This article is a part of "Roots of Tomorrow: Urbanism in our Blood," a weekly series on northwest urbanism. It is also the second of a two-part piece on Seattle's car-volution. Read the first of the car pieces at "Auto Reverie: The daze of Seattle's first cars." or start from the beginning with Parts 1, "How bikes led Seattle's first roads renaissance and Part 2, "Meet Seattle's first bike vigilantes," and Part 3, "The car that broke the back of Seattle's bike craze" here.
“The next auto man who runs too fast by us — we shoot!’“
— Rainier Valley resident, 1905
With the boom of new autos entering Seattle in the early 1900s, some observers suggested it was just a matter of time before people got used to the new machines. One local editorialist reminded readers in 1902 that even speeding bicycles had once frightened people: “One of these days the machines will be as common as trolley cars, and they have always been much more harmless.”
But cars weren’t harmless. As their numbers increased, so did accidents: cars hitting buggies, drag racing autos knocking down teamsters, cars hitting streetcars, cars running over pedestrians and cyclists. There was also misbehavior: car theft, joyriding and drunk driving.
Autos added a new, unpredictable dimension to Seattle’s streets. If pedestrians had once complained about reckless bike speeders – or scorchers – they now had a new scofflaw at which to wag their tongues. The “auto scorcher” could run down people, pets and farmer’s wagons at speeds of more than 25 miles an hour and, by 1906, was becoming more and more of a threat to downtown pedestrians. A police court judge handing down a speeder’s sentence that year announced that many car owners were “stark crazy.”
Women seated in "Seeing Seattle" open-air touring vehicle, Seattle, Washington, ca. 1910. Photo: University of Washington, Special Collections, JEW0684
It was the same year that Seattle recorded a milestone of sorts — Its very first automobile fatality. Sixty-five-year-old Lauritz Bakken, a bachelor and shoemaker, was walking at First and Pine when he stepped out in front of a vehicle. The driver tried to swerve around him, but a frightened, confused Bakken misjudged the auto and retraced his steps right into its path. He died almost instantaneously.
The accident wasn’t caused by recklessness, but the Seattle Times caught the winds of public impatience. “Were a fatal accident to occur as a result of automobile speeding in this city at this moment, it is safe to say that the temper of any possible jury would be for very severe punishment in terms of long imprisonment,” an editorial announced.
Dealing with “stark crazy” drivers wasn’t easy. Police officers on foot could not keep up with speeders. Nor could hit-and-run victims often left in the wake of a fleeing autoist. Officers began making arrests by jumping onto speeding vehicles and ordering their drivers to the local police station. In 1905, an Officer Putnam leapt onto the Lake Union streetcar to chase a speeding driver, arresting him when he stopped to let a passenger out in front of Frederick & Nelson. A 1905 article in the Seattle Times pleaded for the Seattle Police Department to modernize with, at the very least, “motorcycle coppers” to chase down scofflaws.
Drunk driving too was becoming a problem. On one August night in 1906, an automobile belonging to millionaire Seattle steamboat titan, Capt. Edgar E. Caine, a pillar of the community, struck and injured a young man downtown. When the victim demanded to know who had run him down, a clearly drunk and enraged Caine alighted from his car, using “the vilest oaths.” Caine threw his calling card at the injured young man, then spit in his face three times. A crowd gathered.
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