Auto Reverie: The daze of Seattle's first cars

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.

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

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.

In 1901, a year after the first local car arrived, ads for the Bon Marche promised that Santa Claus would arrive at the store Christmas Eve steering a brand new automobile because, Santa confided, “his best reindeer has broken his leg.”

The Times editor’s account of his Locomobile ride was more than just fun though. It also foreshadowed the problems Seattle would come to have with cars. In passing, he wrote of running over a pesky dog, which was “spread out over several square feet of the state of Washington.” He and the dealer sped away.

The canine’s callous treatment suggests that, even in the beginning, interesting class and power dynamics were playing out. Cars were fast, heavy and could do damage, driven by the city’s adventurous elite chauffeurs – from playboys to “bloated bond brokers.” (At the time, the term “chauffeur” referred to any auto driver, not simply a hired one. They were also frequently called “Autoists” or “Automobilists” and one newspaper even referred to a speeding driver as a “knight of the gaseous chug-chug.”)

It was also evident early on that automobiles changed the mindset of their operators. The advent of the car made it possible for individuals to go as fast as trains, without the benefit of tracks. They could dodge and careen through urban traffic with a godlike power.

“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.” Being interrupted from that reverie by reality, the piece continued, produces a sense of disgust for anyone – traffic cops, pedestrians, pets – spoiling “the beautiful dream.”

Something about cars produced a sense of entitlement and other-worldly privilege among drivers; something often still apparent on the streets even now.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.