Seattle drivers: Atrocious from the start

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.”

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.

When policeman Samuel Bradford came to sort things out, Caine threatened to spit in his face too. His entourage roughed up the patrolman and fled the scene. Bradford tracked them down outside a First Ave. cafe, where he was forced to haul Caine out of his vehicle and hold him at gunpoint in order to arrest him. “I understand Capt. Caine has the reputation of being a ‘good fellow’ when he is sober," Bradford later said of him. "When he is drunk, he has an idea that he can run the city and do as he pleases.” Caine died a couple of years later at age 45. The cause is perhaps unsurprising: Apoplexy.

By 1901, the city council had determined that these newfangled automobiles must be classified as “vehicles,” and governed by the same ordinances that ruled wagons and the like. In 1906, Seattle passed its first auto specific law, “an ordinance regulating the use of automobiles, autocycles, riding machines or other horseless vehicles…” that set speed limits between 8 and 15 mph. Autos were required to have a city license number, a horn (though the Klaxon, the classic “ah-oogah” horn, was later outlawed) and lights. Violators could be subject to fines up to $100. Soon state laws took up the problem, raising the in-city speed limit to no faster than “one mile in five minutes.”

But the laws weren’t working. The newspapers were still filled with accounts of reckless drivers evading the law and damaging infrastructure and the Seattle Star noted that “several [city] councilmen have themselves narrowly escaped being run down by the flying cars…” When speeders were caught, they often used the influence of powerful friends to get off the hook. Herman Chapin, head of Seattle National Bank and the auto club, downplayed the problem, saying that much of the complaining was coming from “persons who seem to begrudge the sport that the chauffeur is enjoying. I have seen persons stand deliberately in the way of automobiles for spite.”

Community members had had enough of speeding cars. The Seattle Star mounted a “crusade” against what it called “Automaniacs”, giving front-page publicity to arrests and working with police to encourage a crackdown. Down in the Rainier Valley, the Star reported on another threat: “Band of Italians Threaten to Kill Reckless Scorchers.” Members of the Italian “colony” were said to be enraged by drivers running down people with impunity along Rainier Blvd., described as a seven-mile-long speedway. Locals threatened to take up arms: “One Italian complained to police that a woman and three children have been run over and painfully injured within the past two weeks,” the Star reported. “‘If we can do nothing else to protect our wives and children, then we will have to kill those men,’ exclaimed the Italian. ‘We have a few guns in our colony and will hereafter shoot any man who endangers our lives’“

Others took less drastic measures. In 1906, “persons without authority” nailed boards across the road to West Seattle, creating a speed bump to deter fast-moving drivers. To stop high-speed drivers from knocking the drawbridge out of alignment, King County installed plank barriers on the West Seattle Bridge. The autoists complained loudly – and not without merit. In late 1905, workmen repairing the bridge had left a plank on the roadway that was struck by an auto, which then skidded out of control and plunged into the chilly waters of the bay. The driver and three vehicle occupants were fished out, frigid but alive.

The actions to slow drivers with impromptu speed bumps — what we might now call “traffic calming” devices — were very early examples of citizens taking direct action for safety against cars without sanction or negotiation.

It would be a mistake to assume that cars arrived in town and instantly dominated. They did not, as fun and dangerous as they were — and as useful they came to be when converted into omnibuses, trucks, fire engines, police wagons, ambulances and taxis.

For a while, the horse was still, well, the work horse. In 1907, the King County Assessor’s office released its annual report of valuables in the county: It counted 700,000 horses, nearly 10,000 “mules and asses," 213,000 wagons, 74,000 carriages, buggies, etc., 6,320 bicycles and 327 automobiles.

Even so, keeping track of those machines proved tricky. If drivers violated speed limits, they were also resistant to other kinds of regulation. In 1905, the state required all cars to be licensed. Owners were charged $2 and had to make their own plates made out of leather or metal. But, by 1906, of 623 known autos in the state, only 280 cars were properly licensed by the first deadline, according to the Secretary of State’s office. It was estimated that there were more than 100 illegal cars on the streets of Seattle alone.

And there were still no licenses for drivers — an issue that came to a head in the spring of 1909. The catalyst was a tragic accident at First Ave. and Madison St. in downtown Seattle. Albert Thornton, chief engineer of the steamship Rosalie, and his wife and sister-in-law were about to cross a downtown street at eight o’clock one evening. A car approached the intersection and seemed to slow to a stop. Mrs. Thornton stepped out, the car lurched forward and crushed her beneath its wheels.

The driver was a local real estate dealer named Charles B. Niblock. He was a rookie driver — it was his first time at the controls of the powerful new Franklin touring car he had just purchased for the princely sum of $3,500. Sitting next to him was a chauffeur acting as driving instructor. The chauffeur took Mrs. Thornton to the hospital where she died, and Niblock swore he would never drive again. In fact, shortly after he sold the car for only $1,000. He was charged with manslaughter.

There was a strong public reaction. Here was a prime example of a reckless, inexperienced driver taking a life — the wife of a prominent man — for no good reason. Mayor John F. Miller — who had campaigned for office in an auto — declared that beginning drivers “should be limited to…districts where there is not a chance of killing anyone except themselves…One life is not worth all the automobiles in Seattle.” The tragedy sparked a new movement to implement licenses for Seattle’s drivers.

Earlier efforts to license drivers had failed, but after the Thornton accident in 1909, a new bill submitted to the city council, supported by the dead woman’s father, again tried to require prospective drivers to pass an examination. Applicants would be tested for their eyesight, health, epilepsy, drinking and drug habits, knowledge of their driving machine, and familiarity with driving laws before being certified to drive by a three-person board appointed by the mayor. Some people favored a scheme popularized by prominent New Yorkers: to systematically root out “evil,” unfit drivers with a private detective force. A Seattle real estate man, George B. Kittinger, had a simpler suggestion for miscreants: “Go after man-killers with a shotgun.

The city council did not pass the driver’s license bill — the two car owners on the council objected strenuously. Nor did the court system give Mrs. Thornton justice. A judge determined that the manslaughter charge against Niblock was not applicable and it was dismissed. It was also found that there were no civil damages because, according to state law, the victim was childless and neither a wage earner nor a provider of financial support for her husband. From a legal standpoint, her life was worthless.

The health effects of cars went beyond accident victims. Physicians in New York had noticed that people with asthma and other lung issues had their symptoms exacerbated by exposure to auto emissions, and they identified a new condition they called “naso-motor rhinitis.” A 1911 Seattle Times article concerned itself with the mental health of drivers — especially the unstoppable, reckless speedsters. “Makers and designers [of cars] are aware that ‘speed mania’ is a form of dementia; they know that psychologists have defined mania as an instinct for rhythmic movement evidenced by all peoples in that satisfaction which is felt in ‘getting away’ with something that may be regarded as dangerous.”

There were also some nascent environmental concerns, documented in historian Matthew Klingle’s book, “Emerald City: An Environmental History of Seattle.” A major question was how much to shape the city’s park system to the car. “The parkways and boulevards that connected the Olmsted parks to one another were the primary battlefields between the landscape architect [John Olmsted] and the city engineer [R.H. Thomson], and the object of their struggle was the automobile.”

While auto connections were part of the basic plan, the question was how much and how utilitarian? Would the parkways wander or would roads run straight through? Should some parks remain car-less? Klingle reports that city health commissioner Crichton believed automobiles to be safer and more healthful than horses that left behind “disease-ridden manure.”

But some advocates worried that autos infringed on nature and didn’t belong in the forests or natural settings that the parks system was supposed to preserve. They won the argument over Schmitz Park in West Seattle, but the road that became State Highway 99 bulled right through the middle of Woodland Park — a solution that made road engineers happy but not park designers.

The roads created challenges, writes Klingle. They had the advantage of making the parks accessible to more people, a good thing. But they had a downside. “As more and more visitors drove to city parks, more and more cars spewed fumes and noise, struck wild animals, threatened pedestrians, and destroyed roadbeds, exacerbating soil erosion.” Zookeepers at Woodland Park worried that “exhaust was choking the deer and elk.” And the paving of the city to accommodate cars has been a run-off problem ever since, spilling much oil and other pollutants into Puget Sound.

In short, even early in the auto era, as the city was specifically being reshaped for them, cars started to worry planners about their impact on the health of citizens and the natural environment. The consequences of the auto turned out not to be just local, but global. Urban areas and indeed the whole planet are still dealing with the fallout. While in the beginning automobiles looked like a rich man’s plaything, they turned out to be an enormous city-shaping, environment-altering technology.

In the first decade of the automobile in Seattle, citizens turned to lawmakers, the courts, the media and sometimes direct action to rein in the excesses of the auto, with some success. A statewide auto license law was passed, though driver’s licenses weren’t a state requirement until 1921 and a license exam wasn’t instituted until 1937. Driver’s ed classes were begun, streets were improved and better roads built and made safer with signage, lighting and other traffic control features, and strong laws and regulations were passed in an attempt to reduce accidents and recklessness. And the police adopted new technology to catch a new generation of criminals. But those efforts did not solve the problems of living with cars.

We are still coping with many of the same challenges that began that day in 1900 when Ralph Hopkins began putt-putting around town in his horseless carriage — or devil wagon as some might still choose to call it.

This project is made possible with the generous support of 4Culture/ King County Lodging Tax Fund.

For this story, particular thanks are due to Crosscut intern Sara Kowdley, historian David Williams, The University of Washington's Special Collections and Suzzallo Library, the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma, the Washington State Archives, the Washington State Library in Olympia, the Seattle Municipal Archives and City Clerk's Office, the Seattle Room and digital resources of the Seattle Public Library, the Museum of History and Industry, the Washington Secretary of State's Office and the Library of Congress. Newspapers consulted included the glorious variety available to Seattle readers in the late 19th and early 20th century: The Seattle Times, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Seattle, Star, The Argus, the Seattle Globe and Herald, and the Seattle Republican, and various daily and weekly newspaper across the state and around Puget Sound.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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