Seattle’s seemingly never-ending regrades were a sight to see.
THIS PUBLIC WORKS “Then” photograph looks into a regrade trench marked on its sides by the claws of the two steam shovels shaping the pit. The teams with their wagons wait patiently to be rattled while being filled with ice-age droppings.
From another photo, like this one, recorded on Feb. 20, 1911, we know that at least two more wagons are here, out of frame to the right. All are pointed north down the center of Fifth Avenue at its new grade.
Ultimately, Fifth Avenue was hard-paved, but not for the comfort of horses. They prefer mud. After a wagon’s turn comes up and it is filled, its team turns left down the freshly dug cut on Cherry Street to the paved avenues below, proceeding to make its assigned delivery, perhaps on the tideflats.
We can estimate the speed of this digging with a photograph published in The Seattle Times on March 30, 1911. It aims in the same angle as the featured photo from the west side of Fifth Avenue, but The Times photographer moved on and followed the shovels’ work to the north side of Cherry Street.
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The stately home near Columbia Street, seen here in the clear light just to the left of the shovel’s exhaust, also appears in The Times’ published photo, where it is, however, set on blocks preparing for removal to some friendlier lot. The helpful Times caption also offers some context and statistics for this regrade: The Fifth Avenue Regrade reached from Washington Street to Madison Street and moved 190,000 cubic yards of earth at 49 cents a yard. (We may, again, sympathize with the horses.) The contracts for grading, sewage, water mains, walks, lights and (to the horses’ potential distress) paving, came to $270,000.
Later, in November 1911, the work was stalled when contractors Marks, Russell and Gallagher (their name is signed on each steam shovel below the operator’s window) stopped digging until the city agreed to indemnify them from any further slides that might damage buildings along what was left of the Fifth Avenue Regrade. By then, seven structures had been wrecked, most of them near Yesler Way.
Public-works watching was a popular pastime during the early 20th-century regrading years. A line of regrade watchers seen on the right stands on or near Cherry Street. Soon, however, these spectators had their platform upset when the shovels continued their clawing to the east as far as Sixth Avenue.
In this block between Fifth and Sixth avenues, the regraders exposed but did not upset the Kneeland House, a red brick hostelry at 511 Cherry St. It was three stories high with 36 rooms, and set on the south side of the street, just west of the alley.
The cutting on Cherry left the hotel about 30 feet higher, and with this difference came a tragedy. On Nov. 15, renter Ella Johnson, with her helper Nettie Herserma, was lowering furniture from the hotel into the new cut when the hotel’s railing gave way. The women were delivered to the Wayside Hospital in the Bonney Watson hearse, which doubled as an ambulance when not busy with “loved ones.” Struggling with a broken back, Johnson died. Herserma recovered.