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The City Clerk maintains the City's legislative records, official filings, and the Seattle Municipal Archives; keeps the minutes of City Council meetings; and provides information services to City agencies and the public. Seattle's first City Charter allowed for a Clerk of the Common Council to be elected by the Council. In 1875 the position of City Clerk became elective and remained so until 1896 when the new Charter designated the Comptroller ex-officio City Clerk. The Comptroller served as City Clerk through 1992. A 1991 City Charter amendment transferred the Comptroller's function to the Department of Finance and the City Clerk's Office became a division of the Legislative Department effective in 1993.
The General Files collection documents City of Seattle activities during the last quarter of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century through the voices of Seattle residents and City officials as they struggle to address myriad issues facing a city experiencing enormous growth and change. The files contain a wide range of documents, including petitions, claims, reports, contracts, bids, and other items relating to the early years of Seattle's municipal government. The collection documents particularly well the City Council's interactions with residents, businesses, and other City agencies and departments. Researchers can find material relating to the Great Fire, the development of the water supply system, solid waste, the Fire Department, grading and street improvements, housing, women, race relations, and other issues, especially as they relate to the rapid growth of a large city.
The General Files comprise a variety of documents filed with the City Clerk. Numbering close to 4,000 individual filings and representing approximately 10,000 documents, the files cover the period 1874 through 1905. The bulk of the records in the General Files date from 1884 to 1896, with the heaviest concentration in the years 1890 to 1894. The General Files is the predecessor record series to the Clerk or Comptroller Files which dates from 1904 to the present.
The General Files document the City Council's actions as it received requests from City residents and City employees for funds or services associated with Seattle's tremendous growth. The City Council oversaw development of the City's infrastructure, especially its water supply, sewer system, transportation, solid waste disposal, and street lighting. In addition, the structures of the Fire and Police Departments were significantly modified during this period. Some changes were made with a long-range plan in mind and others were made in more piecemeal fashion. Citizen petitions spurred some aspects of growth; plans and visions of a safer and more beautiful city encouraged improvements in other municipal services and facilities. The many disagreements over assessments relating to grading are evidence of at least one area where the views of citizens and their government often clashed.
The majority of documents in the General Files are petitions, claims, and requests from residents on topics related to the issues key to everyday life: water, sewers, sidewalks, street lights. Other topics, perhaps important to residents less articulate in English or less comfortable using the existing system to petition City government to address their needs, are not as well documented. Tensions engulfing the local Chinese population are hinted at, but not fully documented. The 1893 depression is evident in only a few documents, such as 993247, a Resolution adopted at a mass meeting of unemployed citizens, requesting a free Employment Bureau to be established. Issues related to the Native American population are not documented here, nor are issues relating to the influx of people arriving in Seattle on their way to Alaska in the late 1890s.
Nevertheless, many important issues are well documented in the General Files. One is the Great Fire of 1889. The effect of the Fire on individual citizens is evident in their petitions to the City. One citizen requested a refund on her business licenses because her business had burned to the ground. Another citizen asked for an extension of time that his business could be maintained in a tent because his new building would not be ready by the May 1890 deadline for evacuating tents erected as temporary structures after the Fire. Another citizen requested a reduction in his property tax because all of his merchandise was lost in the Fire.
The Fire also made both citizens and City officials more sensitive to fire prevention and the water supply. Where citizens felt vulnerable to fire, they petitioned for fire hydrants. There are 12 petitions, signed by from 4 to 47 residents, requesting one or more fire hydrants in various parts of the City. In a January 1891 petition (Document 990704), over 75 residents requested a "fire engine house" at the intersection of Madison and Randolph Streets. They claimed that this intersection, which they described as "the actual geographical center, and hence true 'hub' of this city" was without any fire protection.
Immediately after the fire, the Committee on Fire and Water recommended the establishment of a full-time, paid Fire Department. In an August 1889 report (document 990946), the Committee stated:
"We have at this time practically no fire Department at all. The old volunteer Department has virtually gone to pieces, and even were it desirable to do so, could never be reconstructed in this city. The City must create a new Fire Department, and that must be a paid organization, disciplined, and thoroughly equipped with houses and apparatus."
Two months later, in October 1889, the Committee on Fire and Water made further recommendations for the improvement of the Fire Department. In document 990951, the Committee suggested "permanent locations for the other Companies provided for in the new department be selected, suitable lots purchased, plans and specifications secured, and the houses necessary be built at as early a date as possible." The Committee recommended that funds to carry out its suggestions be obtained from the sale of two lots located at the corner of Bell and Third and of one lot on South Third Street. Other recommendations included purchase of a fire alarm telegraph system, two more fire engines, a chemical engine, a fireboat, and the development of building methods and materials restrictions within a newly established fire district.
Mayor Robert Moran acknowledged the shortcomings of Seattle's water supply system for fire fighting (document 990981), but also pointed out the situation could not be remedied in much less than two years. He supported the construction of a fireboat for fire protection on the waterfront as a more immediate solution. "I do not doubt had we been supplied with water from such a boat a large portion if not all of this city could have been saved from destruction on June 6th last," he stated. Moran argued a fireboat was the least expensive way to provide the waterfront with fire protection. The fireboat was built, and named . Documents in the General Files provide information on bids, specifications, and supplies for the fireboat, as well as information on personnel and wages for its crew.
The development of the water system is also well documented in the General Files. Clean water and sanitary sewers were enormous issues for Seattle residents, as illustrated by the many petitions relating to both topics. Even before the Great Fire, the development of a new waterworks incorporating Cedar River watershed was under discussion. The 1889 purchase of the Spring Hill Water Company, which pumped water out of Lake Washington, is documented in the General Files. Before the City purchased the Company, Spring Hill proposed expanding its water works to meet increased demand due to the City's growth. The existing plant, the Company stated (document 993007), was "built for a village. Seattle grew rapidly to a city, expanding in ten years from three thousand to over four thousand. It is not strange that the water service did not keep pace with the growth of the city."
After its purchase by the City, the Lake Washington Pumping Station is discussed at length in several documents, including bids, equipment used, and the expansion of the Station. Communications from Benezette Williams are also included in the General Files, although his lengthy reports are not. Communications from the Superintendent of Water Works can be found in the General Files, as well.
The debate over using the Cedar River as a water supply is reflected in the General Files. Harry White, for example, arguing in 1890 against using the Cedar River, wrote that the City needed a sewer system as well as a water system and stated that Lake Washington was the best source for the City's water. In his statement to the City Council's Committee of the Whole (document 993418), he writes that using Cedar River would "stand out in bold relief as a gigantic financial blunder. We must have a better water supply, but it does not follow that we must go to Rock Creek or Cedar River to get it."
In addition to documenting the work of City officials and employees, the General Files portrays the fabric of life in early Seattle, as residents interact with their government. Following the Great Fire of 1889, residents and businesses were allowed to put up temporary housing in the form of tents. The realities of living in a tent are starkly clear in the Committee on Fire and Water's response (document 990201) to a petition to enclose a tent for the winter: "in our opinion a general permission ought to be given to the 'sojourners in tents' to put a roof of corrugate iron on their tents for protection during the approaching winter, but we do not deem it prudent to extend this privilege to the walls."
Items in the General Files also capture the sounds, smells, and frustrations of living in Seattle during its transformation from village to metropolis. In 1893, 59 residents of the Brooklyn and Latona area petitioned City Council to prohibit livestock from running free in their neighborhoods (document 992804). Dr. Chapman wrote a separate letter in support of the petition, describing his neighborhood at night as, "one continual pandemonium of brawling cows and ringing of bells (nearly every other cow has a bell) and the fearful cries of cows for their offspring, and the tramp of horses up and down sidewalks." James M. Colman petitioned in 1884 to have the sewer on Mill Street repaired (document 992593) claiming that the basement of his building on the corner of Mill and Commercial was filled with sewage. He stated the sewer from the hill above created a "public nuisance as the filth and water emptied into said basement by said sewer creates offensive odors and bases prejudicial to the public health...."
The City began grading streets in the 1890s to ease the difficulty of traversing its steep sidewalks and thoroughfares. The frustrations that accompanied these engineering projects are illustrated in Sarah J. Russell's 1891 petition for damages due to the grading (document 992493). She wrote that her hotel and restaurant, built in 1888 at Third and Cherry, was valued at $47,000 in 1889, but that after Third and Cherry were regraded in 1890, the hotel was nearly worthless. She noted that the difference between the newly graded street and the sidewalk was a depth of three to five feet. She stated "said building has been greatly impaired and rendered nearly worthless in value...and rendered nearly worthless for any purpose." Russell argued that she should be compensated $15,000, but the claim was rejected because the time period for making the claim had expired.
Because the General Files reflects the actions of City Council, the Mayor's activities are documented only in terms of vetoes or his approval when signing off on a document. Debate over legislative issues does not exist in the General Files to any significant degree. City Council minutes from 1881 are available in the Archives and provide context for the General Files. The General Files is one of only a few record groups from this time period in the Seattle Municipal Archives; related collections in the Seattle Municipal Archives are listed below.
The City required departments to write annual reports beginning in 1894. These reports are part of the Annual Reports series in the Archives, and not part of the General Files. Documents in the General Files describing the activities of City government prior to 1894 are especially valuable, as there is no other summary of activities of City government for these years, other than City Council meeting minutes. City departments came to Council with requests for funds for construction of buildings, additional personnel and other requests. The largest number of departmental correspondence come from the Police and Fire Departments, although there are reports and requests from other departments, such as the Water Department and Buildings, Bridges and Wharves.
Searching the General Files
General Files database location: http://clerk.seattle.gov/~public/genr2.htm
General Files documents are retained in their original order, but the order is not always consistent. Items relating to sewers may be placed under “S” but similar petitions relating to sewers might be filed according to the last name of a petitioner. Access to the General Files was enhanced by describing and indexing each item. Each document, or group of documents, was assigned a six-digit identification number and described in a database record. Groups of related documents were assigned the same number. For example, a petition for street lighting and the committee report responding to the petition have the same number. Likewise, if an engineering report or estimate of costs was submitted with the petition, all the associated items were assigned the same number, and descriptions of all the documents are included in the same database record.
Each database record includes a description of the document(s), date, form or record type (i.e. petition, report, application), personal and corporate names, and subject indexing. Neither full text nor images of the documents are included in the database, but an attempt was made to include a full description of each item. Researchers must visit the Archives or request photocopies to see the documents.
All documents were indexed using the Seattle City Clerk's Thesaurus. Appendix A below includes a list of the majority of Subject Terms used to index documents in the General Files, and the frequency of their use. Using the Thesaurus terms in the Subject Terms field yields the most specific searches. Authorized words used in the Subject Terms field will only retrieve documents indexed by that subject. For example, using the term in the Subject Terms field yields a list of three records. Search fields can be used alone or in combination with each other.
The search result screen presents the user with a list of records retrieved based on the search term used. The list includes the first line from the description or title of the document, the document date, and the identification number assigned to that document. The icons at the top of the screen depicting “lists” indicate whether there are additional pages of document lists, either before or after the current page.
The search results page lists the first line of the description or title of the document, the date, and document number. A fuller description of the document is provided by clicking on the document description. The description, or title, of the document can be several lines long and offers a summary of the document(s). The main date, given on the search results page, is the date of the key document. Dates of other documents associated with the main document are included in the full database record. The full description includes a summary of all documents corresponding to the document number, dates, location, a list of items with their form and date, subject terms used to index documents, and names in the document(s).
Researchers can page through lists of documents or look at full descriptions, one record at a time, by using the black arrow keys to the right of the list icons. By identifying subjects or names used in indexing a document, researchers can identify other files about similar topics or related to the same individuals.
Using the Words Anywhere field is the broadest search and useful for determining whether the topic of interest is worth pursuing in the General Files. Any name, neighborhood, or subject can be used here; and if it appears anywhere in the database record, it will be retrieved. For example, will appear in the context of Committee on Fire and Water both in the title or description of the documents and in the list of document forms such as Report of the Committee on Fire and Water. It also appears in many index terms such as , , or . A search for yields 523 hits. A more specific search can be made using Subject Index terms. in the Subject Terms field yields 46 hits, and the term returns 53 records. Using the Subject Term field enables the researcher to exclude the many reports of the Fire and Water Committee not related to the specific issue of interest.
Each document was classified as to its form or type--for example, petition or committee report. A list of the document types is provided in Appendix B below. The form of the document, such as a petition, can be combined with a subject, such as street lighting or sanitary sewers, to retrieve all petitions related to a specific topic. Likewise, all City Council reports from a specific Committee can be retrieved for a specific time period. Some maps or drawings are included in the General Files, usually as illustrations of where to place street lights or sewers.
The General Files are also indexed by neighborhood; see Appendix C for a list of neighborhood names. Indexing by neighborhood makes it possible for researchers to be much more specific in forming queries. For example, one can find all street lighting petitions for Fremont. Another example would be to use in the Words Anywhere field, combined with and in the subject terms fields, which would result in a much more precise search than in the Words Anywhere field. Researchers should note that many street names have changed since documents in the General Files were created.
The subject index (Appendix A) provides some guidance on words to use when searching the General Files. Although using free text searching can be too broad, as with the term fires, it can also be used to get at more specific terms than are available in the Thesaurus. For example, there is no term for in the Thesaurus, but there is one for . However, a search using the term will return results if the word is found anyplace in the database record. There is a term for but not for , a business enterprise often dominated by minorities (especially the Chinese) during the late 19th Century. Examples of other subjects where Thesaurus language and commonly used terminology differ include: , whose thesaurus term is ; and , whose thesaurus term is .
Personal names and corporate names were indexed in the General Files if they appeared in the document as authors of documents, members of a committee submitting a report, or as signatories on petitions. Names which appeared on petitions with more than 10 signatures, however, were not included. They will be added at a later date. Documents which include names not appearing in the index are identified by an entry of “etc.” in the personal names field. Names were included in the form they appear in the document. For example, George Adair might be G. Adair or George B. Adair or G. B. Adair. A wildcard symbol can be used to search all permutations of a name, for example, G$ Adair.
Finally, researchers have the option to limit their queries to date ranges of one or more years by using a pull down menu on the search page. This feature can be used in conjunction with any of the other search options. Researchers who have used the collection and know a specific identification number may enter the number on the search screen in order to review the database record.
This index identifies subject terms assigned by indexers using the Seattle City Clerk Thesaurus and lists the number of documents retrieved using subject terms from the Thesaurus. The same search can be done using the online search page and will link researchers directly to a description of the record. Researchers may also search the online index using thesaurus words in combination with words appearing anywhere in the record. Often it is useful to combine thesaurus terms with other terms appearing in the record but which do not appear in the thesaurus. Neighborhood terms are not listed in this index but are listed in a separate appendix. Neighborhoods, like other words, can be combined with subject terms and dates for more specific searches. For example, "bridges" can be combined with neighborhood names.
Documents in the General Files are classified as to form or type using the following designations:
Some of the neighborhood names used in indexing are listed here. The neighborhoods used in indexing geographic location of documents in the General Files are neighborhood names currently in use. The neighborhood boundaries were developed by the Seattle Clerk's Office and are used in indexing legislation, photographs, and other documents. Note that many street names have changed since 1890.
[Item and date], General Files, Record Series 1802-04. Box [number], Folder [number]. Seattle Municipal Archives.