Seattle Now & Then: entrance archway to Schmitz Park, 1918

(Click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: This 1918 view looks south and slightly east along 59th Avenue Southwest through the Schmitz Park arch, which stood from 1913 to 1953. Alki Elementary School, which was built in 1912 and stands in upgraded form today, is faintly visible behind the 1917 Paige auto, whose slogan was “the most beautiful car in America.” (Debbie Lezon collection)
NOW1: At the same vantage, the northwest corner of today’s Alki Playfield, present-day family matriarch Vicki Schmitz (left) provides a human welcome while leaning on the hood of a gleaming 1940 Mercury convertible coupe owned by Lee Forte (second from right). In the driver’s seat is his son, Omri, and behind Lee is their neighbor and this column’s automotive consultant, Bob Carney. They are West Seattleites all. (Jean Sherrard)

Published in the Seattle Times online on Aug. 12, 2021
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Aug. 15, 2021

Backed by a bustling beach, old-growth endures at Schmitz Park
By Clay Eals

Next time you pull out your phone and aim it to snap a picture, consider the scene playing out in exactly the opposite direction. Sometimes what’s behind the camera is as important as what’s in front. Context can be everything.

Our 1918 “Then” photo illustrates the point. We are in West Seattle, looking south and slightly east to a unique, old-growth preserve, Schmitz Park. Yet over our shoulder lies our city’s sandy, saltwater showcase, Alki Beach.

Beneath a stone-pillared arch leading to the park, three gents in hats, suits and ties, with an equally fashionable woman in the driver’s seat, are eyeing the camera — and the beach. These unknown adventurers have pulled a 1917 Paige touring car to the side of 59th Avenue near its intersection with Lander Street, beyond which the park’s sturdy trees are visible in the distance.

The philanthropic Schmitz family donated the hillside property to the city in portions from 1908 to 1912, with the proviso that it be maintained largely in its natural state. The arch, erected in 1913, served as a grand entry through which motorists could parade their vehicles and pedestrians could stroll to the sanctuary.

NOW2: The reverse view today, with Alki Beach one-half block away. (Clay Eals)

But how did visitors get here? Likely via the beach directly in back of the photographer, one-half block away.

Of course, Alki was the site of the city’s first non-Native settlement in 1851, thus its vaunted “birthplace.” When this photo was taken, 11 years after West Seattle’s annexation to Seattle, Alki had become a crowd-pleasing daytime destination and summertime retreat. Easing access was a just-opened wooden swing bridge across the Duwamish River mudflats, augmenting a streetcar that had served the coastline since 1908.

Alki Beach Park had opened formally in 1911, its bathing pavilion drawing 73,000 visitors in 1913 alone. A mile northeast, on piers above lapping waves stood the private Luna Park amusement center, all of which but a natatorium (saltwater pool) closed in 1913 after a raucous, seven-year run.

Given the pressures of Seattle’s gargantuan growth, it’s astonishing that bastions of beauty survive intact near this photographic site. Creek-centered and trail-lined, 53-acre Schmitz Park remains a sensory refuge from urban life.

Likewise, Alki Beach Park encircles the peninsula’s northern tip on the water side of Alki and Harbor avenues, still providing a panorama nonpareil. One shudders to envision the vanished vistas had the city not acquired and protected these precious parcels.

So as we navigate and reinvigorate our society post-virus, we might do well to express gratitude for the context of our lives, before and behind us, a century ago and now.


To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Below are several interpretive signs from Schmitz Park plus, as provided and annotated by our ace automotive informant Bob Carney, a complement of vintage photos of cars on Alki Beach. Thanks, Bob!

Entry pillar to Schmitz Park. (Clay Eals)
Schmitz Park trail sign. (Clay Eals)
Schmitz Park restoration sign. (Clay Eals)
A history sign at Schmitz Park. (Clay Eals)
Cars line Alki Beach in 1912. Cars represented include Model T Ford, Packard, Hudson, Buick and Olsmobile. “Latham” on building at right could stand for C.W. Latham, West Seattle real-estate agent. (Bob Carney collection)
Above the women lounging on Alki Beach are several cars (from left): unidentified, 1925-26 Chrysler, 1920s Model T Ford, 1925-26 Chevrolet and three more 1920s Model T Fords. (Bob Carney collection)
Circa 1945, this view of Spud Fish & Chips on Alki Beach features these cars (from left): unknown, 1940 Oldsmobile, 1938-39 Ford, 1940s Oldsmobile and 1937 Chevrolet. At left are signs for the Alki Beach Cafe and a souvenir and gift shop. (Bob Carney collection)
A woman displays a new-looking 1950 Studebaker Land Cruiser across from the “Birthplace of Seattle” monument on Alki Beach. In the background are (left) a 1942 Chevrolet and a 1946-48 Ford. (Bob Carney collection)

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