Today’s recreation of this 1915 image, looking northwest from the southeast approach to the Fremont Bridge, shows that although much has changed, the lay of the land and curve of the road in this northern extremity of Queen Anne would be familiar enough to orient a local time traveler. Foliage blocks most of today’s view to the bridge, other than its northeast tower’s bright blue popping at center right. The roofline of the 1892 B.F. Day Elementary School building is visible in the historic image but obscured by foliage in today’s (if only I’d taken it a few weeks earlier!).
The most prominent building in the historic image is Carl Signor’s Grocery and Feed store. Over the thirty years that Mr. Signor operated this store, he witnessed many developments along the western edge of Lake Union, including the completion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal’s Fremont cut and construction of two bridges at this location. One event he witnessed from his office in 1914 elevated Mr. Signor from a respected merchant to local hero in a matter of seconds.
Carl Signor was born in St. Louis on February 28, 1868 and moved west to Spokane with his parents in the early 1880s. Carl, with his wife, Hattie and daughter, Eva moved to Seattle around 1900 and established a grocery business in Fremont. They began construction on a new store and warehouse building at 2940 Westlake Avenue in August 1904; they were open for business three months later. The Signors moved into a beautiful new home at 153 Newell Street in 1908. Carl opened a second store, Dollar Grocery, at 151 Nickerson Street in 1914. He enjoyed an enviable commute of just a few blocks to either location.
The Signors were active and respected members of the Queen Anne community. In addition to Carl’s business leadership, Hattie served as PTA president at the newly-opened North Queen Anne Elementary School in 1922, and as PTA treasurer at Queen Anne High School.
When Carl’s Westlake warehouse and store opened in 1904, it overlooked the first Fremont Bridge. The low, pile-trestle bridge was built in 1890 to span a small canal that had been dug in the 1880s by the Lake Washington Improvement Company. The early canal widened Ross Creek, the natural outlet of Lake Union, to allow passage of logs from Lake Union to Salmon Bay and Ballard, but not enough to be navigable. The first Fremont Avenue trestle was razed in 1911 for widening and dredging of the Lake Washington Ship Canal’s Fremont cut after the Federal Government took charge of the long-awaited project. A second, longer and higher trestle bridge opened in 1912 to carry streetcar, wagon, pedestrian and automobile traffic.
The second trestle was intended to serve temporarily, until a permanent drawbridge could be built upon completion of the Fremont cut. Another temporary trestle bridge was built across Lake Union between Westlake and Stone Avenue (now Stone Way) in 1911, with a movable steel truss center span to allow the passage of vessels for construction of the ship canal.
A wooden damn at the outlet of Lake Union, located a couple blocks east of the Fremont trestle and west of the Stone Avenue Bridge, kept its water at bay and controlled the level of the lake; and, on most days, kept the water under the Fremont trestle placid. But around noon on March 13, 1914, from his office overlooking the dam, Carl Signor noticed that high water in Lake Union was stressing the Fremont Dam, causing water to leak through its groaning and cracking timbers.
Recognizing the signs of an impending dam failure, Carl rushed up to Westlake Avenue and stopped pedestrian, streetcar and vehicle traffic from crossing the Fremont Avenue bridge. A few minutes later, the dam gave way and unleashed a deluge that washed out the center span of the trestle. The breach lowered Lake Union by 8.5 feet, washing out docks, stranding boats and leaving houseboats dangling precariously above the water. But thanks to Carl Signor’s quick thinking and heroic action, no lives were lost.
The dam was quickly repaired by the Army Corps of Engineers and all traffic was rerouted to the Stone Avenue Bridge until the Fremont Avenue trestle could be repaired. It reopened six weeks later to pedestrian and vehicle traffic, but streetcar service remained routed to the Stone Avenue Bridge until the 1917 completion of today’s Fremont bascule bridge, the construction of which Carl witnessed from his office at 2940 Westlake Avenue.
Carl operated his business until his death of a heart attack on February 27, 1935, one day before his 67th birthday. Hattie preceded him in death the previous August. Carl, Hattie, their infant son, Carlisle “Carley” Signor (April-November, 1905), and daughters, Eva Signor Willard (1889-1962) and Carolyn Signor King (1906-1992) are interred at Mount Pleasant Cemetery.
Seattle Daily Times, “Suburban News”, October 23, 1904, p. 8
Seattle Daily Times, “$40,000 Loss from Bursting Fremont Dam.”, March 14, 1914, p. 1
Seattle Post Intelligencer, “North Queen Anne School is Dedicated.”, November 28, 1922, p. 8
Seattle Daily Times, “Mrs. Carl Signor’s Funeral Tomorrow.”, August, 17, 1934, p. 8
Seattle Post Intelligencer, “Last Rites: Services Tomorrow for Carl Signor, Fremont Grocer.”, March 1, 1935, p. 10
Williams, David B., “Dam Bursts on Lake Union, temporarily lowering the lake by nearly nine feet, on March 13, 1914.” History Link, # 20222, 2016
“People of the Ship Canal: Carl Signor’s Grocery Store.” Wedgewood in Seattle History blog, 2017