Seattle Now & Then: Signal Station on Aurora

(click to enlarge photos)


THEN: Five blocks south of what was then still city limits along 85th Street, the landmark Signal Station at 80th & Aurora, with its own comely tower, added class to Seattle’s contribution to the Pacific Coast Highway. The modern ribbon of concrete was poured to both speed and service traffic between Mexico and Canada.
NOW: The old service station retains much of its Art Moderne character and has in its now more than 80 years not only pumped gas but also fixed stereos and is now fitting cars with roof racks.

This Signal Station’s aging tax card has the Art Moderne landmark at the southeast corner of Aurora Ave and 80th Street built in 1929, the upsetting year that set loose the Great Depression. Still the businesses then along Aurora were excited by what was coming. The 1932 completion of their new highway’s great cantilever bridge over the Lake Washington Ship Canal, followed by the May 14, 1933 opening of Aurora directly through Woodland Park, poured onto Aurora’s long commercial strip north of the Green Lake a flood of commercial opportunities, but also speeding violations, and accidents.
1930-31 construction on the Aurora Bridge as seen from the Fremont Bridge.
The Aurora Bridge deck from the south end. I can't tell if this is a record of its lighting done before the bridge was open, or simply an unusually slow moment in its use. Compliments Municipal Archive
“Cunningham Service” is signed on the station in this 1937 tax photo, and all the Cunninghams – Agnes, William and their then fifteen-year-old twins, Bob and Bill – worked the station together.  Bob, now a resident of Horizon House on First Hill, recalls how his and Bill’s help washing windshields, inside and out, was a pleasing double-vision for patrons.  Service stations were then still “full service”, although rarely by twins.
SIGNAL borrows on Tarzan's strength for this early adver printed in The Seattle Times for April 20, 1933.
Twenty years later in another Times adver, this one for Jan. 15, 1953, SIGNAL OIL reviews its first two decades of serving the west with the promise that a user would "go farther with" Signal. But not for long. This was the last SIGNAL ad to appear in the Times.
The Cunninghams lived in the neighborhood.  Bob and Bill’s mother took them to the grand Feb. 22, 1932 dedication of the Aurora Bridge and they walked with thousands across it.  And the twins attended Bagley School, although in the brick plant behind the station on Stone Ave, not the 1907 frame schoolhouse seen, in part, here on the far right.  From Bagley they graduated to and from Lincoln High School.
George Washington AKA Aurora Bridge dedication day, Feb 22, 1932.
Our William S. Cunningham - he is listed bottom-left - was active with the Independent Order of Foresters. This "notice" appeared in the Seattle Times for Feb. 8, 1937 another dipping year during the Great Depression.
After about twenty years pumping gas on the corner, Agnes and William Cunningham “retired” to developing apartment houses on the other – south – side of Woodland Park.  By then the Signal Station had turned to Flying A.
On Feb. 3, 1965 traffic on Aurora suddenly slacked, when Miss Sno-King, Rose Clare Menalo of Meadowdale High School, opened the 19.7 mile section of Interstate-5 between Seattle and Everett.
In the 1912 Baist real estate map Aurora north of Green Lake is still named Woodland Park Ave. Bagley School is shown in yellow on green near the center of the detail, and Signal Gas is still many years from replacing the residence, and perhaps small store front, at the southeast corner of 80sth and "Aurora."
This 1933 look south on Aurora sites thru 80th Street, but missed the Signal station at it concentrates on it intended subject, the Foster and Kleiser billboard on the southwest corner of Aurora and 80th. This is one of several hundred such street scene photographed by the sign company as examples of their services. Often in the 5x7" negatives for these prints the billboards have been painted over thereby making - or printing - a featureless wholly white billboard, a fresh canvas (again, in the print from the negative) upon which a prospective client may imagine their own product. A bit of Green Lake reflects ahead. Later and off camera to the left the Trolley Shop (next, below) opened with curb service.
The TROLLEY STOP at 8018 Aurora and so only a few doors north of Cunningham's SIGNAL GAS and on the same side of the speed way. At the tax photo scrawl shows, this record was made on August 3, 1945, one day after the conclusion of the Potsdam Conference on what to do with the defeated Germans and three days before "Little Boy" the first atomic bomb, was dropped from the Enola Gay onto Hiroshima. Three days later "Fat Man" was dropped on Nagasaki.
The tax photographer returned to 8018 Aurora in 1956 to witness the changes at what had by then become the Cafe Avel with bigger windows and cheap hamburgers at 20 cents each - but not the cheapest.
Nearby and ten years later Zips at 8502 Aurora indicated the sincerity of their 19-cent Zips Burger by signing the price in neon. (Courtesy, Washington State Archive, the branch of it at Bellevue Community College.)
Another SIGNAL service and near the Cunninghams but set at 8500 Aurora even nearer Zips although earlier, ca. 1937-38.


Anything to add, Paul?
Yup Jean and mostly photographs of the neighborhood and/or of other gas stations sampled from the same Tax photos as the Signal Station was above.   First Ron Edge will set up a few “buttons” for links to past stories that relate to Aurora.  They will be, in order, features on the Dog House, Dags Drive-in, The Seattle Speed Bowl, the Igloo Cafe (neighbor to the Dog House), an Igloo Menu from Ron’s menu collection, and a return to the Aurora Overpass on 41st – the one, Jean, your mother used to cross as a very young scholar living with her parents in Wallingford reach B.F. Day Primary School in Fremont.

Avoiding stairs the serpentine Aurora overpass to Oak Lake School at 10040 Aurora Ave. Mayor Clinton and Super of Schools, Ernest W. Campbell, helped dedicate it. Police Capt. George W. Kimball was also thanked during the inaugural. His service of running Oak Lake’s Junior Safety Patrol was, with the new overpass, no longer needed. For the junior patrol there would be no more wearing of badges and other official gear. The project was spurred by the school’s PTA, and the picture taken by The Seattle Times.
Aurora's overpasses in Woodland Park when new in the 1930s. Below is the swath clear-cut through the park for the speedway and below that the section when it was new and still reflecting light from its fresh concrete. (All of these are Courtesy Lawton Gowey and the Municipal Archive.)


SERVICE STATIONS – A SELECTION (with few exceptions) from the late 1930’s KING COUNTY TAX PHOTOS in the keep of the WASHINGTON STATE ARCHIVE, at its Bellevue Community College branch. The architecture for these shrines to nearly everybody’s mobility is often rewarding – for sales too.  For the most part we will adjourn from caption writing.  The photograph’s have their own. The brands are easily noted, although many of them will be familiar only to students of petroleum or old pump-hands like these.

This SHELL station on Roosevelt has some of the Moderne touches about it given more lavish attention with Cunningham's SIGNAL Station.

This taco stand at 20 W. Denny Way - and so near the southern border of the Aurora Speedway - was lifted north from Arizona by a late summer tornado. The brand name, Texaco, does not contradict this story of its travels.

We may make this our last stop for gas, at 18445 Aurora, nearly to the county line. This Standard station's dainty architecture may be compared to the variations on the standard Standard stations included above.



Ordinary in its plan but lavish with its eccentric brick, this residence faces Aurora at 6609, and so it looks west across the speedway to Green Lake. There is along this west side of Aurora a long line of residences, which, I assume, were zoned free from commerce in the interests of the park. The colored shot is used courtesy - we hope - of Google and its street views. Note that the porch posts have given up their bricks and the complexities of the front door have been discarded. Directly behind these homes on Linden Ave. commerce was allowed to pursue its ambitions in a zone of commercial anarchy - more or less. And yet the next photograph - again from the tax survey - shows a modest Depression-time example. We may wonder if they could afford the tax assessment.
Courtesy - like most of these tax pics - of the Washington State Archive, the Bellevue Community College Branch.

This Shell Oil outlet was linked with the home fuel service - wood, kindling, coal, stove oil - directly north of it at the combined address of 8700 Aurora and so paying on the same tax bill.

Another home fuel dealer - this one at 8700 Aurora and later, in 1953 - has manure on its lot as well.

Above and below, the litter of 1956, later at 8700 Aurora.

Still part of the Pacific Coast Highway in 1953, Aurora, as it passed through Seattle also passed by many motels.


Grand opening for a Cunningham neighbor, the new Tradewell at 7816 Aurora. (Again, as happens every Sunday morning around Two, we will close the book and climbs the basement stairs to nightybears. I once knew the date for this Tradewell opening, and will try to uncover it once I am rested. The "Now" below was, again, borrowed from the generous horde of the Google street mobile.



2 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Signal Station on Aurora”

  1. Hello! William S Cunningham Sr., was my grandfather and we have a few great photos of him at his Signal service station on Aurora and 80th. Thanks for this great article as well as all the others about Seattle’s history. One of my maternal great grandfathers, Ed Verd, was one of the managers at the Bryant Lumber Mill in Fremont and the other was a well known businenessman, named James Trenholme. He was involved in the Arctic Club in Pioneer Square.

    Could you point me to any articles or photographs you might have about either of them?

    Thanks for all your details and research. It’s very interesting!
    Susan Trenholme Cunningham McDaniel

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