THE SECOND I walked into Donna Howland’s home in the Lakeview area of Houghton, a striking, framed black and white photo on the wall caught my eye.
Even though it was taken 89 years ago, the scene was unmistakable to anyone who has lived in Kirkland for a few years. But the view, looking right up Kirkland Avenue from the edge of Lake Washington at today’s docks, was taken from an elevated position.
That’s because the photo was shot by Donna’s grandfather, Capt. Walter King Curtis, a famed Lake Washington skipper in the early years of the Eastside, from the pilothouse of the ferry Lincoln of Kirkland. The Lincoln was built at today’s by the Anderson Steamboat Company and launched in 1914. But that’s another story.
Today’s story is about the photo and the man who took it, along with his granddaughter, Donna Howland. First the photo. John L. Anderson’s ferry company ran boats between Kirkland and Madison Park in Seattle from 1914 to 1940. What's interesting to me about the photo right off is that I never realized the old ferry landing here in Kirkland was multi-level. Today all that is gone, the upper deck promenade, the pedestrian overpass across Kirkland Ave, the cool wooden buildings.
And the scene! Curtis snapped the shot on Aug, 18 1923 during the American Legion’s annual “Hula Day” festivities -- those are long gone too. It’s a happy scene, dads and kids, men and women all dressed up, sailors in uniform. And look at all the old cars lined up for the ferry and parked along the Ave, some of them Ford Model T's for sure!
“A lot of my memories are of Grandpa Walter,” says Donna, now in her 80s. “He loved to keep a journal every day, good and bad. His real love was the waterfront. Back then it was a working waterfront, just a way to get from here to Madison Park. He always loved the lake and what went with it, the rafts and boats.”
I had the pleasure of meeting Donna Howland after her daughter, Judi Acton Heintz, read an earlier “Then and Now” column on Kirkland Patch. Judi emailed me to say her mother had albums of old Kirkland photos, including some showing Lake Washington Boulevard in Houghton when it was just a dirt road (we'll visit that cool shot here in the future). She wanted her mother’s memories documented as well.
So I immediately forwarded the email to Loita Hawkinson, the proper authority on such topics as president of the Kirkland Heritage Society. We all agreed to meet when Judi, who now lives in Florida, was in town. So we got together earlier this month at Donna’s home, which has a great view down memory lane to that very Houghton waterfront where her grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles lived beginning before the turn of the 20th Century.
Loita video recorded the conversation with Donna to document those precious memories. An issue for me was that there are so many levels to the Curtis and Howland families that some of the conversation was hard to follow. Loita was right on it all the way. The photos were stunning indeed, many poignant, and dozens of them them are now in the protection of the Kirkland Heritage Society archives. We will revisit some, no doubt, in future Then and Now columns.
The one on the wall, featured right here, just floored me. And Donna’s memories of her grandfather were truly touching. She really loved that old guy! She recalled his economic struggles, going back 100 years or more.
YOU SEE, the Curtis family, which arrived in this area from England before the turn of the 20th Century, operated a boat yard at Carillon Point before Anderson Steamboat (which was followed itself by the Lake Washington Shipyards). The Curtis family laid its first keel, for the Peerless, in 1901. Donna says the family also did some boat building on the shore closer to its home on Lake Washington near Houghton Beach to the north.
The family completed one flat-bottomed steamboat that soon after burned to the waterline before it could be insured, taking a big financial hit. Then it sunk its remaining assets in a steamer large enough to venture to Alaska. This was before the Lake Washington Ship Canal was cut through Portage Bay in 1916-17, providing access from lake Washington to Puget Sound.
Back then Lake Washington flowed through the shallow Black River and to the Green River, which spills into Elliott Bay via the Duwamish Waterway. So the family attempted to get the steamer through the Black and to the Sound during high flows. But she struck a sandbar, and there she remained for weeks as the family's remaining cash reserves flowed away.
“Captain Anderson then bought gramps’ boat works and it became Anderson Boat Works,” Donna said. “I felt bad for grandpa. He didn’t have a job. Then he went into piloting.”
Eventually, John L. Anderson hired Walter King Curtis as a captain, and Donna says he first skippered the ferry Leschi, and later the Lincoln (please see the second history photo attached here), for 35 or 40 years. She recalls walking down to her grandpa’s waterfront home after school to sit and read his journals.
“He wrote the best journals. They were like reading a mystery. I would go there before and after school, then walk back home up Houghton Hill.”
As fate would have it, another part of the family ended up with the journals, and although she tried, Donna could not recover them. She fears they are now lost to history.
“I wish Kirkland had those journals, because they were very well done, all in good English,” lamented Donna.
Maybe some day they will turn up. But for now, those most likely priceless journals are just another Kirkland history mystery.