After Seattle’s Great Fire of 1889, buildings featured many windows, making billboard placement difficult.

Share story

THE UNNAMED photographer of this week’s “Then” snapshot had a target — the two billboards standing center-left. With about 700 other 5-by-7-inch negatives, this exquisite record is preserved in a collection of subjects made for Foster and Kleiser, once the West Coast’s biggest billboard company.

The collection includes billboards raised to rented roofs, built on leased lots and attached to buildings with sides sturdy enough to support them. Of course, most of these well-watched and exposed sites stand beside busy arterials. The handwritten caption for this negative, not printed here, locates the two billboards, one for “Best bet’s Buick,” and the other for Coca-Cola, on South Alaskan Way, “75 feet s. of Washington.”

This shot was recorded on the sunny afternoon of Sept. 26, 1939, when South Alaskan Way was one of the favored arterials for avoiding the Central Business District. By 1939, most of Alaskan Way (AKA Railroad Avenue) had been filled behind a seawall and paved with bricks or blacktop.

The well-windowed buildings along the east side of Alaskan Way, constructed after the city’s Great Fire of 1889, were difficult to cover with billboards. The 30-plus-block conflagration destroyed the waterfront as far north as University Street, all of this neighborhood included. Here, the fire claimed the City Dock and Ocean Dock, both built in the early 1880s, when Seattle first took hold of its status as Washington Territory’s metropolis.

The Great Fire also took the King Street Trestle (built in 1878) that served the coal colliers from San Francisco. Seattle’s coal was preferred to California’s. The fire also consumed Yesler’s Wharf, which had been the pioneer pivot for Seattle commerce and its diverse array of small “Mosquito Fleet” steamers.

The Coastwise dock on the far right was one of the two long finger piers built near the foot of Yesler Way that flaunted Seattle’s prosperity following the Yukon Gold Rush in the late 1890s. The city first outfitted the “argonaut” panhandlers with the stuff needed to get the gold and then, on their return, happily helped them get rid of it.

We expect — and hope — that readers will remember that with this weekly feature we already have made good use of the billboard collection. I confess: It is unlike me to purchase anything, largely because there are many free resources. This collection, however, was worth it. The cost was $700, or about a dollar per negative. Like this one, most date from the Great Depression of the 1930s.