While doing research for a finals project about the town of Lester on the Northern Pacific's Stampede Pass line, I rummaged around through the University of Washington's Pickett Collection. Mr. Pickett was a commercial photographer from Index, Washington whose subjects were often railway related. While hunting through the myriad of photo indexes for this collection, I came across two listings for the Mouse Ear's Inn. This was something of a rare find, as the Inn was a Great Northern-built (Or at least GN tolerated) brothel near the west portal construction site of the new Cascade Tunnel. My interest piqued, I tried looking for the photos themselves, trying to catch a glimpse into an unreported past. Unfortunately, they had not yet made their way from the Pickett Estate to the UW.
Enter the Archivists...
Never stopping in my quest to find an old Washington bawdy house that had nothing whatsoever to do with the honorable Northern Pacific Railway, I continued in my search. Here, diligence, or perhaps just blind luck paid off. The reference librarians at the UW had a number for Louise Lindgren, a Historic Preservation Officer with the Snohomish County Planner's Office, who was not only one of the hardy few working in their spare time to try to catalogue the thousands of Pickett negatives, but someone active in local archival circles as well. She came to life when I mentioned Lester, and asked if I had contacted Charles Payton with King County's Landmarks and Heritage Commission. I must admit that right up to that point I did not even know that King County had a Landmarks and Heritage Commission.
In the next few weeks Mr. Payton, the Commission's Community Museum Advisor and in-house curator, would not only help me with hundreds of document and photo resources about Lester housed at the Commission's Smith Tower offices in Seattle, but put me on to another wealth of information on King County and the NP as well.
At this point, the Great Depression intercedes. As part of Roosevelt's make work projects for a country in the grips of the Depression, the Works Progress Administration, in conjunction with the King County Assessor's Office, set out to photograph every piece of real property in the county with an improvement on it.
Beginning in 1936 the WPA and the Assessor's Office surveyed all the property within the county. To do this, the federal government spent almost 1.9 million dollars, while King County contributed over $589,000. These funds paid for an aerial survey, a timber cruise of 68,000 acres and a survey of over 500,000 parcels of property.
By the end of the survey in 1941, the number of the assessed buildings in the county jumped from 41,802 to 67,071 an additional six million dollars in assessed value. The timber cruise surveyed nearly 1.3 billion board feet and added a further $681,148 to the value of the county. King County, one of 39 in Washington, held 29.28% of the state's taxable real estate value at the beginning of the survey, doubled it's assessed value by adding an additional $11,479,999 to its tax rolls.
The survey began at the population center of the county, Seattle, and slowly fanned out over towards Tacoma in the south, and then east into the foothills and finally the Cascade Mountains themselves. With a total staff of 176, only 50 were field researchers, and a mere three were photographers. The end result was the creation of 569,583 property record (P-R) cards and a collection of nearly 80 thousand photographs.
Fortunately, every northern transcontinental line in Washington reaches the population and production centers of the Puget Sound area through King County. The bustling cities of the region required the NP to build within King County on a fairly large scale. There were NP yards at Auburn, Orillia, Second Avenue, Stacy Street, roundhouses in Seattle, Auburn and Lester, stations from King Street to Borup and buildings from hotels in the Cascades to row upon row of company houses in mining towns such as Ravensdale.
Finally, the point becomes clear...
Thanks to FDR, the WPA and King County, from 1936 to 1941 many of the NP's structures posed for their portraits. Each was given a scale measurement of its exterior dimensions, a detailed description of the construction materials used, the number of rooms and floors, an approximate date of construction, dimensions of outlying buildings such as barns or sheds and of course, the total taxable value. More than once, the people living at these spots ventured outside to pose with their homes for the photographers.
It should not only be mentioned here, but stressed that there are many people to thank for being able to have access to all this information. In an age when many records were becoming just so much fodder in local landfills, the public servants of the Washington State Archives, the King County Assessor's Office, the King County Landmarks and Heritage Commission and an army of volunteers from the Association of King County Historical Organizations (AKCHO) fought local city governments to find these thousands of documents a home.
The place grudgingly given was a closed elementary school under the jetway of Sea-Tac airport. Here, under the roar of arriving and departing jets, still hovering under the threat of eviction to make room for an ever-larger jogging track, is the Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives.
After taking possession of the site, the next job was to organize the more than 70,000 photos. An additional 10,000 loose negatives without their cards also had to be sorted into given areas. AKCHO volunteers from across King County undertook this re-organization from March 1983 until nearly 1986.
As many as 40,000 of the negatives may be on nitrate film, which not only breaks down and oxidizes over time, but is also highly flammable. Fortunately, even after half a century of time, these negatives are holding up. Guarding against the negatives eventual deterioration are the small contact prints that were made from the originals and taped or glued to the P-R cards, from which copy negatives can be made.
To find any given building, three methods can be used. The most expedient is to have the parcel number or tax account number of the property. All that is needed to find this is the address for the building. Calling the King County Department of Assessments at (206) 296-7300 with the address will readily get you the tax account number of any property in the county. This number, in turn, can be phoned in, mailed or taken to the Archives and the given card pulled from the files. The second method is to have the short legal description of the property: lot number, block number, plat number, which can also be phoned, mailed or taken to the Archives and found in short order. There is a small fee charged by the Archives for these services.
The most circuitous route to find any given P-R card for a structure is to find the Section, Township and Range number of the specific lot or general area. This is often the only way to find NP structures in outlying areas in the Cascades. Section, Township and Range information can be found using one of the dozen or more county atlases at the Archives., or any large public library. Kroll Atlases are in volumes of city or town areas, and tend to cover the denser urban areas, much in the same manner as detailed Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps would. The outlying areas of the county are more easily reached through the far less detailed Metsker Atlases.
Unfortunately, it is sometimes necessary to search for stations in urban areas this way as well, as the NP's operating property tends to be unplatted. Enumclaw's depot, for example, could only be found by searching through cards for the entire section.
Many property record cards, once located, will be useless to anyone other than a student trying to earn a Ph.D. in county tax practices. Some cards, however, will yield a wealth of vital statistics, including a small black and white portrait taped in the center, for a variety of structures. When a card has a photo, the photo will display all the location information, Section, Township and Range information again, along with an individual Tax Lot number, the date of the photo, a letter such as C if its one of a number of structures on the same lot, sometimes the name of the town or general area it's in and a lease number, if any.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about P-R cards are the addresses listed on them. Many times they will be missing altogether, if not, they may be out of date by at least 20 years. With the NP, this can be particularly aggravating, because anything that isn't right next to the tracks or has an easy-to-identify background may be impossible to find. As well, even as professional as many of the photos are, the WPA was in the nasty habit of labeling the photo by writing over the building itself. More than one perfect shot has lost it's aesthetic appeal with Tax Lot 7 scrawled across the it.
But that is the real charm of the collection. The less glamorous side of railroading is documented at length: the round-roof boxcars converted to depots, or bunkhouses, or just tool sheds. Company towns like Ravensdale and Bayne are documented at length, providing an accurate record of places that are now either unrecognizable or non-existent.
From the fortress of King Street Station to the frail section houses at Stampede, whose paper-thin walls sheltered NP's crews and their families against fierce winter nights and gave some a place to play out endless rounds of canasta. Chipped and faded places that rattled not only at the passing of cranky Z-3s and high-stepping As but stiff breezes as well. The WPA collection represents a beautiful portrait of the lowly, the overlooked and undocumented, cold and drab haunts that were nevertheless the definition of home to so many railroaders for so long.
A few tips: remember to ask for a check of loose photos in the same location numbers, and be very careful with the numbers themselves, a small mistake in number sequence can mean a lot. As with most research, be prepared to not quite find what you were looking for. A similar search that I carried out over the Milwaukee Road's Snoqualmie Pass line turned up not a single photo. On the other hand, I found amazing shots of the NP's oftentimes ramshackle digs at places like Woodinville, Kanaskat and Stampede.
The Assessor's Office continues to document structures via photography to this day. Photos taken from the 1940s to 1972 are also at the Archives. These photos, however, lack the professional quality of the WPA's work. They are often fuzzy and out of focus, or out of level, but they do continue to document structures that were usually overlooked. Photos taken after 1972 are still in the King County Department of Assessment's working files.
The Puget Sound Regional Branch of the Washington State Archives is under the care of Regional Archivist Mike Saunders and Research Assistant Phil Stairs. Their mailing address is 1809 South 140TH Street, Seattle, WA 98168. The phone number is (206) 439-3785. Research hours are 1 to 5 p.m. weekdays, excepting legal holidays. Appointments are required. For the many without the time to search through the stacks of P-R cards, an over-the-phone research service is available.
Costs for duplication services vary depending on whether you or the archivists make the copies. Anything less than eight copies is free, after that its 0.15 cents each if you make the copies, with no charge for 12 copies or less, or 0.25 cents if made by the staff. Photo prices vary from five dollars for contact prints, twelve dollars for black and white eight by tens, and seven dollars for slides.
Klotz, A. C.: A Chronicle of the Land-Use Survey of King County, Washington, a Works Progress Administration Project. Renton: Renton Chronicle, 1941
Belanger, Herb: County Album: Volunteers help sort mass of photos from assessor's file, Seattle Times June 29, 1983, p. G 3
And with the assistance of:
Saunders, Michael, Regional Archivist, Washington State Archives, Puget Sound Regional Branch, interviews, November, 1994 and March, 1995.
Author: John A. Phillips, III. Title: The Story of a Bawdy House.
© March 20, 2002