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 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.
Northeast Seattle outside of the City Limits
As of 1910 the City of Seattle’s north boundary line was at 85th Street except for a “jog” in the line in the northeast at 65th Street. Northeast Seattle north of NE 65th Street remained outside of the city limits until the 1940s-1950s, because the area was so sparsely settled. Many residents of northeast Seattle wanted a semi-rural lifestyle and did not want to come under City government. Finally in 1954 during the enormous post-World-War-Two increase in population, the north city boundary line was set at 145th Street, where it remains today.
Elmer and Mirtie Gray come to Seattle
Elmer and Mirtie Gray were part of an extended group of siblings on both Elmer and Mirtie’s sides of the family, who all came from Illinois to Seattle around the year 1918.
Elmer and Mirtie Gray, ages 42 and 36 respectively, brought their four young adult children with them to Seattle. Elmer had been a teacher for twenty-two years in Illinois and in his first six years in Seattle, he was a teacher in the YMCA’s education program.
In 1920 the Gray family built a house at 5707 33rd Ave NE, across the street from where Bryant Elementary School is now (the school had not yet been built as of that year.) Elmer’s mother, Mary Jane Gray, lived with them. Of Mary Jane’s eight children (one daughter and seven sons) six of the Grays had moved to Seattle leaving only two of Mary Jane’s sons who remained in Illinois. Elmer Gray’s wife Mirtie also had a brother, Otis J. Metcalf, who had come to Seattle in 1918.
A church, Ravenna Methodist, was at NE 60th Street on the north end of the block where the Elmer Gray family lived. The whole Gray family became involved in programs and activities at the church during the exciting growth years of the 1920s.
Ravenna Methodist Church was at the southeast corner of NE 60th Street and 33rd Avenue NE (now the site of Bryant School.) The church building soon became too small. New property was obtained across the street at the southwest corner, 5751 33rd Ave NE, where the church remains today.
A dedication program for the new church building was held in 1923 and the Gray family were among the participants. The attendance at the church rose to 250 during the growing years of the 1920s when the blocks surrounding NE 60th Street were filling up with young families, especially after the new Bryant School opened in 1926.
Growing numbers of gas stations in the 1920s
After ten years in his adopted city of Seattle, Elmer Gray was ready to launch a new venture capitalizing upon the exponential growth in car ownership. Statewide, car ownership had risen from zero in the year 1900, to 137,000 in the year 1920.
Public transportation systems such as streetcars had never reached northeast Seattle, and in the 1920s a private bus company had been organized by residents themselves. Increasing numbers of northeast Seattle families had a car, and Elmer Gray thought that a gas station in the neighborhood would be just what was needed.
The intersection of 35th Avenue NE and NE 65th Street offered good visibility for businesses, so Elmer Gray built a gas station there in 1928. The earliest available photo of the station (below) was taken in 1938 as part of the King County property survey. The writing on the photo is the legal description 10-25-4 (Section-Township-Range) with the plat name University Gardens, Block and Lot numbers. The writing on the left, F-235, is a records file number.
From the roaring twenties to the economic crash of the 1930s
Like Elmer Gray, in the 1920s many other people in Seattle opened gas stations based upon the dramatic rise in the number of cars. We may ponder whether Elmer Gray’s timing and business sense was good, or not, since he opened his gas station just before a major economic downturn, the Great Depression of the 1930s.
After a stock market crash in October 1929 triggered an economic depression, cars were one of the first things people stopped using, in order to reduce household expenses. Twenty blocks north of Elmer Gray’s station, Joe Shauer had also tried to open a gas station and garage in the 1920s. As of 1930, without sufficient customers, Mr. Shauer turned his auto service shop into a feed store. But Elmer Gray’s station stayed open and apparently was successful throughout the 1930s.
Elmer Gray died in 1935 and his death notice in the newspaper said that his three sons had all worked at the Gray’s Service Station.
At the same time that the station opened in 1928, the Gray family moved to 6252 34th Avenue NE. Gradually, as the sons grew up, married and moved away, only one, Talmage, still lived nearby and continued to work at the station.
In 1940, with her daughter and three sons grown and married, Elmer Gray’s widow Mirtie wanted to “downsize.” She built a new house for herself at 6029 35th Avenue NE. The house was very small, just big enough for her to live alone and be nearby to enjoy her grandchildren. (House photo of 6029 35th Avenue NE at the end of this article, next to the Source List.)
Business upturn in 1939-1940
The Seattle economy began to improve in 1939-1940 with federal stimulus in production of war materials. The population of northeast Seattle began to grow with an influx of people working at Sand Point Naval Station and with people looking to northeast Seattle for a less expensive place to live on the edges of what was then the Seattle City Limits. Northeast Seattle continued to increase as a neighborhood of car ownership, with people driving to work, and this would have helped gas stations like Gray’s to stay in business.
We see that Gray’s Service Station managed to survive the sluggish economy of the 1930s. The Grays were able to remodel the station and upgrade the gas pumps. Because of the changes to the building, the tax assessors office came out again in 1940 and took another photo.
Another economic depression and the end of Gray’s Service Station
Another economic depression hit Seattle beginning in 1969 with the Mideast Oil Embargo which then caused massive layoffs of employees at Boeing Aircraft Company. It was said that for every one Boeing employee, four other people had jobs in support industries and in schools, restaurants and medical care in the Seattle area. Because of the layoffs at Boeing many other Seattle businesses failed, such as restaurants, during the Boeing Bust.
Between 1960 to 1970 the population of Seattle decreased, and for all of these reasons gas stations began to go out of business. Gray’s Service Station had survived into the 1970s but ended in that era along with many other stations. Elmer Gray’s wife Mirtie died in 1977 (age 95) at the home of her son Talmage, who had moved to Bremerton. The Gray’s Station property was sold and the gas station and garage were torn down.
A new building at the corner of NE 65th Street in a new economic era
In place of the gas station, a market building, at first called Hoagy’s Corner, was built at 6256 35th Ave NE. The 1970s was an era of convenience markets with some others coming into the neighborhood such as 7-Eleven. Today the Hoagy’s building is called the Wedgwood Food Market.
In the 1950s there were at least twelve gas stations along 35th Avenue NE on corners of the intersections at NE 65th, 75th, 85th and 95th Streets. The rise and fall of gas stations is one of the indicators of the economy, the lifestyle of northeast Seattle and the commercial environment. Today there are only two gas stations along this commercial zone of 35th Ave NE, one at 7300 and one at 9500 35th Ave NE.
Annexation list and map: Seattle City Clerk’s page showing the sections and dates when neighborhoods came into the City of Seattle.
“Bryant School,” Seattle School Histories.
Census and City directory listings, Elmer Gray family and the Gray’s Service Station.
House history research: more resources for finding property histories.
“King County Land Use Survey,” HistoryLink Essay #3692 by Paula Becker, 2002.
September 14, 1922, Seattle Times page 2: death notice for Mary Jane Gray, age 79, mother of Elmer Gray.
January 17, 1935, Seattle Times: death notice for Elmer F. Gray, age 59, service station operator and former teacher.
October 6, 1939, Seattle Times page 30: Mirtie Gray application for a building permit, 6029 35th Ave NE.
Property record cards, Puget Sound Regional Archives, Bellevue, WA. Accessed February 16, 2018.
Ravenna United Methodist Church history/centennial in 2003.