Monday, August 13, 2012

Before there was Seafair, there was Potlatch and its riot

Seattle PI
When I lived in the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle, a hillside overlooking the middle part of Lake Washington, I would watch the boat traffic streaming away from the southern part of the lake following the Seafair hydroplane races, the crowning event of Seattle’s 72 year old summer festival.  Though I knew there would be lots more good weather in front of us, actually the very best Northwest weather, the end of Seafair was a punctuation mark on the summer that somehow made me sad.  I’d walk out of the garden and up the stairs to the kitchen where I’d get another beer, or more likely a glass of whiskey.
While I don’t live in that house above the lake anymore, I have that same feeling of sadness at the end of Seafair and, for some reason, decided my familiarity with the history of Seafair needed some work and I took my whiskey over to my laptop when the blues came.  It didn't take long to blow past Seafair to its very interesting predecessor, Potlatch, sometimes called Golden Potlatch, a stop and start special event that began with great promise and some tragedy in the summer of 1911, seemed to gain a foothold in 1912, played host to a full bore riot in 1913 and was replaced with a choral music festival in 1915 after the Seattle Chamber of Commerce decided a better use of its money would be chasing conventions.  Potlatch revived for a few years in the mid-thirties but was abandoned as World War II broke out. 
When it ended in 1915, a former booster of the event, The Seattle Daily Times, said there was nothing to get upset about. 

“Seattle has discovered and promoted with a commendable degree of success a happy substitute for the erstwhile, noisy and meaningless Potlatch.”
Festivals have always been markers – of time, accomplishment, our spiritual life. They were, in the fundamental meaning of the concept, a special event. Today, special events are more mundane -- business tactics, things we do to communicate ideas, to carry out commerce, to advocate, to create a purposeful unity. 

Potlatch comes from Chinook Jargon, the trading language of tribes in the Northwest.  It derives from a Nootka (Vancouver Island) word and described a celebration in which many people gathered together, feasted, gambled and made gifts, often lavish, to one another. 
UW Libraries
The first Seattle Potlatch grew out of the civic energy generated by the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition that celebrated the Alaska Gold Rush and Seattle’s gateway role in the riches of the far north.  Seattle’s connections to the tribes still had power back in the early part of the last century, perhaps because we had so overwhelmed them, as we had the forest, and they existed only in a pleasant myth.  My old neighborhood, Leschi, was named after a chief, likely innocent, authorities had hung just sixty years before.
Planning for the event began in April with a meeting of worthies intent on raising enough money to make a good first impression.  Mayor George Cotterill led off with his favorite topic, growing the city.  “This year’s summer visitor is the advance agent of next year’s permanent resident.”  Frank McDermott, leader of the Bon Marche, the most successful department store on the west coast, chimed in with “Cities are only learning what merchants learned long ago - that it pays to advertise.”  “It helps put Seattle on the map,” said Joshua Green of the Inland Navigation Company.  Blunt old Henry Broderick, the downtown real estate man, added:   “The Potlatch will pay if you do.  Mail your check now!”

Seattle Golf Club
UW Libraries

A prelude to opening day of the first Potlatch on July 17 was the Potlatch Golf Tournament, played at the new Seattle Golf Club, open at its present location since 1908.  One of the more popular young businessmen in Seattle, George R. Andrews, Seattle manager of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company, was set to play in the tournament on July 13th.  He was good – just a couple of weeks earlier he won the Chapin Cup and the club championship in successive days. 

He would have been known as a “good club man,” a popular joiner in the Seattle upper crust social scene.  He and a number of friends had a small party at the golf club the night of the 12th which concluded about 10:00 PM.  They left at about the same time with George insisting he was in a hurry to get back to his apartments in the New Washington Hotel downtown so he could be rested and ready to tee off early on the 13th. 

They drove out onto Golf Club Road, George the second to last car out of the parking lot.  One of the cars ahead had a mechanical problem and stopped at the city limits, then on 85th Street and perhaps four miles toward the city from the course.  When the last car came along, ahead of George, his friends sensed something wrong and back-tracked for the club, finding some skid marks about a half mile from the club at a place called “The Dip,” an elevation change along the narrow, two lane road perched above a small but steep embankment.

They couldn’t see anything there until they picked up, in their headlights, the glint of broken glass. They slid down the ravine’s edge until they saw the car at the bottom and George at the foot of a stump, his neck broken.  The skid marks and other clues suggested that Andrews was driving 60 miles an hour or so or before he flew off the road.  One of his friends broke an axle while searching and another car was damaged while backing up, nearly rolling into the same ravine. There were many indicators that alcohol was involved, but the Seattle Daily Times, never a friend of governmental performance, blamed the road builder, King County, even bringing the Executive Director of the Good Roads Association to the site to evaluate the quality of the road.   Seattle Daily Times Publisher Alden Blethen was a member of the club and his sons were pretty good at the game.  He likely wished he would have exposed any problems of “The Dip” that he had driven over so many times before the accident.   
Despite George's tragedy, they finished the tournament, out of deference to the many golfing visitors in town, but Potlatch never felt the same to Blethen or the Seattle Daily Times after the George Andrews tragedy and subsequent events.

Still, the first Potlatch was a hell of a party.  It had many of entertainments we enjoy in today’s Seafair.  A big parade, water sports, even something called a hydroplane, though it was really a float plane with wheels in its pontoons that could scoot the craft noisily along the ground. 
There were nightly dances on the streets, a Chinese monster dragon dance and, in an unfortunate sentence “a Japanese feast of lanterns.”  Those Japanese and their hot food!

Pergola at First and Yesler
Seattle Municipal Archives
Seattle’s Potlatch goals were fairly minimal – more growth, awareness of the city’s accomplishments.  The city was working hard at gaining attention in 1911.  In 1890, Tacoma and Seattle had about the same population, around 40,000 and the same basic interests – access to major transportation linkages via the railroads and ports.  But Seattle exploded in the next two decades as it went on an annexation binge and had considerable organic growth as well.  Suddenly, it seemed, Seattle was a big city with 250,000 people.  It had pulled off a spectacularly successful world’s fair, but it still yearned for more attention.   The first Potlatch did just that and the one the next year seemed even better. 

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Every summer festival has its auxiliary group, fundraisers and boosters who support the event and march, in their white suits and shoes, in the big parade.  Seafair has its “Commodores” formed five years after the first Seafair in 1950.  The Potlatch had an auxiliary as well, Tilikums, another Chinook word meaning people who signify a nation.  The Tilikums marched in something even more uncomfortable than a poorly fitted white suit.  They wore great masks, really more like totem poles, over their white robes.  The masks covered much of their body and must have been clumsy at the volunteer reception after the parade or, more likely, required a really big check room at the host hotel. 
It looked like this event was on the rise in 1913, especially when Frank Baker, head of the National City Bank, committed to be the chairman at a luncheon held at the Moose Room of The Rathskeller restaurant.  Baker would become the father of another Seattle banker, Miner Baker, who for many years provided the regional economic forecast at Seattle First National Bank and later served as a Seattle Port Commissioner. 

There were no invitations sent out for the dinner, people just knew to come and, at a dollar plate, it was a big success.  When Baker spoke, he promised an event that would be the best yet. 
It was, in fact, a nightmare. 

Alden J.  Blethen, Publisher
Seattle Daily Times
UW Libraries
There are many complicated antecedents to what caused the 1913 Potlatch Riots.  First, there was Colonel Blethen, who wore his heart on his masthead, where he sometimes described his publication as “An American Newspaper for Americans.”  One of his goals, also on the masthead, was the defeat of Bolshevism, along with a 3,000,000 ton/year coking plant located in town.
The Industrial Workers of the World had Blethen’s version of America always in their sights and periodically would hold parades in front of the Daily Times offices, their Red Flag of the revolution on equal level with the Stars and Stripes.  Of course, this infuriated Blethen.  He believed that their continued organizing and speech making was dangerous, bad for business and un-American and he constantly pressured the mayor to run them out of town as other towns had done.

George Cotterill, Mayor
Seattle Municipal Archives
But the mayor and Colonel Blethen didn’t get along.  Before becoming mayor, George Cotterill was the assistant to R. H. Thomson, the great city engineer whom Blethen thought was out of control, by and large true, and Blethen had him as a socialist as well because Thomson thought highly of public ownership.  

After the Great Seattle Fire, Thomson blamed the poor performance of the private water companies for the inability of the firefighters to put down the blaze.  So, he created his own publicly-owned water department, building the city’s water system on the Cedar River, 30 miles from the town, hooking it up with wooden pipes.  The dam he built to hold the municipal water supply led him to attach a power plant and run the stored water through its generators.  The resulting city-owned electric company delivered significant value to the citizens of his town, the rate/kilowatt hour dropping from 20 cents to 10 cents in a handful of years.  Not only was Cotterill connected to Thomson, but he had defeated Blethen’s pick, Hiram Gill, for mayor the year before.
So, when Blethen and the management of Potlatch wanted the IWW silenced and off the streets of Seattle, Cotterill refused.

There are several versions of how the riots began.  One of them had a young female IWW supporter speaking to a largely IWW crowd on Washington Street in Pioneer Square.  A few soldiers and sailors here for Potlatch and having a good time in the square's many bars came upon the scene and began heckling the speaker.  She heckled back.  At some point the soldiers took over the platform and shouted their points of view to the crowd, who shouted back. 
The woman sought to get her platform back and they refused.  She told them the platform was rented and she would be charged a premium if she did not return it on time, a point the military men who now had the box did not buy.  There was a struggle, a fist was raised near the woman and one of the crowd stepped forward and decked a sailor.  

IWW Hall
UW Collections
That night, after reading inflammatory accounts in the Daily Times about the incident, a mob consisting of soldiers, sailors and their friends busted up the IWW headquarters building as fights broke out everywhere. Other offices were ransacked, newsstands with Socialist and IWW materials were destroyed. Cotterill declared a civil emergency, cut off liquor sales and told Colonel Blethen that the only way he would publish another account of the troubles then ongoing was to have it reviewed prior to publication by the mayor.

Seattle Police then refused to let a Daily Times extra edition be circulated to newsboys gathered at the Times Building.  The Times lawyers finally got an temporary injunction against Cotterill and his gag order.

By then troops had been federalized and the city was under martial law.  Soldiers and sailors were sent to their ships and barracks.  While additional violence was expected, it didn’t materialize, although it was clearly a precursor of truly bloody events in the remaining years of the decade -- the Everett and Centralia Massacres, the General Strike and hundreds of smaller incidents in the coal mine and lumbering towns across the state.  

Absent from much of the coverage of the 1913 event was the accomplishment of a young woman, Alyn McKay, who set the altitude record for women in her small plane, rising above the mayhem below in lazy circles until she reached 2,900 feet which, at the time, seemed amazing. 

Potlatch would have one more year, 1914, and disappear from the civic agenda.  Blethen would exit the following year, dying July 13, 1915.

Fantastic account by Murray Morgan of Potlatch Riots


  1. Great piece about early Seattle. Many of these names have disappeared from our history - so have their stories. Loved the writing ... good story.

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