2021 Find of the Month Archive

Refugee safety outreach

fire safety brochure in Vietnamese

A memo in a 1982 Fire Department folder relayed directions from Fire Chief Swartout to develop a fire safety education program targeted specifically at refugees newly arrived in Seattle. The suggestion from the chief was for presentations at apartment buildings that had residents primarily from refugee communities, as well as outreach through community newspapers. Jim Sherman, a fire inspector from the Education Office, was directed to design a program and budget.

Less than two weeks later, Sherman replied with a proposal including a complete script. He suggested a 30-minute presentation covering Fire Department staff and equipment, common fire hazards, and safety tips. When space and equipment allowed, a slide show could be used; in other cases he suggested a flip chart with large pictures. Presenters would show how a smoke detector worked and explain what to do if listeners heard one. They would also hand out 9-1-1 stickers and demonstrate how to call for help in an emergency. Attendees would be encouraged to practice saying their address so they could repeat it to an operator if necessary. Specific hazards such as smoking in bed, overloaded outlets, and items near baseboard heaters would be called out.

Sherman volunteered to present the programs himself or to train firefighters to hold the events in their neighborhoods. If operations personnel were presenting, he suggested they begin by explaining they were on duty and might have to leave in a hurry if they were called out, but that they would return to finish talking with the residents about making their home fire safe. They also were to explain that they were trained to give medical help to people who are hurt.

Both the initial directive and the proposed presentation emphasized introducing firefighters as friends and helpers. Giveaways for children such as buttons or frisbees could help enhance firefighters’ image and perhaps help draw people to the event. Sherman suggested using the conclusion of the presentation to reassure attendees that they would come if there was an emergency. The slide show included a photo of a fire inspector in uniform and explained that inspectors were not police, with the script saying, "Please do not be afraid of the fire fighters. Remember they are your friends and want to help you."

Pacific Coast Fire Bug

poster with information about Robert Bruce Driscoll

A 1935 file in the Fire Department Central Files tells the story of Robert Bruce Driscoll, a.k.a. the Pacific Coast Fire Bug. He confessed to setting 140 fires in Seattle over a four-year period, many in boxcars and industrial plants. There were periods where fires were discovered on a nightly basis, and the Fire Department assigned a special squad to patrol the most-targeted districts. Driscoll was eventually caught setting fire to a church by a neighbor who was alerted by his barking dog.

Driscoll admitted setting this fire and numerous others, visiting the scenes with investigators and explaining where and how they were set. He claimed he always worked alone and said that "if it had not been for that dog you would not have me yet." He signed a confession for the church fire, saying, "I done this because of my destitute circumstances and because I was sore at the world in general."

The file includes various notes left by Driscoll airing grievances and warning of more fires. Some complaints were of a general nature ("Long as I have to live in breadline hearing negroes and aliens insult our flag and white people personally I continue fires"; "To business men everywhere - so long as I am blackballed for not being in last war I will continue many big fires in industrial plants"). Others were directed specifically against people who had offended him ("Dismiss that negro janitor at central library within 30 days or I start wrecking trains... No excuses!!"; "If that ticket puncher at breadline has a job 24 hours from now I burn you out"; "Long as Bruce B. at window 8 at 84 Union St has a public job I will cause fires!!!") One note concluded with "Get wise or get fire or worse." He often signed his notes "Firebug."

After his arrest, Seattle's fire chief sent letters to other west coast officials notifying them of his capture and the likelihood that he was behind fires in other areas. A response from the fire chief in Tillamook, Oregon, said that Driscoll had served in the volunteer fire department in that town for several years in the late 1910s but "was not a very enthusiastic fireman." He had left town after attacking his wife, who later divorced him. An employer from his Tillamook days described him as "on the borderline between genius and insanity." A biographical summary noted that even while living in shacktowns he continued studying subjects such as science and radio technology and spent many hours in public libraries.

From prison in Walla Walla, where he was serving a 5-10 year sentence, Driscoll wrote a letter to the Fire Department in which he said, "For a jail-house, it ain't so bad here… Since my head is clearing a little, I realize a man should live like rest [sic] of decent society or he is a mental subnormal character. I should have retaliated lawfully, if at all. Crime is a sick mind or boy's work, or plain wrong."

See a video version of this story.

Magic Carpet

Magic Carpet brochure

In 1973, Metro Transit inaugurated a one-year trial of the "Magic Carpet," a fare-free downtown bus service between Jackson and Stewart and from Sixth Avenue to the waterfront. The Magic Carpet replaced a 10-cent shuttle bus that generated $64,000 in revenue for Metro. Using federal funds designated for improving transit, the City of Seattle directed $64,000 back to the transit agency to cover the shortfall.

In a letter to City Council requesting the appropriation, Mayor Uhlman outlined the goals of the trial program. These included:

  • Reducing air pollution in the downtown area
  • Encouraging transit usage, thus helping with the energy crisis
  • Stimulating the downtown economy, especially retail trade
  • Reducing car trips from one part of downtown to another, which made up a significant proportion of the area's vehicle traffic
  • Connecting different parts of the central business district by making it easier for government employees to shop in the retail core or for workers in the financial area to get lunch in the International District or Pioneer Square
  • Increasing tourist trade
  • Encouraging parking outside of downtown rather than inside the central core

After the trial period was complete, Metro and the City looked at the results. Transit ridership had increased dramatically, and downtown retail sales also grew compared with the year before. Surveys indicated that people believed the Magic Carpet had a positive impact on downtown, believed it should continue, and even supported using tax dollars for the service.

Magic Carpet was seen as a success and the City chose to continue funding the service. It became known as the Ride Free Zone and lasted for nearly forty years, providing an estimated 29,000 free rides daily around 2010. The free zone was discontinued in 2012.

Test blackout

poster explaining test blackout procedures

Seattle held a test blackout night on March 7, 1941, nine months before the United States entered World War II. The test was authorized by Ordinance 76015, which made it unlawful to refuse to take part. All male Seattleites over the age of eighteen were enlisted to help enforce the blackout by reporting any violations, and about 3000 Legionnaires patrolled the streets along with the police during the event.

The test was scheduled to begin at 10:40 pm, with alerts sounding a ten-minute warning at 10:30. Seattleites were asked to turn out all external lights and ensure that no indoor lighting was visible from the outside (with a reminder not to forget about skylights.) Anyone in an automobile was to immediately pull over and turn off their lights and engine. Pedestrians were urged to be indoors by 10:30, but if "unavoidably outdoors," they were instructed not to smoke and not to cross any streets (presumably to avoid any cars driving in the dark).

Managing lights at individual homes and businesses was fairly straightforward, but the city's traffic division had to figure out how to darken all traffic signals, which were not centrally controlled. The city was divided into 25 districts with designated captains, assisted by about 300 volunteers. Armed with index cards containing information about each piece of equipment, the teams fanned out and unscrewed lights, covered units with heavy bags, and opened locked control boxes to turn off switches.  

During the blackout, dispatches went out over the radio from airplanes, hills, and tall buildings, telling the listening public what the announcers were seeing from those viewpoints. Curious citizens crowded high points to watch the city go dark.

Traffic Engineer J.W.A. Bollong later reported that the test was "almost a 99% success...The cooperation shown was marvelous as there were very few cases in which the lights remained on. This occurred at outlying gasoline stations or in hotel rooms." He added that if blackouts were a continued necessity, traffic signals should be rewired so that they could be darkened remotely rather than through the use of sacks.

Overdue library books

arrest warrant

The Seattle Public Library was at one time quite aggressive in pursuing borrowers who had not returned their books on time. Ordinance 37311 allowed for arrest and prosecution of those who held materials past their due date and had not responded to a written notice.

The Overdue Department of the library periodically sent lists to the city prosecutor containing names and addresses of borrowers with overdue books, along with the titles they had checked out. Browsing lists from the mid-1940s, one can see that Seattleites were reading everything from "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "Farm Management" to "Corpse with the Blistered Hand" and "Life Insurance, a Legalized Racket."

One request for prosecution came from the librarian at the Queen Anne branch, directed toward a woman "who has retained library books far beyond the legal time limits. She has had ample warning both from the library, and from your office, and has paid no attention to repeated phone calls."

The prosecutor duly wrote to the woman:

I have received a criminal complaint from the Seattle Public Library asking for your arrest for failure to return certain books belonging to said Library. I am loath to issue this complaint immediately, knowing that there are often extenuating circumstances in many cases. You are, therefore, notified to return said book or books to said Seattle Public Library by March 15, 1945, or make financial restitution to said Library therefor, or I shall be compelled to issue said warrant for your arrest thereon. I trust you will not make it necessary for me to do so.

The files include a handful of replies from borrowers. Some apologized for the oversight and enclosed the missing book or a check for its replacement. One woman sent funds to replace a book lost by her son but added, "My honest opinion is that the book incident is merely another stupidity on the part of the lady at Yesler Library." Another writer said that his family had not lived in Seattle for almost three years and suggested that someone had forged his daughter’s name or was using a card that was accidentally left behind when they moved.

One borrower explained, "The books described in the enclosed letter were destroyed in a fire in which my trailer and all personal belongings were lost. Please advise me what to do." The prosecutor suggested that he "take this matter up with Mrs. Louise Hibbert, at the Seattle Public Library? They will probably require that you pay them for the value of the books."

Arrests for overdue books have not been library policy for quite a while, and the 2019 Library Levy allowed for the elimination of late fines beginning in 2020.

Medical bill

receipt from Dr. Smart

General File 991749 includes an 1883 petition from Anthony Lebrache to City Council. The letter explained that Lebrache was a member of Engine Company No. 1, and that two weeks prior he had been seriously injured while assisting in fighting a fire. He described how he had gotten his right hand caught in the chain of the hose cart, thus smashing the third finger. The injury was so severe that it required amputation.

In its earliest days, the city had no established fire protection. In 1883, the City Charter created a fire department and provided for engines and other equipment but not personnel, instead relying on volunteer fire fighters.

Therefore Lebrache, although part of an engine company, was not a city employee at the time of his accident. He sent City Council a copy of the receipt for the $50 he paid the surgeon and asked the City to cover the bill. He noted that he was "a poor man, engaged when well in driving an express wagon in this city," and that his accident had prevented him from earning a living for the past two weeks and "for some time to come."

The Council's Committee on Finance recommended that City funds be used to pay the bill. It was not until after Seattle's Great Fire of 1889 that the City professionalized its fire department, adding five district fire stations, a fire boat, and a paid workforce.

Pride proclamation

June 25 through July 1, 1977, was the first officially sanctioned Gay Pride Week in Seattle. The occasion was marked by a proclamation from Mayor Wes Uhlman which noted that "gay citizens have long been the object of misunderstanding, prejudice, and discrimination; and...these citizens have responded to such discrimination by organizing and asserting their humanity and their right to equality before the law." The proclamation urged Seattleites "to recognize and support the efforts of our city to make this community one which truly does treat all its citizens with a fair and equal hand."

Letters to the mayor were heavily tilted against his decision, with many letter writers citing their disappointment and disgust. To these "anti" correspondents, Uhlman sent polite replies noting that "the purpose of the proclamation was to emphasize the need to protect the human and civil rights of our city's gay citizens." He concluded many of these letters by saying, "I tend to believe that we will never agree on this very controversial issue. But as Mayor of Seattle, I will continue to support the rights of all our law-abiding citizens."

Not all correspondents criticized Uhlman’s decision. One writer professed him to be "a man of courage, but most of all a man who recognizes that gay people are persons." Another declared that he had taken "an enlightened stance and I applaud you for it." To those who wrote supportive letters, Uhlman sent replies thanking them for their backing and urging them to "do all you can to educate and enlighten the rest of our community on this very important matter, for it will be only through this process that we can hope to erase the myths and stereotypes which have existed for far too long."

Polio vaccination

S.P. Lehman, the Director of Public Health, wrote to City Council in January 1956 with good news: "The Federal Government has made available funds to the State of Washington which in turn are to be made available to Seattle and King County to conduct a Polio Immunization Program." Lehman included a proposed budget for the program that included medical and administrative staff, expenses such as syringes and postage, and equipment including two metal desks and a typewriter. He noted that "a certain amount of vaccine is now available and we are formulating an immunization program."

In June 1958, Lehman wrote again to City Council asking for additional money to continue with vaccinations. Public Health’s Well Child Clinics had been offering other immunizations, but he noted that the addition of the Salk polio vaccine to their offerings had substantially increased the number of children brought to the clinics. He added, "The increased demand for immunization for poliomyelitis, diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus and smallpox for preschool children is highly desirable from the standpoint of achieving adequate protection for this most highly susceptible portion of the population." The council’s Finance Committee approved an expenditure to supply the clinics for the rest of the year.

By 1962 the new Sabin oral vaccine was available, and Lehman was enthused about its possibilities. In a letter to City Council he noted that the oral vaccine was "more acceptable to the public so persons not immunized with Salk vaccine may be expected to take this," adding that "experts expect that the immunization produced by Sabin vaccine may eventually eradicate this disease." The goal of the program was to vaccinate 75% of King County’s population.

The number of polio cases in the United States dropped by 85-90% after widespread immunization. The Seattle World’s Fair celebrated the inventor of the original vaccine on Jonas Salk Day on June 4, 1962, with festivities including Governor Albert Rosellini, Mayor Gordon Clinton, and Salk himself.

Rent stabilization

Quinault Apartments, 1954

During World War II, federal restrictions were enacted to stabilize rents, starting with areas crucial to defense industries and eventually spreading to almost all cities. By the early 1950s, the federal government was beginning the process of winding down the restrictions, and Seattle was discussing whether to use municipal regulations to keep some kind of rent control on the books.

Renters wanted the limitations to stay in place, arguing that affordable housing was almost impossible to find, and that even with the constraints their rent had been going up significantly. One writer described the current situation this way:

1. Housing costs range from $80.00 a month up to $150.00, permitting no children or pets. 2. Housing at $35.00 a month for a place that would not pass city health sanitation requirements and not fit to rear your children in. 3. Buying a home that most people can not afford.

Quite a few tenants who wrote letters to the city council did not sign their names, saying they were afraid of retaliation from their landlords.

The congressman representing Seattle in Washington DC, Rep. Hugh Mitchell, encouraged the city council to keep restrictions in place. He expressed concern that Boeing and other defense industries would not be able to attract workers if Seattle’s housing market was too expensive, and noted that while a federal housing program had built many new apartments, most of them were too costly for lower income families.

Apartment owners, on the other hand, were ready for the regulations to expire. One writer contended that “local rent decontrol will simply rid the property owners of a lot of unnecessary red tape, give him his cherished American liberty, and the opportunity to sit down with his fellow men and make mutual agreements.” Another was less measured, claiming rent control was being advocated by “a ranting snarling mob of communists.”

In the end, the federal regulations were retired and the city opted not to create local laws to replace them.

Integrating the Fire Department

Seattle firefighters with truck

In 1954, Willie Richey applied to become the first Black firefighter in the Seattle Fire Department. He took the physical and mental examinations and passed both with high scores. His final hurdle to be hired was an oral interview, but the examiners voted 2-1 not to qualify him for employment. He appealed this decision to the Civil Service Commission (CSC) but the appeal was denied.

Mayor Pomeroy had previously appointed a Mayor’s Committee on Minority Employment to look into current City employment statistics and hiring practices, and to make recommendations for bringing more non-white citizens into the municipal workforce. The committee looked into the Richey case and felt that his perceived failure in the oral interview "might be due to discrimination," and pointed out that his case "arose in the context of a department which had never employed a non-white." They met with the CSC and asked that Richey's case be reconsidered with that background in mind, but the CSC denied the request.

Philip Burton of Seattle's NAACP, acting as attorney for Richey, wrote to the CSC to again request a reconsideration, pointing out that despite state, municipal, and departmental policies against discrimination, "there is not now, nor has there ever been a Negro fireman in the City of Seattle." He contrasted this with other City departments, as well as with the fire departments of other cities, and said that the non-integrated condition of the department was important context for Richey’s case. Burton also noted that while the two interviewers who rated Richey unfavorably thought he talked too much, he may have been overcompensating for what he believed was an inherent disadvantage based on his skin color, and that he was likely attempting to prove himself to a perhaps skeptical audience. Burton requested a rehearing by the CSC, emphasizing Richey's high scores on the examinations and pointing out that "the first Negro to be hired is always the most difficult case."

The CSC again denied the request, stating that "no new facts or evidence were presented" to justify reopening the case. This led the Seattle branch of the NAACP to charge the CSC with "a serious lack of understanding and sensitivity concerning the problem of Negro employment in municipal jobs... They have succeeded in perpetuating a 'white-only' Fire Department, and discouraging other Negro applicants from even trying to get employment."

The Mayor's Committee felt the episode showed that the CSC "has displayed a lack of understanding of the problems confronting non-whites who seek employment in the Fire Department, thus perpetuating a racially exclusive condition." It found that while the Fire Chief said he desired a racially integrated workforce, the department "has not assumed affirmative responsibility" to achieve that goal. It also pointed out that cases like Richey’s contributed to a widespread belief that "qualified non-whites will not be hired as firemen" and therefore discouraged others to apply.

It was not until 1959 that the department hired Claude Harris as its first Black firefighter. Harris became Fire Chief in 1985 and served in that role until 1997.

Defying Prohibition

Prohibition police dry squad

Bootlegging and illegal drinking thrived in Seattle during Prohibition, at times through the collusion of elected officials and police. One citizen, Charles L. Maxfield, wrote to the City Council in early 1925 regarding "the intolerable situation with regard to bootlegging, graft and holdups in our city and the relation of the Mayor therto [sic]":

Two days ago I was in a business house in Western Avenue. The proprietor told me the following story. First, that the Ideal Billard [sic] Hall on Western Avenue is a regular bootlegging establishment and that booze is sold there practically as free as in the days of the saloon. Second, that this matter has been reported to the police many times but without any adequate action. Third, that the policemen on the beat and the sargent [sic] from the station go into this place frequently and must know what is going on. Fourth, he also stated that there was little use of reporting it to the policemen because no action would be taken.

It is my judgment that this is fairly indicative of the condition in our city today. It is my judgment that many of the policemen who would gladly do their duty do not do so because they know that when it is carried higher up the same will not be appreciated and that it will do no good. We must have a mayor who does not use his office for personal aggrandizement; who will not promote graft; who will not encourage and protect bootlegging; who will suppress highway robbery, gambling and dens of vice. We must have a mayor who believes in the enforcement of laws in reality and not in merely talking about them. There should be moral fibre in the whole executive department of our city administration.

You who are in the Council of our city must know where the trouble lies and I again request that you give serious consideration to the matter of removing the present mayor and putting in his place one who will represent ideals of decency and honor and give us an administration of a cleaner and nobler character.

Mayor Brown was not removed from office, but he was defeated at the next election by Bertha Knight Landes, who ran on a platform of clean government.

Living on the tide flats

tide flats

SMA's General Files include an 1884 letter to city leaders from George and Catherine Hill asking to be allowed to remain in their home. The Hills owned two houses on the tide flats at the foot of University Street, one with four rooms that they rented out, and the second with two rooms where they lived with their children. Catherine had lived on this property for seven years, and George had joined her there after they were married. They noted that the area was "unimproved and unused" and that their occupancy was "neither a nuisance to the public nor an obstruction to the highway."

They had learned that the city, "doubtless at the instance of some evil disposed persons, and laboring under a mistakement of the facts, and misinterpretation of the law," had ordered their houses to be razed. The Hills had been told to vacate their property, and the city marshal was directed to forcibly remove them if they refused.

The letter stated that Catherine was "greatly afflicted with the Rheumatism and much of the time helpless and under medical care." George was a longshoreman but "unable to earn much at his uncertain and unsteady trade, even when he can get employment and is able to work at it." Both were around sixty years old, and their main source of income was the rent on the larger house. If they were evicted, they said George would be forced to leave town to find work, and that without his care, Catherine would need to seek support from the city or county.

The Hills reminded city officials that "your Petitioners are citizens, Tax-payers, and bona fide residents of said City, and claim the same right to live in peace and the same opportunity to support and take care of themselves, as best they can, that is guaranteed to other well disposed citizens and inhabitants thereof." They asked to be "left undisturbed in the peaceful possession and quiet enjoyment of their humble home and little property."

The letter was written on March 21 but was not filed with City Council until April 3. Whatever caused the delay, it was costly to the Hills; when the Committee on Streets reported back to the Council on April 4, they noted that "said buildings have all been removed."

Municipal Archives, City Clerk

Anne Frantilla, City Archivist
Address: 600 Fourth Avenue, Third Floor, Seattle, WA, 98104
Mailing Address: PO Box 94728, Seattle, WA, 98124-4728
Phone: (206) 684-8353

The Office of the City Clerk maintains the City's official records, provides support for the City Council, and manages the City's historical records through the Seattle Municipal Archives. The Clerk's Office provides information services to the public and to City staff.