The destructive snowfall of 1916 collapsed the roof of this now-largely forgotten swimming house, built in 1905.
IN TODAY’S “now” scene, West Seattle’s Bob Carney poses on Point Place Southwest, a short block that leads from Alki Avenue Southwest and dead-ends at the green campus of the Alki Point Lighthouse. Its light first penetrated the ordinarily peaceable waters of Puget Sound in 1913, after the federal lighthouse service bought much of the Point from the Hanson-Olson clan that had purchased it in 1868 from Seattle pioneer Doc Maynard.
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Carney holds a copy of our “then” photo as part of the bound pages of his research into the life of the first Alki Natatorium, the landmark featured in the photo. (Derived from Latin, “natatorium” denotes a building that houses a swimming pool. Aficionados abbreviate it as “nat.”)
Years ago, while delivering a lecture on West Seattle history to its historical society, I was asked whether I had evidence of this early human aquarium. Like many others attending, I imagined the question was about the later Alki Natatorium, built nearly a mile up Alki Beach from the Point, just east of the Alki Bathhouse, and opened in 1934 with “Seattle’s own swimming champion, Helene Madison, as permanent instructress.” That natatorium was razed in 1953, after falling into disrepair.
Carney’s research reveals that the earlier and largely forgotten natatorium at the Point was equipped with “gymnasium paraphernalia” and featured a “bathing tank” 130 feet long, 53 feet wide and 22 inches to 9½ feet deep, filled daily with Puget Sound waters kept at 74 to 76 degrees. The east end of the pavilion, the part showing here with five gables, hosted a variety of events, most involving dance.
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The structure was appointed like a Japanese teahouse (note the hanging lanterns), and its demise was weather-related. Like the dome atop Seattle’s St. James Cathedral on First Hill, the roof on West Seattle’s first oversized swimming pool collapsed on Feb. 1-2, 1916, under what remains Seattle’s deepest (or second-deepest — it is debated) 24-hour snowfall.
Soon after Carney showed me this print, researcher Ron Edge found three others while visiting the Museum of History & Industry library. Most likely, the four were recorded together in 1905, when the nat was a brand-new enterprise undertaken by the Alki Point Transportation Company. In 1904, nearly a decade before the Alki Lighthouse arose, the company was working on both the natatorium and the steamer Dix to render hourly service between this, the firm’s new West Seattle attraction, and Seattle’s central waterfront. (The Dix notoriously sank in November 1906 in a collision killing more than 40 of its estimated 77 passengers.)
We conclude with a too-short nod to the many heroes of local heritage who volunteer with the dozen or so Seattle and King County societies that nurture and share our history. Carney is described by Clay Eals, executive director of the Southwest Seattle Historical Society, as “a stalwart volunteer for us over the past three decades, doing everything from serving on our collections committee (evaluating submitted artifacts for possible accession) to putting up exhibits at our Log House Museum. Behind it all is a heart of unrivaled size.” (You may follow the Alki Nat evidence uncovered in the blog referenced below.)