Dorothea Nordstrand Remembers a 1920 Seattle Streetcar Accident and Hard Times

  • By Dorothea Nordstrand
  • Posted 7/27/2003
  • Essay 4223
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In this People's History, Dorothea (Pfister) Nordstrand (1916-2011) recalls the time her father, riding from the Green Lake neighborhood to downtown Seattle to look for work on January 5, 1920, was injured in a serious streetcar accident. The family had just moved to Seattle from a homestead near Tiger, Washington (in Pend Oreille County). The Dad of the story is Joseph Pfister (1883-1947). The Mom is Mary Annie (Gierhofer) Pfister (1888-1962). The brother Jack is John Joseph Pfister (1907-1973), and the sister is Florence Mary (Pfister) Burke (1909-1998). In 2009 Dorothea Nordstrand was awarded AKCHO's (Association of King County Historical Organizations) Willard Jue Memorial Award for a Volunteer, for contributing these vivid reminiscences to various venues in our community, including's People's History library.

The Streetcar and Aftermath

Faithfully, every day, Dad rode the Green Lake streetcar to the union office downtown where building contractors would come to hire workers by the day. Young, strong, and experienced, he sometimes found work. If not, no money came into the family that day to supplement the small nest-egg from the sale of the hmestead.

Early in the new year of 1920, on January 5, to be exact, Daddy started downtown early to begin work at the first steady job he’d had since coming to Seattle. Things should get better, now! Fate deemed otherwise. As the streetcar rounded a curve at 39th and Woodland Park Avenue, its brakes failed and it left the tracks, tipping over and breaking in half against a telephone pole.

Many of the passengers were injured. One newspaper said 70, one said 50. One man was dead and the "early extra" newspaper identified him as Joseph Pfister. Horrified, Grandma Gierhofer, who saw the paper, ran the 15 blocks from her home so that Mother wouldn’t be alone when she was notified of his death. She arrived just before Daddy, very, very badly hurt, walked through the door.

That was the last walking he did for a long time. He was awfully bruised all over his body, and the ligaments and tendons were torn loose all along his spine. City doctors had examined him and decided he was not hurt badly enough to be sent to the hospital, so he came home. He never recovered from the injury, living the rest of his life in great pain as arthritis took over all the areas that had been injured.

Daddy submitted a claim for the exact amount of the doctor’s bill and a reasonable amount for work lost ... and the city cut that amount in half with a "take it or leave it." With no resources to fight the decision, the little family absorbed this hardship as it had others.

Of course, the steady job had vanished with Dad's injury, so he was back to searching for temporary work on every day that he was able. Mother found small jobs to do for neighbors, for which she was usually paid in food. Jack got an after-school delivery job in a local market, carrying sacks of groceries around the neighborhood to local housewives. Jack was paid for his work with groceries to bring home.

Florence contributed her wages from baby-sitting, usually a dime for a whole evening. How proud I was the day I found a nickel on the sidewalk that would help. Everything went into the family fund.

One day I found a folded dollar bill in the street in front of our house. I ran with it to Mother, knowing how much it would add to our little fund. That honest woman sent me up and down the street to every door to see if one of our neighbors had lost it, saying that perhaps the loser needed it worse than we did. Nobody claimed it, so we added it to the grocery money. One way, or another, we got along.

Sweet treats were few and far between, but I do remember an occasional trip to the little corner store for an ice-cream cone (5 cents), a penny Lucky Bite (if the one you bought had a pink center you got another one free), a Square Meal (two graham crackers stuck together with pink frosting), or tubes of Chocolate Flicks or Necco Wafers.

Saturdays, late in the afternoon, Mom and I would take the streetcar downtown to the Pike Place Market for bargains in vegetables. At the end of the day, produce was almost given away so that the farmers wouldn't have to take it back home. I was too young to pay fare on the streetcar, but big enough to carry a shopping bag, so I accompanied Mother.

The ride on the streetcar made me car-sick, so we had to take a transfer, get off at the Fremont station and wait for the next car. Coming home, we did this procedure in reverse. In the market, we loaded up with rutabagas, turnips, and cabbage, as these were the cheapest and best "keepers."

Our kitchen always had a barrel of fermenting sauerkraut. The wooden lid of the barrel held a blade for slicing fine cuts from the cabbages we added weekly. During the leanest times, we lived on pork neck-bones (free from the butcher), sauerkraut, and rutabagas or home-grown potatoes.


Dorothea Nordstrand has lived in Seattle since the family moved here about 1920.

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