The news of Seattle’s Great Fire of June 6, 1889, was carried by newspapers all over the USA. The story of the pioneer City of Seattle which heroically resolved to rise from the ashes and rebuild after the Fire, attracted opportunity-seekers in business, real estate investment and many other fields. One of the newcomers in Seattle immediately after the Fire was Charles E. Remsberg, age 26, of Indiana.
Seattle: destination of young men in search of their future
Charles Remsberg came to Seattle in the summer of 1889, took a look around and saw that the city was ripe with opportunities. He’d left his sweetheart, Belle, behind in Indiana and he intended to establish himself in Seattle to make his fortune and be able to marry Belle.
Remsberg settled in Fremont which was then a northern suburb of Seattle with a vigorous business environment, and he became part of the life of the community. He decided to turn his attention to the practice of law, so he “read law” while working for an attorney until he successfully passed the bar exam. Remsberg then went into practice with a law partner.
By 1892 Remsberg had made a trip back to Indiana to marry Belle and bring her to Seattle. In addition to practicing as an attorney Remsberg was a Justice of the Peace, an elected position for Fremont.
Samuel P. Dixon arrived in Seattle in 1888, and he became a businessman in Fremont with multiple areas of involvement. Dixon was a bicycle salesman, a real estate investor, an insurance agent, owner of the Hotel Dixon, and postmaster of Fremont. In those days a postmaster most often handled the mail out of a store. As storekeeper he hoped that people would buy products at the same time that they came in to pick up their mail. His job as postmaster would have brought Samuel Dixon into contact with most of the people in the community of Fremont in the 1890s.
In the 1890s the vocation of “real estate agent” had not yet been invented. Instead, land sales were often brokered by attorneys who did the legal paperwork. In his law practice Charles Remsberg began spending the majority of his time handling real estate transactions and buying land for development, along with his business partner Samuel P. Dixon.
Business and community activism in Fremont
In 1903 the two men, Remsberg & Dixon, added another business to their multiple efforts, opening the Remsberg & Dixon Bank at 3416 Fremont Avenue N. Today this original bank building has storefronts. (Shown here is Homegrown Sandwiches which closed in January 2018.) The Chase Bank in the McKenzie Building, built in 1927 at 3400 Fremont Ave N., is on the site of the former Hotel Dixon.
Along with many other Fremont businessmen, Remsberg & Dixon were vitally involved in advocating for creation of a ship canal at the route of the canal which we have today. Fremont businessmen believed that a large ship canal, in place of the existing creek which had been enlarged only for floating logs to mill, would bring more business to Fremont and would enhance property values. Remsberg was on the Chamber of Commerce’s Lake Washington Canal Committee and was their chosen spokesman for north Seattle’s preferred canal route.
At a 1909 meeting in Olympia, Washington, organized by State Senator George F. Cotterill, Remsberg attended along with Robert Bridges of south Seattle. Remsberg and Bridges represented different interest groups who joined together in preference for the north canal route. In 1911 Remsberg, Bridges, and Hiram M. Chittenden of the Army Corps of Engineers were elected as the first three Seattle Port Commissioners.
From the creation of the Port of Seattle on September 5, 1911, Remsberg served for more than seven years as a port commissioner. He was never paid anything as port commissioner so he continued to support himself with his business activities as an attorney, banker and real estate developer.
The ship canal was part of the Port of Seattle initiative
The ability to go ahead with creation of the ship canal was founded upon Washington State legislation in 1911:
“The Port District Act authorized Washington voters to create public port districts that could acquire, construct, and operate waterways, docks, wharves, and other harbor improvements; rail and water transfer and terminal facilities; and ferry systems. A port district would be a government body, run by three elected commissioners, independent of any existing county, city, or other government, with the power to levy taxes and issue bonds.” (quote from “Founding of the Port of Seattle,” HistoryLink Essay #1003.)
Once the three commissioners of the Port of Seattle began their work, Gen. Chittenden was the one who was most associated with construction of the ship canal. Charles Remsberg oversaw development of port facilities on the downtown Seattle waterfront while he also continued to be a Fremont businessman.
Ship canal construction caused disruption
Ironically the construction of the ship canal which Remsberg had helped promote, may have contributed to the failure of Remsberg & Dixon’s bank, then called the Fremont State Bank in 1915. The bank failure may have been partly due to disruptions of the business district of Fremont caused by the ship canal construction and road work. There were times when the Fremont business district was cut off because there was no bridge to cross over the canal onto Fremont Avenue, such as after the dam break and bridge wash-out of March 1914.
After the bank failure Remsberg & Dixon moved their office to a downtown building where they continued as business partners in real estate sales, investments and insurance. Remsberg maintained his duties as a Port Commissioner through the end of the year 1918.
The impacts of the Port work and the ship canal construction upon Remsberg personally, is an example of the pros and cons of any major infrastructure project. Though the ship canal was considered to be of great benefit, it had its downside including obstruction of the Fremont business district during the construction period.
Another one of the Port of Seattle projects was the straightening of the Duwamish River. Remsberg had lost his Green Lake house and estate property due to the failure of his bank. His house was then acquired by the Picardo family who had lost their farmland to the Duwamish River project.
Charles E. Remsberg Papers 1911-1914, Manuscript Collection 4024, Special Collections, University of Washington Library.
“Charles Edward Remsberg,” page 409, History of the Puget Sound Country by William F. Prosser, 1903. Seattle Room of the Seattle Public Library/downtown.
“Founding of the Port of Seattle,” HistoryLink Essay #1003 by Kit Oldham.
Fremont Colleague newspaper of January 1904, UW Library Newspaper Microfilm.
“George F. Cotterill,” HistoryLink Essay #2709 by David Wilma.
Interviews with Picardo and Remsberg family descendants.
Making the Cut 100: in this year of the centennial of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, historic background info, photos, videos and event listings can be found on this webpage.
National Association of Realtors – 2016 Centennial Page.
“Remsberg House,” 2200 N. 77th Street, Green Lake. Description written by Greg Lange for the Department of Neighborhoods Historic Sites Index.
The Seattle Bungalow: People and Houses 1900 to 1940, by Janet Ore, 2007, Seattle Public Library. Remsberg & Dixon are referred to many times in this book about the expansion of housing into north Seattle’s single-family neighborhoods.
The centennial of the ship canal
This article is part of a series in commemoration of the Lake Washington Ship Canal centennial in 2016-2017, and specifically about how people of the Fremont neighborhood were involved with the creation of the canal.
Early Fremont residents were dynamic, enterprising businessmen and politicians who promoted the present route of the ship canal because they knew it would benefit their neighborhood. Fremont is located at the northwest corner of Lake Union and was the site of industries such as lumber mills.
Research and media generated for the ship canal centennial year are posted on the Making the Cut 100 page.