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HERE WE stand, about a century ago, with an unidentified photographer recording five U.S. Postal Service teams and their drivers. The year is about 1905, six years after the Post Office moved from its headquarters on Columbia Street here to the Arlington Hotel. Larger quarters were needed, in part for sorting mail.

On the left is the hotel’s north facade on the corner of University Street and First Avenue. Above the sidewalk on First, the hotel reached four ornate brick stories high with a distinguished conical tower at the corner, not seen here. To the rear there were three more stories reaching about 40 feet down to Post Alley. First named the Gilmore Block, after its owner David Gilmore, for most of its 84 years this sturdy red brick pile was called the Arlington, but wound up as the Bay Building, and it was as the Bay that it was razed in 1974.

By beginning the construction of his hotel before the city’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889, Gilmore performed a considerable, if unwitting, service. The south foundation of the structure was formidable enough to stop the fire from reaching University Street. Offshore, a chain of volunteer firefighters, passing buckets of water pulled from Elliott Bay, stopped the fire’s northerly advance along the quays and trestles built of pilings for warehouses and railroad tracks.

Free mail delivery started in Seattle on Sept. 11, 1887, with four carriers. Remembering that booming Seattle’s population increased in a mere 30 years from 3,533 in 1880 to the 237,194 counted by the federal census in 1910, we may imagine that this quintet of carriers and their teams were a very small minority of what was needed to deliver the mail in 1905. Behind the posing carriers, University Street descends on a timber trestle above both Post Alley and Western Avenue to Railroad Avenue (Alaskan Way). Most likely some of the mail was rolled along the trestle both to and from “Mosquito Fleet” steamers for distribution.

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After the post office moved three blocks to the new Federal Building at Third Avenue and Union Street in 1908, First Avenue between University and Seneca streets continued as a block of hospitality with seven hotels.

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