Even though elephants are only native to Africa and Asia, elephants appear in art, literature and cultural references worldwide.
Perhaps the earliest elephant-reference in Seattle was in the 1870s. In this 1878 photo, we see the Elephant Store on First Avenue at the southeast corner of Columbia Street. We don’t know exactly why it was called the Elephant Store. In his commentary on this photo, Seattle historian Paul Dorpat speculated that “presumably both the bargains and the selection were oversized.”
The Fremont neighborhood of Seattle is well-known for its art installations such as Lenin, the Troll and the Interurban statue. There currently is no elephant-art-motif in Fremont, but historically Fremont has had its own connections to elephant lore: an elephant named Wide Awake who lived at the nearby Woodland Park Zoo, and an elephant art piece created in Fremont which is displayed as a store’s sign at 8808 Aurora Avenue North.
Seattle’s zoo history
Woodland Park Zoo began as a menagerie on the estate of Guy C. Phinney.
Phinney worked with the developers of the Fremont neighborhood to establish a streetcar line from Fremont to the grounds of his estate, where he charged admission to the menagerie.
Phinney also platted nearby property to sell lots for home-building. A streetcar line leading to picnic grounds, with adjacent development site, was one of the strategies used for real estate sales in Seattle’s booming years after 1889.
The route of the streetcar line to the zoo and its picnic grounds was on Fremont Avenue northward to the gate of Phinney’s menagerie at N. 50th Street. A few years later, another streetcar line ran from a transfer point by the Fremont Bridge, eastward along N. 34th Street. At the corner of Woodland Park Avenue the line turned northward and went all the way to Green Lake.
Guy Phinney died in 1893 and it took several years for the property to be acquired by the City of Seattle and to begin development as a zoo.
The first elephant at the zoo
Woodland Park Zoo’s first elephant was named Wide Awake, purchased from a carnival in 1921. The purchase price of $3,122 was raised in a campaign sponsored by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper with a special appeal to children in a “penny drive.”
The elephant, formerly named Cleopatra, was about seven years old and was renamed Wide Awake after a children’s club program emphasizing activity and civic service.
On June 25, 1921 a parade was organized to bring Wide Awake to her new home at Woodland Park Zoo. The parade began at Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle and went north on Second Avenue, then along Westlake Avenue to Fremont. Wide Awake rode in a wagon with several stops, including Fremont.
In recognition of the Fremont children who had contributed the most money for the purchase of Wide Awake, the elephant parade stopped at the door of the Fremont Drug Company and the children of the neighborhood were introduced to Wide Awake.
An elephant in tile and terrazzo
In the early 1900s Italian immigrant Giovanni (John) Braida and his family moved from San Francisco to Seattle where they believed that Seattle’s vigorous economy would provide more work opportunities. Braida was an artisan specializing in marble, mosaic, terrazzo and tile.
In 1915 the Braidas purchased a house at 3408 Woodland Park Avenue North in the Fremont neighborhood. John Braida had the house raised so that the original house became the family’s second-floor living quarters. A marble-working workshop was built on the ground level. The property included the northern half of the block where the Braida family had a garden and outbuildings including a garage.
John Braida began to specialize more and more in mosaic and concrete garden ornaments, which he could display in the garden of his house on Woodland Park Avenue. For many years streetcar riders enjoyed going past this “concrete zoo” with its life-size animals, including an elephant with a howdah (seat) on its back.
In 1946 John Braida’s son Hector sold the garden-art elephant to the Aurora Flower Shop, 8808 Aurora Avenue North (now the site of Aurora Rents). The flower shop owner used the elephant as part of a slogan for people to remember significant events with flowers because “an elephant never forgets” anniversaries, birthdays, Mother’s Day, etc. A readerboard for the flower shop displayed the names of the places that flowers had been sent, such as “Yesterday we sent flowers to Ypsilanti, Michigan,” which was to remind people to remember loved ones far and wide, by sending flowers.
In March 2009 the Aurora elephant, now under the ownership of the Aurora Rents store, was removed for restoration, and was later reinstalled. While it was on the ground two Braida grandsons, Gil and Theodore, got a chance to see their elephant close-up for the first time since their childhood in the Braida house on Woodland Park Avenue in Fremont.
Although we refer to it as the “Aurora Avenue elephant,” the Braida family proudly remembers the elephant’s origins in their Fremont home.
Denny Grindall (1915-2009) was the original owner of the Aurora Flower Shop who purchased the elephant for his store at 8800 Aurora Ave North. Today the site is Aurora Rents. As seen in the above photo, the elephant was taken down in March 2009 to be cleaned, restored and put back in place.
Elephants in the Civil War: it was rumored that the King of Siam (Thailand) offered elephants to President Abraham Lincoln for war use. President Lincoln did receive a letter from the King with gifts, but not specifically an offer of elephants. In that time period the political cartoonist Thomas Nast began using elephants as the symbol of the Republican Party (Lincoln was the first president elected from that newly formed party).
“Elephant in Parade,” Seattle Daily Times, June 25, 1921, page 2.
“Front Street Now and Then,” PaulDorpat.com, May 11, 2011.
HistoryLink Essays on elephants and the zoo:
“Woodland Park Zoo,” HistoryLink Essay #1481 by Walt Crowley, 1999. The story of the zoo’s first elephant, Wide Awake, is contained in this article. Wide Awake lived to be 54 years old and died at the zoo in 1967.
“Woodland Park Railway begins running in 1890,” HistoryLink Essay #3285 by Greg Lange, 2001.
“Queenie the elephant causes pandemonium,” HistoryLink Essay #7652 by Alan J. Stein, 2006.
“Tusko the elephant rampages through Sedro-Woolley,” HistoryLink Essay #5270 by J. Kingston Pierce, 2003.
“Asian elephant Chai gives birth to baby at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo on November 3, 2000,” HistoryLink Essay #2784 by Priscilla Long, 2000.
Lough family photos courtesy of George Elliot Lough, Fremont Historical Society collection.
Pink Elephant Car Wash: The car wash at Sixth & Battery Street near the Space Needle closed in 2020. Of the two signs, the larger elephant sign has been donated to the local museum (MOHAI). In August 2022 the smaller sign was designated as a historic landmark under Seattle’s preservation ordinance. It will be installed as a piece of public art at 7th & Blanchard Streets, not far from its original location in the northern part of downtown Seattle.
Seattle Historical Sites, the Braida House at 3408 Woodland Park Avenue North. This list of historically-significant Fremont buildings was compiled via a survey of all residential structures in Fremont in 2009, in which I (Valarie) participated as one of the volunteers.