Seattle Now & Then: City of Seattle Ambulance, ca 1920

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THEN: Heading southwest along City Hall Park is a city ambulance that our auto informant Bob Carney identifies as a White Motor Company 1-ton truck from the early 1920s. In the background on Fourth Avenue is the Beaux Arts-style King County Courthouse, which topped out in 1916 at a modest five stories. A slice of Smith Tower peeks out upper left. (Courtesy Bert and Elizabeth Prescott)
NOW: Another groundbreaking innovation in Seattle began with the creation of Medic One in 1970. Firefighter/EMT Casey Stockwell stations his truck in precisely the same spot as the city ambulance. Oak trees conceal the 10 additional floors added to the courthouse by 1931. A ball-capped concrete gatepost stands behind the front bumpers in both images. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Aug. 27, 2020
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Aug. 30, 2020)

A hearse is a hearse, except when it was an ambulance

By Jean Sherrard

As our pandemic-proscribed summer wanes, we may mourn canceled vacations and neighborhood barbecues, but another singularly American institution, beloved by scavengers, collectors and photo-historians, also has bit the dust – the garage sale.

This week’s “Then” is from an album discovered in West Seattle by Bert Prescott at just such a sale in the 1970s. The collection, dating between 1921 and 1923 and shot by an anonymous photographer, features more than 60 images of commercial and official vehicles, ranging from milk and grocery delivery vans to buses and construction and fire trucks.

This ambulance of “The City of Seattle,” captured on Fourth Avenue near City Hall Park, is both lovely and rare. Serving the City Emergency Hospital, literally a stone’s throw away, the vehicle provides insight into a transitional moment in Seattle medical history.

Along with police headquarters, the city jail and the health and sanitation department, the hospital was crammed into the flatiron Public Safety building (now 400 Yesler), and space was at a premium. A city-owned ambulance was an extravagance soon to be replaced with a more economical solution.

Typically, hospitals of the time contracted with funeral homes for emergency transport, providing a profitable second use for hearses. And it passed muster. Whether injured or deceased, prone human bodies require similar dimensions for delivery.

Jason Engler, an Austin, Texas, funeral director and historian for the National Museum of Funeral History, provides a related piece of undertaker lore. “A hearse would get to the cemetery,” he says, “and no sooner had pallbearers removed the casket than they’d head back out on an ambulance call.”

In trade lingo, they were exchanging their black coats for white ones. What’s more, went a morbid joke, if a patient’s survival seemed dubious, an undertaker might dawdle round the block before reaching the hospital, perhaps instead ending up at the funeral home.

In forward-thinking Seattle, Engler suggests, some citizens seemed to treat the joke seriously. To change the status quo, a mayoral delegation traveled in 1922 to Portland, where an enterprising Frank Shepard ran a successful ambulance service unaffiliated with funeral homes. Might he be persuaded to move north?

Shepard agreed, with conditions. Relocating to Seattle in 1923, he purchased ambulances from Butterworth Funeral Home and negotiated a non-compete agreement: Area funeral homes would stop providing emergency transport if Shepard agreed to stay out of the funeral business.

By 1924, the city of Seattle contracted with Shepard Ambulance to serve its hospitals. Over the decades, the company steadily expanded until 1995, when it merged with American Medical Response (AMR).


Check back soon for our 360 degree video featuring this location.


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