Monday, June 1, 2015

From horses to cars in Seattle

The restoration of an older brick building on Western Avenue has me thinking about the transition from horse transportation to automobile transportation in Seattle.  The building, five stories high, originally opened in 1910 as a stable for horses, three hundred of them, in fact, the biggest, most modern stable in town.  Better than anything else West of the Mississippi, the owners, V. D.  Maddocks and Scott Benjamin liked to say.   

There were many stables on Western Avenue then, two of them just a block to the South and the big Bon Marche Stable a block to the North, home for the store’s delivery horses and wagons.  In fact, Seattle had 38 public stables in 1910, the zenith for that Seattle business category.

I wondered about the wisdom of building a fancy horse stable in 1910. Wasn’t the transition from horse to horseless well underway by then?  I somehow had the transition happening more quickly than it did.  And I wondered about the quality of the transition.  Did people see it a good thing?  Or, were they exchanging a slower, less polluted time for a noisier, dirtier, more dangerous time?

The answers are pretty simple.  Among the leading problems of the good old days was the horse.  The horse had been the center of transportation and other work for centuries, but by the beginning of the last century, there were too many of them serving people who increasingly lived in crowded cities.  For example, in the 30 years between 1880 and 1910, Manhattan's density doubled from 20,000 people/square mile to 40,000. The bulky horse was asked to work squeezed into crowded, noisy streets where they were dangerously prone to panic in all the noise and clatter.  Over 200 New Yorkers lost their lives to horse accidents in 1890.  It went both ways.  Horses worked until they fell, frequently left dead on the streets.  The great city disposed of 15,000 dead horses in 1890, about 10% or the city’s equine population.

The old Seattle garbage man Josie Razore once told me that the principal reason he got an early solid waste disposal contract in Bellingham back in 1929 was that he committed to the city that fewer dead horses would wash up on the Bellingham shore. Garbage, manure and other unpleasant things, like dead horses, were then loaded on barges and taken out into Bellingham Bay on a retreating tide and dumped.  It was discomfiting to a generation that was discovering how wonderful recreation was to come across a big horse on the beach ripped apart by sharks and pecked apart by gulls and vultures. 

Razore knew about horses at the end of their lives.  The garbage wagon was usually the last stop for older horses who broke into the transportation game in Bellingham as muscular fire horses pulling bright and expensive equipment.  Later, when Mr.  Razore had them, they plodded slowly along to the end of their days.  Sometimes, however, when the firebell rang, their training and adrenaline kicked in in and off they’d run to the firehouse, ruining Razore’s carefully planned pick up routes.

The more complicated and dense environment was tough on the urban horse.  Pulling a rail carriage each day took the work of 11 horses and there were 297 horse cars in 1890 New York.  Each horse needed 1.4 tons of oats a year and 2.4 tons of hay, the products of five acres of nearby farmland.  The average life of a horse pulling a trolley car down the middle of a New York street was just over two years. 

UW Collections
Today's site of the Virginia Inn
Each horse left behind 25-35 pounds of manure each day and two quarts of piss – 2,250 tons of material each day in Seattle that mixed into the streetscape and formed a gelatinous goo in the winter and a fine windblown grit in the summer, ground down by the iron tires of the wagons as they gritted, banged and rolled over cobblestones, gravel, dirt and fresh manure.

The picture at right shows a 1904 protest put together at Seattle's First and Virginia Streets calling attention to the state of Seattle's muddy roads -- thick enough to pull a shoe off a foot, but thin enough, the protesters said, to harbor a salmon.  

Sometimes the manure had value to scavengers, but sometimes the manure markets collapsed and the manure just piled up.  It was sometimes deposited in vacant lots or pushed into the river or bay and sometimes not.  It was further distributed about the city by the big horseflies.  Public health officials in New York thought at the turn of the century felt that 20,000 residents a year became seriously sick because of the stuff.  When the horses got sick, as they did in a horse epidemic in the late 1870s, the economy shuddered as well.

The first international convention of city planners came to New York in 1898 and they were quick to place the urban horse on top of their agenda.  They concluded that the horse in the urban environment had become unsustainable.  

But the horse was hard to replace, largely because the new auto industry early on concentrated on custom built automobiles.  Two years after the planner’s convention, a grand total of just 4,192 automobiles had been sold in the United States.

On a Friday, just before Christmas weekend in 1904, a handful of city workers completed a traffic count at the corner of Second Avenue and Pike Street that showed the horse was still king in Seattle:

Type of Conveyance  Number      Horses
Express wagons pulled by one horse 1,375 1,375
Express wagons pulled by two horses 1,682 3,364
Lumber wagons pulled by two horses 571 1,142
Lumber wagons pulled by three horses 32 96
Lumber wagons pulled by four horses 72 288
Horse trucks pulled by two horses 32 64
Horse trucks pulled by four horses 3 12
Buggies pulled by one horse 178 178
Automobiles 14
3,959 6,519

Though I’ve never seen a horse census for Seattle, applying the same ratio of horses to population  that existed in several cities during the first decade of the 20th Century, the number of horses in Seattle at the turn of the century would have been 12-15,000 horses. 

French street scene.  Note the lack of lanes.
As horses, street cars and automobiles crowded the streets of the turn of the century city, the lack of order and the chaos quickly became apparent to a little boy of nine years whose family Barouche was stuck in a New York traffic jam in the 1880s.  He became fascinated by traffic then and it stayed with him.  His fascination turned to sophistication as he grew up. His wealthy circumstances took his curiosity global.  When ten or so, his dry goods and New York real estate magnate father took him to Europe where he spent many days in Paris enthralled by the sight of the city’s magnificent streets as the people on them fell into a hell of shouting, swearing and fist fights brought about by the lack of rules.  In London, he was impressed by how thoughtful they were and how rules of the road propelled their complicated commerce more efficiently.

William Phelps Eno developed traffic rules globally and his snippy letters and relentless personality helped implement them around the world, starting at New York in 1903.  He described one way streets, stop signs and a host of other strategies that make up today's traffic safety regime.  He thought cars were a fad but what he did to create order among horses and the wagons they pulled allowed the car to ultimately thrive in the crowded city.

The old stables rehabilitation I am watching is the Union Stables Building, completed in January of 1910.  The owners had previously owned Pony Stables on Third Avenue between Pike and Pine and made a great deal of money buying the Pony Stables property and selling it shortly after the new commercial core of Seattle was emerging.
UW Collections
Their lucky streak continued in June of 1910.  A spark from a passing Great Northern train ignited the warehouse and stable that was the Galbraith and Bacon Building four blocks away.  The fire was second only to the Great Seattle Fire that leveled the downtown twenty years before.  Nine square blocks were completely destroyed and 40 mile an hour winds made it happen in a hurry.  Then a biblical Seattle downpour arrived and shut down the fire a block from Union Stables.  Thirty-six horses stabled in the area died but a heroic evacuation of a hospital nearby resulted in no human casualties.  

In 1912, traffic counts in London, Paris and New York all showed that the car had overtaken the horse.  A Seattle traffic count in 1915 quantified traffic going to West Seattle and showed that horses still held market share in delivery functions but were losing out to street cars and motor vehicles for hauling people.  From 5 AM to midnight on that November day, 291 street cars carried 11,699 people, 692 automobiles carried 1,501 people and 203 motorized taxis carried 744 people.  Just 155 horse-drawn vehicles carried 187 people.

Later, in 1917, one in eight vehicles passing by the intersection of 4th and Jackson Street was powered by a horse.  Just three years later, it was one in a hundred.  The year 1915 was the high water mark for the number of horses in America, nearly 27,000,000 animals, but they weren’t working as hard as they had in the past.  Today, there are ten million horses living in America.  

Even as the automobile thrived, The Union Stables were very busy in the horse business and it still carried its traditional dangers.  One of the owners of Union Stables, Vernon Maddocks, was driving a team of horses in 1915 that were helping him haul feed and other goods back to the stable.  He decided to head down the short but steep Cedar Street hill and take a left at the bottom, on Western, to go the final five blocks South to the stables.   Something happened, perhaps an automobile backfired, but Maddox only remembered the growing alarm he felt as the horses broke down the hill and blasted across Western over an embankment of wet blackberry bushes and emerged next to the railroad tracks as a pile of twisted horse bodies, bales of hay, bags of oats and the completely unconscious body of Mr. Maddocks.  He spent Thanksgiving in the hospital, though he recovered and would live in his fine Capital Hill home for many more years.

Mr.  Maddocks' lucky survival came as the Ford Motor Company was in the middle of one of the most amazing business accomplishments in the country’s history.  In 1908, a basic Ford Motor car cost $850 dollars.  In 1924, an automobile from Ford cost just $240.  While there were many automakers, they tended to make larger, more expensive cars, custom-built jobs, leaving Ford mostly alone in the affordable car arena.  Ford's 1921 market share was 60%.  Fifteen million Ford Model Ts were built between 1908 and 1927.

The Ford automobile was pretty much the final decider for the urban horse.  However, horses remained a big part of farming in American life until the end of World War II.  It was 1944 before there were more tractors deployed on the farm than draft animals like mules and horses. 

A lovely memoir about growing up in a First Hill mansion written by Edward Dunn, "1121 Union," tells us that some of his wealthy neighbors took their time turning in their horses and kept them well into the 1930s. 

”A regular Sunday occurrence was the arrival of Mrs.  A. H. Anderson in her shiny black coach pulled by two beautiful chestnut horses with a plump coachman on the box and a skinny footman attired in full black uniforms and silk toppers.  Mrs. Anderson was one of the wealthiest women in the state as the widow of a prominent lumberman.  She arrived every Sunday to take our neighbor, Lillian Riley, to the Christian Science Church.”

“I don’t remember when the horses were retired, but it must have been in the late 1930s.  I do remember how the horses became plump with age as did the coachman.  The footman became skinnier.”

Seattle Police Chief William Severyns was just shutting off the light at 10:30 PM, December 19, 1923.  He was trying to get the city’s Civil Service Commission out of his mind.  The commission kept getting in the way of cleaning up a police force constantly tested by the loose money blowing around during prohibition.  In fact, the biggest bootlegger in Seattle was a charming police captain and most people knew it.  But, when Severyns would fire a crooked officer, the commission traditionally reinstated him.  Then the phone by his bed rang.

A voice he couldn’t identify told him in a matter-of-fact tone that the Union Stables was home that night to nearly 250 cases of illegal liquor and wine, assuming the chief was interested. 

Soon, investigators from the night shift of the department were chatting with the night watchman, a Mr. A. N. Blood, who was, of course, completely unaware of any alcohol on the premises and could produce no keys, when confronted, to the multiple padlocks on a storage room door at the back of the building.  Soon, the lads were tallying up 230 cases of liquor and fine wines, valued between $100 and $170 each “at bootleggers’ prices.”  The chief said that the cases had little blue tags on them containing the names of ‘several prominent citizens.’

The chief later wondered out loud to the Seattle Times if he should give the names on the tags to the grand jury then impaneled and looking at violations of the state and local laws implementing the Volstead Act.  The little blue tags never came up again, though Severyns’ problems with the Civil Service Commission continued, earning him the wrath of Seattle’s first woman mayor, Bertha Landes.  The next year, 1924, he speculated at a big meeting downtown that if he had his way as many as a hundred officers would not be working in the department. 

This intrigued Council President Landes, then serving as temporary Mayor while Mayor Edwin Brown, a dentist, was at the Democratic National Convention in June of 1924.  She sent a letter telling Severyns to identify and fire the 100 officers or she would fire him.  He didn’t.  She did.  In her dismissal letter she told him to turn the department over to Assistant Chief J. T. Mason, whom she notified while he was at a golf course, but thought better of it over the weekend and appointed herself as chief on Monday.  I can’t help but wonder whether Assistant Chief Mason finished the round before assuming his new duties, which might have cost him the job.  Mayor Brown re-instated Severyns when he returned and the Seattle Daily Times threw up its hands on the editorial page:

“Of one thing there need be no doubt, Seattle is sick and tired of government by hysteria and police activity with brass bands!”

It was hard to be Chief of Police during Prohibition.

The year Mrs.  Landes was actually elected Mayor, 1926, there were only three stables remaining in Seattle and the car now ruled.  Union Stables grew into the automobile and supported several business models supporting the car -- parking, storage, repair and towing before turning into a Volkswagen dealership where I once looked at a car. Later, it became a Continental Furniture, a bargain furniture outlet and has been mostly empty during the recession.

Every energy source leaves some kind of legacy, even the horse.  Modern sewer systems were designed during the horse transportation era and combining sewage removal with stormwater runoff helped removed horse manure from the streets and treated it -- most of the time.  When there were big storms, however, the volume overwhelmed the treatment facilities and untreated manure from the streets along with human feces spilled into the water.  

King County has been dealing with Combined Sewer Overflows since the 1960s and has reduced the amount of untreated sewage and modern day chemicals flushed into Elliott Bay by nearly a third, about a billion gallons a year. When the job is finished, well into the future, it will have cost $600 million dollars. 

The building will become the business offices of Lease Crutcher Lewis, a construction firm that is doing the remodeling.  There will be a penthouse on top that will have amazing views of Puget Sound and Seattle's new waterfront, as it develops.  The renovation will leave the building looking much as it did when it was brand new with its lovely terra cotta representation of a horses head, buffed and shiny, fetchingly looking over its shoulder at all that has happened along its home above Western Avenue.


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