Mayor Ole Hanson's denunciation of Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power in a 1918 letter to Seattle City Council

  • Posted 11/07/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20468

This letter, written in June 1918 by Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson (1874-1940), is a scathing denunciation of Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power, the firm that operated Seattle's electric streetcar system from 1900 to 1918 under a franchise granted by the city. The mayor read the letter, addressed to the Seattle City Council, to the council, and it was reported and quoted in The Seattle Times the next day. Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power was a private firm, originally named Seattle Electric Company. The firm had a local agent -- at first, Jacob Furth (1840-1914) -- but was controlled by Stone & Webster, a national utility cartel based in Boston. The president of Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power at the time Hanson wrote was A. (Alton) W. Leonard (1873-1959). Mayor Hanson's letter was attached to a letter dated June 24, 1918, from Commissioner of Public Utilities Thomas F. Murphine, which stated that the traction firm owed the city $850,000 including $140,000 in unpaid taxes. In late 1918, the city of Seattle purchased the assets of Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power for $15,000 and thereafter began to run its own transportation system.

The letter, a typescript except where indicated, is transcribed here in full.

To the Honorable City Council,

 I herewith transmit report from the committee appointed by me for the purpose of assisting in solving the jitney problem in Seattle ["jitney" was the common word for a cheap bus or streetcar that ran over a regular route], and for the purpose of recommending new laws and regulations.

I heartily concur in this report, and trust that the proper committee of your Honorable Body will see fit to prepare and introduce at once necessary legislation to carry out the aims outlined.

Our street car transportation is even worse than the committee reports; and the attitude of the Bostonese managers as well as their local representatives leaves but little encouragement to hope for improvement in the future. With their rolling stock deteriorating and becoming more unsafe daily, with barns crowded with idle street cars, the public is backed into suffocating, dirty, unsanitary cars like bananas in a bunch. Every car line in the city is affected, but as yet the traction officials have sneered at any suggestions from the city authorities.

Conditions are all but unbearable, and the service unspeakable.

Today the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company is marketing throughout the nation $12,500,000 worth of gold notes. They have taken a loss through inefficient financiering of $87,500 in interest, which their president, Mr. Leonard, confesses in yesterday's Times. They are paying an enormous bonus, I am informed, to bankers for marketing their bonds, and yet they refuse to carry out the plain obligations of their franchise, as set forth in the attached letter from Commissioner of Public Utilities Thomas F. Murphine. Today they owe the City of Seattle more than $850,000 of which $140,000 is taxes which they refuse to pay. When a city official asked them to carry out their franchise obligations, they attacked him in the public prints of Seattle.

Mr. Leonard, while admitting that his company is earning more money than every before in its history, while he runs large advertisements throughout the nation bragging of his successful profiteering in the City of Seattle, comes then to the city officials and asks for relief. After his company has refused to pay its honest obligations; after it has refused to pay its taxes; after it has refused to give the citizens service; after it has refused to pave its right of way; after it keeps an average of 65 cars during the rush hour periods in its barns at all times, all of which are needed to take care of over-loads; after it has gone to every court available and been soundly and deservedly thrashed by our excellent legal department, it pleads for mercy, and we, kindly disposed, appointed a committee to confer with them.

Mr. Leonard talks with the committee, leaves for Boston to consult his masters, and never again meets with this committee, but treats them with silent contempt. 

Feeling that their line was mis-managed and that waste and inefficiency were the rule of the day, in all kindness we offered to run their street car lines and their power plant, free, in order to prove to the world how inefficient their management was; and our kindness was met with a sneer.

Therefore it seems to me that there can be no peace between the City of Seattle and the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company. Sneaking away in the night, they secure without advertisement the right to issue several million dollars' worth of bonds; but when the necessities of the city arose, where increasing power demands compelled us to seek to develop a new hydro-electric plant, by trickery and insidious publicity they have tried to misrepresent our situation in order to destroy, if possible, our municipal light and power plant, of which our city is so justly proud.

I say again, the only peace that the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company want or will make is the same kind of peace that the Kaiser desires to make with the world. [The Kaiser was the ruler of Germany, which the United States was then fighting in World War I; the war did not end until November 11, 1918.]

We have no desire to stand in the way of the bankers unloading on the public these securities, which are based on the franchise values, but we do desire to say that these franchises are very uncertain in length of tenure, with the management of the enterprise continually violating their sacred bond, and abusing and vilifying all city officials who would check their piratical career.

 The public in Seattle, of course, know that this company rests under a cloud; a cloud of attempted repudiation; a cloud of criminal and indecent past, where legislators and officials were bought and sold; a cloud of shame and disgrace and debauchery; a cloud of incompetence and ignorance of fundamental honesty.

The honorable President of this company waxes indignant that a mere Mayor should oppose and expose his company's schemes and tricks. President Leonard is not the manager of the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company; he is but a chip floating helpless on the stream of corporate greed. Honest in his personal transactions, he serves a dishonest and contract-repudiating corporation. He pays his personal debts, but his company refuses to pay its taxes; and while it steals this money from the tax-payer, it pretends to be his friend. In days gone by, this company has sought alliance with the red light district in order to accomplish its nefarious legislative ends.

Mr. Leonard personally would not let his Packard motor car get so out of repair that it was dangerous to ride in; but look at the condition of the company's street cars!

I desire to ask this Council to make a thorough investigation into the causes of the Alki Point wreck. We should investigate and find out whether it is true that many cars are being run in the city of Seattle which are unsafe to ride in.

I note that President Leonard says his company will be doing business when I am out of politics. He may speak the truth. Time and again his company, with its enormous wealth and looted profits have by bribery, lying, perjury, subsidizing the press, assisted by ballot-box stuffers and the denizens of the underworld, have been able to defeat the servants of the people. Mr. Leonard himself is but a glorified messenger-boy of one of the most unholy profiteers in America; and a thousand times would I sink into political oblivion rather than occupy a position such as his, -- subject to the order and whim of the Bostonese pirates. At least I am a free man, able and willing and anxious to serve my fellow man.

 However I desire to say to Mr. Leonard that his threats of his company's money will have no influence on the city government. We will continue to give them and absolutely square deal. We will continue to be fair in every manner with them, but the Mayor will insist, and I trust the Council will agree that every obligation they have entered into must be carried out to the letter.

I therefore recommend to the Council that all mediation measures be abandoned; that we ask once more that the Traction Company pay its taxes and keep its obligations. 

Respectfully Submitted,

[in handwriting] Ole Hanson

Mayor

[Note in handwriting] attached letter is report of Commission of Public Utilities telling in detail of the $850,000 default of the P.S.T.L & P. Co. [signed] Ole Hanson, Mayor

 


Sources:

Mayor Ole Hanson to Seattle City Council (attached to Thomas F. Murphine, Department of Public Utilities to Ole Hanson, mayor, June 24, 1918), Seattle City Clerk's File 70848, Seattle Municipal Archives; "Mediation in Car Dispute Failure, Says Mayor," The Seattle Times, June 25, 1918, p. 15; "Papers Present Knotty Problems in Car Deal," The Seattle Times, December 8, 1918, p. 23; "City Lays Its Record Before Nation's Altar," The Seattle Times, December 29, 2018, p. 20; HistoryLink.org, the Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "City Light's Birth and Seattle's Early Power Struggles" (by Walt Crowley), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 4, 2017).


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