The City of West Seattle was annexed to Seattle in 1907, in large measure to improve the community's access to sufficient water and other utilities. Even so, well more than two decades would pass before many of its residents had a reliable water supply comparable to most of the rest of the city. Critical components of the water system's early infrastructure were pumping stations that pushed the water to storage tanks and standpipes built on West Seattle's higher ground. The first pump station was built in 1910, a second in 1924. The third, the Southwest Spokane Street Pump Station, completed in 1929, played a short but important role in the development of West Seattle's water system, and in 2019 was the sole remaining operational member of the original three. In 2020, its useful life at an end, it was scheduled for demolition and replacement. Due to the part it played in the development of Seattle's water system more than 90 years earlier, and its role in providing improved water service to the city's largest suburb, the Southwest Spokane Street Pump Station was determined to be of historical significance and eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
A Place Apart
Seattle's first pioneers, the Denny Party, landed on the westernmost point of what is today West Seattle on a bleak November 13th in 1851. Their hope was to establish a settlement there, but the place they chose was too exposed to the elements, surrounded by water on three sides, and had no natural harbor. Within just a few months, most of the small group had moved a little more than four miles east, to the more amenable west-facing shore of Elliott Bay, where they would found Seattle. By 1853 the only settlers left at the original site were two bachelor brothers, Charles (1830-1867) and Lee (1818-1862) Terry, and John Low (1820-1888), his wife, Lydia (d. 1901), and their five children.
The Terry brothers hired another member of the original party, Arthur Denny (1822-1899), to survey a townsite. With more optimism than was warranted, they named it New York, after their state of origin. Before long the word "Alki," Chinook trading jargon for "by-and-by," was added, perhaps in jest. But, for a while at least, New York-Alki was the name of the windswept place.
Charles Terry had opened a general store shortly after his arrival in 1851, and he later partnered in a sawmill and lured a barrel factory to New York-Alki. His brother Lee and the Low family gave up in early 1853, leaving just Charles, who tried to make a go of it. In May 1853 he filed a formal plat for the townsite and called it simply "Alki," dropping the "New York." A few new settlers trickled in, but not enough. The sawmill and the barrel company soon closed, and in 1856 or 1857 Terry traded his 319-acre Alki property to David S. "Doc" Maynard (1808-1873) in return for the unsold lots on Maynard's large Seattle claim. Maynard and his wife, Catherine (1816-1906), would hang on at Alki until 1863, when they moved back to Seattle and opened the city's first hospital. After that, "[f]or the next decade or so, Alki lay in an eddy of history, left to only a few intrepid souls" (Tate).
West Seattle is a peninsula (commonly known as the Duwamish Peninsula) separated from Seattle by the Duwamish River. Its westernmost extension is Alki Point, which faces the southern tip of Bainbridge Island. Northeast of Alki Point is Duwamish Head, another exposed protuberance, which points north. East of Duwamish Head the land runs to the south and east, facing downtown Seattle across Elliott Bay. It is relatively sheltered, and this was where, starting in the 1870s, several industries, including a sawmill, a salmon cannery, and several shipbuilding yards, were established on what is today Harbor Avenue SW.
With industry came people. A mill town, first called Freetown, then Youngstown, grew up in what is today's Delridge neighborhood to provide housing and other amenities for workers. In 1885 the town of West Seattle was first platted in what is today's Admiral District. It was largely taken over by the West Seattle Land and Improvement Company (WSLIC) in 1888 and became the peninsula's business and commercial center. In 1900 WSLIC recorded a replat that included most of the northern portion of the peninsula, from Sunset Avenue on the west to Elliott Bay on the east, and from Duwamish Head to as far south as Prince Street.
West Seattle incorporated as a town in April 1902, the only one of several small communities on the peninsula to officially incorporate. The population had grown rapidly, but by the beginning of 1904 there were no streetcars, no electricity for private homes, no telephones, and a sporadic, unreliable water supply. In June that year West Seattle reincorporated as a city of the third class, and over the next three years annexed portions of the surrounding territory. The residents voted in 1904 to borrow $18,000 to build their own electric streetcar railway system, the first municipally-run network in the country. It was completed by the start of 1905, then sold to the Seattle Electric Company in December 1906 for $30,000. But attempts to improve other services by granting franchises to private utility companies were largely unsuccessful.
Of primary concern, the streams and springs that West Seattle had relied on for water since its first settlement were insufficient to serve a growing population. Water, unlike streetcars, electricity, and telephones, was a necessity, not a convenience. It could easily be foreseen that the lack of a reliable water supply would eventually pose an existential threat to the community.
In large part to address the water-supply problem, West Seattle's civic leaders as early as 1903 were advocating annexation to Seattle. In May that year, an editorial in the West Seattle News stated, "There is no city in the world with a better water supply than our big neighbor across the bay ... and this can be ours for the asking" ("Editorial"). But there was much opposition, and the issue festered for several years.
On July 14, 1906, The Seattle Times reported:
"West Seattle is experiencing the effects of severe drought, the city being without any water at all last night, the last drop coming though the pipes at 8 o'clock in the evening and not being followed by any further supply until 8:30 this morning.
"The West Seattle Land and Improvement Company ... pumps streams from the hillside into the mains which carry this supply. During the summer period the streams are practically exhausted ..." ("West Seattle Suffers ...").
In May 1907, after earlier unsuccessful attempts, the City of West Seattle was able to annex Spring Hill to the south, Alki Point to the west, and, importantly, Youngstown to the east, which lay between it and Seattle. With Youngstown in the fold, there was a clear corridor for access to what the "big neighbor across the bay" could provide. The West Seattle city limits now included the entire Duwamish Peninsula, more than 16 square miles. On June 29, 1907, its residents voted overwhelmingly, 325 to 8, to become part of Seattle, which was engaged in an orgy of annexation that year. Between January and the end of May, Seattle had absorbed Southeast Seattle, Ravenna, South Park, Columbia, and Ballard. On July 24, pursuant to Seattle City Ordinance 16558, West Seattle became part of the city as well, followed two months later by Rainer Beach.
Due primarily to an expanded streetcar system, West Seattle's population was booming in 1907 despite the water shortage. It was by far the largest of the six annexed towns, but still relatively remote, separated from the rest of Seattle by the Duwamish River. And it was hilly, more than 400 feet above sea level in places. Meeting its needs, and providing a reliable water supply in particular, presented a number of challenges.
How Seattle Got Its Water
The Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, obliterated most of the city's commercial core and waterfront. A private business, the Spring Hill Water Company, was the primary source of the city's downtown water supply, and it completely failed to provide enough to fight the blaze. Barely a month later, voters were asked "whether or not the City of Seattle shall erect and maintain water-works at a cost not to exceed One Million Dollars" (Ordinance No. 1125). The proposal was approved by a dramatic margin, 1,875 to 51. In 1890 the city purchased the Spring Hill Water Company and the smaller Union Water Company, and the Seattle Water Department began operations in November that year.
The Cedar River, some 35 miles southeast of the city in the Cascade foothills, had long been considered the best source for an expansion of Seattle's water supply. Gravity alone could carry water through a pipeline to fill reservoirs for distribution throughout the city. But for both political and financial reasons, this would take longer than anyone supposed.
In 1892 Reginald H. Thomson (1856-1949) was appointed Seattle's city engineer. Assisted by George Cotterill (1865-1958), Thomson went to work to line up funding and devise methods to build the Cedar River system. He had barely started when the financial meltdown called the Panic of 1893 struck the nation, foreclosing any hope of immediate progress.
Good news came in August 1895, when the state supreme court ruled that the debt of a municipal corporation that would be repaid exclusively with revenue derived from the project the debt financed did not violate constitutional restrictions on municipal borrowing. In December that year Seattle voters approved a $1.25-million revenue-bond sale to finance the Cedar River Project. It faced strong opposition from supporters of a plan for a private syndicate to build a Cedar River water system and sell the water to city residents. Nonetheless, it won by a sizeable margin: 2,656 to 1,665.
One big problem remained, however: Financial markets were still so depressed in 1896 that the city couldn't find buyers for the revenue bonds. This remaining hurdle was overcome in 1897, when gold was discovered in the Klondike River region of Canada. Seattle became the main U.S. portal for the Gold Rush, and its economy boomed. The revenue bonds now found eager buyers, and the massive Cedar River project was finally underway. First came a survey of the river and determining the course a pipeline would follow; within two years construction had began.
Water flowed from the Cedar River into Seattle's system for the first time on January 10, 1901, almost a dozen years after the Great Seattle Fire emphatically drove home the need. The pipeline channeled water to the Volunteer Park and Lincoln reservoirs on Capitol Hill. As the city's population grew, the water system's capacity expanded from 23.5 million gallons per day in 1901 to 68.5 million gallons per day in 1909. The Tolt River supply system came fully online in 1964 to serve North Seattle, but the Cedar River system, with its four pipelines, remains (2020) the source of about 70 percent of the city's potable water.
Getting a reliable supply of water to West Seattle was not easy, and it took three years after annexation before the first flow reached the city's new suburb. The problem was two-fold. The first challenge was infrastructure. In 1908 the Seattle Water Department began building additional reservoirs on Beacon Hill to receive water from a second Cedar River pipeline. At the same time, the department started constructing the first of a number of wooden storage tanks, with a total capacity of 300,000 gallons, on high ground at 40th Avenue SW and SW Charleston Street to receive, store, and deliver the water to its West Seattle customers. These were completed by the end of 1910.
The second problem was getting the water from the Beacon Hill reservoirs over the Duwamish river to West Seattle's first pumping station, at W Spokane Street and Harbor Avenue SW. Temporary swing bridges had been built in 1900 and 1910 along Spokane Street to provide land access to and from West Seattle (which previously could be reached only by ferry). The 1910 span, built for wagons and trolleys, also carried two pipelines that delivered the first Cedar River water to West Seattle.
The anticipated arrival of water (and less-critical amenities) to West Seattle was cause for celebration. On April 24, 1910, The Seattle Times reported:
"Cedar River Water, a complete electric lighting system and a new Carnegie Library are about to strike West Seattle at about the same time, and the residents of the suburb are preparing to hold a big celebration in honor of the event ...
"Definite announcement has been made that Cedar River water will be turned on in West Seattle perhaps before June. The twenty-inch mains are approaching the site of the tanks at the rate of several hundred feet a day. There remain 6,000 feet to be laid, and these will be put in place by the four crews now working on it in two weeks" ("West Seattle Folks Planning Celebration").
It took a little longer than anticipated, but on August 10 that year The Times updated the story to report that two of the wooden storage tanks had been completed and the water had begun to flow:
"West Seattle is now enjoying the luxury of Cedar River water, but the supply so far has been confined to demands for domestic purposes, and no water is available for fire protection, nor will it be until four more elevated tanks are completed ..."
"The elevated tanks are supplied through a pumping station at the foot of the hill in the vicinity of Spokane Avenue with a sufficient capacity to give the suburb adequate water service for many years" ("West Seattle Enjoys Cedar River Water").
"Adequate water service" was a bit of an overstatement: As frequently as 40 times a day, the 1910 swing bridge opened to allow vessels to pass. When this happened, the water supply was temporarily interrupted, and the taps often went dry. This problem would persist until 1918, when a higher bridge replaced the 1910 span and the water mains were submerged deep enough under the Duwamish to allow ships to pass.
The First West Seattle Pump Stations
Once the water was across the Duwamish, the West Seattle pumping station had to pump it to the storage tanks that were situated on some of the peninsula's highest ground. The population continued to grow, and in 1918 three additional wooden tanks were built on the SW Charleston Street site. A 50,000-gallon wooden tank for emergency purposes was built on SW Thistle Street, and in 1919 a new 500,000-gallon steel tank was constructed at 36th Avenue SW and SW Myrtle Street to serve the southern portion of West Seattle. For more than a decade the first West Seattle pumping station, built in 1910, labored alone.
More than 14 years after annexation, West Seattle's water supply remained inadequate. After 1918 there were no longer interruptions caused by bridge openings, but it was recognized that West Seattle had the "poorest and most unreliable water supply of any portion of the city" (McWilliams, 24). In 1924 and 1925 an eight-foot-diameter, concrete-lined tunnel housing two thirty-inch steel water mains was dug beneath the bed of the Duwamish River. Additional steel mains were installed in West Seattle, and in 1925 a second pumping station was built at 4th Avenue SW and SW Kenyon Street to improve service to the southern part of the peninsula. It helped, but not nearly as much as predicted. In July of that year Seattle City Councilman W. T. Campbell of West Seattle complained, "This new system of thirty and twenty-four-inch mains on which we were pinning our hopes will, we find, only relieve a portion of our people in West Seattle" ("West Seattle's New Water Main ...").
In Case of Fire
A paid, professional Seattle Fire Department (SFD) was established in October 1889, just months after fire had destroyed much of the city. West Seattle had to rely upon a little-documented volunteer force until annexation. On January 22, 1909, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance appropriating $225.00 "to complete the construction of Fire Station at West Seattle, located at 45th Avenue Southwest and West Walker Street" (Ordinance 19986). Designated Fire Station No. 29, this was a small, wooden building previously used by volunteer firefighters. Within a few years it was replaced by a brick structure.
Construction of Station No. 32, located at 44th Avenue SW and SW Alaska Street came in 1914, and Station No. 36, at 23rd Avenue SW and SW Spokane Street was built in 1918 or 1919. In 1925 Station No. 37 on 35th Avenue SW near S Othello Street became the first in the south end of the peninsula, and would remain the only one until Fire Station No. 11 was built in Highland Park in 1971.
A Long Wait
Despite efforts to improve the delivery of water, many in West Seattle, including firemen, still didn't have enough, particularly in the south. On July 15, 1926, almost exactly 19 years after West Seattle was annexed, The Seattle Times reported:
"Pressure in the Fauntleroy hillside was reported to be very low, water merely dribbling from faucets in many homes. Too many users on small pipes was said by the Water Department to be the cause for this condition ..."
"... the problem now appears to be more on of distribution than basic supply. More of the famed Cedar River water is running over the dam ... than the city requires, while the fact remains that many home owners in West Seattle are without running water for several hours each day" ("Many Homes in Fauntleroy ...").
In 1927 the water department built two huge steel storage tanks (also called standpipes), a 1,000,000-gallon-capacity one at 39th SW and SW Charleston Street to replace 10 old wooden tanks, and a 1,400,000-gallon-capacity one at 38th SW and SW Barton Street in the water-starved Fauntleroy neighborhood. Such structures are most often built at a height sufficient to allow potable-water to be distributed to consumers without the need for pumps, relying on the force of gravity to push water through pipes. However, supplying the tanks with water from the source does require pumps, usually powered either electrically or hydraulically. The original pumping station at W Spokane Street and Harbor Avenue SW could no longer meet West Seattle's needs, and in late 1928 and early 1929 the water department planned and built a new one. It would take over as the suburb's primary pumping station, but only for only a few years.
The Southwest Spokane Street Pump Station
On February 8, 1928, Seattle Ordinance No. 54627 was signed by Bertha K. Landes (1868-1943), the city's first woman mayor. It authorized "the Board of Public Works to construct a new pumping station at 33rd Avenue Southwest and West Spokane Street and install equipment, and making an appropriation there for" (Ordinance 54627). The water department had already bought the designated site from King County, and the new pump station was completed in 1929. Designed by city engineer Joel M. Lowman, it cost approximately $12,000 when built, with the equipment costing nearly the same. When it came online in 1929 it drew water from the reservoirs on Beacon Hill and pumped it up to the Charleston Street standpipes.
The building faces south and fronts on SW Spokane Street, which on the building's west side curves to the north and becomes 33rd Avenue SW. It is surrounded by residential lots in a variety of housing styles, primarily single family, most of relatively recent vintage, although its next-door neighbor to the east is a 1921 Craftsman at 3206 SW Spokane Street, which has been determined to be eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. About 15 feet to the station's rear (north) wall are a fire hydrant and electrical equipment sited on a concrete pad surrounded by a high chain-link fence. The building is rectangular, approximately 36 feet long and 24 feet wide, and made of unreinforced brick atop a concrete foundation. It originally had 12 windows (two in front, three on both sides, two in the rear, and one under each roof gable), but nine have been bricked over and one of the windows in the front was converted to a door leading to a restroom. The gable windows were also removed, one opening covered with a screen and the other housing a vent.
Inside on the ground floor, the pumps stand on raised concrete foundations. Pipes from the pumps go through the floor to the water mains (both incoming and outgoing) located in the basement. When completed in 1929, the station had two separate pump and motor sets. The primary unit comprised two centrifugal pumps, a 10-inch and a 12-inch, connected in series and driven by a 400-horsepower General Electric motor. It had a maximum capacity of 4,500 gallons per minute. Because of the great difference in elevation between the pump station and the storage tanks, these pumps were among the most powerful in the Seattle water-supply system and consumed the most electrical power.
There also was a smaller secondary pump for use during rainy seasons when water demand was low, but its precise details have not been preserved. Based on available records, it is likely this unit consisted of two 8-inch Worthington volute pumps connected in series and powered by a 150-horsepower motor. There is also a 6,000-pound-capacity gantry crane running on a steel beam that rests on stepped-out sections of the brick walls.
It would be 1932 before West Seattle finally got a 68,000,000-gallon, in-ground reservoir, located at 8th Avenue SW and SW Trenton Street. Until then, all of the peninsula's water was stored in elevated wooden or steel tanks. In conjunction with the reservoir, two large steel standpipes were constructed nearby.
Since 1900 the Seattle Water Department had been introducing hydraulic water pumps that use gravity and the kinetic energy of flowing water to drive them without the aid of electricity. In 1934 the department installed a hydraulic-pump station at 4th Avenue SW and SW Trenton Street, adjacent to the two standpipes built two years earlier. It went into operation in June of that year.
West Seattle's two older pump stations -- the Southwest Spokane Street facility and the Southwest Kenyon Street station built in 1925 -- used tremendous amounts of electricity. After the Southwest Trenton Street Pump Station was put into service in June of 1934 and proved effective and efficient, the water department was able to take the two older pump stations offline, which resulted in substantial financial savings.
The Kenyon Street station was eventually retired and the property sold and converted to a single-family residence, while the Southwest Spokane Street Pump Station was maintained and used for partial-capacity operation during the dry summer months as late as 2019. By then it was near the end of its useful life, scheduled for demolition and replacement. Although the facility has been substantially modified over the years and was refused Seattle landmark status in 2019, it was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places for its design and its association with the growth and development of Seattle's water system.