Where is our Military Road?

Dexter Ave on May 17, 1932

Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S. Grant on Queen Anne

Last year Karen Meador, a good friend of the Queen Anne Historical Society, published a delightful pamphlet called Military Road: A Lasting Legacy.  In her pamphlet Meador runs the road west of Queen Anne Hill along the beach and mud flats that later welcomed one of Queen Anne’s longest surviving working class operations, Wilson’s Machine Shop.

Indeed, Meador features the machine shop as if it actually occupies a site on the Military Road which settlers, road builders and surveyors called the Fort Steilacoom to Fort Bellingham Road.  The evidence points, however, to a more eastern route for the Military Road closer to Lake Union.

Most Seattle citizens recognize the name Military Road as Exit 151 on I-5 at Southcenter or the stretch of road just east of I-5 and Boeing Field.  In fact, Indian paths often became wagon roads which eventually became the good roads for automobiles we know today.

In 1857, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis –- yes, that Jefferson Davis — appropriated $35,000 to construct a land route between Fort Steilacoom and Fort Bellingham.  In addition to Davis, other Civil War leaders who worked on road construction included, George B. McClellan, Joseph Hooker and Ulysses S. Grant.  Military roads were designed to facilitate the movement of troops and even more importantly, travel in remote territories.  In the case of Queen Anne’s Civil War era Military Road, it linked important military outposts.

Water crossing between Salmon Bay & Lake Union in 1891
Water crossing between Salmon Bay & Lake Union in 1891

Captain W. W. DeLacy began surveying the route with a crew of nine including six Native Americans.  Construction of the road began in 1858 under the supervision of Lieutenant George H. Mendell and reached Seattle in October 1860.  In 1864, the first telegraph line was strung along the Military Road route.  We know this from Meador’s pamphlet and Building Washington:  A History of Washington State Public Works by Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy, published in 1998.

Meador’s pamphlet includes a map of the route and marks contemporary buildings that lie on the Military Road.  Discovering Wilson Machine Works, one of the neighborhood’s oldest surviving factories, on the map was great news.  Who knew we had a pre-Civil War route crossing Queen Anne?

Both Meador and Dorpat-McCoy strand the route through Queen Anne high and dry between two sentences.  The pair of asterisks inserted Meador’s text marks the spot:

Near the present site of Georgetown in south Seattle, the Road crossed the Duwamish River Valley – known today as Boeing Field – to Beacon Hill and from there along the tide flats of a rough little mill town called Seattle.  ** Crossing Salmon Bay and continuing through present-day Ballard, the Road traversed east along the north shore of Lake Washington…

Neither source reveals exactly how the Military Road got from downtown Seattle to Ballard.  Meador thinks it followed the route of what we now call Elliott Avenue and 15th Avenue West.  That is why she put Wilson’s Machine Shop on her map and why she suggests the road crossed Salmon Bay, but she didn’t get it right.  The clues are everywhere and convincing.

Kay Reinartz provided one clue in Chapter 5, page 32 of Queen Anne:  Community on the Hill, the 1993 book on local history published by the Queen Anne Historical Society. There she reports that our section of the Military Road: “…went north from Yesler’s Mill on Front Street (1st Ave.) circling Denny Hill (Denny Regrade) on the east side, and passing by the burial ground that became Denny Park.  The road then continued along the east side of Queen Anne Hill.”  Later on page 38, Reinartz recounts when Lake Union froze over in 1861 and settlers walked out to the lake along the Military Road to go skating.  Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to verify Reinartz’s sources.

Another clue is Meador’s statement that the road crossed Salmon Bay.  We learn, however, from Augustus Koch’s 1891 Birds-eye-view of Seattle and environs King County, Wash. that no roads crossed Salmon Bay until the 1889 construction of a plank road on trestles.  Also the Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation’s history of Kinnear Park states that the plank road along the east edge of Smith’s Cove cut up from the beach towards Uptown along Mercer Place, heading east towards Lake Union.  We may also wonder why Army engineers would have a wagon road cross a pretty big stretch of water when only a narrow little creek (now replaced by the Lake Washington Ship Canal) separated the two sides less than a mile away.

Beginning of November 3, 1860 Survey Notes of David T. Denny’s Claim
Denny Survey Notes, November 3, 1860

The clincher is the November 3, 1860 survey of David T. Denny’s claim by a Mr. Richardson. Generally speaking, David Denny’s claim is marked on the north today by Mercer Street and on the south by Denny Way.  The surveyor describes crossing the Military Road for the first time 80 chains or about a mile (a chain = 66 feet) from the shore of “Elliott’s Bay” and a mere 17 chains (.2 miles) from the post he planted at the shore of Lake Union.  On his way back to his starting point on Elliott Bay about 28 chains (.35 miles) from the southeastern corner of Denny’s claim, Mr. Richardson crosses the Military Road again.  What with regrades that leveled Denny Hill and fill that obliterated the natural banks of Lake Union locating the Military Road exactly will take a huge effort and a trip to the other Washington to see maps filed at the National Archives.

It seems Reinartz had it right after all when she wrote:  “The road then continued along the east side of Queen Anne Hill (p. 33 Community on the Hill).”  Much as he was thrilled to learn that his shop was on the historic Civil War Military Road from Fort Steilacoom to Fort Bellingham, Dave Wilson will be equally sad to hear it isn’t true.

Working Class Queen Anne

It is hard to imagine Queen Anne as a working class neighborhood.  The views from the ridges on the south, east and west sides have attracted large elegant houses built by many of the movers and shakers in city history.  Once you leave the ring of elegant aeries, though, one-story commercial buildings, a huge quantity of apartment houses, and numerous industrial sites on the neighborhood fringe suggest a working class history we don’t want to forget.

As this series unfolds, it will explore different working class buildings, businesses and, if we can find them, people or live, lived, worked or work in them.  The choice of ‘working class’ rather than ‘blue collar’ to describe these subjects rests on the assumption that many of the jobs held by Queen Anne residents during most of the 20th century may have been in retail and service industry activities rather than manufacturing, railroading or ship building.

This series will consider buildings like the historic MarQueen Hotel on Queen Anne Ave between Mercer and Roy.  It was built in 1918 as the Seattle Engineering School and housed workers training at the Ford assembly plant on Lake Union (the plant is still there at the corner of Fairview and Valley, but it now serves as a storage facility).  In 1920, the school opened the Kuay training garage (later named the MarQueen Garage and now known as the 10 Mercer Restaurant) that operated as a school and working garage for more than 50 years.  The workers who lived in the SRO apartments would have found nearby bakeries, bars, restaurants and early grocery stores to meet their daily needs.  In the 1920’s the Chase Bank building around the corner on Mercer was probably where they bought groceries.  They probably ate some meals at Preston and Frances Smith’s Mecca Café which opened on July 1, 1930.  Still housing transients, the MarQueen no longer serves blue collar guys with greasy hands.

Just down the street, the 1926 Uptown Theater recently acquired by SIFF is another icon of working-class Queen Anne.  Designed by Victor Voorhees, the theater no longer has stairs leading to a mezzanine lounge and flanking bathrooms, and the original hall has added the two buildings south of the 1953 marquee by architect B. Marcus Priteca.  The large Uptown auditorium is now smaller than in the beginning, and ‘talkies’ projected digitally have replaced the silent films of 1926, but the theater still serves the residents of the very many nearby Uptown district apartment buildings.

Another surviving blue-collar business is the Five Corners Hardware store located where West McGraw, West McGraw Place and Third Avenue West intersect.  The streetcar line from downtown used to cross this intersection too on its way to the Mount Pleasant Cemetery, but its replacement, the number 3 electric trolley got rerouted to Rogers Park and the number 2 gets you to the cemetery now.  This business has been the same family since 1940.

Our series will scoot down the hill to explore the docks along the canal where hundreds of folks still go every day to repair ships at Foss Maritime, unplug your drain at Bob Oates Sewer and Rooter, or sell lumber at Gascoigne Lumber which has been at it since 1926 – obviously a big year for neighborhood growth.

The railroad spur still reaches Foss follows portions of the route of the historic Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway (SLS&E) founded by Daniel Gilman, Judge Thomas Burke and others.  By 1887, it ran from the Seattle waterfront to Smith (then Smith’s) Cove and then on the northwest side of Lake Washington.  By 1888, the line reached Fall City to the east and Snohomish to the north, eventually connecting with the Canadian Pacific system near Sumas.

The spur that now forms the Ship Canal bike and pedestrian path once extended around the base of the hill connecting that Ford Assembly plant at Fairview and Valley to the main lines bringing the cars in parts form the eastern United States.  The SLS&E took coal and lumber down to the freighters at Smith Cove.  A careful look at historic maps suggests that the coal and lumber dock may have been on the fill now under the Queen Anne side of Elliott Ave. W.

Just north of the former railway terminus along the former shore of Smith’s Cove and opposite the twisting Amgen Bridge on Queen Anne’s fringe at 1038 Elliott Ave W., Wilson Machine Works is a classic working class operation.  Founded by brothers Wilhelm, Wilson and Otto Niedergesaess as Niedergesaess and Sons Electric Co., it has been around for over a hundred years.  In 1926, Wilson — his brothers no longer involved — built the two-story masonry building and changed his name to match the new company’s becoming Robert John Wilson.  He painted the new office a shade of light brown, installed a roll top desk just inside the door, and opened for business.  The sign proclaiming Wilson Machine Works has not been touched, the desk has not been moved, and the office has not been repainted.  Overhead belt pulleys on the ceiling still drive one historic machine.   Current owner Dave Wilson reports that the foundations sit on clamshells.

This working class Queen Anne series will explore topics like these and reach out from time to time to follow curious bits of local history .