2009 Find of the Month Archive

West Seattle secession

West Seattle

Clerk File 286835 contains documents relating to a 1978 citizen petition. Given the name Initiative 14, the petition aimed to put on the ballot the question of reducing the city limits of Seattle - specifically to eliminate West Seattle from the city's boundaries, with an eye toward establishing the neighborhood as a new independent city.

West Seattleites were frustrated with what they saw as the Seattle city government's lack of movement on constructing a high bridge to connect the neighborhood to the rest of the city. The old, lower bridges were frequently opened for marine traffic and had major congestion problems. Some West Seattle citizens began to question whether they would be better off seceding and reincorporating as their own city, after which they could independently seek bridge funding from the state.

Initiative 14 was rejected by the city attorney upon determination that, by state law, the issue was not one that could be decided by initiative. Shortly thereafter, the bridge question became moot when a ship crashed into one of the old bridges, severely damaging it. The loss of this span led to the planning and construction of a high bridge, which opened in 1984.

However, this was not the last time West Seattle threatened to secede from Seattle. In the 1980s, a movement to leave the city rose again in reaction to Seattle's plans for busing to combat racial segregation in schools. Secession plans went forward again in the 1990s in response to the city's plans to establish high-density urban villages in the neighborhood. In that instance, a state senator from West Seattle sponsored a secession bill; the bill passed in the legislature but was vetoed by the governor.

Complaint of firemen's wives

In 1912, Fire Chief Frank L. Stetson received the following anonymous letter:

We being wives of firemen at Station 4 kindly ask you to see if something can not be done in regards to a Young Lady namely Gertie Cooper who is making trouble in our homes by her actions around the station. We do not wish to cause trouble or scandall [sic], so kindly ask you if you will aid us by keeping her from the station.
Firemens Wives

The chief in turn wrote to Captain S.H. Horne, who was in charge of the engine company in question. Stetson explained the letter he had received, and then went on to say:

Now, I have no reason to doubt the character of the young lady in question, and no reason to believe the statements made are true, nor am I inclined to pay much attention to anonymous communications, but in this instance, I would suggest that you speak to her, informing her how the matter was brought to my attention, and request her to kindly make her visits to the station less frequent, and confine them as far as possible to occasions when she may have to use the telephones or other business. I think she will then see the position we are placed in. I presume that the communication was written through jealousy, and possibly a continuation of the visits, that is, if frequent, will cause more or less trouble.

Unfortunately the file does not tell us how the situation was resolved.

1960 rapid transit plan

rapid transit plan

In 1960, the Seattle Transit System published a report exploring public transportation options as part of the Central Business District Comprehensive Plan process. The document looked at how high-speed rail might fit in with Interstate 5, then still in the planning phase.

The authors stated that rapid transit "can provide a practical means for moving people in lieu of providing all the highway lanes that are and may be desired." Pointing out that the proposed freeway route "takes for all time the most direct and the lowest cost right-of-way," they argued that rail should be designed into the freeway plans, as developing another route and right-of-way would be "ill-advised and nonsensical."

The report continues with a detailed outline of a potential rapid transit system to be established in the median of the freeway, stretching from Tacoma to Everett. Trains would operate at speeds up to 70 miles per hour, with a capacity of 40,000 passengers per hour on each track. Two downtown stations were envisioned - one at Westlake and Olive and the other at Fourth and Jackson - as well as a maintenance shop on Holgate.

The document includes detailed plans for the downtown stations, maps outlining the proposed route, and charts showing travel times and capacities, as well as analysis of legislation needed to fund and administer the system. Despite all the planning, the proposal ended up becoming another of the area's unbuilt rail projects.

"Cubic air" ordinance

In 1885, the Seattle City Council passed Ordinance 694 "for the regulation of sleeping apartments and for the preservation of good health." The law stipulated that all lodgings must contain at least 512 cubic feet of air space for each person sleeping there. The ordinance criminalized not only proprietors of buildings that did not meet the cubic air requirement, but also anyone over 14 years old who slept there.

Violators would be found guilty of a misdemeanor and fined "in any sum not exceeding one hundred dollars." Police and health officers were charged with enforcing the ordinance and were authorized "to enter and inspect [lodgings] whenever they…have cause to suspect that the same is overcrowded."

Similar "cubic air ordinances" had previously been enacted in San Francisco and Portland. As in these other cities, Seattle's law seems to have targeted the Chinese community, many of whom lived in overcrowded conditions in the International District. Resentment of Chinese workers was widespread during this period, as unemployment was high and the Chinese were seen as competitors for scarce jobs. This anger boiled over in 1886 during Seattle's notorious anti-Chinese riot, in which a mob rounded up hundreds of Chinese and attempted to force them onto an outbound ship.

The year after the riot, the law was superseded by Ordinance 824, which maintained the same cubic air regulations but changed the punishment to a fine of between five and fifty dollars or a jail sentence of up to fifteen days. This stayed on the books until it was repealed in 1906.

Segregated military recreation center


In 1942, the City Council passed an ordinance authorizing the construction of "a recreation center in Seattle for colored troops." This action prompted the following letter from the NAACP:

The Seattle Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, representing 2000 Seattle citizens, wishes to call to your attention the fact that the committee who voted for the resolution on May 22, 1942 at The Rialto Building for setting up a Service Men's Club for Negroes, to-wit:

"Be it resolved that the Negroes of the City of Seattle pledge their full cooperation to the War Commission in the establishment and operation of a Service Men's Club for Negroes."

did not represent the majority of the Negro citizens of Seattle, nor was that group representative of the Negro citizens of Seattle.

We regret very much that the Seattle War Defense Council has gone forward with a segregated project for Negro Service Men on the resolution of this group of people, apparently highly selected because of their conformity to an idea.

The membership of the Seattle Branch NAACP wishes to protest the establishment of this segregated club for service men.

The membership protest, also, the passage of Ordinance No 71983, authorizing the expenditure of $10,000 for a segregated club for Negro service men. Although this ordinance makes some effort to meet the need of Service Men, in its present form it amounts to class legislation.

In the above protests, our local organization is backed up by our national organization, representing seventeen million people, white and colored.

We shall greatly appreciate your efforts to remedy this situation.

The segregated center was not built, nor was the existing recreation center opened to all service members.

"Graftitis" in the City Council


In late 1904, Presbyterian minister and civic reformer Mark Matthews gave a lecture in which he claimed that certain City Council members exhibited symptoms of "graftitis" (i.e., corruption). The Council discussed his accusations (sadly, before the days of taped meetings), and appointed a three-member subcommittee to visit him and ask for specifics. (Bonus fact: the resolution establishing the committee was signed by Comptroller John Riplinger, who was later prosecuted for embezzling city funds.) Matthews would not provide details at that time, but did offer to appear before the Council and give his evidence, "provided he be allowed to deliver his address uninterrupted by members of the Council."

He was invited to do so, and his speech is preserved as a Clerk File. He stated up front that he believed at least four Councilmembers were "immune" from graftitis, but then went on to enumerate 19 different "symptoms" of the disease, including:

  • The Council asking for $7,500 in return for a franchise for the Snoqualmie Power Company.
  • The existence of a contractors' syndicate that controlled most city construction projects, apparently with the Council's blessing.
  • Councilmembers who "attempt, one moment, to enforce said ordinances and charter, and the next, to voluntarily, or for some other reason, represent and defend the gambler or gamblers who had violated said ordinances and charter," often intervening to prevent the revocation of licenses from saloons operating illegally.
  • The fact that "parties putting up buildings are blocked and interfered with unless they use a certain kind of roofing, the manufacture of which is controlled by a firm of which a certain Councilman is a managing officer."

Matthews wrapped up his address by stating he would not discuss the matter further except before a grand jury, if one were to be called. In spite of the charges, Council President Hiram Gill was elected mayor in 1910, and apparently continued many of these corrupt practices until public outrage finally grew to a critical mass. Reverend Matthews was instrumental in a successful recall campaign that removed Gill from office in 1911.

Seattle's first stoplight

In 1924, the city installed its first traffic light on a trial basis. A memo from the Traffic Subcommittee of the Board of Public Works described the pilot project and made the case for installing lights on a permanent basis.

Almost a full page is devoted to explaining how the growing number of automobiles was beginning to create traffic tie-ups, especially given the "human weakness of 'beating the other fellow to it.'" At that time, traffic was controlled by police officers' whistles and arm gestures, and "semaphore signals." These consisted of "four semaphore arms bearing the words 'Go' and 'Stop.' The officer rotates this signal to indicate the direction traffic shall flow."

Several reasons were given for the desirability of an "Automatic Manual Control Electric Signal," including greater visibility of signals and increased freedom of movement for the officer on duty. A 30-day test of an automatic signal was done at 4th and Jackson, one of the three busiest intersections in the city. Although the signal allowed for both automatic and manual control, the officer did not manually change the signal, determining that the automatic timing worked better.

The committee was pleased with the results of the test, reporting that traffic now cleared by 5:45 pm instead of 6:15 or later, and that the number of collisions at the intersection had dropped significantly. Another plus was that an officer was free to follow any vehicle violating a traffic law to issue a ticket, as the signal would continue to operate without him. (This was compared to the semaphore system where "traffic runs wild" as soon as the officer leaves the corner.) The report stated that local businesses were so pleased with the signal's operation in the afternoon rush hour that they requested it be used in the morning as well, and thus "the morning patrolman has been supplied with a key to the signal and turns it on at 7:00."

Given these results, the committee recommended purchase of the signal at a cost of $685.

Labor relations in early Georgetown

Brewery Union
Brewery Union

Although the language sounds formal to modern ears, the following letter suggests significant tensions in turn-of-the-century Georgetown and hints at labor disputes spilling into the streets. Handwritten on letterhead of the Brewery Workmen's International Union of America, Local No. 261, it was dashed off mere hours after the incident described within. (Spelling errors in original.)

Seattle, Wash. May 22, 1905

To the Honorable Mayor and City Council of Georgetown.

Gentlemen! -

We the United Brewery Workmen of Georgetown and vacinity beg leave to protest against the actions of some of the so called deputy sheriffs in the City of Georgetown.

The actions of some of these officers are wholly uncalled for, in interfering with peaceable residents of this City on the public highway, who have commited no crime and have no intention to commit any crime.

They are being interfered with just that they happen to be members of organized labor.

The question refered to in this protest occured at or about one oclock A.M. May 22 when two brewers were approached in the Public highway known as Bateman street at a point opposite the residence of Mr. Wm. Zahn.

The men in question were compelled by force and a display of fire arms to accompany these so called deputies to seek the night marshal. We protest in the most emphatic manner of such treatment as we are not looking for trouble. The excuse for this outrage on the manhood of these citizens was that they had passed the residence of the supt. of the Seattle Brewing Co.

We believe every patriotic citizen should protest against such uncalled for insults. Such actions are apt to have a tendency to incite the most humble to anger.

John Schuier, George Schaab, H.R. Rogers, Committee
Endorsed by J.L. Ex. Board, Hans Puttrick sec.

Old Woodenface pitching contest


From 1921 until at least 1968, the Seattle Times ran a pitching contest in conjunction with the Parks Department. At playfields all over the city, kids would line up to try their hand at throwing baseballs toward a wooden frame called "Old Woodenface" or "Old Woody." Old Woody served as an "automatic umpire" - any balls that went through the hole were considered strikes. Thousands of contestants tried their hand each year.

The Times gave the contests extensive coverage, sending a reporter and photographer not only to the finals but also to the dozens of preliminary rounds. One article predicted that "the Christy Mathewsons, the Walter Johnsons and the Grover Cleveland Alexanders of the future will all register from Seattle and will owe their start to fame to Old Woodenface." (Indeed, the 1931 winner went on to play professional baseball, and Fred Hutchinson's brother won the contest in 1923.) The contest sometimes included pitching duels between local officials, and throughout the 1930s the finals took place in Sick's Stadium before a Rainiers game.

Not everyone who wanted to participate was able to, however. A newspaper article about the 1922 contest discussed the girls who wanted to have a go at Old Woody, stating that playfield superintendent Ben Evans had been asked "hundreds of times" when the girls would have a chance. Lillian Burns, an adult playfield leader, advocated for the girls, saying that they had been "practicing just as hard as the boys."

Evans was quoted as responding, "All right, all right… But first, we must decide the great big important question, 'Who is the champion boy pitcher of Seattle?'"

City Light customer attitudes

In April 1978, City Light interviewed 808 customers to evaluate their attitudes about the agency and about energy issues. The survey concluded with an open-ended question asking what respondents would tell City Light's management if they had a chance to sit down with them.

The question elicited divergent opinions about many issues. Comments about electric rates ranged from complaints that they were too high to thanks for keeping them low. Many respondents grumbled about the agency's managers. One said that he would "give them a little bit of what's on my mind, tell them to clean up their act," while another stated that he would say, "You are fired! That's it."

The survey also reflects arguments about energy that are still occurring today. Many customers agreed with a respondent who said, "They should be spending a lot more on researching other sources of power: solar power, wind power, geothermal power," but others said things like, "It seems unrealistic to try to develop solar and wind power. Not practical. I don't want my tax money spent on that." Some wanted to raise Ross Dam and increase hydroelectric capacity; others believed environmental concerns should come first. One said, "They should have gone with nuclear power"; another said, "Absolutely not nuclear power." Other suggestions for energy sources included garbage, home-based passive energy collectors, and kelp beds.

Respondents took the opportunity to share some miscellaneous beefs. One said she wanted to tell City Light about "the neighbor that leaves lights on inside and out even when not home. They shouldn't be able to do that when others are trying to conserve." Another asked that they "put street lights back up. I don't want anyone to smack the **** out of me." And yet another wanted the agency to "quit sending stupid sized envelopes inside their envelopes."

World's Fair housing crunch


As Seattle's 1962 World's Fair approached, some landlords saw an opportunity to make money by hosting out-of-town visitors, and received permits to convert their apartment buildings to transient housing that would be charged by the day. Unfortunately, some of these property owners decided to make room for the visitors by evicting current tenants en masse, which caused a stream of letters to pour in to the City Council.

A woman who had been in her apartment for 30 years wrote, "Yes, today is Valentine [sic] Day, and today, we, at the Baroness Apartments, received a Valentine in the form of an eviction notice… I have been an ardent booster for Seattle and the Fair. I have personally invited 50 guests to the Fair… I hate to tell them to go to the New York Fair instead." Another wrote on behalf of his evicted friends, whom he called "the finest, most upstanding young women in this entire city and that takes in a lot of women, including your wives, gentlemen."

An outraged citizen stated, "If the City does not take care of its citizens first, it is lousy and, besides, to the Dickens with the fair." Another asked, "Are we displaced persons expected to become pioneers in space while the local hotels and apartment houses wax fat on their six months spoils?" Still another declared that if he was evicted, "it will take the Sheriff to remove me."

With this evidence that the permits were having unintended consequences, the Council agreed to work on legislation that would allow apartments to be used as hotels during the fair as long as they didn't evict current residents. They also passed a resolution pleading with local businesses and landlords to avoid price gouging.

Fire engine pollution


A series of letters in 1911 illustrates the concern about pollution caused by the Fire Department's new horseless fire engines. A citizen named William Perkins wrote to the Fire Chief saying that he'd seen one of the "Fire Dept Auto Combination Hose Carts" on its way up Pike Street and that there was "smoking gasoline just filling the street - worse than a locomotive crossing the Cascades."

Chief Stetson replied to Perkins, thanking him for bringing the "offensive smoking of one of our auto-moving pieces of apparatus" to his attention. He noted that through "careful analysis" they had determined that the smoke was coming from lubricating oil and not gasoline, but admitted he did not know of a remedy.

Meanwhile, the Chief also forwarded Perkins' letter on to J.L. Phillips of the Gorham Engineering & Fire Apparatus Co., noting the complaints about the smoking of the "auto-moving cars" and saying he had heard there were "other makes of auto-wagons" that did not smoke. He requested that a device be attached to the trucks to cut down on the smoke and fumes.

Phillips responded by saying that he was aware of some smoking from their "motor propelled fire apparatus," but was at a loss to suggest any mechanism that would take care of the problem and prevent further citizen complaints.

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

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