Newspaper features Seattle's houseboat colony on January 5, 1902.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 8/04/2010
  • Essay 9503
See Additional Media

On January 5, 1902 the Seattle Post-Intelligencer publishes a full-page feature about the remarkable colony of floating homes that had arisen on Elliott Bay just off Seattle's central waterfront. It commenced with this evocative introduction: 

"No rent or taxes to pay, no lawns to mow, no book agents to dodge, and with but a few of the so-considered necessary evils ordinarily attending life in a civilized community, such a condition might appeal to one as an ideal existence. Yet such is the life of nearly a thousand of Seattle's population, a floating population not in name alone, but in fact" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer).  

Very likely the first major piece published on this specific topic, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's uncredited photo-essay introduced certain themes -- the inexpensive, low-maintenance, idyllic lifestyle aboard floating homes -- that would pervade decades' worth of media coverage to follow. Perhaps that was because of an underlying truth behind those notions. Yet, in reality, life within houseboating community is not always perfectly carefree. 

Indeed, during the early houseboating days of the late nineteenth century most folks who lived on houseboats -- which were often merely shacks on rafts moored to piers – were the working poor: fishermen or dock workers. But it seems that the more their waterborne mode of living was publicized, ever greater numbers of people -- from various socio-economic classes -- joined them. By the 1890s the practice went upscale when some of Seattle's wealthiest families started enjoying their splendid summer homes anchored along Lake Washington's shores.

Conversely during the Great Depression of the 1930s legions of the homeless unemployed scavenged materials to build their own floating huts. At mid-century Seattle was home to nearly 2,500 houseboats -- a number that has dwindled to about 500 today (mainly on Lake Union). 

Sources: "Seattle's Unique Floating Population," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 5, 1902, p. 29; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Seattle's Historic Houseboats" (by Peter Blecha), (accessed August 4, 2010).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You