(click to enlarge photos)
A good date for this Webster and Stevens Studio photo is July 20, 1925, a Saturday. The Seattle Times had announced (more than reported) on the preceding day: “Traffic Ruler To Mount Tower, New System In Use Tomorrow – ‘Stop’ And ‘Go’ Signals For Blocks Downtown Will Be Regulated From Fourth And Pike – Pedestrians Must Obey, Too.”
By 1925 motorcars had been on Seattle streets for a quarter-century, but except for frightening horses, their disruption was tolerable through the first decade of the 1900s. But then the horseless carriers got faster, heavier and multiplied at a rate that even then famously booming Seattle could not match. Especially following World War I, having one’s own car became a matter of considerable urgency for both modern mobility and personal status. Quoting from “Traffic and Related Problems,” a chapter in the 1978 book Public Works in Seattle, the citizen race for car ownership was revealed in the records for the 15-year period between 1922 and 1937, when “the number of motor vehicles increased by 211 per cent, as against a 22 per cent increase in population.” Fatal accidents became almost commonplace.
Consequently, on this Saturday in the summer of 1925 the nearly desperate hopes of Seattle’s traffic engineers climbed high up the city’s one and only traffic tower with the officer (unnamed in any clippings I consulted), seen standing in the open window of his comely crow’s nest. Reading deeper into the Friday Times, we learn that this ruler would have powers that reached well beyond this intersection. From high above Fourth and Pike he was assigned to operate all the traffic signals on Fourth Avenue between University and Pine Streets, and on Pike Street between First and Fifth Avenues, while watching out for disobedient pedestrians. And no left turns were allowed. Were you heading north on Fourth here and wanting to take a left on Pike to reach the Public Market? Forget it. You were first obliged to take three rights around the block bordered by Westlake, Pine, Fifth, and Pike.
It was primarily the “morning and evening clanging of the bells,” about which the pedestrians and merchants of this retail district most complained. The hotels particularly objected. The manager of the then new Olympic Hotel, two blocks south of the tower, described customers checking out early and heading for Victoria and/or Vancouver B.C. rather than endure the repeated reports of the “traffic ruler’s bells.” As Seattle’s own “grand hotel,” when measured by size, service and sumptuous lobby, the Olympic was heard. (See the Thurlby sketch, three images down.)
In early June, 1926 after a year of irritating clanging at Fourth and Pike, Seattle’s Mayor Bertha Landes summoned heads of the street, fire, and municipal trolley departments to dampen the cacophony escaping from both citizens and signals. The three executives’ combined acoustic sensibilities first recommended brass bells. These would report “a much softer tone, and more musical too, than the harsh, loud-sounding bell now in use.” J. W. Bollong, the head engineer in the city’s streets department, advised that the new bells ringing be limited to “two short bells at six-second intervals,” instead of a long continuous ball. The new bells would also be positioned directly underneath the signals to help muffle the sound. Bollong noted, that with the bells and lights so placed both pedestrians and motorists would get any signal’s visual and audible sensations simultaneously. Putting the best construction on this package of improvements, Bollong concluded, “That’s like appreciating the taste of a thing with the sense of smell.”
Also in 1926, the city’s public works figured that the its rapidly increasing traffic had need of “stop-and-go lights” at 50 intersections. Engineer Bollong had done some traveling, and concluded that Seattle was lagging. “Los Angeles now has 232 lights, or one to every 3,000 citizens. Seattle has only 30 lights, one for every 16,000. “
While Seattle’s traffic lights proliferated along with its traffic, the towers did not. By 1936 there were 103 traffic signal controlled intersections in the city – none of them with towers. Much of the left-turn nuisance was ameliorated in 1955 when the city’s one-way grid system was introduced.
Anything to add, boys? Jean, yes. We are startled about how much attention we have given to this intersection over the years. Recently, within the last year or two, two or more features have been contributed for subjects either directly on this five-star corner or very near it. Here Ron Edge has put up links to eight of them. The top two are recent, indeed.