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CHS Re:Take | Division’s Damp Depression at 12th and Union

It would make a good band name. And it’s our vote for naming the old ‘hood at 12th and Union: Division’s Damp Depression. Read on for the explanation.

This installment starts with a look east out the window of the Broadway Silver Cloud Inn. The UW and the Washington State Historical Society both had this panorama’s vantage labeled as Broadway High School. We emailed them to correct it. Because back in about 1905 (say it “ninteen-five” for added hipness) the b&w photo was taken from the top of the original, newly-built Broadway Building at the northeast corner of Broadway and Madison. The Broadway Building can wait for a future article. This time we’re focused on the area from Broadway to 13th, Pike to Spring.

[Looking east to] Second Hill, Seattle (Courtesy University of Washington Libraries,CUR283 and CUR284)

The street angling across from the bottom right is Madison. So on the right side is Seattle University today. Union Street crosses it at the center of the photo, and you would expect the Public Storage building to be just to the right of it. Twelfth is a bit subtle at this resolution, so scroll down to get your bearings. The empty spot in the middle along Union is for now the Undre Arms apartments.

Here’s a zoom in on the center so we can take a closer look. The yellow arrow points to 11th and Union, the intersection of a dirt road and a dirt path. The red arrow points to the Victorian on 12th which was visible in the 1920 photo discussed in a recent Re:Take. The green arrow is essentially an apartment building, 8 units with six rooms each that were subleased. This was replaced by an auto dealership after the 12th Avenue regrade, and is now Ferrari-Maserati. The pink arrow points to a building blocking off the end of Union diagonally. And the blue arrow points to a building halfway to 13th that is already higher than the top of the turret of the Victorian, showing just how deep the hollow was.

Back in 1905 the neighborhood was the bottom of a hollow depression. First Hill rose to the west, and Second Hill (or Renton Hill or Cherry Hill or whatever) rose to the east. And apparently it was actually, really depressing. When Mount Zion Church moved from 11th and Union, they said their old spot was “too damp and cold.” The Seattle Times had some choice words for this neighborhood in a 1908 article, saying it was a bunch of cheap shacks:

Some businesses has already developed along Pine, Pike and Madison from Broadway east, but it is rather of a cheap sort and not such as adds greatly to property values. Taken as a whole, the Twelfth Avenue district looms large in possible development, but shows small in actual improvement. Portions of it have even taken a bad start backward, as for instance around the narrow part of East Union Street, and show a tendency to run to shacks, stables and so forth to the jeopardy of property values. (ST Jun 28 1908 page 65)

12th and Union in 1899 (SMA 1553)

If you look closely you’ll notice that Union west of Madison was a dirt road. On maps like this city water pipeline map from 1899, it’s clear that Union Street didn’t even go through.

Last time reader bryan suggested in comments the topic of Capitol Hill’s street names, especially the ones we got rid of. Reader Andreas helped out with a link to the 1895 ordinance that erased the wacky names from the map.

Here’s one. If you notice, all of the old names are crossed out on this map with new names written. It makes a handy reference. Union used to be called Division Street. The street was the dividing line between John Nagle’s platted properties on the north, and the property of Captain Renton, A. A. Denny and a few smaller plats on the south.

This is The Explanation
Did you catch all that? Division Street ran down in a valley that Mount Zion thought was cold and damp. Hence, Division’s Damp Depression.

This was the Scranton of Capitol Hill. An awful, awful, sad place filled with sad, desperate people. Okay, it wasn’t that bad. But it was certainly quite different from the lawyers and ranchers on Broadway, or Pike with its politicians or First Hill with retired newspaper moguls and other big wigs.

Rather, Division’s Damp Depression was filled with working class people: a cable car gripman, concrete finisher, machinist, janitor, laborer, bricklayer, and saw oiler are just a few examples. With them, many owners of the stores fronting on the Madison cable line lived in the neighborhood as well, including a  Japanese tailor.

Robert James (Bob Lemke’s Blog)

A Few Profiles
Robert James lived with his wife and his brother Harry in 1112 Madison, the building with the pink arrow above. Robert and Harry were Seattle pioneers™, arriving as children with their parents in 1888.

Robert’s profession
is listed as miner in the 1901 city directory, but by the 1910 census he had changed to player. When this week’s photo was taken in about 1905, “Bobby” was first baseman for the Seattle Siwashes, who played at a park on 12th at Yesler.

He left to play ball in Bellingham, and refused to report to Indianapolis when his contract was bought out. He came back home to finish his brief career.

After Bobby James’ time in baseball ended, he went back to the laboring world. He worked as a shearman for Pacific Coast Steel and Bethlehem Steel in West Seattle for 40 years.

Alma Burgess Osterloh (Seattle Times Sept 8, 1915)

Alma Burgess was one of the depression’s residents that left at least a few traces of her life. The 1910 census shows her at age 12 living with her sister and mother at 1409 12th, one of the units replaced by the Ferrari-Maserati Building. They also had two boarders. Alma married one of them, Walter Osterloh, as soon as she turned 18. They moved to Phinney Ridge, started a grocery store and raised a family.

A group of earlier residents in the building shared a unit and commuted together on the cable car to jobs as nurses at the Battle Creek Sanitarium at Second and University. It was a spa, called a bath house back then. They offered 700 different treatments including “Russian baths, needle sprays, hydraulic treatment, salt glows, and massage.” Their specialty was an electric bath, described as “twenty-eight 32-candle power incandescent lights inclosed in a cabinet lined with plate-glass mirrors.” That sounds like a tanning bed today, but back then it was used to sanitize the entrant.

Thomson’s Anti-Depressant
Of course the city filled the whole neighborhood in a few years later during the 12th Avenue Regrade as discussed in the article back in January. Some of the buildings of the old neighborhood were demolished outright, and some were raised on stilts to the new street level. Finally the development of Auto Row with its garages, warehouses and showrooms replaced the homes, boarding houses and apartments lot by lot.

It’s no wonder that the archives were confused about where the photo was taken. There’s nothing left to recognize. Even the streets have changed.

Special thanks to the management of the Silver Cloud Inn for permission to photograph from a guest room.

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.

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8 years ago

These are my absolute favorite articles on this blog. Thank you so much for your research and hard work!
I hope there’s a book in the works…

8 years ago

I second the thanks! It’s so wonderful to learn a little history about these tiny pockets of Seattle.

8 years ago

What do you mean there is nothing left to recognize? I recognize my house. Thank you for another great article.

8 years ago

These articles are great! Keep ’em coming. They add a whole new dimension to the experience of going for a walk in my neighborhood. Imagine some of these folks trying to fathom that their stories would be preserved and told to later generations — via some sort of flat-screen light-bulb that carries words and images on it.


Robert Ketcherside
8 years ago

Thank you both!

I am not actively working on a book, though it does feel like this is leading somewhere. If there is a publisher reading this, drop me a line.

Robert Ketcherside
8 years ago

There is a great view of Renton Hill, isn’t there? Thanks!

Robert Ketcherside
8 years ago

I agree, my perspective of the neighborhood has completely changed since I started researching and writing these pieces. Very glad that the sense of wonder seeps through.

8 years ago

You know I have often thought about a neighborhood name for the bustling 12th Ave area. It’s not really Cap Hill and the Central Area is really more focused around 23rd and Jackson.

I like the Damp Depression. It highlights the geographical valley-ness. It’s also got that bit of edge and grunge that the hipster crowd will probably take to.

We may have some trouble though getting SU to relabel their neighborhood. “Come to SU, just East of downtown Seattle in the Damp Depression”. haha!

Robert Ketcherside
8 years ago

It will certainly have a unique ring to it :)

8 years ago

My username is actually inspired by the need for a name for the neighborhood; I was talking with a friend and suggested SoMa (for south of Madison), and he responded with SoMad instead. I do get tired of explaining where it is I live (not quite Capitol Hill/First Hill/the CD). According to Wikipedia, I think it would technically be Cherry Hill.

But I like Damp Depression too! A nice ring to it. Maybe we can create some collective momentum….

8 years ago

Robert, will you marry me? (don’t tell my gf)

8 years ago

Hey, if Washington D.C. can have a neighborhood called “Foggy Bottom,” we can have one called “Damp Depression.”

Robert Ketcherside
8 years ago

SoMad, Capitol Hill has always been a colection of neighborhoods — let’s give them all character and grit.

calhoun, that’s true isn’t it? I graduated from Foggy Bottom and it didn’t even occur to me :P

Robert Ketcherside
8 years ago

Kgdlg, I’ll take that as a vote of support. Thanks. :)