Fifteen Questions with Seattle Historian, Rob Ketcherside

with William Pennington

The study of history can be finite and concrete with solid dates and years to remember, yet hazy and blurry due to inconsistencies with the facts and the truth.  Studying history is a worthwhile pursuit, and yours truly got a college degree studying it.  The history of anything is so much fun to learn, with its never ending rabbit holes and nuggets. Yet recent studies show the number of college degrees in History have declined by 6-7%in the past five years. This disturbing trend also makes my love for local historians all that greater.

Rob Ketcherside did not receive a college degree in History, but he has written more about Seattle history than most college graduates.  His book Lost Seattle has been a hit,. Not only does it show the vast changes in Seattle, block by block, with ghostly historic photographs; he does his research and explains what exactly we lost and how it affected our city.  Any past topics in Seattle’s history seem open for discussion in his book, from a historical look at the neighborhood of Ballard to places that have long disappeared like Luna Park, the first Mosquito Fleet, and the Westlake Monorail Station. Yes, Westlake.

A computer programmer by nature and profession, his interest and contribution to maintaining a sense of history to younger Seattlite’s is both admirable and relieving. With the number of buildings being torn down, (or threatened to be torn down), it's important to know that someone is paying attention and documenting what is happening to our city. Rob is the co-founder of the Capitol Hill Historical Society and is writing a another book on Seattle’s antique street clocks.

I see that you served on the Seattle Pedestrian Advisory Board for 4 1/2 years. I've been thinking of applying for this.  What are the expectations of members, and did you find it meaningful and worthwhile?

SPAB was a great entry point to find out about how city government works. I was on the board through 2005, and I'm assuming things haven't changed much since then. Some city boards, like the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board, have a specific role in city government and duties that they must carry out. SPAB, though, is purely advisory in nature. That means it is up to the members to seek out things to give advice on. Planners for city and state projects are looking for input and happy to present at meetings. The Mayor and City Council have less time but need guidance even if they forget to ask -- we were seldom asked directly for input.  

I loved Lost Seattle, but what kind of stuff did you find that the book publisher didn't want to include?  Or do all of those lesser known places end up making it in the other articles you write? 

The only real constraint I had was photographs. I needed high resolution photographs that I could use for cheap or free. Most archives charge to cover costs. The publisher challenged me on Lusty Lady, wondering if their series was ready to include a strip club. I convinced them that it was an honest landmark.

Who are some of your favorite Seattle writers, past and present?

Fiction: Kazu Kibuishi writer and artist of the Amulet graphic novel series; G Willow Wilson, writer of the Ms Marvel comic series. Both of them are New York Times Best Sellers. Non-Fiction: Knute Berger, I particularly know him for his Crosscut articles relating history to current events; David B Williams, Too High and Too Steep, Seattle Walks, The Street Smart Naturalist, etc

What currently do you enjoy about living in Seattle?  It's obvious you love the history, but where do you like to go for fun?

This year it was going to the Seattle Center. Memorable visits to Seattle Children's Theatre, International Fountain during summer, MoPop's Marvel exhibit and Scout Day, BrickCon at the Exhibition Hall, and there's still the holiday trip to the Armory to look forward to. Other years I might have answered car camping out of town, or going to a whole bunch of Mariners games, or visiting playgrounds in parks all over the city, or going on 4-5 hour walks to distant neighborhoods. Each year a different theme emerges, and it's great to live in a city with such variety. 

Have you ever noticed how much alike in size and dimensions Lake Washington and Manhattan are? I don't know if this is much of a question as something oddly satisfying to know

No I've never noticed that. I tend to think in Tokyo terms. Lake Washington surface area is about half again larger than the the area inside Tokyo's Yamanote line. I don't think either of us are advocating filling Lake Washington in but it does put context into how space constrained we are.

Are there any remnants of the original electric streetcars? 

There are a few old cars around. But the main remnants we have are the routes. Many bus routes, like the 47, exactly mimic streetcar lines. And many weird streets only make sense when you realize that they were built for streetcars -- extra wide streets or intersections with huge turns. Earlier this year I had fun joining a hike in the West Seattle Greenbelt to part of the old Lake Burien streetcar line. 

Should Princess Angeline forever be named by her given name, Kikisoblu? If we want to rename Mt Rainier and Coon Lake, is it time to go with the name she was born with?

I think we should hold onto whatever original names we still remember. The Duwamish tribe uses both names on their page about her, and she went by both names in life, so both names seem appropriate to me. She was Kikisoblu, known as Angeline to settlers.

What is the most underrated neighborhood in Seattle?  

Beacon Hill. It’s actually a district it’s so big. It’s basically missing from the narrative of Seattle history. Even the story of how it got its name is apocryphal. 

Is the next book in your series about buildings that we are currently going to miss soon? Maybe a "Losing Seattle" sequel...

My first book was actually already part of a series about major American cities. You're talking about a real thing, though. There's definitely an opportunity to focus on the recent changes and what's endangered. I just don't think I could write it quickly enough to get it done before new things fell in the cross hairs or additional treasures were lost. The next book I'm working on is the history of Seattle's street clocks and the jeweler who made them.

Does it make you sad to know all these amazing places were here in Seattle, and you never had the chance to experience them?  Or does finding out about these interesting places make you happy that they existed?

Learning about things that used to be here, or the way people used to live, is like finding buried treasure. But I think the key take away for me is to not take places for granted. A favorite business can close suddenly. A building can be damaged in an earthquake. A favorite camp site can be destroyed in a forest fire. Savor them, squeeze in visits, protect them when you can. 

I know Seattle is a young city, relatively, to big cities in the US...but why did it take so long for there to be a historical society in one of the most popular and important neighborhoods that we have?  Or did one exist long ago and you are reviving it?

There has never been a neighborhood historical society as far as I can tell. There have been groups focused on part of neighborhood history. It’s really perplexing that something didn’t form sooner. Somehow there haven’t been many historians that focused on Capitol Hill. It takes awareness to raise interest. 

Will the Capitol Hill Historical Society exist mostly in an online format?  Or is there a concrete brick and mortar place to visit?

The organization would have to grow a lot before that. I guess the Rainier Valley Historical Society (which has a storefront), Log House Museum, and MOHAI started as small gatherings didn’t they? I think there are enough stories and interest.

I need to attend a meeting!  Can you tell me when they are, exactly?

We meet on Saturday afternoons, either a bar or the library. Watch our Facebook feed or website for dates. Next year we’re planning to do a few meetings at historic locations together with informal tours.

What's the greatest movie ever filmed on Capitol Hill?

Posse’s On Broadway music video

Lastly, was there ever a senior center on Capitol Hill?  Where do/did the old folks go?  

I don’t know of any. There are senior housing buildings that have community space for their residents. I know of them in other neighborhoods. I don’t know of any on Capitol Hill and haven’t stumbled on mention. 

WP - 12/2018