(click to enlarge photos)
Few Seattle streets – perhaps no other Seattle street – have accumulated such a record of carnage as its first “speedway,” Aurora Avenue. From Broad Street north to the then new Aurora Bridge, the speedway opened to traffic in the spring of 1933.
ABOVE: Looking north from the new speedway’s beginnings just north of Denny Way, and thru one of the city’s busiest intersections where both Broad and Mercer Streets crossed Aurora through traffic lights, years before both streets were routed below Aurora and its only stop-and-go light south of the Aurora Bridge. BELOW: The nearly new Aurora Bridge, the north end of the speedway’s first section, the one opened in 1933, although this record was made later – late enough for the speedway to be extended through Aurora Park.
A traffic expert from Chicago described this nearly two-mile long speedway as “the best express highway in the U.S.” Its exceptional qualities were the six lanes – eight counting the two outside lanes for parking or rush hour traffic – and the speed limit of 30 mph. Still, Aurora had the arterial worries of cross-streets, left turns, and head-on traffic, plus the extraordinary risk of pedestrians negotiating the ninety feet from curb to curb. For these endangered pedestrians traffic engineers built what they called “safety islands.” You see one above (at the top), looking north from the Crockett Street crosswalk in 1934. Just below is the same (if I’ve figured it correctly) island, only looking at it from the north and four years later on Sept. 21, 1938.
No pedestrian was injured in the mess recorded at the top. It was made around 2:30 in the morning on January 19, 1934. Rather, it was 37-year-old Carl Scott who, heading south from the Aurora Bridge in his big Packard, crushed the north reinforced concrete pole of the safety island. The Times, then an afternoon daily, explained front page: “Autoist Dies Instantly in Terrific Crash.” Photographers from both The Times and the city’s department of public works reached the island after Scott’s body had been removed, but not the scattered parts of his sedan. In the accompanying photo at the top, the city’s photographer aimed north with his back to the intact south pole, possibly with its red light still blinking. Interested readers will find The Times photos in this newspaper’s archive for the date of the crash. (Ask your Seattle Public librarian – the archive can be accessed with a computer and a library card number.)
After a few more speedway accidents and deaths (see more clips below), The Times turned from seeking advice on how to improve and protect these imperfect pedestrian bulwarks to a campaign for getting rid of these targets for “the brotherhood of bad drivers . . . careless, reckless, defective, drunken and sleeping.” Headlines for the December 2, 1937, issue read, in part “Stop Murder On Aurora – Center-Pillars Are Death Magnets.” The following March, after another motorist lost his battle with a safety island, the newspaper’s librarian calculated that thirty-eight persons had died in Aurora Ave. traffic accidents since the highway was opened in 1932. Eighteen of these were killed hitting “safety” islands. By then, Times reporters were instructed always to put safety in quote marks when running with island, as in “safety” island.
Anything to add, lads?
Jean as sure as something has to give, we will too. Below, Ron Edge has again put up some fertile links: eight of them, and we may add one or two more tomorrow. If you click to open the first of these, which features the Arabian Theatre, it will include (as we hope some of you will already anticipate) its own “web extras.” We will name these added features as lures to clicking. They are illustrated stories about the nearby intersection of Aurora and 84th Ave., a feature about the swath of clear-cutting that ran through Woodland Park in prelude to cutting the park in two with the paving of Aurora Avenue. Next you will find the story of the Twin T-P’s restaurant, a local landmark which was razed in the night, unannounced. Green Lake’s northwest swimming beach follows, and then also the story of Maust Transfer’s original flatiron quarters (before moving to Pier 54) at Winona and 73rd.
Continuing our promotion of links, the Signal Station story below, includes within it features about two once cherished speedway cafes: the Igloo, and the Dog House. It includes as well features on the Aurora Speed Bowl and the pedestrian overpass between Fremont and Wallingford – although some Fremont partisans will insist that it is between two Fremonts: Central and East. And as a lesson in our oft-quoted mother’s truism that “Repetition is the mother of all learning.” Ron has included down below the overpass link on its own. It will surely have other links within it. After the links we will finish with a few more Times clips and more speedway photos too. A trip to nighty-bears follows, and eight hours more some proof-reading too.
CONCLUDING with a planned wreck from 1979.
6 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: “Murder” on Aurora”
Loved your discussion of “Safety Island” and picture. Discussion in the paper over looked pedestrian safety but article above hit it well. I suggest between 1933 and about 1948 (when east/west transet arrived on 45th & 46th) perhaps 1000+ pedestrians were saved by those islands. Crossing Aurora was a challenge but necessary for us from the west side 3rd or 6th NW, the west Lincoln/Hamilton school bounfary. We hiked three miles am/pm to school and home. Most common was N42nd, but even with the ped bridge at 41st an extra 5 minutes was not desirable. Those islands served us well.
The lack of the center barrier on Aurora also provided thugs an escape route as occurred at 8 am, June 9, 1951. Headed to UW I stopped at arterial at 39th and Fremont headed east. Clear both ways but a car hurtling airborne off the hill on Bridge Way, caught my eye, landing with dirt, smoke, sparks, I realized I was next in line. I jammed the tran in park rolled over on the seat and braced myself between seat and dashboard expecting engine to arrive in my lap. Somehow he passed on my left, bounced on the curb, traveled the distance past the corner building to hit the concrete hard clay bank behind. Passenger half way out windshield. He backed off but forced left due to damage disappeared over hill and stopped in vacant lot. Pulled buddy out and disappeared between houses. About 5 minutes later, seemed like eternity SPD showed up after they exited safely from Aurora.. They had been chasing stolen car (85mph) north on Aurora, at north end of bridge thugs swerved left across oncoming lanes and exited wrong way on the south bound on ramp and Bridge Way.into my lap. I went on to work, but it marked a moment in my life i was appreciative of every second I’m allowed to enjoy this frustrated world.
The last photo is when the original Ernst Hardware store was torn down. The building also served as the headquarters to Pay & Save as well. Many thought it was strange that a chain hardware store would be found in the such a major urban area. The Seventh & Olive building was built after the rubble was cleared.
the next to last photo is appallingly gruesome to 21st century eyes…but such photos were not uncommon in newspapers in the 1950s and 1960s.
How did you take the “Now” photo? Curious youth wants to know.
Karen drove south on Aurora and I hung out the rear window. The trunk of our ancient Camry has been cropped out.
Dramatic proof of the mid-20th Century privileging of motorists over neighborhoods and non-motorists’ safety!