TODAY, WE THINK nothing of hauling boxes, baggage, and all manner of business and household goods with motor vehicles. But 130 years ago, a mere blink of an eye in the world’s history, vehicle power was of the four-legged variety.
One firm providing equine infrastructure, founded in 1888, was the Seattle Transfer Company. Its barn and warehouse stood at the edge of southern tideflats that soon would be filled by the city’s massive regrades and dredging, a process that took decades.
To burnish its reputation, Seattle Transfer probably could have fared no better than to pose its fleet, staff and stock for the camera of Frank La Roche. In 1893, the year of our “Then” photo, the city was four years on either side of arguably the two most momentous events of its early days — the Great Seattle Fire of 1889 and the 1897 onset of the northern Gold Rush, for which Seattle served as the jumping-off point. La Roche, arriving in Seattle after the fire, earned fame by traveling more than 100 times to Alaska and the Yukon to capture 3,000 images of Klondike fever.
Here, in La Roche’s warm sepia, we look west to find 57 gents (and five tykes) with an equal number of top hats, bowlers and other chapeaus — even a straw skimmer. Most of the men sit on 27 lanterned rigs pulled by at least 33 horses.
By 1900, fueled by the Gold Rush, Seattle Transfer employed 79 men and 85 horses. In “Seattle and the Orient/Souvenir Edition,” a 184-page book published by The Seattle Times and sold for 25 cents, the firm elicited praise: “The company has the right — in fact, are the only people in Seattle who have it — of boarding all incoming vessels and trains and soliciting baggage.” With no intended distaste, the book also noted how the firm dispatched the waste of its charges: “All the refuse is carried to the rear of the building and from there dumped into the Sound, the waters of which rise with each succeeding tide.”
Seattle Transfer did garner attention for more savory, constructive deeds. In 1898, when New York Evening Telegram readers balloted with nearly 300,000 coupons to proclaim firefighter F.A. Louis and rail conductor R.C. Dodge “the most popular men in the American metropolis,” their prize was a celebrated trip through Seattle to the Klondike. Seattle Transfer handled their 16 pieces of excess baggage.
One year later, in what The Seattle Times termed “a most peculiar accident,” two horses fell into and were imprisoned for nearly 10 hours inside a sewer excavation at Pike Street and Broadway. Who rode to the rescue with a block and tackle to extricate the steeds? Hi ho, Seattle Transfer!