YMCA opens Seattle's first gymnasium in November 1886.

  • By Cassandra Tate
  • Posted 3/08/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3074

In November 1886, the Seattle Young Men's Christian Association moves into new rental quarters at Spring and Front streets (now 1st Avenue). The basement of the building includes the city's first gymnasium, equipped with various rings, bars, and weights and boasting showers with hot water available three times a week.

The YMCA had been founded 10 years earlier as a group devoted to Bible study and Christian dialogue. Not all of the original members were pleased to see it venture into the promotion of physical fitness. Among the most vociferous critics was Dexter Horton (1825-1904), pioneer millhand-turned-banker, who helped organize the Y and served as its first president. When asked to contribute to a fund for a new building with a bigger gymnasium as well as a swimming pool in 1888, he flatly refused.

"No sir, not one cent," he said. "The Association has departed from the purpose for which it was organized, the spiritual uplift of young men, and now you propose to make it a gymnasium and a swimming pool. If the boys need exercise, let them saw wood, and if they want to swim, let them go into the Bay" (Kilbourne, 2).

Others, however, defended the gym as a harmless outlet for youthful energies, one that had the dual benefit of leaving participants physically fit and too exhausted to engage in more sinful activities. "The clerk of sedentary habits may stop at the gymnasium in the early morning before business hours, and by fifteen or twenty minutes of judicious, vigorous exercises start his blood coursing in exhilarating circulation, and insure himself an active, clear brain for the day's duties," wrote one contributor to the YMCA's Monthly Bulletin (October 1886). "He may close the day with mild exercise that will be a better 'night cap' than any questionable beverage to induce sleep."

The facility was open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. It featured all the "latest approved apparatus," including vaults, parallel bars, gymnastics rings, Indian clubs, and medicine balls (Monthly Bulletin, November 1886). F. W. Churchill, a physician, was available to recommend personalized exercise regimens (not unlike a personal trainer today). After November 1887, when a new hot water heater was installed, members could shower in comfort every day.

The gymnasium proved to be far more popular than the Y's Bible classes, prayer meetings, and other religious activities. By February 1887, an average of 350 people a month were using the gymnasium while fewer than a dozen were attending the weekly Bible classes. "Does it pay to have a gymnasium and bathroom?" George Carter, the Y's general secretary, asked in an article published in the Bugle Call two years after the gym was opened. "We find the membership has increased 300 per cent since the above have been introduced."


E. C. Kilbourne, History of Seattle Y.M.C.A, unpublished manuscript dated January 1951; Monthly Bulletin, October 1886, 4; Ibid., November 1886, 2; Bugle Call, November 1888, 4; all in the YMCA Archives, Seattle, Washington.

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