I THINK it likely that this candid photo of a lone pedestrian on a bright sidewalk was snapped to show off the new streetlights. Recorded by a municipal photographer, the view looks north on First Avenue across Virginia Street. The city’s first ornamental light standards, of City Light’s own design, were introduced in 1909-10, and on Seattle’s busiest streets featured five-ball clusters like these. Here the elegance of the new lights is interrupted by the older, much taller power poles.
This neighborhood was sometimes named North Seattle on early maps, but more popularly it was called Belltown, for the family that first claimed and developed it. Like many of the first settlers, William and Sarah Ann Bell kept two homes, one in the platted village that was growing to the sides of Pioneer Square and Henry Yesler’s sawmill, the other on their claim, in order to “prove” it. (Virginia Street was named for their long-lived third daughter, Mary Virginia, 1847-1931.)
Seattle’s first major public work was the 1876 regrading of Front Street (First Avenue) between Pioneer Square and Pike Street. The earth-moving continued, and in 1898-99 the grade was deepened to the level we see here, leaving a cliff along the east side of First Avenue. In 1903 that cliff was pushed to the east side of Second Avenue and by 1911 was moved to the east side of Fifth Avenue, where it rested for 17 years.
While construction of the brick Hotel Ridpath, center-right, waited for the cliff to be pushed east to Second Avenue, the ornate clapboard Troy Hotel across the street, far left, was built soon after the 1898-99 regrade. The Troy survived into at least the late 1940s. The Ridpath was renamed the Preston in 1914. Here, about 1910, First Avenue’s Belltown blocks were mostly given to hotels and shops and a few vacant lots. Some of the latter were fitted with elaborate billboards, like the one on the right, promoting popular habits like vaudeville, cigarettes and chewing gum.
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