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Saturday, January 1, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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I Woke Up In 1900 In A Seattle I Hardly Recognize ; Is This A Y2K Glitch?

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

All last year, we heard that if our computers weren't Year 2000 ready they'd turn back to the year 1900 last night at the stroke of midnight. Our reporter wondered what would happen if she woke up this morning and her whole world had gone back to the year 1900. Darned if it didn't happen.

Dear Mama and Papa,

Something very strange has happened. I know I promised to send you an e-mail wishing you a Happy New Year today, but I can't.

I was worried that my old computer wouldn't make the turn to the year 2000 at midnight. I don't know if it did, because I didn't. I woke this morning to New Year's Day 1900.

What I'm seeing is so incredible I haven't had time to be scared. I'm convinced it's all a dream or that some Y2K fix will bring me back in a day or two.

In the meantime, let me tell you what it's like to be alive in Seattle at the turn of the last century.

Forest comes right up to the edge of town, but surely it can't for long. There are 300 logging camps, 250 shingle mills, 230 sawmills.

Great teams of high-shouldered horses jostle for position on the streets. They pull wagons of ice and ash, lumber and beer up and down Profanity Hill, which you'd recognize as the home to Harborview Medical Center.

The trolleys send the horses scattering when sparks fly from electric wires and metal wheels screech and clang on the tracks.

Everywhere, there's a mingling of smells of coal and wood smoke, of damp wool, sour tide flats and backed-up sewers. The sewers are expected to improve when they get flushed out by the flow from the new Cedar River Watershed next year.

I'm exhausted from lifting my long skirts to step through muck and manure in thin, 20-button boots. I don't know how people had the energy to stay out so late last night ushering what will be called The Oughts, but there is still a sense of freshness and excitement today.

Life as a restaurant maid

My first view of all of this was at a dead run, pulled along by a girl named Nettie. She could ill afford for us to be late for our jobs as restaurant maids at the Portland Restaurant on the corner of Third Avenue and Cherry Street.

Nettie wears her hair high and proud like a Gibson girl. Her high-necked blouse comes up like a V from narrow waist to wide shoulders.

Her parents are gone - victims, I think, of tuberculosis or diphtheria or maybe just old age. Life expectancy is 46 for men, 48 for women. It's 33 if you're black.

No wonder people die young, if our jobs are any example. We're expected to work 12 to 14 hours a day seven days a week, for pay of $5 a week.

But there's hope on the horizon. These are, after all, the Good Years, the Age of Confidence. Seattle is booming. We're already the second biggest business center on the Pacific Coast.

Ships take out 1,200 tons of coal a day, 200,000 board feet of lumber, 1,000 barrels of flour. They go to China, Japan, Great Britain.

Since it's winter, single men from the logging camps and fishing boats are in town spending their wages. There's hardly a room to be had. Hollow-cheeked men back from the Klondike sleep in barns or the finest hotels. Eager-eyed bumpkins await the Roanoke's next sailing for Nome.

Fueled by millions in gold

They all dream of the yellow treasure that streams into Seattle's new assay office, where $1 million of virgin gold weighs in each month.

Seattle's population is growing at a rate of 1,000 a month, and is already 80,671 - bigger than Tacoma, catching up on Portland. Everybody seems young and vibrant and most seem to come from someplace else.

The census counted only 22 Indians living in Seattle, 406 blacks, but more than 8,000 people who were born in Japan or China.

In the rest of the country, 14 percent of residents are foreign born. But in Washington, it's 22 percent. Nearly a quarter of those are Scandinavian.

The cool, darkened saloons stay open until 1 o'clock in the morning and are open all day on Sundays. From the swinging doors, we can hear "Only A Bird In A Gilded Cage" on a player piano and smell cigar smoke and sawdust soaked in beer.

Nettie tells me we must be cautious, though streetlights have made going home safer. Our reputations are ever at risk.

The Portland has a private room for ladies who come to enjoy our specialty, a four-course dinner for 25 cents. Today we're serving lobster and oyster salad, ham and tongue sandwiches in honor of the New Year.

But the ladies disapprove of restaurant maids, believing our morals compromised for interacting with men.

It's no help that we're so close to the Deadline, south of Yesler, the Skid Road, where women sell favors in cribs or the deep box seats of the box-houses, theaters attached to some of the 70 saloons.

A wild, `open' town

For the right price, police look away while gamblers, pickpockets, thugs and thieves prey on the many transients.

"Open" vs. "closed" town has been a political issue for years. It looks like open will win again when Mayor Thomas J. Humes runs for reelection this fall, even though the Women's Christian Temperance Union just last year held Seattle's only national convention so far.

In the business district, men wear high, stiff collars, derbies and looks of noble enthusiasm. At home, too, they are masters of all they survey.

Last night, the streets of First and Second avenues were filled with such men and their wives, little girls who walked demurely beside them and boys in short pants running wild in the mud. They were welcoming in the century of so much promise.

Two thousand people were turned away with not even breathing room at the Third Avenue Theatre for the 10-cent to $1.50 show, "At Gay Coney Island." Tonight, there'll be another showing of "Shenandoah," with horses and men on stage re-creating the battle of 40 years ago.

Perhaps Nettie and I will take in the new moving picture machine called the picturescope, which promises spectacular views from the insurrection in the Philippines and the Spanish-American War.

I'd like to go roller skating at the Armory Hall but I don't have 25 cents. I'd like to ride a "silent steed" on the more than 30 miles of cindered bicycle trails or take the streetcar to Woodland Park. The city just paid the first $5,000 toward the $100,000 owed Guy Phinney's widow for the land and menagerie.

But we don't get a day off. Unions are forming everywhere, making Seattle feel like a good labor town. Icemen, shingle weavers, tanners, lathers, cigar makers and horseshoers are coming together.

Nettie says the waitresses hope to form a union in just a few months. As it is, her single room takes nearly half what she makes.

Bon MarchÀe and Nordstrom

I walk by the stores and dream. Women's Italian silk underwear sells for $1.50. Wet weather boots for $3. Fresh ranch eggs for 3 cents a dozen.

Washington Dental and Photography Supply sells box Kodaks at Eastern prices.

Nettie tells me the Bon MarchÀe had a real Santa. She'd like to buy a Daisy Air Tight Heater at Frederick & Nelson & Munro. She's heard a man named Nordstrom is about to open a shoe store.

I don't know why anyone bothers with good shoes in this town. The Chamber of Commerce claims there are five miles of concrete sidewalk but I've seen mainly pine planks.

Everything is torn up. They've already condemned the land for the waterway to Lake Washington. They've filled 3,000 acres of mudflats on the south part of Elliott Bay for railroad yards, warehouses and docks.

But the most ambitious project is just beginning. As you know, by the time they're finished regrading in 30 years, 50 million tons of Seattle hills will be sluiced into Elliott Bay.

Someday, it will be regarded as one of the greatest civic undertakings in the country. For now, it's just more mud.

Conveniences coming

Seattle has yet to see its first automobile. But it can't be far away: There are already 4,000 in the country, even with only 150 miles of paved road.

The private utilities are holding up the developers. Where are the streetcars? Where are the sewers? Homes that have electricity may have only a few light bulbs and a single outlet. It's no wonder. Light bulbs cost $1 apiece and using them can cost as much as 20 cents an hour.

Just a decade ago, there were 318 telephones in this town and now there there are 3,612, with 70 girls employed as switchboard operators.

Brittania may rule the world, with everyone wanting British-made goods as Queen Victoria enters the 63rd year of her reign, but America can't be far behind.

People all day have asked me what I think the new century will bring. There are already passenger elevators, escalators, electric sewing machines and typewriters.

The newspapers say there have been so many inventions the head of the patent office quit, saying "everything that can be invented has been invented."

I just keep quiet and tell them only, "If you live long enough, invest in something called Microsoft." ------------------------------- Sources for this story include "The City of Seattle 1900," published under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce; "Seattle 1900-1920, From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration;" "Skid Road;" The Washington Post decade series; HistoryLink Web site and "Seattle's Restaurant Maids.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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