Emmett Watson on Jim Ellis

  • By Emmett Watson
  • Posted 3/20/2022
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22435
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A lawyer by trade, Jim Ellis (1921-2019) was a civic activist who helped transform Seattle into one of America's great cities. One of his contemporaries was Emmett Watson (1918-2001), a Seattle newspaper man who "stood for Lesser Seattle against Greater Seattle, and delighted in puncturing the pomposities of local Babbits and self-appointed civic Boosters" (Crowley). In this excerpt from his 1982 book Digressions of a Native Son, Watson writes about how Ellis galvanized support to save Lake Washington in the late 1950s, and then rallied Seattle's conservative establishment to back his grandiose Forward Thrust initiative in the late 1960s.  

"He Never Sought the Limelight"

For a long time the most visible figure in Seattle's Establishment was a bonding lawyer -- Jim Ellis. He never sought the limelight, but because of the spectacular, politicized nature of his work, Jim Ellis naturally was thrust into the public arena. Ellis has been called "a sort of one-man radar for impending urban crises" by Joel Connelly, a hardline journalist on the subject of environment. "He spotted crises," wrote Connelly, "usually several years in advance, and designed programs to meet them."

It is a truism -- recognized by too few people -- that danger signs on the horizon are usually spotted by the intelligentsia, whose unread research papers and dry reports foretell the shape of things in years to come. One should remember this, each time we hear derisive statements about pointy-headed intellectuals who should be kept out of practical affairs and remain in their ivory towers and research labs. Yet it is the scientists in botany who give us signals on food supplies, sociologists who study mass behavior patterns and warn us of a shift in population -- things that may give us much anguish in the future. It so happened that one of these, Dr. W. T. Edmondson, in the University of Washington's Department of Zoology, was the man who gave Jim Ellis the voice of scientific authority he required. For what had to be accomplished, each needed the other.

Because of Dr. Edmondson's studies -- which showed that Lake Washington would one day become "dead," a body of water both odiferous and dangerous -- Jim Ellis became a moral and intellectual force who changed the shape of a city and a region that was hell-bent on imitating large eastern metropolitan centers -- cities which today are still trying to extricate themselves from dirt, blight, slop and despair, the inevitable harvest of neglect. For more than twenty years, Ellis became the catalyst, the driving force in a common crusade that would, one day, promote Seattle to first rank among American cities. 

These are simple things to say of a man, when such things are said in retrospect. But when you read the words, then envision them in action, you find that spotting a crisis, setting up a design to solve it, then whipping others into action, takes months and years of difficult, energy-draining commitment, the kind of public work that few scientists could handle. So with the help of Dr. Edmondson, Jim Ellis gave up much of his working life to a Seattle that now preens itself in such accolades as "America's most livable city."

In line with most of his Establishment brethren, Jim Ellis was Seattle-raised and educated. He grew up out on 50th Ave. S., near where it intersects with Genesee St., and as a kid, he played and swam in Lake Washington. He went to Franklin High School, then Yale, and returned to Seattle to get his law degree at the University of Washington. As a young lawyer he did a hitch as a deputy prosecutor for Chuck Carroll in the King County prosecutor's office. 

It would be nice and tidy to record that young Ellis met up with Dr. Edmondson, then abruptly took off in a blaze of crusading fervor. It was more a case of two people, both alarmed by the putrid future of Lake Washington, having the same goal. When Jim Ellis started in law practice, one of his first clients was a small sewer district out in Bryn Mawr, a bit south of Rainier Beach and abutting the city of Renton. He was sitting on the porch at the home of Sam Kenney, a Bryn Mawr sewer commissioner, looking out over the south tip of Lake Washington. "You know, it's crazy," he said to Sam. "You and I could hit that Boeing sewer treatment plant and Renton's sewer treatment plant with a 22-calibre rifle from your front porch. Yet you have to build another treatment plant for Bryn Mawr."

That was in the early fifties. Jim Ellis began reading and thinking and it came to him that many of our problems -- air pollution, water pollution, public transportation -- can't be solved by one city acting alone. As we grow and spread and populate ourselves into what is called Pugetopolis, the bell begins to toll. And you do not send to know for whom the bells tolls, because in due time the damned bell will rattle your eardrums. During this period and long before, Dr. Edmondson was doing his research on Lake Washington. The critical part of it surfaced under the title, "Eutrophication of Lake Washington," which meant quite simply that sewage treatment plants and sometimes raw sewage were over-fertilizing the lake. Algae soon would be thick in its waters. What Edmondson knew, as a matter of scientific certainty, was that if we didn't stop dumping sewage into Lake Washington, the water would choke on algae and we would be driving to work with clothespins on our noses. 

Dr. Edmondson's report was what Jim Ellis needed. He had to have something with authority, a study with the stamp of science on it, to convince people the bell was getting louder. By then, Ellis was working as counsel to the Municipal League, because he needed the hundred dollars a month it paid. He got the Municipal League turned on, and finally, a thing called the Metropolitan Area Problems Commission was formed. (An early member of that committee was a young engineer named Dan Evans.) By now, Ellis was deeper and deeper into something that would, in a profound way, dominate the rest of his life.

The Makings of Metro

One of the charms of democracy -- and one of its exasperations -- is that each town council, each committee, each city government, is an ego unto itself; this ego is the sum of many individual egos, prejudices, beliefs and even torpors. So Ellis, and those he rallied with him, went out on the revival circuit, so to speak, to try and open a lot of closed-door minds. Ellis alone gave hundreds of speeches, answered thousands of questions; he went to Renton, Bellevue, Lake Hills, Mercer Island, Lake City, Kirkland, Bothell -- everywhere he could go to whip up citizen interest in saving Lake Washington. He pleaded with council people, church people and ate enough service club luncheons to destroy the stomach of a healthy horse.

He was winning, but it wasn't easy. Our Puget Sound version of rednecks rose up against him. The far-righters denounced his programs of area-wide cooperation as "communism in disguise." They spread rumors that a "city slicker" was out to take the small communities. One such obstructionist actually got himself on television and ate some algae, just to prove that the stuff in Lake Washington "wouldn't hurt anybody."

The first vote in the first effort to create Metro, an umbrella superagency over cities in King County, came in March 1958. the measure asked the voters of individual cities to approve sewage disposal, transportation and planning. It passed in Seattle, but in some of the surrounding communities, notably Kent, Auburn, Kirkland, Highline and Redmond, it went down to defeat. The Metro measure was resubmitted that fall, but this time the transportation and planning segments were dropped, and the issue was solely a drive to clean up Lake Washington. Cities south and away from the lake also were dropped, and the campaign centered that summer only on cities in the Lake Washington basin.

One marvels, at times, how fate smiles on this beautiful region. That summer of 1958, as it happens, was one of the driest in years. Lake Washington sank by more than four feet. And because of this dry weather, the stench of the algae, now abundant on the shores, could be noticed from Renton to Kirkland, from Leschi to Mercer Island. A voter can vote with his feet, but he can also vote with his nose. The measure, which created the superagency of Metro, passed handily. 

Dr. Edmondson had promised, "If we get the sewage out of there, the lake will be as clean as it was in 1931," the year when the spoilage of Lake Washington began. It was a promise delivered, for the once-murky lake waters, which gave a visible depth of only three feet, soon became clear to a depth of fifteen and twenty feet, even deeper than that. By 1970, civic leaders drank a toast to success -- with clean Lake Washington water.

A Visionary Forward Thrust

Whether or not the toast was drunk to Ellis is a bit hazy at this distance; no matter. Long before that, in the mid-sixties, the square-set, dogged bond lawyer was busy on yet another, bolder, bigger and more imaginative program. Ellis was cranking up again. His blueprint was a giant, multi-purpose King County spending program that ultimately would total some $850 million dollars, a program known as Forward Thrust. By now Ellis himself was at the edge of the Seattle Establishment; if he wasn't part of it, at least he was trusted by it. He first unveiled his bold plan to Eddie Carlson, then head of Western International Hotels; William Allen, president of Boeing; Walter Straley, president of Pacific Northwest Bell, and Bill Jenkins, of Seattle-First National Bank. They were Establishmentarians all, and to a man they bought the Ellis plan. 

Ellis demanded and got $50,000 for administrative staff help before he would begin. Then began a careful program of selling the rest of the downtown business establishment, as well as newspapers and television stations, on a plan that eventually changed the entire face of Seattle and King County. Ellis was always, in his words, "a bit mavericky" for the conservative business establishment. And he likes to recall that one of them said, "It looks to me like you're asking us to drive the nails in our own coffins." At which point Eddie Carlson replied coolly, "It isn't that at all. This thing is going to go. Do you want to be in on the act, or out of it?"

Ellis first revealed his grandiose program in a landmark speech to the downtown Seattle Rotary Club. It was not a speech full of redolent phrases or inspiring invocations, but it was a word of warning -- and the numbers shook everyone. He proposed that some $500 million be spent on rapid transit, a domed stadium, parks, green belts, street improvements and a world trade center. Of this, some $200 million would be asked of King County voters, the rest coming from federal sources. Before it ended, the cost came to $709.5 million and King County residents voted by more than 60 percent to tax themselves to the tune of $333.9 million. 

Largely because of Jim Ellis, the Seattle Establishment "came on board," as businessmen are fond of saying about anyone who half agrees with a principle. The outcome at the beginning was far from certain. And for Ellis himself, it was more endless meetings, more cajoling, more politicking, and he found, of course, that the rubber chicken lunches has not measurably improved since 1958. This time he would drive himself to the point of broken health. There are literally hundreds of people, to be sure, who deserve credit for the Forward Thrust program, most of which passed in February 1968. But it was Ellis, with his track record on Lake Washington, who was the central figure in putting these disparate groups together. In the year of the Forward Thrust campaign, Ellis worked day and night, taking only three Sundays off, before the February election. He entered a hospital shortly thereafter, suffering from a serious stomach ulcer and exhaustion.

It was not all victory. The rapid transit bond issue failed, and somewhere along the line the world trade center was forgotten. But out of it came the Kingdome, which brought to the region major league sports on a scale enjoyed but few other American cities. Even more important today, Forward Thrust projects can be found in every corner of King County. With Forward Thrust came more than four thousand acres of new park lands and fifty-three miles of waterfront for public use. A multiplicity of sparks, new, old and revitalized, came to the region; trails, such as the now-popular Burke-Gilman Trail came into being; swimming pools and tennis courts, new playfields and boat launching sites, recreation centers and open spaces began to proliferate throughout the 1970s.

With Forward Thrust came the Seattle Aquarium, Marymoor Park in Redmond, Fort Dent Athletic Center in Tukwila, Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island; Woodland Park Zoo, because of improvements, now ranks among the top five zoos in the country. Rapid transit was defeated, to be sure, but out of Forward Thrust we got the county-wide Metro transit system, now acknowledged as a model in the nation. With Forward Thrust the city is now enhanced by the planting of trees and shrubs, and underground wiring has beautified many of our neighborhoods. More than two hundred miles of improved arterial streets came out of Forward Thrust, so did thirteen new fire stations, a King County Youth Services Center, 130 small, but important, neighborhood improvement programs -- the list can go on. 

And if you happen to be sitting in the sunshine in Freeway Park, listening to the free summer concerts, enjoying a well-designed open space in the heart of a great city -- well, that too came from Forward Thrust.

Jim Ellis still is young, vigorous man of sixty, but the years have not been kind. His wife, Mary Lou, is seriously ill with diabetes. Ellis has taken what amounts to a leave of absence from his law firm. He has resigned from all committees and public service bodies. "My father," his son told me recently, "spends almost twenty-four hours a day caring for my mother. He has devoted himself to her the same way he devoted himself to his community -- all out, nothing held back."

The next time a national magazine, or a book, places Seattle among the top-ranked cities in America, as it surely will do, it is good to remember why that is. It is because of Jim Ellis. 


Emmett Watson, Digressions of a Native Son (Seattle: The Pacific Institute, 1982), 189-196; HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Watson, Emmett (1918-2001)," (by Walt Crowley), accessed March 20, 2022 (https://historylink.org).

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