The city’s Independence Day celebration in 1898 drew a huge downtown crowd, excited by news of a victory the day before for the U.S. Navy in the Spanish-American War.
THE READER WILL easily note that, with few exceptions, the lineup of Seattle Police on the north side of Yesler Way between Second and Third avenues is looking east at a long parade float that is either crossing Yesler Way or resting in its intersection with Third Avenue.
The banner that runs the length of the float names the sponsor, the “National Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.” The flip side of at least one of the four Museum of History & Industry prints covering this Independence Day scene holds a typewritten sticker that reads, “taken July 4, 1898, before the Spanish-American War veterans returned. Picture made in front of police headquarters.” A handwritten addition to the sticker reads, “3rd and Yesler,” and the gray-blue back of the print itself concludes the captioning with, “Called ‘Electric Float’ Taken by W.T. Milholland.”
The inscribed date, 1898, is very inviting — but ultimately wrong. Independence Day weekend that year included the sensational news that America’s revenge for the unexplained Feb. 15 sinking of the battleship USS Maine — “Remember the Maine!” — in the Havana harbor was at hand. On July 3, with the U.S. Navy in pursuit, the Spanish Caribbean fleet fled the Santiago, Cuba, harbor. In the days that followed, the Spanish dreadnoughts that were not destroyed, surrendered. It’s likely this war news was on the minds of nearly everyone among the estimated 75,000 citizens and visitors who crowded downtown Seattle on July 4, 1898.
One year later, this patriotic party of 1898 was remembered by The Seattle Times reporter covering the 1899 Independence Day festivities as, “the biggest celebration that the city ever had.” However, and almost certainly, this Yesler Way scene was not part of that record-setting event. The caption was incorrect by one year. The float named “Electric” won second place in the 1899 — not 1898 — parade competition.
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In The Times’ 3 p.m. edition for July 5, 1899, the float is described as a “dynamo in full operation.” The electricity was generated by steam from a boiler flaunted on the float. It powered a “call system of the Postal Telegraph Company, a phonograph and a telephone,” and also was wired to a printing press carried on the Metropolitan Printing and Binding Company float next in line. On the far right end of the float, a tower of steam shoots from its roof. The hissing noise of escaping steam also might have attracted the attentive white-gloved police.
Independence Day 1899 was a wet one, and many outdoor events were canceled or avoided. The fireworks, however, were not expunged but rather admired for their reflections off the low clouds. In the featured historical photo, the gray sky offers little contrast with the scene’s two famous towers, both of them serving for part of their careers as King County courthouses. In 1890, the top-heavy tower on the First Hill horizon replaced the one rising far left on Third Avenue. With King County moved up the hill, its abandoned home at Third Avenue and Jefferson Street served as Seattle’s City Hall from 1890 to 1909, and was famously nicknamed the Katzenjammer Kastle for its Rube Goldberg collection of additions, including the police department.