternoon of June 5 at the southwest corner of Front Street (First Ave.) and Madison.  It took a little less than four hours for it to reach and jump James Street and ignite the north wall of the hotel.  In another dozen minutes the fire passed through the distinguished landmark and jumped Yesler Way to spread through the firetrap frame structures between Yesler and the tideflats that were then still south of King Street.


[If I have some luck in finding one or more other related features and soon, I’ll attach them later today – Sunday.  If not they will show up later and fit somewhere then as well.]


4 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Tacoma Interurban at Occidental”

  1. Do you happen to know the name of the building that is just further left of the Interurban building?

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