Gas Stations and the Maturing of the Business District in Wedgwood

Billboard of April 1971 courtesy of the Seattle Times newspaper

A HistoryLink article by Greg Lange tells of the large-scale layoffs of employees at Boeing Aircraft which set off a recession in Seattle from 1967 to 1972.  The population of Seattle plummeted as people left town to find work elsewhere.  Two local real estate agents thought it would be funny to put up a billboard about the exodus, saying, “Will the Last Person Leaving Seattle – Turn Out the Lights.”

Besides Boeing employees, many other people such as restaurant workers, lost their jobs when the population of Seattle decreased and small businesses could not sustain themselves.  In that time period the Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle had been established and growing for about 25 years and was beginning to show signs of the end of one era and the start of another.  We can see how the slowdown in the economy affected Wedgwood at the start of the 1970s, with fewer and fewer small, locally-owned stores, and the coming of more banks and larger chain stores.  Gas stations went out of business, too, because of higher operating costs and fewer customers.

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Wedgwood’s NE 95th Street Gas Station Intersection

In the 1950s the intersection of 35th Avenue NE and NE 95th Street had gas stations on three corners, and a used-car lot as well.   This intersection on the northern boundary of the Wedgwood neighborhood once called itself Morningside or sometimes Maple Leaf, in reference to the elementary school on NE 100th Street.

Up until the 1940s, the intersection of NE 95th Street had more “going on” than the intersection of NE 85th Street.  With the development of Albert Balch’s Wedgwood neighborhood centered at 85th, businesses began to cluster around NE 85th and that intersection ultimately became the heart of Wedgwood.

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Gas Stations and Intersections in Wedgwood

NE 75th Street intersection.Photo by Christopher Priest of The Urbanist

Looking west along NE 75th Street from the intersection of 35th Avenue NE.  Photo by Christopher Priest of

The Wedgwood neighborhood of northeast Seattle has a linear business district along the arterial 35th Avenue NE, with stores clustered at the major intersections of NE 75th, 85th and 95th Streets.  As the neighborhood began to take shape in the 1940s, there were one or more gas stations at each of these intersections.

Pictured at right, the Subway sandwich shop at the corner of NE 75th Street, was once the site of a gas station.

By the 1980s the number of gas stations in Wedgwood had declined sharply and they were replaced mostly by store buildings.

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Gas Stations and Open Space in Wedgwood: the Morningside Substation

Even in the short history of the Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle, there are some sites which have had multiple different buildings and uses over time.  One such site is the northwest corner of NE 86th Street on 35th Ave NE, which first took on an identity in 1949 when it became the Morningside Electrical Substation.

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Business Changes and Development Pressures in Northeast Seattle: Neighborhood Stores

The years following the end of World War Two in the 1940s saw the rise of new kinds of stores.  Some were big supermarkets which had a much wider variety of products than traditional corner grocery stores, and some were small convenience markets where the kind of products you might want to pick up quickly, such as a bottle of ketchup, were sold.    Different kinds of stores vied with one another in the post-war retail environment.  In 1946 a chain of stores owned by the Southland Corporation, changed their name to 7-Eleven to emphasize their longer hours of operation.

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Gas Stations and Growth in Northeast Seattle: Gray’s Service Station

From 1936 to 1940 King County, Washington, which includes the greater Seattle area, undertook a survey of all existing buildings, both houses and businesses.  The survey was 75% funded by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) which helped provide jobs during the economic depression years of the 1930s.

The Puget Sound Regional Archives, repository of the property records of King County, is located on the campus of Bellevue College.

The property survey included photos which helped King County’s tax assessors assign a property tax value to buildings.  Today the collection of photos is kept in archival storage at the Puget Sound Regional Archives.

Many of the survey photos have been uploaded to King County’s on-line Parcel Viewer.  To find your house, enter your address on the Parcel Viewer page and click through to Property Detail, then click on the “camera” icon to see the oldest available photo of a house or commercial building.

When a building has been torn down and replaced, the old photo is kept with its previous records.  To write this article about a site in northeast Seattle which formerly had a gas station called Gray’s, I (Valarie) went to the Puget Sound Regional Archives to look at the old photos.

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Searching for the Origins of Seattle Street Names

There is no resource list of the meanings of Seattle’s street names or how the street names were derived.  Even the granddaughters of Seattle city founder Arthur Denny were left to speculate on his choices of the names for twelve downtown streets.  The granddaughters wrote in their books, Four Wagons West and Pigtail Days in Old Seattle, about their memories of Arthur Denny, about early days in Seattle and what their best guess was as to the origin of the street names.  Roberta Frye Watt wrote, “Why Mr. Denny named the streets in alliterative pairs, no one knows.”  (page 107, Four Wagons West.)

David Denny

Some street names are apparent in their derivation when honoring an early settler, such as Denny Way for the original homestead claim property of David Denny (Arthur’s younger brother) and Mercer Street for Thomas Mercer, an early, influential settler of Seattle.  But for some other street names, such as Aloha Street, we may feel bewildered as we wonder, what is “Aloha” for?

In a previous post on this blog, I wrote about the founding of the City of Seattle and Arthur Denny’s naming of downtown streets.  In this blog post we will consider some ways in which we might find out the reasons for other street names in Seattle outside of the downtown area.

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