Jim Ellis on Harold and Frank Preston

  • By Jim Ellis
  • Posted 3/19/2023
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 22686
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Among his many achievements as a civic activist, Seattle attorney Jim Ellis (1921-2019) led the campaign to clean up Lake Washington, pushed for development of the Washington State Convention Center, and founded the Mountains to Sound Greeway Trust. In this excerpt from his memoirs, Ellis writes about Harold Preston, patriarch of the law firm that hired Ellis as an associate in 1949, and Frank Preston, Harold's son and fellow lawyer at the Preston firm.

Harold Preston

Harold Preston was born to Martha and Simon Preston on September 29, 1858, in Rockford, Illinois, where Simon was a consulting engineer surveying locations for new railroad lines. After the Civil War, young Harold attended grammar school in Natchez, Mississippi, for six years. He watched his father and mother navigate through a difficult period of post-war reconstruction in the heart of the former Confederacy. From dinner table conversations, he knew that his father was collecting money for the Union government and was also helping carry out Lincoln’s pledge to implement 13th Amendment U.S. citizenship rights for African American Union Army veterans.

After Simon’s four-year term as federal revenue collector was over, his family stayed in Natchez for two more years while he was privately employed as chief engineer for the Natchez, Jackson, and Columbus Railroad. After living six years in the post-war South, the Simon Preston family returned to Illinois, and then to Iowa, where the family lived on a small farm near the town of Grinnell and Simon traveled the region surveying routes for new midwest railroad lines.

During the years when Simon Preston and his family lived in Illinois, Mississippi, and Iowa, he and his wife raised four sons and one daughter. Simon’s son Frank believed that when Simon was young, he absorbed the progressive Republican civil rights ideas from his parents and teachers during the post-Civil War period. Both Simon and Martha were staunch believers in Lincoln and the citizenship granted to former slaves by the 13th Amendment. 

When the family was settled in Grinnell, Harold attended Grinnell College, a small school founded by abolitionist missionaries. Grinnell College teachers taught evolution and later taught progressive-era policy solutions to economic and social problems. Harold also briefly attended Cornell University before returning to Iowa where he worked at different jobs for several years while "reading for the bar" in the law office of Alanson Clark in nearby Newton, Iowa. H. P. was admitted to the Iowa Bar in 1883 and immediately headed west for Puget Sound to start his law practice in a promising new growth area. 

West to Seattle

Gold strikes on tributary creeks of the upper Skagit River were attracting national publicity and bringing a surge of population to the Puget Sound region in the 1880s. In 1880, the federal census counted 6,970 people in King County, which represented a 4,850 increase in 10 years. Seattle had tripled in size since 1870 to a population of 3,553.

Harold Preston had purchased a ticket to Tacoma but someone at the Newton, Iowa, train station told him that Seattle was where the action was, so he changed his final destination to Seattle. He began the practice of law there in 1883, examining land titles while occupying different office locations in downtown. Harold’s first partners were westward-migrating family members. He made friends easily in Seattle and was soon well known as a capable, hardworking lawyer with absolute integrity.

Among his early clients was the Schwabacher Brothers Hardware Company, which originated in Walla Walla and soon opened stores in Boise, Seattle, and San Francisco. 

Harold Finds a Wife

Women were in short supply in booming Seattle. On a business trip to San Francisco, Harold was introduced to Augusta Morgenstern, the beautiful, music-loving daughter of a wealthy family associated with the hardware company. He was immediately smitten ... In less than six months, he returned to San Francisco and married Augusta on February 8, 1888.

This was before Washington became a state in 1889, before Seattle’s "big fire" that year destroyed most of the downtown waterfront buildings, and before the huge Yukon Gold Rush catapulted the population of Seattle into the hundreds of thousands. The Schwabacher Pier was the only one to survive the fire and became the dock where the "ton of gold" arrived to jump start the Yukon Gold Rush.

Harold attracted partners from both extended family and clients from a growing number of friends. One by one, Harold’s brothers and sister came to the far West, and Harold’s parents, Simon and Martha, finally joined the migration in 1890. Shortly after coming to Washington Territory, Harold Preston formed a partnership with his brother-in-law Eugene M. Carr, under the firm name Carr & Preston. Harold’s brother, Clarence, came to Seattle in 1888 and became a partner under the firm name Preston, Carr & Preston. Henry McBride, later governor of Washington, became a member of the firm but only handled business in booming Skagit County. Clarence Preston did not see eye-to-eye with Carr and withdrew. L. C. Gillman a very bright legal mind, joined the firm, which then became Preston, Carr & Gillman. Over the next several years, Gillman left to become general western counsel and vice president of Great Northern Railway and Carr left for the new gold rush frontier of Alaska to start his own practice.

Progressive Consensus Seeker

It is not surprising from the history of the Preston family that Harold, using the newly expanded western railroad system, followed the attraction of a well-publicized gold rush boom to begin the practice of law in Seattle. He soon became a leader in the early Washington State Bar and the progressive Republican Party. 

In 1897, Harold ran for and was elected to the Washington State Senate and served in the original wooden legislative building. In 1900, he narrowly missed election to the United States Senate in a close vote in the State House of Representatives. (Elections for the US Senate were held in the House of Representatives of each state legislature until 1913, when election by state-wide voters was mandated by Congress.) He was defeated by Levi Ankeny of Walla Walla but never carried a grudge over this or any other setback. (Ankeny’s great-grandson, John Ankeny Gose, became a partner in the twentieth-century Preston law firm.)

Major Achievements

Harold admired Theodore Roosevelt and became a progressive Republican during the Teddy Roosevelt era of progressive politics in America. Finding encouragement from leaders of both business and labor, Harold worked in a successful pattern of consensus building. He developed and promoted legislation establishing fair regulation of railroad rates, which was enacted in 1905. He followed the same pattern with workers and owners in the forest-products industry. In 1911, the forest-products industry employed 65% of the hired workers in Washington. That same year, Harold became the principal draftsman of the groundbreaking Workman’s Compensation Law for Washington. The constitutionality of this pioneering act was upheld by a unanimous decision of the Washington State Supreme Court in 1913, and by a 5–4 decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1917.

Harold’s legislation became a nationally recognized progressive landmark. In his 1913 governor’s message, Marion Hay reported that: "It (the Workmen’s Compensation Act) placed Washington in the forefront of all states in the Union in providing for the care and protection of those injured in industrial pursuits."

Hanford’s History of Seattle (1924), describes Preston’s remarkable feat of writing our state’s Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1911 as "the pioneer act of that character in the United States" and went on to say: "As a lawyer he is sound, clear-minded, and well-trained. He is at home in all departments of the law, from the minutiae of practice to … the consideration of ethics, the philosophy of jurisprudence and the higher concerns of public policy.”

Charles T. Conover, looking back as a reporter in his Mirrors of Seattle (1923), wrote: "That’s Harold Preston, one of the big guns of the Seattle Bar. I don’t know of anyone who has been mixed up in more important litigation in the past quarter century in the Pacific Northwest than he has, nor anyone better fitted to discharge such a service. He is what they call a humdinger. His forte is unlimited capacity for work and a wonderful mastery of detail. In a complicated case, with confusing masses of figures and intricate and technical detail, it’s simply uncanny how he masters it all and has it at his fingers’ ends. His career has been just a matter of a good mind, hard work, and character.”

An Almost Impeachment

In the summer of 1912, both the Seattle Bar Association and the Washington State Bar Association appointed a committee of three lawyers, headed by Preston, to defend Federal Judge Cornelius Hanford in a hearing before three members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent from Washington, D.C. They were to investigate demands for the impeachment of Washington state’s long-serving first Federal District Court Judge. After three weeks and 1,761 pages of testimony in this nationally publicized hearing, Harold prepared a summary separating the grains of fact from the bushels of chaff. An abbreviated review of the hearing was written by Seattle lawyer and historian John N. Rupp. Rupp considered Judge Hanford to be an excellent judge whose effectiveness was destroyed by the intense publicity of the hearing and the one-sided coverage by the Seattle Daily Star newspaper.

Here are a few excerpts from John’s delightful paper:

"Several witnesses had told the committee that they had observed Hanford in court and he was asleep, some of the witnesses were lawyers and some of them were not. These people said they had observed him up there with his head bent forward and his eyes closed and they were sure he was asleep. One person said that he remembered seeing the head tilted back and the mouth open and he heard a loud snore. Where upon the judge awakened with a start. He was however the only witness that so testified. All others described the head bent forward and the eyes closed. Indeed, at one point early in the hearing, the committee inquired of one witness at some length about the angle of the judge’s head with his body. Was it 90 degrees, 60 degrees, 45 degrees or what? Practically everybody agreed that it was not at all uncommon to see Judge Hanford tilt his head forward and close his eyes. But the solid preponderance of the evidence was that he always knew what was going on. 

"One illustrious bit of testimony was that of Mr. Nathaniel Bolster, a court reporter who frequently reported cases in Hanford’s court. He said that people’s initial reaction to the judge’s habit was 'a standing joke in our office.' He said it was fun to watch a new lawyer or other newcomer to the court on seeing the judge nod forward and close his eyes. The fellow would be bewildered and soon would stop talking, whereupon Judge Hanford with his eyes still shut would snap, 'Go on sir, you were saying ...' and he’d summarize the preceding testimony or argument in a way that the judge had heard and understood very well. I thought Mr. Bolster missed a great opportunity. He should have said he preferred a judge who knew what was going on with his eyes shut, over a judge that didn’t know with his eyes open. One is reminded of the Senator who spoke on Senator Reed Smoot’s behalf when in 1903, the Senate was considering not to seat Smoot because he was a Mormon and favored polygamy. After it was learned that Smoot personally did not practice polygamy, this Senator looked meaningfully at some of his colleagues and said that he preferred a polygamist who didn’t 'polyg' to a monogamist who didn’t 'monog.' Anyway, the witnesses who had spent any considerable time in Judge Hanford’s court corroborated Mr. Bolster, and, on this issue of sleeping, both in numbers and believability the 'no’s' plainly had it.”

Both the chair of the investigating committee and Rupp commended Preston on his work of clarifying a confusing stew of emotional gossip and fact. Judge Hanford resigned. He was not impeached. The committee disbanded and returned to the nation’s capital. It was likely the best result Harold could have gotten for Hanford given the circumstances.

The Washington State Bar Association, at its annual meeting that year, adopted the following resolution:

"Whereas, Hon. C. H. Hanford, a member of this association, has lately tendered his resignation as judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, a position he has occupied with honor and credit to the nation for a period approximating a quarter of a century; now, therefore, be it 'esolved, that we express our regret that the nation should lose so valuable and conscientious a servant and express our appreciation of the court work which has been performed by Judge Hanford while he has been on the federal bench.”

A Fee Not Taken

Senior Associate Fred Sansom once shared a story about Harold Preston that further conveyed his professional integrity. Harold and a Seattle banker named Tremper were appointed by a Superior Court Judge to perform an estate appraisal for the court. They met for a short time, agreed upon a value for the property, and filed their appraisal with the court. After coming back from a trip, Harold opened an official envelope to find a check from the county in the amount of $7,000 and was heard to exclaim, "This award is highway robbery! The work I did wasn’t worth more than $500." As I remember the story, Harold called his co-trustee and each of them returned his $7,000 check to the court. Eventually each accepted payment of $500.

Within the legal profession in Washington, Harold Preston was clearly the most widely respected lawyer of his time. His capacity to bring people together and achieve progressive results was recognized by all. His integrity was unchallenged. The affection felt by colleagues in his law firm was genuine. It was not surprising that his death was reported on the front page of the Seattle Daily Times on January 1, 1938. The story was headlined, "Harold Preston, Dean of Bar, Dead of Stroke."

Frank Preston

It was common practice when I came to work that successful lawyers would actively practice into their 80s, and name partners would bring their sons into the law firm. This was the case with Frank Preston. When I joined Preston in 1949, Frank Preston was a successful trial lawyer for firm clients that included the Traveler’s Insurance Company and Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. 

Frank Manley Preston was born in Seattle on March 11, 1895. He was the oldest son of Harold and Augusta. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1919, with AB and LLB degrees, and was admitted to the Washington Bar in the same year. Frank was in the same graduating class from law school with my father, Floyd, and they became lifelong friends.

During World War I, Frank served as a sergeant with the Washington Coast Artillery in 1917 and as first lieutenant with the 73rd Field Artillery, United States Army, in 1918.

He became active in civic affairs and was a board member of the Riverton Hospital, Seattle General Hospital, and Seattle Symphony Orchestra; and was president of the University of Washington Alumni Association from 1946–48. Frank was a member of the Phi Delta Phi Fraternity, American Legion, the Rainier Club, and the Seattle Tennis Club.

On June 29, 1921, he married Isabel McCormick and they made their home in Seattle. No children were born of this marriage. Frank and Isabel Preston were the social center of the law firm and Frank continued in this role throughout his lifetime. When Isabel died early, Frank married Myrtle Spencer Edgett of Vancouver, B.C., and they continued Frank’s role as the social glue at the firm.

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