From England to Boston
Cotterill was born on November 18, 1865, in Oxford, England, the son of a gardener. His family immigrated to the United States through Boston in May 1872 when he was six, and they settled on a farm in Montclair, New Jersey. He graduated from high school there at the age of 15 as class valedictorian. Cotterill found work as a rod man on a railroad survey in New Jersey and trained to be a surveyor and an engineer.
In 1883, at the age of 18, he and his father and brother migrated to the Pacific Northwest, hoping to find work on the Northern Pacific Railroad's Cascade Division. They discovered that work on that project had been suspended. With 25 cents in his pocket, he sought out surveying jobs. When his father and brother returned to the East in 1884, Cotterill decided to visit his friend Robert Moran (1857-1943) who with his brothers ran a Seattle shipyard. Lacking openings for engineers or surveyors, the Moran Brothers employed Cotterill as a bookkeeper.
Survey work followed and Cotterill also laid out the platting and seating diagram for the Frye Opera House. There followed jobs with the Columbia & Puget Sound Railway and the Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern Railway. In the employ of City Surveyor R. H. Thomson (1856-1949), Cotterill worked on surveys and on the construction of the first sewers in the city. He surveyed land in West Seattle to make five-acre tracts, and laid out the plan for the city of Sidney (Port Orchard) in Kitsap County. Cotterill finally got his job with the Northern Pacific in 1886. He also helped to prospect and open the coal mines at Gilman (Issaquah) and Grand Ridge.
When R.H. Thomson became City Engineer in 1892, he appointed Cotterill as an assistant. Together they developed the Cedar River water supply system. It was Cotterill who proposed the novel plan of pledging the receipts from the delivery of water as collateral for the $1,250,000 to be borrowed to build the system. This plan led to a special election in 1895 and Cotterill was drawn into the public arena speaking and writing in support of the issue. Other significant projects influenced by Thomson and Cotterill included 25 miles of bicycle trails, the filling of tide flats south of Pioneer Square, and the development of harbor plats for piers.
From Plats to Politics
In 1900, Cotterill was drawn into the controversy over vice in Seattle. After gold was discovered in the Klondike, Seattle became an open city where gambling, prostitution, and other vices were openly practiced. City officials issued licenses for brothels and casinos, leaving fertile ground for bribery and graft. Originally a Republican, in 1900, Cotterill supported Democrat William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). Cotterill ran for mayor in 1900 as a non-partisan candidate, but his movement merged with the Democratic Party. In a city, county, and state dominated by Republicans, Cotterill lost. He resigned as assistant city engineer and resumed private practice.
Cotterill also supported the public ownership of utilities and he became identified as a progressive. In 1902, the Democratic Party urged him to run for congressman-at-large and despite running 3,000 votes ahead of other Democratic candidates, he lost.
A Progressive Republican
In 1906, he ran for the state senate in a strong Republican district, but with the support of progressive Republicans, he won, one of three Democrats in a body of 42. Cotterill became the leader of progressive Republicans, resulting in the passage of a direct primary law in 1907. He used his leadership to back the construction of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and to preserve shorelines for the University of Washington and for city parks.
In 1909, Cotterill took the lead in drafting the local option law in a step towards prohibition. He framed the constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. Woman suffrage in Washington became reality in 1910, just in time to help him in another campaign. He helped pass the law that provided for the formation of port districts and he helped with the Washington Workman's Compensation Law, which became a model for the nation.
1910 Seattle Mayor Hiram Gill (1869-1919) came under fire for his permissive approach to vice. He declared Seattle "an open city" and he appointed Charles Wappenstein as Chief of Police to implement the policy. Gill was accused of undermining Seattle City Light by secretly cooperating with the privately owned Seattle Electric Company. Voters, with the help of newly enfranchised women, recalled Gill in 1911. Wappenstein later went to prison for his crimes.
Real estate man George W. Dilling (1869-1951) was elected mayor to replace Gill, and Cotterill ran for the office in 1912. Hiram Gill ran too, as a Republican. Cotterill had long supported the public ownership of utilities and with his stance on Prohibition, he garnered the votes of the "moral" middle class and women.
Cotterill v. The Seattle Times
Because of his opposition to Hiram Gill and the open town, Cotterill did not enjoy the support of Seattle Times Publisher Alden Blethen (1845-1915). Blethen was staunchly anti-labor and pro-capital and came down on the opposite side of Cotterill on almost every issue. Over the years, The Times consistently ridiculed Cotterill and his positions. As mayor, Cotterill fought vice and he adopted a permissive attitude towards street speeches and demonstrations by socialists, radicals, and union organizers. This enraged Blethen.
On July 17, 1913, during the city's annual Potlach celebration, a fight broke out between some servicemen and a soapbox orator from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Blethen was not above publishing fabrications to make his point and The Times reported a near riot in inflammatory terms. The following day a real riot broke out in Pioneer Square that resulted in the destruction of the offices of the IWW offices and of the Socialist Party. Cotterill reacted by closing saloons, suspending street meetings, and closing The Seattle Times. Blethen had the order against The Times overturned by a friendly judge who also issued arrest warrants for Cotterill and Chief of Police Claude Bannick. Blethen then tried to have Cotterill recalled. But he failed.
Cotterill served as mayor amid a storm of labor unrest. The Teamsters went on strike for union recognition and for a closed shop (all employees belong to one union). Employers, supporting an open shop, brought in strikebreakers, and violence ensued. On December 22, 1913, representatives of the Employers' Association met with Cotterill in his office to protest the lack of police protection. Association Secretary W. J. Grambs accused Cotterill of being dominated by the unions. Cotterill called a policeman to eject Grambs from his office.
Cotterill attempted to apply his law and order and prohibition stances to the suppression of vice and corruption within the police department. Seattle Police made 17,078 warrantless arrests in 1912 (of which 5,699 were dismissed), and these arrests earned Cotterill criticism from his friends and supporters for violating free speech and free assembly. Such heavy police activity also provided opportunities for graft and bribery. Cotterill left office with the Teamsters' strike and the vice issue unsettled.
Cotterill did not seek reelection in 1914 and instead ran for the U.S. Senate, unsuccessfully. Prohibition, which he supported, finally succeeded in 1914 when the state of Washington banned the manufacture, sale, and possession of alcohol.
In 1916, Cotterill was appointed Chief Engineer of the state highway department.
In 1922, he was elected to the first of four terms on the Seattle Port Commission. Cotterill had always supported the development of seaports as public entities. After his service on the Port Commission he took a position in the King County Assessor's Office, which he held until the age of 84 when he retired.
George Cotterill died in a Seattle nursing home on October 13, 1958.