2018 Find of the Month Archive

Regulating bicycles


Questions regarding licensing and regulating bicycles in Seattle have resurfaced periodically since the late 1800s. One relevant piece of legislation, Ordinance 68990, was passed on February 6, 1939, amending the license code to require registration and license plates for bikes. Related clerk files contain letters sent in both protest and support of the legislation, giving a glimpse into a debate of the time that still resonates today.

In addition to licensing and registration requirements, the ordinance declared certain bicycling acts unlawful, such as riding without a bell or lights, and carrying riders on handlebars. Penalties for not complying ranged from fines to time in jail.

Also considered for the ordinance was a clause stipulating cyclists be permitted to ride on sidewalks. It was this topic in particular that inspired most of the letters. “I feel that legal sanction of this practice will bring about a condition highly dangerous to small children who might be using sidewalks in front of their homes, particularly where there are hedges or shrubs limiting visibility,” wrote one resident. A letter in support of allowing the practice reads: “We have never heard of a pedestrian...being hurt or killed by a bicycle on the sidewalk—but oh! the tragedies that occur when a bicycle meets a motorist on the street!” Another letter in support struck a compromising tone: “Why not make it a misdemeanor if a cyclist does not dismount when meeting or passing a pedestrian on the sidewalk. With the bicycles licensed, an offender’s name can easily be obtained.”

The final version of the ordinance did not include any language about riding on sidewalks. The licensing requirement was repealed in 1948 at the urging of the Chief of Police, who instead advocated for a voluntary registration program.


zoning map

Seattle’s first zoning code was established in 1923, and almost immediately citizens began trying to change it. The code defined two types of residental areas: First Residence Districts, which were generally single-family zones, and Second Residence Districts, which allowed apartment houses, hospitals, and a few other non-commercial uses.

In addition to single-family houses, other allowable uses in First Residence Districts included parks, libraries, railroad stations, churches, and schools. These latter two uses proved controversial among homeowners, as seen in Comptroller File 108679.

The CF consists of documents from the Mt. Baker Park Improvement Club, the Madrona Community Club, and the Inter-club Council of Lake Washington Clubs, all expressing concern that churches and schools are “detrimental to such residence districts, and to home owners residing therein.” They believed that “one of the primary purposes of the Zoning Ordinance is the protection of the home owner and the establishment of zones where nothing but residences will be permitted,” and argued that “for the interest of the entire City,” the law should be amended to prohibit these uses in First Residence Districts, as their inclusion was “inimical to the welfare of the people.”

The Mt. Baker neighborhood group agreed with the other two organizations about the need to amend the zoning code, but they did recommend including a loophole where construction would be allowed if “consent to such erection is obtained from all property owners within 400 feet of proposed schools or churches.”

The zoning code was not amended, and religious and educational buildings continued to be allowed in single-family zones.

A "whale bathtub" at Seattle Center


In January 1966, the Mayor, City Council President, and the owner of a private aquarium issued a joint press release announcing plans for a "marine park" to be built in the northwest corner of the Seattle Center campus. The park was to include "a whale and dolphin pool, seal and sea lion show tank, seal feeding pool and underground octopus grotto," and was meant to be a new home for Namu, an orca that was housed on the waterfront at that time.

While some citizens wrote to the mayor in support of the proposal, the idea also elicited criticism on many fronts, including:  

  • The need to pipe in salt water to the location, whereas the waterfront had more space and was a more natural place for a whale.
  • The "undignified" nature of whale and dolphin shows within shouting distance of the opera house and other cultural facilities. One writer noted that Seattle Center was meant to be "a cultural center, not a honky-tonk center." Another wrote that although many people were interested in a marine show, "many people are interested as well in go-go dancers, gambling, and vice of all sorts," but that should not determine City policy. KING Broadcasting released an editorial saying that "a whale bathtub and a feeding pond for seals" was not compatible with the overall goals of Seattle Center.
  • Objections to a privately financed attraction on the still-evolving civic campus, with citizens upset that aquarium owner Ted Griffin would be profiting off the public cultural space.
  • The "unavoidable stench" of "fish-eating mammals in a confined area" would limit enjoyment of other attractions at the Center, including restaurants.
  • Preferences for a competing proposal for a teen recreation center on the campus (although one dissenter wrote, "Never, never let the youth get in there - unless you put them in a distant corner with a 12 foot fence").

Namu's welfare was brought up by fewer people than one might think, but several did say he would be happier on the waterfront than in a pool. One child wrote that Namu "wouldn't feel so cooped up" if he stayed in the Sound. A letter from the Seattle Garden Club pointed out that "poor Namu's future is already short," and noted that by the time the park was ready to receive the whale, "the issue may very literally be dead."

The original construction timeline was quite speedy, with plans to have the attraction at Seattle Center fully operational by June of that same year. However, aquarium owner Griffin notified the City in late February that the architects believed opening by early summer was unrealistic, so "we therefore request permission to withdraw our petition and re-submit it at a later date." The project postponement turned out to be a lucky development, and the Garden Club turned out to be prescient. Namu died in his pen at the waterfront aquarium that July, after just over a year in captivity.

Equal pay for women


In an early attempt to promote equal pay for women, the Northwest Joint Council of the Building Service Employees International Union wrote to City Council in December 1942 asking the councilmembers to endorse a bill to be considered in the Washington State Legislature the next year.

The bill was to be based on a petition to the state's Industrial Welfare Commission, which was enclosed with the letter. The petition asked that an order be adopted "to the effect that no employers of labor in this state, employing both males and females, shall discriminate in any way in the payment of wages as between sexes, or shall pay any female a less wage, be it time or piece work or salary, than is being paid to males similarly employed, or in any employment formerly performed by males." (Since World War II was well underway at this point, there were many women employed in formerly all-male workplaces.)

Lest we think that the petition was a thoroughly modern document, it should be noted that it concluded with the proviso that "no female shall be given any task disproportionate to her strength, nor shall she be employed in any place detrimental to her morals or health."

In their letter, the Northwest Joint Council included a long list of labor unions which were promoting the bill. They also noted that the Board of King County Commissioners had already unanimously endorsed the measure, and added that they believed City Council "will also give favorable consideration, since it is the established policy of the City to pay its own employees on the basis of merit, without discrimination because of sex."

The City Council placed the letter and petition on file, but no further action seems to have been taken at that time.

Ballard streetcar holdup

Report of committee

Comptroller File 7212 contains the following letter from Mayor Thomas Humes to City Council, dated Feb. 12, 1900:

Gentlemen: -

During the time I have had the honor of being the chief executive officer of this city it has been my custom to give to known residents of the city, of good character, permission to carry a revolver upon their person in going to or returning from their places of business. In the spring of the year 1899 I gave such permission to Charles E. Plimpton and R.B. Matterson, with the express admonition that if any person should attempt to hold them up and rob them to shoot such person dead. On the evening of the ___ [sic] day of January, 1900, while said Matterson and Plimpton were returning to this city from the City of Ballard, and while on board the street car running between this city and the City of Ballard, a highwayman attempted to hold up the car and to rob the passengers on board, which attempt was frustrated by said Matterson and Plimpton, resulting in the death of the desperado. During the melee, in which a great many shots were fired by the desperado, Matterson and Plimpton, Plimpton received a serious wound in the arm, since which time he has been unable to follow his ordinary avocation and has been to some considerable expense for doctor bill and hospital charges.

In consideration of the gallant and noble service performed by these men on that occasion, I would consider it a just tribute to their bravery as exhibited upon that occasion in removing from our midst such desperado for the city to pay such doctor bill and hospital expenses. Any measure passed by you relieving Mr. Plimpton from the payment of this doctor bill and hospital expenses will receive my approval and I think of the people generally in this city.

Very respectfully,
T.J. Humes

The Finance Committee considered the request, and recommended that $75 be appropriated from the general fund for Mr. Plimpton.

Mystery money drops

police memo

In the midst of a 1970 scandal related to police payoffs, money was mysteriously left in the Mayor's Office in what was described as a possible attempt to frame the mayor or his staff for wrongdoing.

The first drop was made in late May, when a man dropped off an envelope for deputy mayor Robert Lavoie and then left hurriedly. The receptionist brought the envelope to Lavoie, who discovered $500 in $20 bills inside. Lavoie immediately brought the envelope to Mayor Wes Uhlman, who then called the police.

Two weeks later, a different man brought in a second envelope, again directed to Lavoie. The receptionist, on alert after the first mysterious delivery, attempted to stall the man. He gave his name as "Mr. Johnson" but left quickly. This envelope contained $1000 in $20 bills, plus a postcard of a deer at Woodland Park Zoo.

The Police Department's internal investigations unit was looking into the money drops but keeping their inquiry quiet, waiting for something else to happen. Finally, about three weeks after the second envelope was delivered, a KOMO radio reporter asked Mayor Uhlman at a press conference whether he knew anything about money being delivered to any of his staff. The reporter would not disclose the source of his information about the money drops, but police theorized that some kind of set-up had been attempted, possibly related to the ongoing police corruption investigation.

The money was placed in the city treasury, designated as a gift from an anonymous donor. The police investigator on the case said he remained puzzled by the zoo postcard.

Licensing fortune tellers

An 1897 council bill sought to regulate anyone in Seattle hoping to make a living from looking into the future. The bill stipulated that "no person shall carry on or advertise the business of fortune teller, phrenologist, astrologer, mind-reader, palmist, or medium with the city of Seattle" without obtaining a city license. This regulation applied to both personal services and public exhibitions.

The license fee was set at fifteen dollars for three months or three dollars per day, if a three-month term was not desired. The applicant was to pay the fee to the city treasurer, obtain a receipt, and deliver that receipt to the city comptroller, from whom he or she would obtain the license.

For the purposes of the proposed ordinance, a fortune teller was defined as "any person who shall foretell or profess to foretell the future, and any person who shall tell or profess to tell any past or present event, happening or circumstance without actual personal knowledge thereof." The bill would have set the penalty for operating without a license at $25 (over $700 in today's dollars) and/or five days in the city jail.

Interestingly, one group was exempted from the licensure requirement. The bill stated that "no person shall be required to take out a license for the purpose of giving any exhibition as a medium when such person shall have the written endorsement of the minister of the Spiritualist Church in Seattle, or the written certificate of such minister that such person is a bona fide member of such church and is recognized by such church as a bona fide medium."

The proposal did not pass, although a similar bill (minus the exemption for Spiritualists) did become law in 1904.