CHS Re:Take | Love letters shaped our city (Summit Line part 1)

Collage of Bella biking to school past Minor and Denny, 1902 and today

This is a love story.

It’s a story about the transformation of a few quiet streets into a new neighborhood. Also a chronicle of transportation planning in a new, sprawling town. But at its core this tale is about a man and a woman and their life together.

Today we have the Metro #14 Summit trolley bus line. We have rows of brick apartments from the 1900s to 1920s.

What would we have if not for love?


(*1: Not a hidden love story as in CHS Re:Take #1; *2: brick apartments like The Carroll which appeared in CHS Re:Take #11.)

The Woman

Bella, 1902 (UW Tyee annual)

Bella Weretnikow was born in Russia in 1880.

Her mother was poor but gifted and managed to earn enough money to wed a Hebraic scholar despite her background. While Bella was still a newborn, her parents fled anti-Jewish pogroms, arriving in New York and redirected to Winnipeg, Canada. Bella had inherited her parents’ intellect, and entered high school at the age of twelve in 1892.

A year and a half later her family followed the Winnipeg Jewish community of merchants to the west coast, heading to Seattle.

In 1893, Seattle was growing with its new connection through the transcontinental Great Northern Railroad. GN, Northern Pacific, and other lines went straight up the waterfront to piers and the freight-carrying sailboats and steamers. A few blocks away, cable cars led to far off places like the new communities on Broadway.*4

(*4: Broadway streetcar appeared in CHS Re:Take #13)

What a Rush

Denny Hall clock Denny Hall, UW (Photo by author)

Bella’s family lived in the midst of it all in Pioneer Square, where her mother Eliza Marks ran a used goods store catering to waterfront traffic. Bella helped her mother by doing all of the accounting and procurement. Bored at high school, Bella passed the entrance examinations for the University of Washington at the age of 16.

Her timing was just off. At the end of her freshman year, the gold discovered in the Yukon transformed Seattle, its waterfront, and her mother’s store:

In the fall of the year 1896, [the] year before the now famous Gold Rush, I was enrolled as a student in the University of Washington. In addition to my work at college, I had the job of buyer and bookkeeper for our store. This would not have been too great a task in normal times, but with the unprecedented demand for merchandise and with the scarcity of supply, it required a great amount of persistent searching to find any kind of merchandise available for purchase. — My Life, page 45.

Bella’s autobiography has a number of wonderful anecdotes from this time. Here’s another with a link up to First Hill:

The country was flooded with gold nuggets, which seemed to take the place of currency for the time being. I remember our little black satchel, something like the doctors now carry, in which we carried our gold nuggets, every few days, to the top of Yesler Hill, where we cashed them at the United States Assay Office.*5 The cable car that went up Yesler Way has now become an antique in the Smithsonian Institute. — My Life, page 41.

(*5: Assay Office appeared in CHS Re:Take #4)

Cycle Track

Engine House No. 15 (Seattle Municipal Archives)

Somehow she balanced it all. During her senior year she moved to the base of Capitol Hill at Minor and Stewart on the Howell Plateau with her mother.*6 Downtown and uptown were still hilly, so the move meant that she finally had an alternative to riding the spotty streetcar to school. 

It was just a block from the fire station pictured here, leading to our rephotograph’s fanciful amalgamation of her bicycling by. Bella would pedal up Eastlake and across the Brooklyn bridge to the UW.

She described the trip in her own words:

Originally, there was only one means of transportation to the University, a car line that made its way slowly and ran only every hour on the hour. If you missed it, you had to wait an entire hour for the next car. Some of the girls, including myself, decided to remedy this difficulty. So we rode back and forth on bicycles. We all wore divided skirts, with our ankles in full view! What a sensation we created, and my! How times have changed! — My Life, page 46

While working on her Bachelor’s degree she entered graduate school with the first cohort of the new Law School. She split her days between Montlake for undergrad and the old Territorial University building at 5th and University for grad school. Her focus was Community Debt, or the division of debt after divorce. She quickly passed the bar exam after graduating in 1901.

(*6: Howell Plateau discussed with the Pike and Pine regrades in CHS Re:Take #9)

The Man

LN, 1906 (Seattle PI)

Bella was the first female Jewish lawyer in Washington State. That and her young age earned her brief mention in Jewish n
ewspapers across the country, including the American Israelite. That’s where Lewis Newman (LN) Rosenbaum read about her:

It must have been my name, Bella Weretnikow, a distinct Russian-Jewish name, that attracted the attention of the Jewish newspapers at the time. It seems they did their best to broadcast the story of a young Jewish girl becoming one of the first women lawyers in the far West. I received many letters of congratulation… [LN] sent me a congratulatory message saying that he would be interested in any information about Washington and particularly, about Seattle. I must have written some glowing accounts, as very soon he decided to come and see it all for himself. — My Life, page 48

You can imagine the cordial, probing letter from LN, and the polite yet too-swift reply by Bella. Days spent waiting for the mailman. In her descriptions of the wonders of Seattle, maybe he imagined them exploring together. And perhaps in his questioning replies she saw a man who would be her equal.

Like Bella, LN was a Jewish immigrant. His family moved from Hungary to New York in 1889 when he was eight years old. Writing in her unpublished biography of LN, Bella says:

The story of his early life was a subject he disliked to discuss, unlike most so-called self-made men… With my husband, his early life had been particularly difficult [ including hunger, poverty and crowded tenements] and was a period to be forgotten. He would stay in the [law] office [where he worked] til all hours of the night reading the books on the shelves. One of the partners, a good-hearted man, discovered his interest in books and helped to guide him in his choice of what was most important for him to read. However, life in a crowded East Side tenement became more and more difficult.

Bella goes on to describe LN moving to Nashville, where he wrote his love letters to her.

Motivation

Maybe LN was honestly looking for a new home on the West Coast when he read about Bella. Gold had been found again in Alaska, causing another gold rush in 1900. Nashville was growing, but Seattle was booming.

Or maybe it was love at first read, and the article described to him his perfect mate? Trailblazer, smart, with an education in law.

Either way, you can bet his first letter wasn’t purely congratulatory. If he somehow sensed opportunity, took a risk, and enjoyed the reward — well, that would be the story of his life. He made connections others couldn’t, and made his move quickly.

More of that to come as we unveil the genesis of the Summit neighborhood, from Denny to Belmont, Melrose to Boylston.

Your Unasked Questions

Will LN ask for Bella’s hand in marriage? How could a patent lawyer reshape the side of Capitol Hill? What could go wrong if you mix family with business? How does city engineer R. H. Thomson enter the story? All these questions and more answered in future installments of the CHS Re:Take mini-series On the Summit Line.

Credit

Special, heartfelt thanks to Bella and LN’s granddaughter Judith Rosenthal. Besides answering questions in correspondence, she shared Bella’s privately published autobiography My Life, and her unpublished biography of LN.

Upcoming

Rob will be leading a discussion about Capitol Hill’s streetcar history at the August 16 History Cafe, 7pm at Roy Street Coffee & Tea.

Also, Rob will speak about early Capitol Hill history on October 25th at the Capitol Hill Library, 6:30-7:30pm.

In case you missed them, here are the last few Re:Takes on CHS:

Local history expert Rob Ketcherside shares his vision of the past and present with his Re:Take series of works on CHS and other Seattle sites.

Subscribe and support CHS Contributors -- $1/$5/$10 per month

2 thoughts on “CHS Re:Take | Love letters shaped our city (Summit Line part 1)