Jacob Furth played a pivotal role in the development of Seattle's public transportation and electric power infrastructure, and was the founder of Seattle National Bank. As the agent for the utilities firm Stone & Webster, he consolidated the city's random independent streetcar lines into Seattle Electric. He was a member of Seattle's first synagogue, Ohaveth Sholum, and Temple de Hirsch.
A Public Spirited Developer
He was not only a key developer but a public spirited one who during the crisis of the Great Fire of 1889 and at other times put the city before his own business interests. Newspapers devoted an unprecedented amount of space to his obituary. Even the most vociferous critics of the role of Furth's business interests softened on matters pertaining to Furth the man.
Jacob Furth was born to a Jewish family on November 14, 1840, in Schwihau, Bohemia. His father, Lazar, was a merchant. His mother, Anna, bore 12 children – 10 sons and two daughters. Eight of the 12 Furth children came to America. In 1858, at the age of 16, Jacob arrived in San Francisco. He obtained a clerkship in a clothing store in Nevada City, then established his own general mercantile store in Colusa, California. In 1865, Furth married Lucy A. Dunton, a native of Indiana from an early American family. They had three daughters: Jane, Anna, and Sidonia.
In 1882, Furth and his family moved to Seattle, where he established the Puget Sound National Bank with capital of $50,000. In 1893, Puget Sound National consolidated with Seattle National Bank (renamed Seattle First National-Dexter Horton Bank).
One of Furth's first business ventures in Seattle was to rescue from bankruptcy the privately owned firm that operated the Spring Hill Water system, which supplied water to city hoses, spigots, and fire hydrants. Furth recruited his banking colleague Bailey Gatzert (1829-1893) and John Leary, founder of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, to bail out Spring Hill. They built a pumping station on Lake Washington and made the system viable. Initially, and in part, rescuing Spring Hill was a matter of public service, but Furth's sound financial sense soon turned it into a profitable venture. When popular sentiment favored a publicly owned water system after the Spring Hill water system failed to supply enough water to put out the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, Furth squared off with the city's business interests. He worked behind the scenes for a municipally owned gravity-flow system and backed the plan of city engineer R. H. Thomson (1856-1949).
After the Great Fire
The embers of the fire that burned down Seattle in June 1889 were still smoldering when a large crowd gathered at the Armory on Western Avenue to plan Seattle's rehabilitation. Furth pledged his support as president of Seattle National Bank. He promised that the bank would make no effort to profit from the fire. Subsequently, he backed this pledge with $150 million in bank loans.
In the financial Panic of 1893, Furth saved Seattle from financial disaster by forestalling his own board of directors from calling in all the loans. "Gentlemen," he addressed the board of Seattle National Bank. "If you do this you will create a financial situation that we can perhaps weather, but will bring other institutions crashing down around us. What you propose may be good banking, but it is not human" (Beaton, 195). Within 10 days, Furth had traveled to New York and raised the funds to buy control of his bank. He brought back enough relief to save his own bank and those of his rivals.
Organizing Seattle's Infrastructure
Furth played a pivotal role in the development of the city's public transportation and electric power infrastructure. Were it not for the economic Panic of 1893, it would have been an ideal time for the city to assume management of the streetcar system, a patchwork of independent lines constructed to meet the random pattern of outlying real estate development. Consolidation was in order, but financial and legal obstacles prevented the city from being able to take action. The Boston firm of Stone & Webster, with Furth as its agent, seized the opportunity. They formed Seattle Electric, acquiring first the streetcar companies and then, the power plants that generated the electricity.
This privately owned company saw its share of controversy. In the 1902 election there was strong populist support for a publicly owned power plant and this led to the establishment of the city's first public hydroelectric plant and Seattle City Light. Over the years Seattle Electric (which became Puget Sound Traction, Light and Power, and then Puget Sound Power and Light) and Seattle City Light reconfigured the details and battle lines between public and privately owned utilities. But in 1902, even the most municipally oriented individual, R. H. Thomson, who was Seattle's chief engineer, saw no reason for the city to become involved in the streetcar business, which Furth had consolidated into a smooth-running, financially sound operation.
Furth also served as a member of the city council, as president of the Chamber of Commerce, and as a member of the Masonic fraternity. His other businesses included Vulcan Iron Works, and California Land and Stock Company. Furth was a generous contributor to charities. He was said to be a great family man who, when consulted about a guest list for a social occasion, would name his children and consider the matter closed. In 1884, Lucia Furth, Jacob's wife, along with Babette (Schwabacher) Gatzert founded Seattle's first charity, Ladies Relief Society (now Seattle Children's Home). Furth's wife Lucia was not Jewish, but Furth remained committed to the Jewish faith. He was a member of Seattle's first synagogue, Ohaveth Sholum, and of Temple de Hirsch. Furth died on June 2, 1914. Judge Thomas Burke eulogized him:
"Jacob Furth was an unusual man. To exceptional ability he united a high order of public spirit and great kindness of heart. It would be difficult to overestimate his work in the upbuilding of Seattle. His time, his strength and his money were always at the call of the city. In his many years of residence I doubt if he were ever once called upon for help or leadership in any public matter in which he failed to respond and respond cheerfully, liberally and with genuine public spirit" (Bagley, p. 31).