NEXT TIME YOU pull out your phone and aim it to snap a picture, consider the scene playing out from exactly the opposite direction. Sometimes what’s behind the camera is as important as what’s in front. Context can be everything.
Our 1918 “Then” photo illustrates the point. We are in West Seattle, looking south and slightly east to a unique, old-growth preserve, Schmitz Park. Yet over our shoulder lies our city’s sandy, saltwater showcase, Alki Beach.
Beneath a stone-pillared arch leading to the park, three gents in hats, suits and ties, with an equally fashionable woman in the driver’s seat, are eyeing the camera — and the beach. These unknown adventurers have pulled a 1917 Paige touring car to the side of 59th Avenue near its intersection with Lander Street, beyond which the park’s sturdy trees are visible in the distance.
The philanthropic Schmitz family donated the hillside property to the city in portions from 1908 to 1912, with the proviso that it be maintained largely in its natural state. The arch, erected in 1913, served as a grand entry through which motorists could parade their vehicles and pedestrians could stroll to the sanctuary.
But how did visitors get here? Likely via the beach directly in back of the photographer, a half block away.
Of course, Alki was the site of the city’s first non-Native settlement, in 1851. When this photo was taken, 11 years after West Seattle’s annexation to Seattle, Alki had become a crowd-pleasing daytime destination and summertime retreat. Easing access was a just-opened wooden swing bridge across the Duwamish River mud flats, augmenting a streetcar that had served the coastline since 1908.
Alki Beach Park had opened formally in 1911, its bathing pavilion drawing 73,000 visitors in 1913 alone. A mile northeast, on piers above lapping waves, stood the private Luna Park amusement center, all of which but a natatorium (saltwater pool) closed in 1913 after a raucous, seven-year run.
Given the pressures of Seattle’s gargantuan growth, it’s astonishing that bastions of beauty survive intact near this photographic site. Creek-centered and trail-lined, 53-acre Schmitz Park remains a sensory refuge from urban life.
Likewise, Alki Beach Park encircles the peninsula’s northern tip on the water side of Alki and Harbor avenues, still providing a panorama nonpareil. One shudders to envision the vanished vistas had the city not acquired and protected these precious parcels.
So as we navigate and reinvigorate our society post-pandemic, we might do well to express gratitude for the context of our lives, before and behind us, a century ago and now.