Bremerton voters approve incorporation by vote of 167 to 17 on October 1, 1901

  • By John Caldbick
  • Posted 9/29/2010
  • Essay 9597
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On October 1, 1901, the voters of Bremerton, Kitsap County, overwhelmingly approve a measure to incorporate under state law as a city of the fourth class, voting 167 in favor and only 17 opposed. At the same election an interim mayor, treasurer, and five councilmen are selected. Final incorporation will be delayed until the vote is verified by the Kitsap County Board of Commissioners and the results forwarded to the Washington Secretary of State's office for filing. On December 2, 1901 a new election is held for city offices, and those who are seated in January 1902 soon find themselves embroiled in a bitter dispute with the U.S. Navy over liquor, prostitution, and gambling.

From Bremer's Town to Bremerton

Bremerton was first platted by William Bremer (1863-1910), a German immigrant living in Seattle, who had bought substantial land on the Turner Peninsula on Sinclair inlet for one reason only: He knew the navy wanted to build a northern naval station there, and he wanted to built the town that would prosper from its presence.  In February 1891 Bremer and partner Henry Paul Hensel (1871-1935) paid top dollar for 190 acres of waterfront property, and a few months later sold a little less than half of it at a significant loss to the U.S. government for a naval base. But the half they kept (more accurately, that Bremer kept -- he bought out Hensel's share before the year was out), would become the town of Bremerton.  On December 10, 1891, Bremer filed the town's first plat, and for the next 10 years it was basically his town to run, with occasional oversight by the Kitsap County Board of Commissioners.

In July 1901 citizens of Bremer's town decided that formal incorporation under state law was a good thing to do. Petitions were circulated, and soon 89 electors had signed up. William Brenner could not legally sign the petition because he neither lived nor was registered to vote in Bremerton. There is no indication that he objected to incorporation, however, and he would continue to travel to Bremerton from his home in Seattle once or twice a week to conduct business, although he never set up residence in the town that he founded and named after himself.

A short notice appeared in the weekly Bremerton News on  August 10, 1901, announcing that the Kitsap County Board of Commissioners would consider the city's incorporation petition at a special meeting on Monday, August 26.  Only after the commissioners validated the petition could the matter be put to a vote of the people. But the next step was to select officials to manage the city's affairs between the date incorporation was granted and the time of the first citywide election, slated for  December 1901. Those elected at that time would take office in early January 1902.

Jumping Through the Hoops

On September 7, 1901, the citizens of Bremerton met in the Fraternal Hall to select an interim mayor, treasurer, and five councilmen "in the event of the incorporation of the town of Bremerton, Washington" (Bremerton News, September 14, 1901). Four men were nominated for mayor, two "declined unconditionally," and Alvyn Croxton (1869-1941) badly outpolled James A. Allen, 144-29, and became the presumptive mayor.  M. J. Holt beat two other contenders for the post of treasurer, and the five top vote-getters for seats on the interim council were J. M. Gibboney,  A. P. Stires, G. A. King, G. L. Servey, and F. C. Woolsey.  No one but the two mayoral candidates seemed to use a first name.

Leading up to the election, the News  carried on its front page a long piece entitled "The Advantages of Incorporation," giving detailed biographies of the seven candidates and hearkening back a millennium to make its case:

"The people of this country, especially, seek incorporation to better their social and political conditions.  They inherit this disposition from their revolutionary sires; even farther back than this it is the heritage of the Anglo-Saxon race.  This was the policy favored by King Alfred, the one-thousandth anniversary of whose birth was so recently celebrated throughout the Anglo-Saxon world" (Bremerton News, September 28, 1901).

The October 1, 1901, election wasn't at all close, with 167 votes favoring incorporation and only 17 opposed. All seven unopposed interim candidates were confirmed, although more than half would serve only until new elections barely three months in the future. All that remained now was for the Kitsap County commissioners to verify the vote and the country auditor to forward the results to the Secretary of State.

In its October 12 edition, the News, while acknowledging that the interim government might not be able to accomplish much, still made some suggestions of things that needed doing, and made note of a development that, while viewed with favor at the time, was to be the cause of considerable trouble just a year or so down the road:

"The city is likely to have sufficient funds for ... improvements as soon as the council is installed in office. Two applications for liquor licenses were made to the county commissioners [who] very considerately referred the matter to the council here, where the licenses are wanted ... . Undoubtedly, these applications will be favorably considered and the licenses granted. If so, the city will have $600 available for immediate use ..."

The Bremerton News kept close tabs on the interim council's activities and gave the public regular reports, headlined "Council Proceedings." The first meeting, reported in the October 19 issue, was largely devoted to appointing a city clerk and city attorney, but at the second meeting, on October 28, the council got down to the serious business of governing. In yet another hint of things to come, they immediately took a legislative (and, as it turned out, largely rhetorical) whack at vice by passing, among other things:

"Ordinance No. 3, fixing the compensation of clerk, marshal, and police judge; ordinance No. 4, fixing the licensing fee for the sale of liquors; ordinance No. 5, providing for the punishment of keepers, inmates and lessors of houses of ill-fame, and keepers and lessors of gambling houses, and rooms and other places where gambling is carried on or permitted, and any and all gamblers or keepers of gambling table ... ." (Bremerton News, November 2, 1901).

Having passed a law criminalizing certain behavior, there was an immediate need for a jail, for which the council had a creative, if temporary, solution:

"Committee on jail reported that Mr. Mertz offers to fix up the basement under the bakery in good shape and rent the same to the town for $3.00 per month.  On motion, Mr. Mertz's offer was accepted.  On motion, marshal was instructed to procure a strong door for the jail" (Bremerton News, November 2, 1901).

A new election was scheduled for December 3, 1901, and the newspaper urged that a single slate of candidates be selected by the public, to then run unopposed and be elected, in effect, by acclamation:

"It would certainly seem to be the part of wisdom if all interests could be harmonized and one good square ticket only, of the best men we have, placed in the field and unanimously endorsed in the polls. At the beginning of our municipal career all unnecessary strife should be avoided; enough will come later on ... ."  (Bremerton News,  November 16, 1901).

On the inevitably of strife, the News was dead on; on the possibility of a unified slate of harmonious candidates, it was simply naïve. On November 29 the paper had  to announce that two competing lists of candidates had been approved to run in the upcoming election. The "Citizens' Ticket" put up Croxton for re-election as mayor, A. P. Stires for a second term on the council, M. J. Holt to serve again as treasurer, and four new council hopefuls:  Thomas Driscoll, C. Hanson, J. J. Kost, and F. W. Mohr.  Opposing them was the "Republican Ticket" offering Y. J. Acton for mayor; Jas. J. Murphy, A. B. Williams,  G. W. Trahey, J. H. Nibbe, and F. W. Brown for city council; and E. Klinghammer for treasurer.

The Citizens' Ticket won every position handily, with Croxton beating Acton by  a margin of 162 to 101 and the others winning by similar or larger margins. On December 7, 1902, the News ran a full front-page spread featuring biographies and photos of the town's new leaders, who were sworn in on January 13, 1902, and got right to work. Their terms were staggered -- two (Kost and Driscoll) would face re-election in one year, if they chose to run again, and terms of the other three (Hanson, Stires, and Mohr)  would run for two years.

A report of the council meeting of January 20 gives a snapshot of the sorts of issues that confronted  a newly minted municipal government. Committees were appointed to study the location and cost of a building to house the city offices; to draw up an ordinance setting out sidewalk specifications; and to investigate and recommend the awarding of franchises for the town's lighting and water services. Bills were approved and ordered paid, for everything from the cost of building the town's voting booths to the monthly salaries of the city marshal ($75) and city attorney ($12.50). The marshal, at least, almost earned his pay and reported to the council that he had so far that month collected a total nearly $60 in fines for such activities as gambling, operating a slot machine, and unlicensed dogs.  City police Judge A. H. Freerkson notified the council that he would hold court on the third Tuesday of each month "to hear all cases of fines for gambling, prostitution, etc." (Bremerton News, January 25, 1902).

The Gathering Storm

Throughout 1902 the mayor and council busied themselves tending to the myriad concerns of Bremerton, but by the end of that first full year of incorporation, a festering problem bubbled to the surface, one on which there was a diversity of interests and opinions. Despite ordinances against gambling and prostitution, and a licensing regime for liquor sales, Bremerton , according to the navy, had rapidly taken on some of the less savory characteristics of a port city with a large and largely transient military presence, and the navy was threatening to boycott its own shipyard to protect its sailors from the evils to be found on Bremerton's already-infamous Front Street.

At the regular Monday meeting of the council on December 22, 1902, a letter from state congressional representative Wesley Livsey Jones (1863-1932) was read. Jones stated that back in Washington, D.C., "the navy department had been informed that such a condition exists in the navy yard towns that the department does not like to send any ships here, as the first thing the officers and men see on leaving the yard is saloons and dives." Jones urged the city government to do something to "correct the evil"  (Bremerton News, December 27, 1902).

The council then discussed what could be done, and it soon became clear that there was little unanimity. Councilman Coder proposed raising the liquor license fee to $1,000, a fairly large sum of money in 1902 dollars. Councilmen Kost and Driscoll, both of whose terms were about to end, wanted to leave the matter until after the next election, due in January. Their motion to that effect did not carry, but neither did the one to raise the license fee.

It appears from the newspaper reports that the council then took comments from the audience, and several were made, all seemingly in favor of doing whatever was necessary to smooth  the navy's ruffled epaulets, with some favoring closing all saloons on the now-notorious Front Street near the naval yard gate, and some in favor of closing the few closest ones and increasing the fees for the others. Finally, Councilman Coder reintroduced his motion to raise the liquor license fee to $1,000, and added a provision banning saloons from Front Street and other designated areas near the base. This motion was not defeated, but was put over for a week for final  action, and its ultimate fate disappears from the available record.

Meanwhile, most of the Bremerton's people of influence, including the publisher of the Bremerton News, professed  to be shocked, simply shocked, by the charges. On January 3, 1903, under the headline "The Charges Are Not True," the newspaper mounted a vigorous defense, taking issue with an account of the navy's accusations that had run in an article in The Seattle Times, which article, said the News, had been written "by an apprentice pen pusher of the sporting staff who would be most suitable to create something sensational ... ."

"A Seattle paper should be as familiar with conditions at Bremerton as with its own city. The Times by such degrading, damaging falsehoods has given this quiet orderly place a notoriety that will take more than the apology which followed and its statement of the true condition of affairs, to outlive" (Bremerton News, January 3, 1903).

The nature of any apology the Times may have made is unclear from the record, as is any "statement of the true condition of affairs."

Despite the outrage, in an editorial in the same issue, entitled "What Does It Mean," the News gave some ground, while emphasizing the economic importance of the activities considered "immoral" by the navy:

"It is true we have sixteen saloons and that some of the ordinary forms of gambling have been carried out in four or five of them under certain restrictions, but they have been orderly and quiet ... .

"The abolishing of saloons entirely while they are allowed to run in all the adjoining towns and places about the yard here would be a serious blow to Bremerton. It would injure all business, destroy values and cut off the only revenue the town has" (Bremerton News, January 3, 1903).

The controversy continued to play out in the town's sole newspaper, which vacillated between mild contrition and jut-jawed defiance. In a long article (or perhaps editorial -- newspapers of those days made little effort to distinguish news from opinion) on January 11, entitled "Bremerton Denies Charges," the paper quoted a report by Navy Captain J. G. Eaton, commander of the battleship Oregon, to illustrate just how exaggerated it believed those charges had become. Eaton, alleging that the commandant of the naval station had ordered all base personnel to sneak out a back gate of the base to take boats from Charleston to Seattle for their shore leave, made the claim that

"This order was issued because the men going on liberty were repeatedly drugged or made drunk and robbed on the main street of Bremerton while on their way to Seattle steamers ... . I have known liberty men who were picked up insensible and moneyless in the streets of Bremerton, near the navy yard gate, within twenty minutes of the time when they had passed out clean and sober, with money in their pockets.

"Seattle is not particularly noted for its saintliness or order, but in that city the man-of-warsmen was not made the special prey of the vicious classes ... ." (Bremerton News, January 10, 1903).

The article included an affidavit by four citizens claiming that Captain Eaton, who had so egregiously libeled their town, was an habitué of the few small gambling houses that Bremerton admitted to having, that he had incurred a debt of $20 to one of the affiants, signed an I.O.U., and then refused to either pay or even acknowledge the debt. The entire debate was taking on a "did not, did so" character, and cooler heads in Bremerton soon figured out that their little community had little chance of winning this argument, although certain business interests fought to make that opinion less than unanimous.

Mayor Croxton took a shot at resolving the matter on February 2, 1903, when he persuaded a bare majority of the city council to double the licensing fee for saloons and rescind the licenses of the five or six drinking and gambling houses located nearest the base on Front Street (which was south of today's 1st Street). But original council member  Driscoll (who had won re-election), joined by newly elected A. G. Benbennick, were opposed, and within a few weeks had managed to gather enough support to overturn the action.

Mayor Croxton next pushed through an ordinance that would cause all liquor licenses to expire on April 1, 1903; the council, again led by Driscoll and Benbennick, responded by automatically extending all licenses for an additional year. The navy upped the ante, officially threatening to keep every ship out of the Puget Sound yard  "unless every saloon is moved from Front Street" (The New York Times, May 25, 1903).

This was enough to do the trick, and Mayor Croxton and the council went the navy one better by revoking all saloon licenses in Bremerton and promising to stamp out gambling. But Bremerton was still a navy town, and liquor and gambling never really went away. There were occasional flare-ups with the navy over the town's morality for the next 10 years or so, but the enactment of first state, then federal Prohibition, and the onset of World War I, finally brought permanent peace between the tough little town and the military without which it could not survive. Bremerton went on to upgrade its incorporated status twice, and is now a city of the first class under Washington law.

Sources: "Special Meeting of Commissioners, Bremerton News, August 10, 1901, p. 1; "Minutes of Mass Meeting," Ibid., September 14, 1901, p. 1; "The Advantages of Incorporation," Ibid., September 28, 1901, p. 1; "Bremerton a City of 4th Class by Vote of 167 to 17," Ibid., October 5, 1901, p. 1; "The New Council," Ibid., October 12, 1901, p. 4; "They Begin Well," Ibid., October 19, 1901, p. 4; "Council Proceedings," Ibid., November 2, 1901, p. 1; "The Coming Municipal Election," Ibid., November 16, 1901, p. 4; "Special Meeting," Ibid., November 30, 1901, p. 3; "Bremerton's New Municipal Officers," Ibid., December 7, 1901, p. 1; "Council Proceedings," Ibid., January 25, 1902 p. 1; "Council Proceedings," Ibid., December 27, 1902, p. 4; "The Charges Are Not True," Ibid., January 3, 1903. p. 4; "What Does It Mean," Ibid., January 4, 1903, p. 1; "Bremerton Denies Charges," Ibid., January 10, 1903, p. 1; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Bremerton -- Thumbnail History," (by John Caldbick), (accessed September 28, 2010); "Ultimatum to Bremerton," The New York Times, May 25, 1903, p. 2.

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