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Auto Reverie: The daze of Seattle's first cars

Roots of Tomorrow: How Seattle fell under the spell of four wheeled vehicles.

This is the fifth article in "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a weekly series on northwest urbanism. Read Part 1, "How bikes led Seattle's first roads renaissance, Part 2, "Meet Seattle's first bike vigilantes," and Part 3, "The car that broke the back of Seattle's bike craze" here.

If bicycles were a boon to 1890s city dwellers, the automobile did the same to the nth degree in the 20th century. Few technologies have transformed modern cities as much as the car, changing our perceptions of space and time. New cities like Seattle rapidly accommodated the car, but the transition wasn’t easy – nor has been the outcome.

Washington’s first automobile arrived in Seattle in July of 1900, when businessman Ralph S. Hopkins spent five months driving his Woods Electric motor car from Chicago to the west coast. Hopkins paid $500 for an early electric car – a motorized buggy that ran on a battery. Long before the Prius and the Leaf brought them back into style, the Woods Motor Vehicle Company was also an experimenter with hybrid vehicles.

Ralph Hopkins driving Seattle’s first resident automobile, a Woods Electric, which he brought to the city in 1900. Photo: Museum of History and Industry.

That first car still exists, by the way, in storage at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma.

Ralph Hopkin’s Woods Electric today, in storage at Tacoma's Washington State Historical Society. Photo: Washington State Historical Society

Autos were expensive in those early days: Some could be had for as little as $1,000, but a 1901 Mercedes would set you back $12,450 – nearly $340,000 in today’s dollars. It could go an astonishing 50 miles an hour, though in frontier Seattle it would have been almost useless: The roads were too rough and the hills too steep for that kind of speed.

“When automobiles first came into use,” reported the Seattle Star in 1901, “it was argued that they would never be generally used in this city on account of the steep grades.” But they soon proved more than a match for the slopes.

Unlike the bicycle, historian Peter Hugill writes, “The automobile was ‘sweat-free’ and, because it was expensive, its ownership was a far better mark of distinction.” And distinction was important: Ralph Hopkins bought his car to “make a showing” for his girlfriend.

A 1919 letter to the Seattle Times Society Editor, would later reminisce: “Remember when the first automobile entered Seattle and Ralph Hopkins, the proud possessor, was the lion of the hour. How popular he was with the girls; and how elated when a girl would exclaim that she had had an automobile ride.”

Hopkins and his Woods Electric were soon joined by others as the Seattle car craze took off, driven by unprecedented new Klondike boom wealth. George W. Carmack, whose gold strike launched the 1898 rush, became an early Seattle auto owner. In 1902, he drove his steam-powered Locomobile from Seattle to San Francisco with his wife Marguerite, a trip that made local headlines.

Perhaps Carmack was sold by a test drive like that taken by the Seattle Times’ Sporting Editor. During one demonstration ride, he and the Locomobile dealer zipped up Second Ave., leaving dogs and bikes in their wake, turned on Pike St. to First Ave., then went to Queen Anne where they backed up, went up hill, and did turns demonstrating the vehicle’s maneuverability. They raced downhill toward Ballard, then swung back to downtown where “we could wave our hands to passing acquaintances with all the grace of a bloated bond broker on an afternoon’s outing.”

The exhilarating ride left the writer pondering the future: “Is the horse about to be exterminated? Is the time coming when man can so bottle up a bit of steam and steel, that the present ways of living will be numbered among the arts now lost and forgotten?” Those who tried the new automobile couldn’t help but see the future differently, and it was a future that was coming rapidly.

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Posted Wed, Oct 9, 3:09 p.m. Inappropriate

“There is something in the feeling that overcomes one when he gets up in his high car, and knows that, by the slightest touch, he can go like the wind," a 1906 Seattle Times editorial explained, "which deprives the ordinary man of all sense of judgment and caution.”

Ultimately, the culture of the car and the reality of the car are 2 completely different things. When we talk about cars in the abstract, they are proxies for personal freedom, power, influence, status, and identity. When we look at how they're actually used, they are completely fungible, generic people-movers - pods moving people from 1 place to another, 98% of the time the same small number of places (Work, home, stores, repeat), which they do inefficiently, and with loads of collateral damage (air quality, traffic, noise, trash, toxicity, paved-over homes, businesses, farms, etc, etc).

The quote perfectly illustrates a still-current phenomenon - something about cars, specifically talking about them in the abstract, or in the realm of "feeling;" something about this process just short-circuits common sense in the human mind. The power, status, and identity we are peddled in car commercials sticks to our brains all too easily. We're just now realizing we have to be smarter.


Posted Wed, Oct 9, 4:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Great comment. I'll have more on the class and psychology issues of the early auto era in Seattle in coming installments, but I think you're right that some aspects of the auto's effect on the brain are very particular to it and we still are dealing with them.

Posted Mon, Oct 14, 9:45 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute, don't forget to factor in the value of independence.

We were formed as a nation by independence.

As an employer, I will never hire someone without a drivers license and a car, unless I choose to hire someone who is not able to drive. Sometimes I need my employees to drive somewhere for a delivery or pickup, but more than that - I find that people who drive are better employees, because they simply value independence and get more done in their work day than those we've hired who did not drive.

So, yes, I'm making the statement that driving creates a more independent and productive person.

The war on cars has got to stop.

Posted Thu, Oct 10, 6:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Cars are extremely efficient at moving people, since they can go directly from virtually any point to any other point, without stopping to pick up strangers or making the cars' passengers "transfer" between vehicles. Why do you think cars are so popular? Have you ever owned a car in your life? For most trips of any distance, it is much faster to drive a car than to use any other mode of transportation, with the obvious exception of flying distances over a couple hundred miles.

New cars are also less polluting than transit and vastly LESS expensive per passenger-mile than transit in our area.

I find it very strange that a certain small segment of our society hates cars. Strange and sad. Maybe they can't afford cars, or just don't want to be personally responsible for their own transportation.


Posted Thu, Oct 10, 8:42 p.m. Inappropriate

From my home in Northwest Seattle, I can ride my bike faster to downtown or the University District--two places I have worked.

I am including finding time to park and walk into the building.
Faster door-to-door, on bike.

I find it very strange that some people love their cars so much they are willing to sit in traffic and waste much of their time while getting no exercise in the process. Seems rather foolhardy.


Posted Thu, Oct 10, 11:01 p.m. Inappropriate

Do you ever bother to stop at stop signs or red lights when riding your bicycle?

From my home on Queen Anne Hill, I can drive my car to Mercer Island -- an 11-mile trip -- in 18 minutes. You couldn't make it on a bicycle in less than 45 minutes.

And I can stay warm and dry on the coldest, wettest winter days and nights in my car, while you are freezing on your bicycle, unless, like most Seattleites, you never ride your bike in cold rain.

Bicycles are a warm-weather hobby. Cars are actual all-weather serious transportation.

I suppose that if you never take trips more than a few miles long, and you never take trips in bad weather, that a bike might come in handy once in a while. But most people are not going to waste an entire day (or 2) riding a bicycle from Seattle to Portland, when they can make that trip by car in 3 hours.

Riding a bicycle on trips over a few miles seems rather foolhardy.

And of course, there are many people who are physically unable to ride bicycles. But, that would be of no concern to you, would it?


Posted Mon, Oct 14, 10:17 a.m. Inappropriate

Jeffro, I assume you have friends who have kids, or cart things for work that they cannot carry on a bike, or who cannot ride a bike for physical reasons.

Are they bad people for loving their cars? Seems like a foolish label to me.

Posted Mon, Oct 14, 10:11 a.m. Inappropriate

Lincoln, strange and sad.

The other day I met a young man, and we discussed the gov't shut down. He told me the main thing he was worried about were the whales.
I said 'the whales?????'.

He also told me he walks to work, and doesn't have a car. How did our young people become so clueless and passive?

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