On July 8, 1889, Seattle voters approve creation of a city-owned water system, as proposed the previous fall by Mayor Robert Moran (1857-1943), and elect the mayor to a second one-year term. The vote comes a month after the Great Fire of June 6 destroyed most of downtown Seattle, and the fire influences both outcomes. Outrage over the miserable performance of the town's private water supply during the fire contributes to a lopsided majority of 1,875 to 51 in favor of public ownership, while Moran's leadership in organizing relief efforts in the aftermath of the fire, and his prescient call for a public water supply, aid his re-election bid.
Moran, who was first elected mayor in July 1888, was a successful businessman, having co-founded the Moran Brothers Company, a machine shop and factory, in 1882. (Following Moran's two terms as mayor, the company became one of the Northwest's major shipbuilders, launching the battleship USS Nebraska in 1904.) Moran had become aware of the inadequacies in Seattle's existing water supply in 1887, as a member of the Common Council (predecessor to the City Council). At the time Seattle depended on various private water companies that obtained water from springs and wells or pumped it from lakes Washington and Union. The wells and springs could not supply nearly enough water for the explosively growing city, while the lakes were increasingly polluted and the cost of pumping water from them was so expensive that the city could not afford a complete system of fire hydrants.
On September 24, 1888, soon after taking office, Moran wrote a letter to the Common Council proposing that, rather than continuing to depend on private businesses pumping questionable lake water, Seattle build a publicly owned water system that would take water from the pure Cedar River, deep in the Cascade foothills, and convey it to city reservoirs through pipes powered by gravity rather than expensive pumps. The council agreed, although it adopted City Engineer John G. Scurry's recommendation to take the water from Rock Creek, a tributary of the Cedar, rather than the main river. The council scheduled a special election on November 19, 1888, to approve funding for the gravity water supply system. However, Moran discovered an error in the ordinance setting the election, and the vote had to be postponed until the city’s general election in July 1889.
In the interim, the Great Seattle Fire struck the city on June 6, 1889, burning much of downtown to the ground. Inadequacies of Seattle’s privately owned water systems were apparent during the conflagration, proving to many voters that a publicly owned water supply would do the most good for the city. The measure to spend $1 million to construct a gravity supply system passed overwhelmingly on July 8, 1889, and voters endorsed Mayor Moran's leadership on the water supply and reconstruction following the fire by electing him to a second term.
At Moran's suggestion, the council hired Benezette Williams, a hydraulics engineer from Chicago, to prepare plans for the gravity supply system. Williams concluded that Rock Creek was not an adequate source and recommended drawing water from the Cedar River itself. In January 1890, the council authorized the purchase of the Spring Hill Water Company (the largest of the private water companies serving Seattle). Voters approved bonds for the purchase that June, and the Seattle Water Department began operating in November 1890. However, financial and political constraints delayed development of the Cedar River system for much of the decade.
Meanwhile, Moran dealt with another issue during his second term: a campaign to rewrite the city charter. The existing charter, adopted by the Washington Territorial Legislature in 1869, put legislative authority in the hands of the Common Council, limited the terms of the mayor and councilmen to one year, and designated the second Monday in July as the date of the annual general election. After months of debate, Seattle voters approved a new charter on October 1, 1890 (little more than a month after Moran had completed his tenure as mayor). Known as the Freeholders Charter, it set a two-year term of office for the mayor, limited the circumstances under which mayors could be re-elected, and created a dual legislative body (an eight-member Board of Aldermen and a 16-member House of Delegates).
Little more was done on the Cedar River project until 1892. James T. Ronald, who was elected mayor that year, appointed as City Engineer the man who would make the system a reality: Reginald H. Thomson (1856-1949). Assisted by George Cotterill (1865-1958), Thomson began the arduous task of determining how to fund and build the gravity system. A nationwide economic collapse in 1893 made his job even harder. Realizing how expensive the Cedar River supply would be to build, many Seattle residents and officials began looking for other options -- specifically letting a private company build the system in return for owning and profiting from it.
Although money was scarce, Thomson fought hard to achieve a publicly owned Cedar River system. Concurrently, he began construction of a citywide sewer system, another drain of financial resources. The expenses incurred by these projects, and paid for by the electorate, turned public opinion against him, but Thomson’s public Cedar River supply eventually won out.
Helping him along was an 1895 state Supreme Court decision that allowed greater freedom for municipal public utilities to fund construction through "revenue bonds" repaid only from utility earnings. (Previously, utility construction could only be funded by bonds repaid from general tax revenues, and state law strictly limited the total amount of bond debt a city could have -- Seattle was already at its limit.) Relying on this new funding source, Thomson and his allies won a hard-fought election victory over proponents of a privately owned system when voters in December 1895 approved revenue bonds to build the public Cedar River system. With a degree of self-righteousness, Thomson wrote in a report two years later that it was due to "the constant efforts of this department during the three years prior to the special election of 1895" that "the city was awakened from five years 'sleeping on her rights,' ... and a 'would-be' water and power monopoly was frustrated in its designs" (Lamb, 112).
One little detail remained: Financial markets were so bad in 1896 that the city could not successfully sell the revenue bonds that the voters had approved. That problem was overcome the next year. In 1897 gold was discovered in the Klondike River region of Canada, and Seattle -- which became the main portal for the gold rush -- soon saw its economy boom. Paying for a massive municipal water system was finally achievable. Surveying of the Cedar River began apace, and within two years, construction of the pipeline was underway.