This Week in Queen Anne History

On April 18, 1917, a shocking attack took the life of Queen Anne resident Florence Wehn (1889-1917), wife of famed Seattle sculptor James Wehn (1882-1973).  The horrific crime remains unsolved to this day.

Florence and James met in the late 1890s and bonded over their love of the arts. They married on July 24, 1915, and shortly after purchased a new bungalow at 2214 12th Avenue West to which James relocated his studio from his parents’ home at 710 29th Avenue South.   Florence was employed as a switchboard operator at the Pantorium Dye Works.

While James worked on a project at the University of Washington, Florence had spent April 17th at her parent’s home across town celebrating her nephew’s birthday.  Not wanting James to worry and lacking a home phone, she decided to return home by streetcar around ten o’clock that night rather than staying over as she often did when the hour got late.  When she didn’t come home, James assumed she had stayed over.  Police arrived at his door on the morning of April 18th to inform him that her body was discovered in a ravine near 12th Avenue West and West Wheeler Street, just a stone’s throw from their home.

Florence exited the streetcar at West Wheeler Street and 10th Avenue West.  At some point during the short walk between the stop and her home, she met with her attacker.  After putting up what appeared to be a considerable struggle, she succumbed to blunt force trauma to her head.  The attacker did not rob or rape her, but arranged the items she had been carrying carefully around her, including a piece of birthday cake she had brought home for James.

Devastated by the loss of his wife, James sold their house and moved his studio back to his family home, where it remained for the rest of his life.  He did not remarry until 1949, at age 67.  Wehn was the founding chairman of the University of Washington’s sculpture department.  His most well-known work is the bronze sculpture of Chief Seattle, located at Tilikum Park.  Dedicated in 1912, it was the first sculpture commissioned by the city as public art.  He created the first official design for the seal of the City of Seattle, a profile of Chief Seattle, in 1936.

The home that James and Florence shared still stands, but it is dwarfed by surrounding apartment buildings and will likely be razed for multi-family housing before long.

This Week in Queen Anne History

In this March 3, 1934 photo, workers are undertaking a reconstruction of the Queen Anne Avenue counterbalance, the underground track-and-counterweight system that assisted electric streetcars in ascending the steep grade and supplemented their brakes on the descent.  But this same week, just three years later, an event took place on the avenue that was the culmination of intense debate about the future of Seattle’s electric streetcar system which made its last run in April 1941.

Built in 1901, the counterbalance streetcar replaced a cable car route that was part of the original Front Street Cable Railway, launched in 1889; the route to Queen Anne, which went as far as Highland Drive, was added in 1891.  The Seattle Electric Company purchased the lines in 1900 and ripped out the cable system to be replaced with electric streetcars.  They designed the novel underground counterweight system, which ran between Roy and Comstock streets, and added a parallel line on the west side of the avenue in 1902.

By the 1930s the Seattle Municipal Railway, then owned by the city, was buried in debt and losing ridership to automobiles.  In 1936, just two years after the reconstruction of the counterbalance, a city-commissioned report recommended tearing out the rail system and replacing it with gasoline-powered buses and “trackless trolleys” — trolleys that are powered by overhead electric lines but operate on tires, independent of tracks.  The political debate was intense, with Mayor John Dore (1881-1938) adamantly opposed and city councilman Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) in favor.  The plan to replace the old system would be put before voters on March 9, 1937.

In anticipation of the vote, proponents of the trackless trolley staged a demonstration on March 5, 1937 to prove the system’s superiority in the ultimate challenge:  a race between a trackless trolley and a streetcar up the Queen Anne Avenue counterbalance.  Citizens gathered along the route to cheer on their favored vehicle, but streetcar fans were disappointed.  The trackless trolley won handily, even when the streetcar was given a head start halfway up the hill.  Despite this impressive showing, the plan to replace the old system failed at the ballot box.

Mayor Dore died in 1938 and was succeeded by Langlie, who secured a New Deal loan to pay off the streetcar system’s debt and immediately implemented the plan to convert to gasoline buses and trackless trolleys.  The streetcars made their final run along the counterbalance on August 11, 1940.  The streetcars are long gone, but the tunnels and tracks of the counterbalance system remain below the surface to this day, and the trackless trolleys still roll overhead.  In this image from the early 1940s, two trackless trolleys pass on Queen Anne Avenue.

(photos courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, image 8660; and National Archives)

Queen Anne Yesterday & Today

When searching for historic images of Queen Anne to recapture for a contemporary comparison, I’m often frustrated by streetscapes and vistas that are too obscured by mature vegetation or engineering of the landscape to make for interesting subject matter.  Today’s subject provides a rare example of an urban intersection where little has changed in nearly 100 years.

6th Avenue West and West Ewing Street intersect at the northern edge of Queen Anne, between Nickerson Street and the Fremont Cut.  Just beyond its intersection with West Ewing, 6th West terminates at a small public boat launch bisecting a community of houseboats.  The land north of West Ewing Street and west of 4th Avenue West is one of two small slivers of Queen Anne’s base that are zoned for manufacturing and industrial use (the other being between 13th and 15th Avenues West, and continuing along Elliott Avenue West, bordered north and south by West Newton and West Prospect streets).  It is due to this zoning of the land and the long duration of its occupants that the intersection is nearly identical today to when the historic image was taken in 1956.

6th Ave. W. in 1956

The property on the left side of the image is part of the Foss Maritime shipyard, which extends westward to the Ballard Bridge.  Founded in 1889 in Tacoma, Foss established operations in Seattle during World War I.  The wooden warehouse building on the left, built in 1930, bears a Foss sign in the same position on the building’s clerestory today as in the historic image.  The small white house at the water’s edge, built in 1935, still stands but is hidden behind tall bushes.

6th Ave. W. in 2021

The warehouse buildings on the right were the location of the Gascoigne Lumberyard from 1926 until 2018. The most noticeable change since 1956, other than the vintage of the cars, is the absence of the warehouse building in the right foreground of the historic image.  It was among several warehouse buildings owned by Gascoigne that were destroyed in a fire on November 10, 2018.  The highly combustible contents of the buildings shot flames 100 feet into the air and resulted in Seattle’s first 4-alarm fire in a decade.  The fire was found to be the work of a serial arsonist who had set several smaller fires in the area.  Gascoigne moved their business to Everett, but a dark rectangle on the surviving warehouse marks the spot where their sign used to hang.

It certainly isn’t going to win anyone’s vote for the most attractive intersection in Queen Anne; but in a city that has seen as much rapid growth and change as Seattle, there is something special, and kind of comforting, about the little pockets that are seemingly untouched by time.  A walk or bike-ride on the path that runs along the canal, between the Ballard and Fremont bridges, offers a glimpse into the past and a reminder of the industries upon which Seattle’s fortunes were built, and that still thrive despite our image as a big-tech hub.