Where the Harvard and Pike steam comes from

Dotty DeCoster is a regular contributor to CHS on matters of Hill history. We last featured her work in this article about the St. Joseph Carmelite Monastery, An oasis of silence and prayer at 18th and Howell.

Old ideas can work well, if they are outfitted with new technologies. That’s the message from one of Seattle’s oldest, and smallest, power generators: Seattle Steam Company. The old steam plant has been around since 1893 down on Post just north of Yesler, and it still operates, at least until the newest experiment of Seattle Steam (with a $19 million federal grant to assist) begins – generating electricity as well as steam, as it did when the company began. With an elegant new stack, rebuilt after the last major earthquake to landmark requirements, the old steam plant may become the new downtown district electricity back-up.

In the meantime, the not-quite-so-old steam plant between University and Union with facilities on both sides of Western Avenue, is generating steam with wood waste. Well, not today. Today the silo is being pumped out so repairs can be made to a part that wasn’t quite up to the junk in the waste that comes from Cedar Grove, Allied, CleanScapes and other sources. However, since last year the facility has four boilers, one of which can burn wood waste. The plant can switch between heat sources (diesel, natural gas, oil, wood waste) in a matter of some ten minutes or so, which makes is very responsive to fuel costs and also to load variations that might be related to disasters or weather events.

I had an opportunity to tour the plant with David Easton, vice president of the company, and the folks at  Arcade. It isn’t space age technology, except for the Baghouse: a complex of filters that clean the emissions. The wood processing is pretty straight forward and tucked nicely into the historic coal storage area complete with tunnel to the plant. (A fair amount of coal used to be mined near Seattle, and it was the cheap fuel at the turn of the 20th century.) Seattle Steam is excited to be able to offer this fuel source to their customers who may be able to realize up to 50% reduction in their carbon footprint. (Wood waste burning is a closed carbon loop.) Also, LEED 3 includes district energy for the first time.

This may seem like downtown news. It isn’t. Since 1964, Seattle Steam has been serving the major hospitals: Swedish, Virginia Mason and Harborview, 24:7. Also Seattle Central Community College, Seattle University and a number of other places along the way.

Walkers notice this. There’s almost always a little steam escaping from the hatch at the intersection of Harvard and E. Pike, also at Boren and Cherry. The steam is carried through a carbon steel pipes running from 3 ½ to 18 inches in diameter. There are two systems: one is high pressure at 140 psi and the other is low pressure at 15 psi. The hospitals like the high pressure steam because they use steam for sterilization and laundry. Lower pressure works for heat and hot water. Some of the pipes downtown are the original ones, likely not carbon steel 115 years ago. They last a long time because they don’t corrode. The piping is very expensive, currently something like $1,000/foot, so it is unlikely that there will be much expansion of the system. A good thing the pipes are underground and no one thought to tear them out when electricity went hydro in the 1930s and people thought we wouldn’t need local power sources anymore. If one is building near an existing pipeline, though, check it out.

Seattle Steam has a great web site and there’s a cool interactive map that shows who uses the system: http://seattlesteam.com

The vanished nighthawks of First Hill

Common Nighthawk
, originally uploaded by kingernorth.

It has been a busy week at CHS with lots of big news — some of it quite heavy. Thanks goodness for this lovely little essay which fluttered in from CHS history contributor Dotty DeCoster. Even if the nighthawks were still living in Seattle, they’d have already migrated away from this wet and dreary Pacific Northwest weather until spring — when they used to return and, now, you can miss them like Dotty does. We’re glad the swallows still come back to keep us company.

I’ve been reading Edward B. Dunn’s memoir called 1121 Union recently, and he asks a question:  “We always had nighthawks in summer on First Hill and in the country, too.  Where can they have gone? . . . Anyway  I miss them.  They can outdive any airplane, and I used to love watching them swooping over the housetops and abruptly coming out of the dive with a thrilling roar.” (p. 53) 

Dunn was born in 1904 at 1121 Union and lived there for several decades. (southwest corner of Union and Minor.)  My old friend, who lived as a child near Lake Union and most of her adult life near 17th and Denny, taught me to go looking for nighthawks at dusk above the rooftops near the top of Capitol Hill during the 1960s. They are gone now, gone completely from King County and only found rarely in Western Washington.

The Seattle Audubon bird web describes the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) as “a cryptic bird most often seen in flight, when it can be easily identified by the white bar across each long, pointed wing.  This mottled gray and black bird has large eyes.  It also has a tiny beak with a large gape. .  .”  They forage in flight on flying insects.  They have a loud, distinctive call.  At about 9 inches, common nighthawks are bigger than swallows and spectacular flyers.  They also have an odd habit while perching.  Rather than sitting on tree limbs or wires or rooftops facing you (with the perch on the horizontal) they sit sideways, aligned along the perch.  Called “goatsuckers” some places, they used to be a delightful addition to the August falling star show viewed from the Capitol Hill ridge crest.

They are odd birds that like open country (with lots of flying bugs) and don’t nest – they lay their eggs on gravel.  Both male and female birds help feed the young and care for them.  In the cities, they tended to like gravel or pebble roofs for reproducing, or infrequently disturbed gravel piles or alleys.  They seem to have been birds of a certain city development period.  They appeared here when the forest cover was opened up and disappeared once the gravel was smoothly paved over, the swampland drained, and the flying insects greatly reduced.  Peterson’s Western Birds says they winter in Argentina.  Apparently, nighthawks still are fairly common in eastern Washington, if you have an opportunity to go for a walk at dusk on the other side of the mountains you might see some.

In the meantime, swallows remain. They swoop over the large lawn in Volunteer Park between the art museum and the conservatory and you can see them during the day diving nearly to grass height as they catch insects mid-air.  At dusk they appear out of the ravine when one is standing at the overlook across from the cemetery entrance on 15th Avenue East.

When streetcars ran on Capitol Hill

Lots of talk of trains and tracks and where to put things like streetcar maintenance facilities on Capitol Hill and nearby First Hill these days. Here is a look back at the turn of the 20th Century on Capitol Hill and the intertwined growth of the city’s cable car system and what would eventually become Seattle University. Historian Dotty DeCoster originally wrote this article for the Capitol Hill Times where it appeared in 2008 but it is not available on the Web. She is able to share her work with CHS and we’re happy to feature her take on the Hill’s history. We last featured DeCoster’s work in this piece: What Broadway mixed-use was like 100 years ago

1891 was an extraordinary year for Seattle. J.M. Thompson’s Madison Street Cable Car was completed, providing steam-powered transportation for people and freight up the steep hill from downtown and on through the woods and stump farms to Lake Washington. Also in 1891, Jesuit education began in Seattle at the original site of Immaculate Conception Church near the south east corner of Madison Street and Broadway. Now part of Seattle University, the 1910 car barn at 10th and Madison has been transformed. This low, brick clad building at the 10th Avenue entrance to campus is easy to miss . During its 98 years, however, dynamic changes have transformed the building and the neighborhood.

The original car barn and steam power house for the Madison Street Cable Car was located on the south side of Madison Street between 20th and 21st Avenues. The Seattle Electric Company, a local branch of the Boston firm Stone & Webster, purchased the Company along with most of the other cable and street car lines in 1900, and converted to electricity. A new power house and car barn was designed for Madison Street electric transportation during 1910, and the building in the photograph was constructed on the south side of E. Madison Street in the triangle at 10th Avenue: 1025 E. Madison. The building housed electrical generators, as did it’s twin” at 10th and James Street, and provided facilities for maintenance of both cable and street cars until 1940. From about 1911 on, the cable car ran up from downtown to 14th Avenue and streetcars took folks the rest of the way out to the Lake.

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Meanwhile, the Society of Jesus worked for decades to develop a Jesuit college just east of Broadway near Madison. Beginning with a Catholic school for children at Immaculate Conception in 1891, the struggle continued until 1931. In 1904 Immaculate Conception Church moved up to 18th Avenue. The Catholic population of Seattle increased significantly in the first decade of the twentieth century, and by 1910 Seattle College had an enrollment of 200, 16 men in the college department. Like the early University of Washington, Seattle College had to teach secondary school to prepare students for college level coursework. World War I, however, was hard on the College, and in 1918 college level studies were suspended. During 1919, Jesuit education moved up Broadway to Roanoke and continued there until 1931, creating Seattle Preparatory School while still teaching college-level courses to a few young men.

In 1931, Seattle College came back to Broadway and Madison. The campus, and around it the old First Hill mansions, was disintegrating into the blackberry vines. Yet a small group of extraordinary Jesuit teachers re-established Seattle College that Fall, and Father James McGoldrick organized a new evening extension school” available to women as well as men. By 1936 the 4-year program at Seattle College was officially certified by the University of Washington – the vision to create a Jesuit College was finally realized. In 1948 Seattle College became Seattle University.

The Seattle Municipal Railway, however, was in trouble. The City had purchased the Seattle Electric Company street and cable car systems in 1918. In 1936 this included ”410 streetcars on 26 electric routes, and three cable railways” (HistoryLink.org essay 2707) and the City had a $4 million deficit and still owned half of the principal on its 1918 bonds”. In May 1939, the [federal] Reconstruction Finance Corporation loaned Seattle $10 million to pay off the streetcar debt” and the last streetcar completed its final run on April 13, 1941.”

On April 21, 1941, [Father Francis] Corkery [Seattle College President] paid $9,000 for the old Madison Street cable car terminal as a home for the new School of Engineering, then being organized by Father Edmund McNulty, SJ.” (Seattle University; A Century of Jesuit Education” by Walt Crowley, Seattle University, 1991) In 1951, Seattle University conducted a complete remodel of the building, creating classrooms in the basement and on the first floor, new plumbing, tile floors, a central heating plant, and covering the outside walls with brick. In 1952, the City vacated a portion of 10th Avenue, creating an entrance to the campus just west of the building. Subsequently, a portion of E. Spring Street was also vacated and remains a walkway on campus. Now the building serves students of the Fine Arts. The entrance is on the former Spring Street side of the building and a plaque in the entry commemorates the car barn.

Documents and records of the old car barns are hard to find. I recommend particularly the Seattle Municipal Archives and the Puget Sound Regional branch of the Washington State Archives as sources, the Museum of History and Industry for rare photographs, and the Seattle Public Library Seattle Room for books, maps, and background information.

A Piggly Wiggly history of chain stores on 15th Ave

The debut of a Starbucks-backed brand experiment on 15th Ave E wasn’t the first time that this Seattle commercial strip saw a large chain with an innovative retail concept move in. Capitol Hill historian Dotty DeCoster originally wrote this piece for the Capitol Hill Times where it appeared in early 2008 but it is not available on the Web. She is able to share her work with CHS and we’re happy to feature her take on the Hill’s history.

The former home of Piggly Wiggly as it appears in 2009 (Photo: Lucas Anderson)

At first glance, one sees the delightful canopy along 15th. It is almost as wide as the sidewalk, wide enough for two people to stroll together without getting soaked by the canopy drip. This building at 401 15th Avenue E (on the northwest corner of 15th and E Harrison) has been with us since 1930. Walking along, one might pause and peruse the intriguing house wares and gifts in the windows of Tilden, or go into 22 Doors and see what’s on offer. It’s not really until you see the building from across the street that the terra cotta ornaments on the front of the building are noticeable, although the lively brick design along E. Harrison still looks pretty flashy.

From 1930 until about 1938, this masonry building was 15th Avenue’s Piggly Wiggly store. The canopy wrapped around the building covering all the big windows just below the transoms. Originally a Piggly Wiggly/MacMarr store, the sign seems to say simply “Piggly Wiggly” in the 1937 photograph at the State archives. A grocery ad in the Seattle Daily Times, January 10,1930, shows a banner “MacMarr/PigglyWiggly” announcing the “first birthday sale” for all the stores in Seattle, and the ad looks much like grocery ads today. It also dates the merger between the two chain store companies.

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Piggly Wiggly stores have a fascinating history. Clarence Saunders invented the self-service supermarket, patented the system in 1914, and franchised it nationwide. He’s the person who came up with the name “Piggly Wiggly”. His first store was opened in Memphis, Tennessee in 1916. But he lost control of the company in the early 1920s.

In 1921, William Louis Avery came to Seattle from Boulder, Colorado, and established the first Piggly Wiggly store in downtown Seattle. As the self-service method of shopping became popular, he opened stores in other parts of the city. He remained president and manager of the company until 1925, when Harry A. Ruff took charge here in Seattle. Mr. and Mrs. Ruff lived near the University of Washington, where their son, Harry A. Ruff, Jr., was a student.

Also during the 1920s, Charles Merrill (Merrill, Lynch) became interested in grocery stores and drove the development of the Safeway chain which originated in southern California. By the end of the 1920s, many west coast grocery store chains, including the MacMarr and Piggly Wiggly chains, had been consolidated into the Safeway system. In some cases, and 15th Avenue was no exception, Safeway and Piggly Wiggly stores existed for a brief time within a block of each other although they were owned and operated by Safeway. In 1932, Piggly Wiggly and Safeway stores in Seattle were consolidated under the direction of John L. Heathcote, District Manager. By 1935 George M. Mangan was the District Manager and in 1938 the former Piggly Wiggly at 401 15th Ave. E. became a Safeway.

Grocery store chains were big business in the 1920s and 1930s. While the Depression encouraged consolidation and delivery of less expensive food, in general the grocery business thrived. Financiers were willing, as Charles Merrill was, to invest heavily in new stores, new warehouses, and expansion of grocery chains. Wheeling and dealing, merging and consolidating retail and warehousing, were continuous.

City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods Historical Site Record
Summary for 401-405 15th AVE / Parcel ID 3303700190 / Inv # CH009


Historic Name: Piggly Wiggly Market Common Name: none
Style: Commercial Neighborhood: Capitol Hill
Built By:   Year Built: 1927
In the opinion of the survey, this property appears to meet the criteria of the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Ordinance.
This is an unusually ornate and intact small commercial building in the Fifteenth Avenue East business district. Residential development of this part of Northeast Capitol Hill flourished in the early years of the 20th Century, when the developer James Moore platted and sold lots around 15th Avenue North (now East). A streetcar line was built on 15th, and by 1910 several groceries and drugstores were located in his area. This is one of the second generation of buildings, constructed in 1927. It originally housed a Piggly-Wiggly Market. The extensive terra cotta ornamentation and decorative brickwork distinguish it from surrounding buildings, no doubt a method of attracting shoppers away from the numerous nearby stores. Since grocery stores consolidated into large facilities, this building has housed a variety of restaurants and small retail and service businesses.
This small one-story building is clad in brown and tan brick, laid in a decorative X pattern on the south wall. The main entry is denoted by an arch in the terra cotta belt course above the transoms. The center storefront and the corners are delineated by ornate terra cotta pilasters with large finials. The pilaster design is repeated in the medallions descending from the terra cotta cornice. The storefronts have their original recessed entries, large display windows with transoms, black tile bulkheads and a suspended canopy.
Detail for 401-405 15th AVE / Parcel ID 3303700190 / Inv # CH009


Status: Yes – Inventory
Classication: Building District Status:
Cladding(s): Brick Foundation(s): Concrete – Poured
Roof Type(s): Flat Roof Material(s): Unknown
Building Type: Commercial/Trade – Specialty store Plan: Rectangular
Structural System: Masonry – Unreinforced No. of Stories: one
Unit Theme(s): Commerce
Changes to Plan: Intact
Changes to Windows: Intact
Changes to Original Cladding: Intact
Major Bibliographic References
Williams, Jacqueline B. The Hill with a Future: Seattle’s Capitol Hill 1900-1946. Seattle: CPK Ink, 2001.
King County Property Record Card (c. 1938-1972), Washington State Archives.
Polk’s Seattle Directories, 1890-1996.

By 1941, 401 15th Avenue E was vacant. In 1942, briefly, it became the Capitol Hill Evangelistic Church, Rev. Thorfin Brocke, Pastor. A year later, it became a grocery again, a service grocery run by John D. Shea. About 1953, Capitol Hill Furniture and Appliance Company took over the premises and remained there until about 1976. For a brief time in the late 1970s, the Capitol Hill TV store was there and then Tilden moved in from across the street. The store was divided in half and a restaurant has been in the space now at 405 15th Ave. E since Speedy’s, sometime in the 1970s or so.

While a history of Piggly Wiggly stores in the Northwest remains to be written, it is likely that the Piggly Wiggly at 401 15th Avenue E. was the last to be built in Seattle.