Despite improvements, West Seattle residents are warned of continuing water-supply problems by superintendent of the Seattle Water Department on July 13, 1925.

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 12/02/2020
  • Essay 21123
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On July 13, 1925, Seattle Water Department Superintendent George F. Russell (1874-1928) warns that, despite new water mains and other improvements, West Seattle's water supply will remain inadequate in several parts of the suburb. Voters in the former City of West Seattle had approved annexation to Seattle in 1907, in significant part to obtain adequate potable water. This proves to be a long time in coming. Even after various upgrades are made in the mid-1920s, several areas, particularly in the southern parts of the Duwamish Peninsula, still endure frequent episodes of little or no water. Service will improve in 1929 with the addition of the Southwest Spokane Street Pump Station, the third such facility in West Seattle, but the chronic water shortages will only be resolved in 1932 when, 25 years after annexation, the suburb's first in-ground reservoir, with a capacity of 68,000,000-gallons, is put into service.

Too Much Salt Water, Too Little Fresh

The first non-Native settlers in what would become Seattle landed at Alki Point on ­­­­­November 13, 1851. They hoped to found a community there, on the westernmost point of what would be called the Duwamish Peninsula, but the place they chose was ill-suited to their ambitions. It was surrounded on three sides by the cold salt water of Puget Sound, wind- and tide-swept, and lacked a natural harbor. Within a few months nearly all of the small band had moved about four miles east to the west-facing shore of Elliott Bay, where they founded Seattle. A handful of hardy holdouts tried to make a go of it at Alki, but by 1863 had given up. After that, "[f]or the next decade or so, Alki lay in an eddy of history, left to only a few intrepid souls" (Tate).

In the 1870s a few industries took root on the more sheltered eastern shore of the Duwamish Peninsula on what is now Harbor Avenue SW. With them came workers, and over the ensuing years several more industries were established, attracting more workers. A number of small communities sprang up to house them and their families and to provide a few of the amenities of urban life. In 1885 the town of West Seattle was first platted in what is today's Admiral District. It was largely taken over by the West Seattle Land and Improvement Company (WSLIC) in 1888 and became a business and commercial center. In 1900 WSLIC recorded a replat that included much of the northern portion of the peninsula, and in 1902 the City of West Seattle became its first, and only, incorporated municipality.

By then it had become abundantly clear that the few streams and springs used by WSLIC to provide fresh water for West Seattle were simply not adequate. In 1901 the Seattle Water Department had completed the first pipeline from the Cedar River and had more water than its population could use. As early as 1903 many in West Seattle were advocating annexation, and in May that year an editorial in the West Seattle News stated, "There is no city in the world with a better water supply than our big neighbor across the bay ... and this can be ours for the asking" ("Editorial").

The asking would take another four years, and a reliable water supply much longer. In May 1907 the City of West Seattle annexed the contiguous areas of Spring Hill to the south, Alki Point to the west, and, importantly, Youngstown to the east. Youngstown lay between the rest of the peninsula and the Duwamish River, and any water supply from Seattle had to come from that direction. With the additions, West Seattle's city limits now included the entire Duwamish Peninsula, more than 16 square miles. On June 29, 1907, its residents voted overwhelmingly, 325 to 8, to become part of Seattle. One of the strongest arguments in favor of annexation was the critical need for water.

Drip, Drip, Drip

Unfortunately, improving West Seattle's water system was going to take some time. In 1907 the only access to and from West Seattle by land was a rickety, temporary swing bridge over the Duwamish River (which was already too polluted to be tapped for potable water). In 1910 a more substantial (but also temporary) swing bridge was built, and it carried two water mains that brought the first Cedar River water to West Seattle in August of that year.

The water went to a pumping station at Harbor Avenue SW and SW Spokane Street, from where it was pumped to wooden storage tanks on high ground at 40th Avenue SW and SW Charleston Street. The Seattle Times reported, "The elevated tanks are supplied through a pumping station at the foot of the hill in the vicinity of Spokane Avenue with a sufficient capacity to give the suburb adequate water service for many years" ("West Seattle Enjoys Cedar River Water").

This was a considerable overstatement. The entire West Seattle supply of water went from the pump station through a single, 20-inch water main, which was simply too small to meet the need. And if that wasn't enough of a problem, the flow was interrupted as often as 40 times a day when the bridge swung open to allow river traffic to pass.

It would be 1918 before a new and higher bridge was built and the water pipelines sunk deep enough in the Duwamish to not interfere with ships and barges. Although there were no more daily interruptions due to bridge openings, in 1923 George F. Russell, superintendent of the Seattle Water Department, made it plain in his annual report that West Seattle still "had the poorest and most unreliable supply of any portion of the city ..." (McWilliams, 24).

Still Not Enough

Work began in 1913 to straighten the serpentine Duwamish River near where it met Elliott Bay, a project largely completed by 1920. This resulted in a much deeper waterway with two straight branches and the artificial Harbor Island between them. Other projects deemed less critical were put on hold, first by the outbreak of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic, then by a worldwide recession that followed.

West Seattle's water-starved residents were given new reason for hope in late 1924 with the completion of a much-delayed, concrete-lined tunnel, eight feet in diameter and buried 70 feet beneath the bed of the Duwamish Waterway. It carried two 30-inch steel water mains that fed a 500,000-gallon steel tank built in 1919 at 36th Avenue SW and SW Myrtle Street. In 1925 a second pumping station went into service at 4th Avenue SW and SW Kenyon Street, and new water mains were installed to distribute the precious fluid to the particularly hard-hit residents in the southern portion of the peninsula.

But hopes for an adequate water supply were pretty much dashed by the plain-speaking Superintendent Russell on July 13, 1925. In a public statement that day, reported in The Seattle Times, he warned:

"Even if the Kenyon Street water mains begin serving water-famished West Seattle next Saturday they will not entirely relieve the present water shortage in many portions of the district, which is still on severe rations." He characterized the past policy of city officials "in the vital question of water supply for Seattle's rapidly growing needs" as "short-sighted" ("West Seattle's New Water Main ...").

Russell's comments brought an immediate reaction from Seattle City Councilman W. T. Campbell, who represented West Seattle: "Although it was contemplated originally that the Kenyon Street mains would supply the 250,000 persons who someday will reside in West Seattle, the mains actually will not properly supply the 40,000 present residents of the district." He noted that the need for new mains, and for the tunnel, had been "felt more than two years ago, but construction work had been repeatedly delayed." Campbell laid blame for the delays squarely on the city's Board of Public Works, and went on to say:

"For years West Seattle has been forced in summer time to muddle along on reduced water rations and we have seen our gardens, flower beds and lawns fade away through faulty water service.

"This new system of thirty and twenty-four inch mains on which we were pinning our hopes will, we find, only relieve a portion of our people in West Seattle" ("West Seattle's New Water Main ...").

In an interview a few days later, Superintendent Russell modified his dire prediction a little. As paraphrased in The Times, he explained:

"Although the volume of water delivered by both old and new mains should be sufficient for all needs at present, some of the higher portions of the West End still will suffer an occasional shortage ... caused by the inadequate mains laid when the addition was platted and sold to prospective home-owners" ("Water Rationed Outside City").

This was a reference to the WSLIC's 1900 replat that greatly expanded the boundaries of the former City of West Seattle.

Incremental Improvements

Councilman Campbell predicted that the water-supply situation would not be entirely eased until one or more large reservoirs were built in West Seattle, and he noted that the city already owned the necessary land for the first one. He was right -- in 1922 Seattle had condemned and purchased a 120-acre site in southern West Seattle that extended from SW Cloverdale Street to SW Cambridge Street, and from 4th Avenue SW to 8th Avenue SW. However, it would be 10 more years before a 68,000,000-gallon, in-ground reservoir was completed there (now lidded and part of Westcrest Park). Delayed first by the Great Depression and then by World War II a smaller, 7,000,000-gallon reservoir, located at 6900 35th Avenue SW, was not completed until 1947.

In the meantime, additional incremental improvements were being made. The original pump station on Spokane Street, which started operations in 1910, labored alone to supply all of West Seattle's Cedar River water until 1925, when the Kenyon Street Pump Station came online to improve service in the south of the peninsula. In 1927 the water department built two huge steel storage tanks (also called standpipes), a 1,000,000-gallon-capacity one at 39th SW and SW Charleston Street to replace 10 old wooden tanks, and one with a 1,400,000-gallon capacity at 38th SW and SW Barton Street in the Fauntleroy neighborhood.

With the peninsula's storage capacity greatly increased, the need for an additional pump station was obvious. On February 8, 1928, Seattle Ordinance No. 54627 was signed by Bertha K. Landes (1868-1943), the city's first woman mayor. It authorized "the Board of Public Works to construct a new pumping station at 33rd Avenue Southwest and West Spokane Street and install equipment, and making an appropriation there for" (Ordinance 54627). The pump station was completed in 1929 at a cost of approximately $12,000, with the equipment costing nearly the same.

Designated the Southwest Spokane Street Pump Station, its purpose was to draw water from the reservoirs on Beacon Hill and pump it up to the SW Charleston Street standpipe, from where it would be distributed to the suburb's households and businesses. To accomplish this, the station had two separate pump and motor sets. The primary unit comprised two centrifugal pumps, a 10-inch and a 12-inch, connected in series and driven by a 400-horsepower General Electric motor. It had a maximum capacity of 4,500 gallons per minute. Because of the great difference in elevation between the pump station and the storage tanks, these pumps were among the most powerful in the Seattle water-supply system and consumed the most electrical power.

A Short But Useful Role

In 1934 the Seattle Water Department installed a hydraulic-pump station at 4th Avenue SW and SW Trenton Street, adjacent to two large standpipes built in 1932 in conjunction with the new reservoir. Hydraulic pumps (also called hydraulic rams) are an ingenious invention, perfected in France in 1772 by Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1740 -1810), who with his brother also invented the hot-air balloon. The pumps use gravity and the kinetic energy of flowing water to drive them -- water essentially pumps itself, without the need for electricity or any additional power source.

It took considerable amounts of electricity to power the the original pump station on Harbor Avenue SW and the stations st SW Spokane Street  and SW Kenyon Street. When the new hydraulic pump was put into service and proved effective and efficient, the water department was able to take the older pump stations offline, resulting in substantial financial savings. The Kenyon Street station was eventually retired and the property sold, its brick building later converted to a single-family home. The Spokane Street Pump Station was maintained and used for partial-capacity operation during the dry summer months, but by 2019 it was near the end of its useful life, scheduled for demolition and replacement.

Fully active for only five years, the Spokane Street facility played a short but valuable role in the effort to improve West Seattle's water supply. The building and equipment have been substantially modified over the years, but in 2001, the Southwest Spokane Street Pump Station was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places for its design and its association with the growth and development of Seattle’s water system. In 2019, the City of Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board declined to list the pump station as an official city landmark.


Chrisanne Beckner, MS (Historical Research Associates, Inc.), "Seattle Landmarks Nomination: The Southwest Spokane Street Pump Station" (August 2019);"Between the Lines: The Power and Parallels of West Seattle Annexation," Southwest Seattle Historical Society website accessed October 18, 2020 (; "West Seattle Suffers from Lack of Water," The Seattle Times, July 14, 1906, p. 2; "West Seattle Folks Planning Celebration," Ibid., April 24, 1910, p. 29; "West Seattle Enjoys Cedar River Water," Ibid., August 2, 1910, p. 4; "Tunnel Under Waterway Nearly Ready," Ibid., November 23, 1924, p. 18; "West Seattle's New Water Main Too Small," Ibid., July 13, 1925, p. 1; "Water Rationed Outside City," Ibid., July 19, 1925, p. 1; Mary McWilliams, Seattle Water Department History 1854 : 1954 (Seattle: Seattle Water Department, 1955), 23, 24; HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle Neighborhoods: West Seattle — Thumbnail History" (by Cassandra Tate), "Seattle Water Department's Southwest Spokane Street Pump Station" (by John Caldbick) (accessed October 21, 2020); Seattle City Council Ordinance No. 54627, "An ordinance authorizing the Board of Public Works to construct a new pumping station at 33rd Avenue Southwest and West Spokane Street and install equipment, and making an appropriation therefor," approved February 8, 1928; "West Seattle," City of Seattle Archives website accessed October 20, 2020 (; "Seattle Historical Sites: Summary for 3216 SW Spokane Street SW," City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods website accessed October 20, 2020 (; "Seattle Historical Sites: Summary for 6900 35th Ave.," City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods website accessed October 20, 2020 (; "History of the Hydraulic Ram," The Ram Company website accessed October 23, 2020 (

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