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Wagons, Ho, At Union

The splintered planks on Railroad Avenue (Alaskan Way) may be the reason a photographer from the city Public Works Department recorded this scene. This early 20th-century picture also shows how Union Street was open and climbed the hill to the Central Business District.  

Shaded by the Alaskan Way Viaduct and cut off below First Avenue, Union Street at the waterfront is now a stub of a street.  
This may be the last photographic evidence of the wagon road that once climbed Union Street from the central waterfront to First Avenue. The steepest block from Post Alley to First is evident upper-center in this circa-1911 sunlit scene.

The Union Street wagon road had appeared in both the 1884 birds-eye drawing of the city and in a panoramic photograph of the waterfront recorded about the same time. When the city's Great Fire of June 6, 1889, consumed the waterfront from University Street south, it left only the Schwabacher Wharf at the foot of Union and this difficult wagon road to restock the city with building materials. It may be hard to imagine now, but until the waterfront was restored and Western Avenue graded along an easier route to Virginia Street, Union Street was crowded with struggling wagons carrying lumber, brick and lime from Schwabacher's dock.

Twenty-two years earlier the foot of Union was developed when Capt. William Jensen gave up steam boating to open the first commercial bathing strip on the waterfront. With 12 changing rooms and suits and towels to rent, Jensen provided everything a swimmer might want - except warm water. During the 1880s the buildup of Railroad Avenue began to intrude on Jensen's picturesque beach.

In 1911, the tides still rolled in and out under the planking of a Railroad Avenue (Alaskan Way) that was nine tracks wide. Muckrakers regularly lambasted the great trestle's dilapidated surface. More than once moralists exploited it as a sign of how rough Seattle was.

Railroad Avenue was not fully paved until the existing seawall was built in the mid-1930s, keeping tides at bay from Madison to Broad streets.

Paul Dorpat's videotape on Seattle's early history, "Seattle Chronicle," is $29.95 from Tartu Publications, P.O. Box 85208, Seattle, WA 98145.

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