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10 Surprising Secrets From Seattle’s History

From salmon-tossing to being the birthplace of grunge, Seattle has many well-known claims to fame. The area is home to some of America's top corporations—Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks, to name just a few—and it’s known for its cloudy weather (on average, it has 152 days a year with precipitation). But Seattle has its stranger side, too. Here are a few odd items from the history of this booming Northwest metropolis.

1. VASHON ISLAND HAS A BICYCLE-EATING TREE.

Seattle has many islands just a short ferry ride away. A small-town, woodsy atmosphere characterizes nearby Vashon Island, which is about the size of Manhattan. In fact, the bucolic land is so woodsy that trees may be taking over.

Over a small footbridge on an unmarked trail, where Vashon Highway meets Southwest 204th Street, a Douglas fir has eaten an old bicycle. Tourists in the know make the pilgrimage to see the rusted two-wheeler, which has been swallowed by the tree and lifted about seven feet in the air. The bike's middle is lodged deep beneath the bark while its front and back wheels jut out on either side. Local Don Puz lays claim to the bike, saying he left it there around 1954 when he was a kid.

In the past few decades, the bike has become the stuff of local legend. Its fame got a big boost after 1994, when cartoonist Berkeley Breathed published a children's book about the tree, Red Ranger Came Calling. Unfortunately, vandals have stripped the bike of various parts over the years, but locals continue to mend it, replacing the pilfered parts with donations of their own.

2. A COLORFUL CONGRESSMAN WHO LEAPT TO HIS DEATH IS SAID TO HAUNT THE ARCTIC HOTEL

Marion Zioncheck, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1933 until his death in 1936, may have been one of the craziest politicians in U.S. history. A son of Polish immigrants, he began his political career as a fighter for the poor and homeless, and was elected congressman as a fierce champion of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal policies.

While Zioncheck's heart was in the right place, his head seemed to be going in a different direction. A week after meeting 21-year-old Rubye Louise Nix, a secretary at the Works Progress Administration, Zioncheck married her. Their honeymoon in Puerto Rico was memorable: Zioncheck is said to have joined in a student riot, drove through a rich man's gate, lapped soup up like a dog at a dinner, and reportedly bit a driver's neck. He and his wife also were admonished for throwing coconuts out their hotel window. He told reporters that he invented a new drink while in Puerto Rico: "The Zipper," made from hair tonic and rum.

Returning to Washington, D.C. after the honeymoon, he and his bride made headlines after a drunken frolic in a local fountain. In an earlier escapade, the Seattle statesman had taken a crazed 70-mile-per-hour drive up Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C., finally parking his car on the White House lawn. He also sent President Roosevelt a gift of a package of empty beer bottles and mothballs. J. Edgar Hoover, meanwhile, received a truckload of manure.

With his sanity in question, Zioncheck was sent to a sanitarium for a short time. In 1936, with most of his political support gone, he launched an independent reelection campaign. His prospects of winning were dwindling, and on August 7, a discouraged Zioncheck wrote a farewell note and threw himself out of the window of his fifth-floor office in downtown Seattle’s Arctic Building. He hit the sidewalk on Third Avenue, just outside the car where his wife was waiting. The Arctic Building is now a DoubleTree hotel, and several visitors have reported that his ghost haunts the fifth floor, occasionally riding the elevator and pushing random buttons.

3. BATMAN IS FROM THE EMERALD CITY.

Seattle has been home to several figures who have left their indelible mark on the world. One who looms large in the pop culture consciousness is Adam West, who became famous for his campy portrayal of Batman on TV in the late 1960s. West's caped crusader fought an array of flamboyant villains—all while coaching youthful viewers in good behaviors such as doing homework, drinking milk, and wearing safety belts.

After his parents divorced at age 15, West moved with his mother from Walla Walla, Washington to Seattle, where he attended Lakeside School. (Lakeside has had other successful alumni, most notably Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the founders of Microsoft.) Other notable celebrities with ties to Seattle include actors Rainn Wilson, Joel McHale, Jean Smart, Dyan Cannon, Rose McGowan, and John Ratzenberger (Cheers), as well as singer Judy Collins, choreographer Mark Morris, and cartoonist Gary Larson (The Far Side).

4. RUDYARD KIPLING ONCE CALLED IT A “GREAT BLACK SMUDGE."

The aftermath of Seattle's great fire. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On June 6, 1889, a fire started in a shop downtown, and within a few hours the central business district was destroyed. At the time, most of the buildings were wooden—the sidewalks were made of wood, and even potholes in the road were filled with sawdust. The fire not only engulfed buildings, it spread quickly to the wharves as well (which were also made of wood). To make matters worse, the system of hydrants and plumbing was inadequate, and the water pressure very low. Firefighters struggled to contain the quickly spreading blaze, and in the end, 120 acres were destroyed, with thousands of homes and jobs lost.

Soon after the fire, the author Rudyard Kipling visited the city, calling it "a horrible black smudge, as though a Hand had come down and rubbed the place smooth. I know now what being wiped out means."

After the blaze, the citizens of Seattle got to work rebuilding. A new building ordinance required buildings to be less vulnerable to fire, and within a year, hundreds of new buildings had risen from the ashes. Much of the new city was built on top of the remnants of the old. Today, remaining structures from before the fire form an underground city that is a popular attraction for tourists.

5. IT WAS HOME TO THE WINDSHIELD DAMAGE HYSTERIA OF 1954.

In the spring of 1954, windshields on cars in Seattle, Bellingham, and other nearby towns suffered a wave of damage. People began reporting that pits, dings, and holes were mysteriously appearing on their car glass. Within a couple of weeks, close to 3000 residents in the Puget Sound area had claimed their windshields were damaged. Even police cars were not immune.

Concern about the cause hit feverish levels, and locals spun plenty of potential theories. One sheriff speculated that the scarred glass was a result of nuclear fallout from tests conducted in the South Pacific, thousands of miles from Seattle. Others blamed radio waves, cosmic rays, and atmospheric conditions. Some even suspected that sand-flea eggs were somehow being laid in the car glass and then hatching.

Scientists at the University of Washington who looked into the matter concluded that all the damage was most likely the result of normal driving practices. Drivers just hadn't noticed the dings before, and now they were all under the influence of some sort of mass delusion. The rumors of windshield damage seemed to feed on themselves. Since then, some have labeled it a textbook case of a collective delusion.

6. IT’S HOME TO A MAN WHO MORTGAGED HIS HOUSE FOR LENIN.

Seattle is made up of a series of distinctive neighborhoods. Fremont is one that prides itself on its eccentricity: it’s the self-declared Center of the Universe, and host to an annual summer solstice parade featuring legions of nude bicyclists. Two massive statues also distinguish the community—one is a towering troll residing beneath the Aurora Bridge, and the other is a large bronze of Vladimir Lenin, striding forth in his signature cap and goatee.

The latter statue stood for a very short time in 1988 in Poprad, Slovakia, but after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, the seven-ton, 16-foot-tall Lenin wound up face-down in the a local dump. When Issaquah teacher, construction worker, and Vietnam veteran Lewis Carpenter came across the statue, he decided to save this piece of history from being melted down. To cover his costs (about $40,000 by some estimates), including shipping, Carpenter had to mortgage his home. After getting the funds together, he cut the statue in three pieces and brought it to a new home in Issaquah, outside Seattle.

Unfortunately, Carpenter died in a car accident in 1994. Sculptor Peter Bevis, the founder of the Fremont Fine Arts Foundry, came to Lenin's rescue. He worked out an arrangement with the Fremont Chamber of Commerce and Carpenter's family whereby Fremont will hold the statue in a trust until a buyer is found (estimated price: $250,000). Of course, Lenin is a controversial figure whose policies led to mass terror and the deaths of millions, so feelings about the statue are justifiably mixed—often his hands get painted red as a symbol of the bloodshed and death attributed to his policies.

7. IT’S HAD MORE THAN ITS FAIR SHARE OF SERIAL KILLERS.

Maybe it's something in the water. Seattle seems like a peaceful place on the surface, but the town has had an unusual number of serial killers. The infamous Ted Bundy attended the University of Washington and served as the assistant director of the Seattle Crime Prevention Advisory Commission. Gary Ridgway, a.k.a. the Green River Killer, confessed to killing more than 70 women in the Seattle area. John Allen Muhammad—who along with his accomplice Lee Boyd Malvo terrorized citizens in the Washington, D.C. area in 2002—was a resident of nearby Tacoma and regularly attended a mosque in Seattle. Kenneth Bianchi, the famed Hillside Strangler of San Francisco, committed his final two murders in Bellingham, just north of Seattle, before getting caught.

8. IT HAS SOME SURPRISING CONNECTIONS TO NEW YORK CITY.

When settlers first came to the area in 1851, they established a town at what's now Alki Point that they first called New York-Alki. The settlers chose the name with the hope that the area would grow to the size and importance of New York City. Today, a tiny replica of the Statue of Liberty stands in Alki overlooking the bay, a reminder of the area's original New York name. While Frederick Law Olmsted designed New York's Central Park, his sons, the Olmsted Brothers, designed many of Seattle's parks—including Colman, Frink, Green Lake, Interlaken, Jefferson, Mt. Baker, Seward, Volunteer, Washington Park Arboretum, and Woodland parks.

The Pacific Science Center was designed by Seattle-born Minoru Yamasaki for the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle. Yamasaki would later go on to design the World Trade Center in New York City. His signature look of narrow pointed arches appeared in both structures.

9. YOU CAN SEE MUMMIES ON THE WATERFRONT.

You expect to see a mummy in a museum, but Seattle has two on display in a gift shop along its well-touristed piers. Not far from the new ferris wheel and Ivar's Fish Bar, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop houses two mummies—a female named Sylvia and a male named Sylvester. Many visitors think the figures are fake, but researchers from the Bioanthropology Research Institute at Quinnipiac University in New Haven, Connecticut conducted CT and MRI scans in 2001 and 2005 and confirmed that they are the real deal. In fact, they declared Sylvester to be one of the best-preserved mummies they have ever seen.

According to legend, two cowboys found Sylvester's dried-out body in Arizona's Gila Bend Desert in 1895. Some say he was killed in a saloon shootout and has what appears to be a gunshot wound in the stomach. Sylvia is more deteriorated, but evidence shows that she is a European female who died at about the age of 30 from tuberculosis and lost her teeth while still alive.

Ye Olde Curiosity Shop itself is an underappreciated Seattle treasure—its origins date back to 1899 when Joseph Edward Standley set up his curio and souvenir shop on the waterfront. Over five generations, the Standley family has enlarged its collection of oddities, bringing in shrunken heads, taxidermy treasures, and natural and artificial wonders from all over the world.

10. WANT TO GET AROUND DOWNTOWN? JUST REMEMBER THIS PHRASE.

Locals know this handy mnemonic device—the phrase “Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest”—as a way to remember the street names downtown. Starting from the south and heading north, the street names are Jefferson and then James ("Jesus"), Cherry and Columbia (“Christ”), Marion and Madison (“Made”), Spring and Seneca (“Seattle”), University and Union (“Under”), and finally, Pike and Pine (“Protest”). Note, however, that some townsfolk use the word "Pressure" instead of "Protest."

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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