After the Great Fire of 1889, a cluttered seaboard block held a tower for the Harbormaster — and possibly the opportunity for a little sea-bound ‘kidnapping’

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HERE IS THE LAST busy remnant of Railroad Avenue that was constructed piece-by-piece on the central waterfront following the city’s Great Fire of 1889. This Webster and Stevens portrait of it dates, most likely, from 1909. By then, most of the waterfront’s new railroad docks were in place, from King Street on the south to the Pike Street Wharf. But not here. This vigorous confusion of ships and sheds is the interrupting exception.

The cluttered seaboard block begins on the left with Fire Station No. 5 at Madison Street. The purpose of its tower was for more than hanging wet hoses to dry — it also served as an observatory for the Harbormaster. The station was one of four speedily built after the 1889 fire. The Snoqualmie, the city’s first fireboat, seen right of center with its dark double stacks, is parked near the station. Far right, reaching Railroad Avenue between Columbia and Marion streets, is the east end of the new Colman Dock. It was built in 1908-09 for the expected crush of tourists visiting Seattle for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition. The dock was replaced in the mid-1930s to welcome the Black Ball Line’s new art deco ferry, the streamlined and yet generally trembling Kalakala.

Not trembling was the most famous resident of this block, the Flyer, the sleek mosquito fleet steamer. While its name is posted at the scene’s center, edging the horizon along the crown of a shed, the steamer is away, surely at work. Its routine itinerary was back and forth to Tacoma, covering 60,000 to 70,000 miles a year. It consumed about 24 cords of wood a day. Note the firewood below and on the dock to the right of the “You’ll Like Tacoma” sign. The physically large but rhetorically modest sign was adopted by Tacoma boosters to lure fairgoers to Commencement Bay and the “City of Destiny.”

Also below the sign is the Burton, the passenger steamer nestled between the Snoqualmie fireboat and the stacks of firewood. The 93-foot Burton’s raucous history gets sensational coverage in “The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest,” edited by Gordon Newell. With the island-tending steamer the Vashon, the Burton ran “one of the most bitter and spirited rivalries in the history of Sound steam-boating.” Rate wars, races, pitched battles between the crews and collisions “were the order of the day.” You may doubt, with me, the dirtiest of these dirty tricks: “the custom of a steamboat man of helpfully picking up a baby and carrying it aboard his craft on the theory that the mother would follow it and become a paying customer.”

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We have not yet found the name for the nifty little port-holed steamer, front and center. We suspect it was a patrol boat servicing the Harbormaster, so also handy for chasing any sea-bound “kidnappers” who might first be spied from the tower.