Seattle's Historic Houseboats

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 8/12/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9507

For more than 100 years Seattle has famously been host to remarkable clusters of floating homes that have helped define the town's social culture and maintain its reputation as a place where unconventional modes of living are enjoyed. Although Seattleites didn't invent houseboats, the young town saw early colonies of them arise at disparate locations along its numerous bays, lakes, and rivers. Some of these communities -- especially those off the Madison Park and Leschi neighborhoods on Lake Washington --  were formed by the well-to-do who enjoyed summering aboard their fancy abodes. Others -- along the Elliott Bay waterfront, the Duwamish River, Harbor Island, Salmon Bay, Lake Union, Portage Bay, and Union Bay -- were mainly inhabited by workers struggling to stay financially afloat. Because of the low-cost living, the colonies also attracted bohemians, political radicals, and a certain share of criminals. Scandalized uplanders -- especially those in middle-class neighborhoods who literally and figuratively "looked down" on the waterborne communities -- viewed them as squalid, lawless nests of anarchic outcasts, rowdy riff-raff, and the flotsam of society. City Hall responded to the landlubbers' concerns about property values and views -- not to mention underlying outrage over moral turpitude -- with decades of land-use battles, health department inquiries, and other legalistic crusades against the floating homes. Over time, several colonies were effectively decimated through zoning wars, shoreline-redevelopment schemes, and freeway-construction projects, but the shrunken-but-still-thriving colony (of about 480 units) on Lake Union -- with its increasingly luxurious structures, one of which served as a key setting in the 1993 Hollywood blockbuster, Sleepless In Seattle -- attests to the continuing desirability of this unusual lifestyle.

Houseboat Homesteads

Seattle was founded in 1852-1853 as a seaport town whose first industry was logging -- an enterprise that sometimes towed floating bunkhouses and cookhouses up rivers for crews' use. Because timber work is seasonal -- just like the Northwest's other main industry, fishing -- some of those lumbering loggers and salty sailors quite naturally (in order to preserve their financial savings) took to building themselves floating shacks from scrap boards, and living rent- or mortgage-free lifestyles during their off seasons. The lifestyle was not, however, perfectly carefree: Storms and heavy snows threatened the houseboats' viability -- indeed, one historic account notes an incident that saw a Puget Sound-based unit torn from its mooring, its two residents luckily rescued only after it was located, partially-submerged, seven miles out to sea.

By the 1880s Seattle's central waterfront was the site of a number of shabby houseboats anchored just offshore or moored to pier pilings and wharves arrayed just inside the then-trestled Railroad Avenue (today's Alaskan Way). There was also a subset of sailors, fishermen, or dockworkers who coexisted there by living aboard sea-worthy vessels -- or boat houses -- in the off-seasons when they (the "live-aboards") weren't trolling the sound or local lakes.

Not long after the Yesler cable-car line was installed in 1888, a couple of considerably more upscale colonies arose along the western shores of Lake Washington, where a few privately operated destinations like the Victorian-era beachfront parks at Madison and Leschi had been founded. There  -- and off Madrona and Denny-Blaine -- is where well-heeled families enjoyed new summer getaway houseboats or, as Westerner magazine dubbed them, "Amphibian Houses," and joining them were some elegant wooden boats. In 1902 it was reported that there were nearly 1,000 houseboaters in Seattle, and another local newspaper noted that:

"Within the past few years house boats have formed a part of summering in the West. Both on the Sound and along the fresh water lakes all the comforts of a home may be transported from one inviting and secluded spot to another as the inmates desire" (Seattle Mail and Herald, p.5).

But that gentrified aspect was a mere sliver of the whole gritty story.

Scoundrels and Scalawags

The original reputation of houseboat colonies as refuges for hard-scrabble laborers, rough-and-tumble ne'er-do-wells, and the chronically unemployed was not entirely undeserved -- and more than one administration at Seattle's city hall did what it could to dissuade their growth. In 1908, and citing sanitary infractions -- a modus operandi that would be wielded many times throughout subsequent decades -- the health department forced the central waterfront group to move along, and some of those houses were towed to sites along the Duwamish River and Harbor Island where they were less obtrusive, a geographical attribute that allowed for discreet shenanigans including coin counterfeiting (by noted criminal T. H. Dixon), moonshine brewing, and prostitution.

At that point the most visually prominent colonies in town must have been the ones along the shores of Lake Union, a small body of water located just northeast of downtown Seattle. Due to its proximity to such neighborhoods such as Queen Anne Hill, Fremont, Wallingford, University District, Montlake, Capitol Hill -- and the old Cascade area (today's South Lake Union) -- these colonies would, in time, begin to attract open-minded people of various backgrounds, including college professors, judges, cultural bohemians, fine artists, and nature lovers. But the lake they moved to was hardly a pristine paradise …

Lake Union


The history of Lake Union -- so named by pioneer Thomas Mercer (1813-1898) in 1854 -- includes the many decades when it was ringed by loud and dirty lumber mills, a chemical plant, a tannery, a varnish manufacturer, an asphalt plant, an asbestos factory, the Seattle Gas Company's 1906 coal-gasification facility (at today's Gas Works Park), a sand and gravel lot, shipbuilding yards, and other hard-core maritime industries. Polluted by industrial debris, toxins, garbage, and free-flowing sewage from many of those fine neighborhoods, Lake Union was not widely seen as a desirable place to live -- except by the economically challenged or by antisocial hermits.

Perhaps the most notable early character in Lake Union's nascent colony was Robert W. Patten (1832-1913) -- Seattle's famed "Umbrella Man." An eccentric misfit par excellence who had arrived in town in the 1890s, Patten was among the first to inhabit a houseboat there. Making ends meet by fishing and doing odd-jobs, Patten came to be widely known for two main things: telling dubious yarns about his life's back-story (he claimed to be a veteran of the Indian, Mexican, and Civil wars, a personal acquaintance of President Lincoln, and an associate of Kit Carson), and wearing a unique, self-constructed, umbrella-hat in his meanderings around town. Patten became such a local icon that from 1909 through 1913 The Seattle Times used a humorous cartoon of him in their daily weather reports.

The 1907 Shore-Lands Sale


Although the Washington State Constitution recognized the public's ownership of waterways along all navigable harbors, rivers, and lakes, it was less clear about private parties' property claims to underwater lands. And this murkiness led to decades' worth of legal scuffles that impacted the piers and docks that hosted strings of houseboats. But the issue came to one early head in 1907 when supporters of Seattle's upcoming world's fair -- the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P Exposition) of 1909 -- sought to raise funds for its development. On January 1, Seattle Senator George U. Piper introduced in the state Legislature Senate Bill 101, which directed that the shorelands along Lakes Union and Washington be sold off to fund the A-Y-P Exposition. Rammed through within 24 hours, the bill -- which was amended to exclude Lake Washington -- angered property owners along Lake Union who were forced to buy the adjacent submerged lands if they wanted to control them, and who also resented having to support the A-Y-P endeavor without the help of their Lake Washington counterparts.

Long-story-short: over time many of those disgruntled landowners would see the benefits of building docks and renting out moorage spots to houseboaters. Meanwhile, in 1909 it was reported that 36 "floating homes dotted the shore from Union Bay to Madison Park, many as comfortable as the modern homes in fashionable residential sections" (Droker, p.47). And in that same year it was reported that one of the A-Y-P's many temporary structures, the Hostess House, was purchased by an enterprising individual who hauled it from the fairgrounds, converted it to a houseboat, and floated it on Lake Union (where by 1914 there were a couple hundred houseboats). Still surviving in 1935, the home was sold to Harold Butler, who three decades later was still raising a family there. Another family who has famously lived for generations on the lake is that of O. H. "Doc" Freeman -- the owner of a (circa 1928) marine supply shop (999 N Northlake Way). To this day his son resides dockside.

Unspoken Codes, Golden Rules

Some gravitated to houseboat colonies because they were affordable and/or convenient to their jobsites, whereas were drawn to these abodes because they can be a comfortable place to live in relative anonymity. Surely that must have been a factor in why more than a few Wobblies -- those hounded members of that radical labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) -- took refuge there. Certainly the tumultuous labor strife that Seattle saw -- including the IWW's ill-fated uprisings, the infamous General Strike of 1919, and the deadly waterfront shutdown of 1934 -- only added to the wider community's early distrust of the colonies' inhabitants. Add to those social upheavals, the 1916 dawn of alcohol prohibition -- plus the economic crash of 1929 (followed by the decade-long Great Depression) -- and resultant mistrust snowballed right along with the growth of the desperate populations of those colonies. 

Given their circumstances it was understandable that among the houseboating ranks were criminal elements -- people who founded brothels, gambling casinos, and/or liquor distilling enterprises in their homes. And with those illicit activities came an anti-snitching ethos. As The Seattle Times later noted about those wild times: "Some of the stories behind the houseboat population are as colorful as anything that ever came out of Seattle's history, but respect for another's privacy and past is an unspoken code on the lake" (Fish).

Houseboat Hooverville

Prohibition was repealed in 1933, but the Depression continued on and thousands of newly homeless people found it necessary to seek shelter by joining fellow squatters in abysmal shacktowns, the most famous of several local ones being the 1,000-person "Hooverville," located just south of the Pioneer Square area and bitterly named in "honor" of America's do-nothing president, Herbert Hoover (1874-1964). Another such village arose over on Harbor Island, and the existing houseboat colonies there thus saw significant numbers of new floating shacks appear.

It wasn't until the spring of 1941 -- with preparations for World War II fueling an economic resurgence -- that increased employment opportunities depopulated these areas to the extent that the city was able to bulldoze Hooverville. Simultaneously, the Harbor Island colony dissipated, with some homes being relocated to Lake Union. But the houseboat lifestyle was one some people had grown quite fond of. Even after the war ended in 1945, it was estimated that there were about 2,500 houseboats in around Seattle -- enough that Life magazine deemed to highlight them in a feature article in 1946.

The Question of Water Quality


The legitimate issue of water quality -- though not enough of an imperative to spur Seattle, during its first hundred years, to develop sewer systems adequate to keep raw sewage from flowing freely into Lake Union and Lake Washington -- was one that was repeatedly used as a cudgel against the houseboats. In 1922 the city health commissioner, Dr. H. M. Read announced that Lake Union's 1,100 houseboats were making it a "virtual cesspool" (Seattle Star). Concern about water pollution was legitimate, but the focus on the houseboats was misdirected. At the time, many of the city's densely populated neighborhoods were still dumping sewage directly into the lakes, so the fact that houseboats did likewise hardly made them the main culprit.

Yet the attacks continued: A community group on Capitol Hill -- the North Broadway Improvement Club -- charged that houseboats impacted the beauty of the shoreline and thus lowered nearby property values. In response the colonies founded a Houseboat and Home Protective League to combat the busybodies -- but in 1927 the city did pass an ordinance condemning most of the moorage properties on Lake Washington, and the colonies located there along with it. Further regulatory action in 1938 effectively banished the lingering homes that stretched from Rainier Beach to Madison Park. That same year the Portage Bay Improvement Club began attacks on the 200-houseboat colony located there. But because sewer lines were available there, the city council couldn't support the complaints. A similar anti-houseboat crusade was sparked in 1941, another (against Union Bay homes) in 1944, another (by the Montlake Community Club against the Portage Bay colony) in 1952, and so on.

Such tensions simmered on. In 1957 City Hall -- which had "long tended to consider the [Lake Union] colony as a slum area that should be zoned out of existence as fast as all possible" -- made its move, "adopt[ing] a zoning code so harsh it put almost every houseboat in a non-compliance status" (Halpin). Then in March, 1958, Mayor Gordon S. Clinton (1920-2011) -- who would earn a reputation for being generally unsympathetic to houseboaters -- requested that the chairman of the city's Board of Public Works, engineer Roy W. Morse, prepare a report detailing the number of houseboats within Seattle's boundaries -- and, more importantly, to note their connections, if any, to municipal sewer lines. In May Morse's report led to the drafting of an ordinance that would have required houseboats to hook up to a sewer main -- an illogical political gesture given that such infrastructure in the area was still nonexistent. But, several more years of skirmishes finally came to a resolution after the 1964 commencement of construction of the Portage Bay-Lake Union Sewer Line, which was finally completed in 1965.

The Eviction Epidemic

Meanwhile, 100 houseboats on Lake Union's Roanoke Bay were evicted back in 1958 to accommodate the construction of new apartments and the expansion plans of the Cadrenell Yacht Landing. Then, in June 1961, an additional 24 homeowners (including Pettus) received eviction notices from their moorings on the opposite side of the lake, just off Westlake Avenue N, and in September, 53 houseboats on Portage Bay faced eviction due to the imminent construction of a viaduct linking the new Evergreen Point Floating Bridge to the new I-5. Moored on three main piers (at 2340 Boyer Avenue E, 2515 Everett Avenue E, and 1800 E Roanoke Street) some of the homes' owners would struggle to squeeze into alternate sites over on Lake Union. Nearly half of them would simply be abandoned. One longtime resident -- 80 year-old Fred L. Anspaugh -- garnered much media attention for his stubborn commitment to "sit tight" in the dilapidated houseboat at Roanoke that he'd lived in since building the structure since the early 1930s.

Meanwhile, some of Anspaugh's neighbors -- including by a King County deputy assessor, George Neale, fought back. His efforts in court failed to force the state to compensate the evicted, but "Doc" Freeman was convinced to extend his three moorage docks (at the 2000 block of Fairview Avenue E) to make room for 15 newcomers -- but even that kind act required the surmounting of much governmental red tape. And the battles continued. In September 1962, 73 houseboat owners received eviction notices produced in order to make room for a new Coast and Geodetic Survey Base off Fairview Avenue E. Then in October Mayor Clinton proposed that houseboats be required to adhere to standard building codes -- and be individually licensed (something owners of land-based houses didn't have to do). Spirited public hearings shot those ideas down, but Clinton wasn't done yet. Houseboaters seeking to move their homes to cross-lake docks were refused moving permits, a tactic countered when they formed the Lake Union Vessel Association and registered their houseboats as "vessels" with the U.S. Customs Office, trumping City Hall.

That November saw the houseboaters formalizing their nonprofit Floating Homes Association, which was initially headed by President Neale and Administrative Secretary Pettus. Though well-organized now, challenges were serious; truth is, there was a physical limit to how much additional space could ever be provided for houseboats as development continued and population density increased around town. Still, there were glimmers of hope: The city council's Public Safety Committee had issued a belated statement of support for houseboats. Then in 1963 the Seattle Planning Commission issued their Lake Union Study report, which forecast that in time the area would be transformed from an industrial eyesore into to a landscaped mecca where pleasure-boat moorages and restaurants would be encouraged to locate. Then two Seattle city councilmen, Wing Luke (1925-1965) and A. Ludlow Kramer (1932-2004), proposed the formation of a special advisory committee on houseboats, a resolution which passed in August 1964.

Co-ops and Mega-apartments


Meanwhile, the number of houseboats continued falling and had diminished to only about one-fifth that of a quarter-century prior, to a total of 543. And changes at the lake carried on. In 1967 its very first cooperatively owned moorage facility, the Flo-Villa Corporation, emerged, and in 1968 the City Council produced Seattle's first comprehensive ordinance governing new construction (and major remodels), and formalizing sewer hookup requirements. That same year an all-new moorage development -- Portage-at-Bay -- was built to accommodate a new generation of
architecturally designed houseboats, and later another arose at Mallard Cove. Positive steps all around, but the improved standards now being enforced were too costly for a number of struggling owners and by 1970 the total number of houseboats had dwindled to about 450.

And the threats to the Lake Union colony continued. In 1969 the John King Construction Company finessed land-use laws and received a permit to erect a hulking five-story apartment complex -- the Union Harbor complex (2301 Fairview Avenue E) -- over the lakebed at the former site of Fairview Boat Works. Despite protests by the Floating Homes Association, by editors at both The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and by the town's premier conservationist, architect Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985), the project was completed. It did however, lead the state lands commissioner, Bert Cole (1910-1993), to announce tougher policies regarding such use of underwater lands, and any such similar projects were formally prohibited by the state Shoreline Management Act of 1972.

This Old Houseboat

Although the Lake Union colony continued to shrink, its public profile -- as an oasis of tolerance -- had gained traction over the years. As the 1950s flowed into the 1960s, the rental homes within colonies increasingly attracted college kids, and artsy and creative types. Lake Union became a homebase (or hangout) for numerous painters, sculptors, and notable musicians from the jazz, rock 'n' roll, and folk realms. One player who was involved in various escapades there was the mysterious Billy Roberts (b. 1936) -- author of the folk classic "Hey Joe." Then with the flowering of America's counter-cultural revolution, a considerable number of houseboats came to be occupied by hippie households -- a trend that continued well into the 1970s.

It was in 1976 that the city council approved a Master Program -- a plan (sparked by the voters' approval of the Shoreline Management Act in 1972) and pushed by Mayor Wesley Uhlman (b. 1935) and councilman, John Miller (b.1938) -- which codified regulations to ensure Lake Union's diversified marine environment, including houseboats. As the 1970s wound down, escalating moorage fees -- and related efforts to seek rent controls -- were a major flashpoint in what would be a decades-long tussle between dock owners and houseboat owners. Cries of "monopoly" were countered with that of "socialism," and the convoluted and drawn-out fight would progress from battlefronts in the city council chambers to the state legislature, to the Superior Court, to the state Supreme Court. In time the homeowners would find some sense of stability by agreeing to significant moorage fee increases -- but at just about that point in time, the condominium craze brought new pressures to the neighborhood, as did the colonies' higher public profile.

Around 1980 the production crew for cable TV's This Old House show arrived in Seattle and host Bob Vila took viewers on a tour of a fabulously renovated houseboat. When the program aired it caught the eyes and imagination of writer Jeff Asch, who was so charmed that "in 1990, I get this idea for a love story where the two people don't meet, and I thought it'd be really cool if I set it on a houseboat. Then I get to go to Seattle, I get to hang out on a houseboat, and what isn't cool about that?" (Weicking).

Battle In Seattle

The concept was so cool, in fact, that the resulting movie -- 1993's Sleepless In Seattle (which starred Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) -- eventually reeled in nearly $228 million. While the film became what the town's Convention and Visitors Bureau has deemed to be modern-day "Americana," the houseboat itself was instantly established as a must-see for tourists -- something that the Argosy service, Ride The Ducks, and Waterways Cruises all highlight by popular demand.

Meanwhile, Lake Union has evolved into a true urban gem. In addition to boasting popular shoreline attractions including restaurants and nightspots -- along with Gas Works Park (and several additional street-end parks), the Center for Wooden Boats, and (soon) the new Museum of History & Industry -- its houseboat colonies (replete with newer eye-popping homes that are the darlings of architecture fans) stand as a testament to the resilience of their owners, who battled long-standing opposition to their very existence by landlubbers who failed to appreciate their contribution to the history and rich social fabric of Seattle.

Battles are won or lost but it seems that the war is never fully resolved. In July 2010 a local news outlet featured an online story titled: "BANNED! State to Seattle; No New Houseboats." In addition to mentioning the several, still-available, upscale moorage slips at the Wards Cove On Lake Union development (88 E Hamlin Street), it broke the news that the state's Department of Ecology had directed the City of Seattle to review and update its Shoreline Master Program, the rules of which govern the use of the town's waterways.

Last updated in 1987,  the SMP had given houseboaters some sense of stability by declaring houseboats as a "preferred" use of shorelines. Yet draft versions of the update would reportedly "downgrade houseboats from a 'preferred' water use to an 'allowed' one. That's probably a nuanced change for most people. But for many houseboaters -- for whom the historical houseboat fights with 'uplanders' are well known -- the change feels like an erosion of legitimacy" (Ho).

The conflict continues.


Sources:

"Seattle's Unique Floating Population," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 5, 1902, p. 29; "The West Outdoors: How People of Puget Sound Spend Their Summer Time," Seattle Mail and Herald, August 26, 1905 pp. 4-5; "Amphibian Houses of the Northwest," The Westerner, April 1906, p. 20; "Lakes Called Health Menace," Seattle Star, March 24, 1922, p. 1; "Houseboat homesteaders," Argus, December 20, 1939 p. 1; "Lake Dwellers: Houseboats Prove Cheap and Handy Way to Live in the Center of Seattle," Life, November 4, 1946, pp. 131-134; "Mayor Clinton Asks Report on Houseboat Issue," The Seattle Times, March 3, 1958 p. 10; "Move Underway to Curb Raw Sewage From Houseboats," Ibid., May 29, 1958 p. 32; Douglas Willix, "Licensing Plan for Houseboats Hits Opposition," Ibid., November 14, 1961, p. 29; "50 Houseboats in Path of Freeway Link Doomed," Ibid.,  September 24, 1961 p. 59; Laurie Fish, "Sad Song For Houseboating -- A Fading Life," Ibid., September 27, 1961, p. 15; Hill Williams, "No Light, No Water: Houseboat Owner, 80, 'Sitting Tight,' Ibid., January 13, 192, p. 1; "75 Lake Union Houseboats Will Be Displaced," Ibid.,  August 16, 1962, p. 7; Charles Dunsire," Gloom Shrouds Houseboat Row," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 16, 1962, p. 1; James Halpin, "Suburbia Afloat in City's Center," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Pictorial magazine, February 16, 1964 pp. 2-5; Susan Hutchison, "Lake Union Home Owners Seek Ban on Apartments," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 2, 1969, p. 6; Dick Young, "Lake Union Houseboats Being Swamped By Prosperity," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 11, 1972, p. A-12; "Houseboat Owners Get Protection," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 20, 1977 p. A-3; "Judge Overrules Houseboat Law," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 28, 1978 p. A-4; "City Houseboat Law 'Saved' by Ray Veto," The Seattle Times, May 16, 1979 p. A-5; Charmaine Johannes, "'Grass Root' Lobbyists Afloat: the New Lake Union Association Takes Action." Seattle Sun, September 5, 1979 p. 3; Steven Ponder, "Rocking The Houseboat: A Vote to Sink Seattle's Law," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 31, 1980 p. A6; "Calm Troubled Houseboat Waters" (editorial), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 11, 1980 p. A-8; "Council Stays Eviction of Houseboat Owners -- For Now," The Seattle Times, June 28, 1983, p. B-8; "Houseboat Peace," (editorial), Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 6, 1984, p. A-14; Dick Lilly, "Houseboats Cut Adrift by Condo Conversions: Skyrocketing Moorages are Forcing Renters Out of Their Waterfront Homes," The Seattle Times, June 5, 1990, p. B-1; Steve Wiecking, "Home Movies," Seattle Metropolitan, November 2009, p. 48; Howard Droker, Seattle's Unsinkable Houseboats: An Illustrated History (Seattle: Watermark Press, 1977); Beth Means and Bill Keasler, "A Short History of Houseboats in Seattle," Floating Homes Association website accessed on August 2, 2010 (http://www.seattlefloatinghomes.org/about/history);  Vanessa Ho, "BANNED! State to Seattle; No New Houseboats / Seattle wants to ban new houseboats," Seattle Post-Intelligence website accessed July 27, 2010 (http://www.seattlepi.com).


Related Topics:   Seattle Neighborhoods

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