Seattle Now & Then: Dutch Ned

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN: Pioneer mailman Dutch Ned poses on his horse on Cherry Street. The ca. 1880 view looks east over First Avenue when it was still named Front Street. (Courtesy: The Museum of History and Industry, aka MOHAI)
THEN: Pioneer mailman Dutch Ned poses on his horse on Cherry Street. The ca. 1880 view looks east over First Avenue when it was still named Front Street. (Courtesy: The Museum of History and Industry, aka MOHAI)
NOW: As is his neighborly practice, Jean Sherrard has widened his repeat to help us get oriented with the “now.”
NOW: As is his neighborly practice, Jean Sherrard has widened his repeat to help us get oriented with the “now.”

What to write about Dutch Ned – or what to re-write?  The several short accounts of this Seattle pioneer are constructed of a few tidbits told and retold.  And his surname is confusing: Ohn, Olm, Ohm and Ohmn, all appear in print. The last, Nils Jacob Ohmn, is chiseled on what remains of his tomb in Seattle’s Lake View Cemetery. His more often used nickname, Dutch Ned, suggests one of Deutsch or German (not Dutch) descent.

"Nis Jacob Ohmn" is what is chiseled on the surviving door to his collapsed monument, his "little room."
“Nis Jacob Ohmn” is what is chiseled on the surviving door to his collapsed monument, his “little room.”  He lived to be seventy, from 1829 to 1890.   (Courtesy Lake View Cemetery)
Two snapshots of Dutch Ned's mausoleum photographed in 1964. The roof is eroding, and the structure was soon destroyed or, better, dismantled. If the head stone writing is on the white door it is hard to make out, at least in these snapshots. Ohmn, of course, is still inside about as long after his death as his birth was before it. (Courtesy, Lake View Cemetery)
Two snapshots of Dutch Ned’s mausoleum photographed in 1964. The roof is eroding, and the structure was soon destroyed or, better, dismantled. If the head stone writing is on the white door it is hard to make out, at least in these snapshots. Ohmn, of course, is still inside about as long after his death as his birth was before it. (Courtesy, Lake View Cemetery)
In this Perhaps best likeness, Olmn stands beside his "little house." The stone work here can be compared - and found - to the two colored snapshots above this, perhaps, professional record.
In this perhaps best likeness, Olmn stands beside his “little house.” The stone work here can be compared – and found – to the two colored snapshots above this, perhaps, professional record.
One of C.T. Conover's "Just Cogitating" features clipped from The Seattle Times of July 1, 1957. Conover is remembered at the regional promoter who coined "The Evergreen State." Here he interviews Mrs. M. T. Jensen who knew Dutch Ned in the 1880s, or thereabouts, when he had the contract to carry the mail from Seattle to the Auburn and nearby communities. Diana James, my editor, is most impressed with Dutch Ned's answer "I take no notice of it." as remembered by Mrs. Jensen. Typical of the 50's we are not given her first name. (Courtesy The Seattle Times)
One of C.T. Conover’s “Just Cogitating” features clipped from The Seattle Times of July 1, 1957. Conover is remembered as the regional promoter who coined “The Evergreen State.” Here he interviews Mrs. M. T. Jensen who knew Dutch Ned in the 1880s, or thereabouts, when he had the contract to carry the mail from Seattle to the Auburn and nearby communities. Diana James, my editor, is most impressed with Dutch Ned’s answer “I take no notice of it.” as remembered by Mrs. Jensen. (The question is included by Conover.) Typical of the 50’s, we are not given her first name. (Courtesy The Seattle Times)
The often helpful Ron Edge found this territorial-timed listing on line. It records several bids for the 1878-1882 job of carrying on horseback the mail between Seattle and Sumner. N. Jacob Olm's big low bid - although not the lowest - was favored and he got $489 a year from the federal postal service.
The often helpful Ron Edge found this territorial-timed listing on line. It records several bids for the 1878-1882 job of carrying on horseback the mail between Seattle and Sumner. N. Jacob Olm’s low bid – although not the lowest – was favored and he got $489 a year from the federal postal service.  (Courtesy, Ron Edge)

Or was he Italian?  C.T. Conover, the Seattle Times long-time heritage reporter, noted in a July 1, 1957, offering of his “Just Cogitating” feature (printed here two illustrations up)  that a correspondent, Mrs. M.T. Jensen, remembered “Uncle Ned Ohm, a Sicilian, who carried mail weekly. He always stopped at my home in Auburn (then Slaughter) where I was born in 1876. There he would feed and rest his horse . . . [he was] a lone old man in a new world, his only relative a sister in far-away Sicily, to whom he always sent a part of his scant earnings.” In the featured photograph, from about 1880, Nils, holding his mail pack, poses with his horse on Cherry Street for a photographer looking east across Front Street (First Avenue).   

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In the  1934 clip printed above, the date 1880 is confidently given by the caption-writer, who then described the setting for Dutch Ned’s portrait with his horse as “in front of the Henry Yesler residence.”  This does not lend confidence for the dating claim, for the scene here is almost surely on Cherry Street, looking east from Front Street and so one block north of the Yesler home at the northeast corner of James and Front.   Still the date may be right; it falls within the 1878 and 1882 run of Ned’s or Nil’s or Nis”s first contract with the postal service.   Below we’ll insert some nearby photos from the 1880 Big Snow (the biggest in the city’s history) including two snow-bound shots  that also look east on Cherry from Front.  The reader will be able, we hope, to decide for themselves that our locating is correct.   The Times feature where these images and the text first appeared was published on December 19, 1982.  This column was then still in its first year.

Yesler's pavilion is on the right. The horizon line is near 5th Avenue.
Yesler’s pavilion is on the right. The horizon line is near 5th Avenue.  The First Baptist Church tower on Fourth Ave. shows on the horizon.

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1880 wet snow damage on Yesler's Wharf as recorded from the rear of the Peterson & Bros studio at the foot of Cherry Street . (Courtesy Greg Lang)
1880 wet snow damage on Yesler’s Wharf as recorded from the rear of the Peterson & Bros studio at the foot of Cherry Street . (Courtesy Greg Lang)
Looking north from the front of the Peterson and Bros studio at the Front Street (First Ave.) foot of Cherry Street.
Looking north from the front of the Peterson and Bros studio at the Front Street (First Ave.) foot of Cherry Street.

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However soft the focus, given the street construction and the Seattle photographer Moore, this is Dutch Ned again in Seattle posing with his horse and now also his dog. (Courtesy, White River Historical Society.)
However soft the focus, considering the street construction and the Seattle photographer Moore, this is Dutch Ned again in Seattle posing with his horse and now also his dog.   But it is some other corner.  It is too steep for Cherry Street at Front.  (Courtesy, White River Historical Society.)

Dutch Ned’s weekly labor of delivering the mail on horseback between Seattle and Auburn was but one of the two full-time jobs ascribed to him.  Born in 1820 (also chiseled on his tombstone), Ned reportedly arrived in Seattle in 1854 and soon landed the job of spreading sawdust from Henry Yesler’s sawmill to lift the pioneer village above its wetlands.  Lucile McDonald, another of this newspaper’s most prolific history reporters, summed up the reclaiming half of Nels Olm as “a familiar figure of the period, who was kept busy filling swampy places with mill waste.”  McDonald’s March 15,1953, feature in PacificNW’s predecessor, the Seattle Sunday Times Magazine, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the opening of Yesler’s mill.  On the cover was one of the Times’ staff artist Parker McAllister’s popular watercolors, a rendering of Yesler’s smoking mill.  Dutch Ned and his packed “big red wheelbarrow” were part of the painting.   [CLICK TWICE TO SEE AND READ]

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Posthumous sketches of Dutch Ned often characterize him as “soft-brained” and “dimwitted.” Some of this probably stems from his tomb and denouement. Nils or Nels Ohmn lived in a shack on the western brow of Capitol Hill overlooking the south end of Lake Union. A few years before his death in 1898, he prepaid for his funeral and bought a burial site in Lake View Cemetery.  It was near his home.  There on Lot 470 he built his own mausoleum and, once completed, entertained friends in or beside what he called his “little house.”  Stranger still, he often visited for long hours the lobby of Bonney-Watson, the funeral home he had paid to bury him. 

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Above: Two pages from Bob Ferguson’s “The Stones of Lake View,” a pocket-guide t o the cemetery.   I knew Bob and can testify to his zest on the top of Capitol Hill.  Below: Bob poses beside the cedar tree that rises above the Maynard graves at the high point in the Lake View Cemetery.

First appeared in Pacific, May 4, 1993.
First appeared in Pacific, May 4, 1993.

 

Then MOHAI director James Warren's Oct. 11, 1982 take on Dutch Ned, with his "Looking Back' feature in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Then MOHAI director James Warren’s Oct. 11, 1982 take on Dutch Ned, with his “Looking Back’ feature in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  (A smudged xerox copy from the Lake View Cemetery files.)
The old main entrance to Lake View Cemetery off of 15th Avenue and not far from the present entrance. The 1916 Big Snow was Seattle's penultimate blizzard - after the 1880 one. At this time Dutch Ned has been snug in his "little house" for eighteen years.
The old main entrance to Lake View Cemetery off of 15th Avenue and not far from the present entrance which is a short distance to the north. The 1916 Big Snow was Seattle’s penultimate blizzard – after the 1880 one. At this time Dutch Ned has been snug in his “little house” for eighteen years.

WEB EXTRAS

Anything to add, lads?   Yup and compact too.  The three links that Ron Edge has attached below are packed with neighborhood subjects – some of them repeated, of course.   By the direction of the clock on the wall it is falling well into  Sunday morning, so we will need to wait for our innovative “Uncle Ned Invitation to a Contest” – for our readers.   We’ll assemble what  factoids we have on the postman with a red wheelbarrow and offer prizes for readers who will be encouraged to elaborate on the Dutchman’s life, encouraged by their own imagination.  This approach, we know, is not so rare among pop historians and many pros as well.  So check back mid-week for details – we hope.

THEN: The original for this scene of a temporary upheaval on Mill Street (Yesler Way) was one of many historical prints given to the Museum of History and Industry many years ago by the Charles Thorndike estate. Thorndike was one of Seattle’s history buffs extraordinaire. (Courtesy, Museum of History and Industry.)

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ABOVE: The Merchants bank before the 1889 Great Fire and, below, the rebuilt merchants – along with the Kenneth Hotel – after the fire.  The photographers for both shots (especially for the one above) stood near where about six and thirteen years earlier Dutch Ned posed on his horse for the featured photo at the top.

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The Dream Theatre also at the foot of Cherry Street on the west side of Front. First appeared in Pacific, Jan. 22, 1984.
The Dream Theatre also at the foot of Cherry Street on the west side of Front. First appeared in Pacific, Jan. 22, 1984.  CLICK TWICE TO ENLARGE!!

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Appeared first in Pacific on Oct. 14, 2001.
Appeared first in Pacific on Oct. 14, 2001.
For comparison another - and somewhat later - look up Front through Cherry Street, this one by Peterson and Bros Studio, possibly the photographer also of our featured photo at the top.
For comparison another – and somewhat later – look up Front through Cherry Street, this one by Peterson and Bros Studio, possibly the photographer also of our featured photo at the top. CLICK TO ENLARGE

BELOW: LOOKING NORTH ON FRONT STREET FROM THE PETERSON & BROS STUDIO at the FOOT of CHERRY STREET.

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First appeared in Pacific, December 31, 1984.
First appeared in Pacific, December 31, 1984.

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Surely familiar to Dutch Ned during his early years of spreading sawdust for Henry and Sarah Yesler.
Surely familiar to Dutch Ned during his early years of spreading sawdust for Henry and Sarah Yesler.

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3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Dutch Ned”

  1. Hello Paul, not sure if this is the best place to contact you, but my name is Karen and I am on the board of the Kirkland Heritage Society and would be very interested to have you come after January 2016 to do a program for us. Jean also if she’d like. You can contact me at my email
    kschic6383@aol.com or 425-273-6299. Thanks!

  2. I really enjoyed your story in todays Sunday pictorial(Pacific NW), on “The legend of Dutch Ned, Seattle’s pioneer mailman”

    What great little piece of history!

    He sounds like he was a good guy in a city that was full of characters in the rough and tumble pioneer era of Seattle. Also enjoyed the accompanying video on your visit to the Lake View Cemetary, and Ned’s resting place, as well as the story behind it.
    -John
    Auburn(formerly Slaughter)

  3. John: Jean and I continue to wonder about Ned’s or Nils’ or Nis’ story and are thinking – still – about asking our readers (those among them who are interested) to take the few tidbits of narrative available on his life and fill them in for some historical fiction Does this seem like something you might do? We will give prizes. Does that advance the request? We’ll ask – if we do this – Kurt Armbruster, the noted regional historian and also short story writer, to choose the one he likes the best, and then we will give out that prize, as noted in the video, probably an old VHS tape. Paul

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