PL11 - The Great Seattle Progress of 1874

by Haro James

Copyright© 2019 by Haro James

Science Fiction Story: Listen in on a few conversations that prove 1)great achievements are build from a myriad of small parts and 2) sometimes good comes from being just a little bad. [author points and shouts "Hey look, an airship"] ~5,170 words

Tags: Steampunk  

Part 1: Incidental Conversations

On April 1, 1868, many Americans suspected a prank on reading that their nation grew by 6,312 square miles overnight. That changed to surprise on confirmation that the Hudson’s Bay Company ceded its Puget Sound Settlement to the United States for something less than fifteen cents an acre.

It was not a surprise to everyone’s taste, though. The American press dubbed the $600,000 cost “Seward’s Folly”. The Secretary of State endured a nasty Congressional inquiry, just avoided censure, then finally resigned in disgust and exhaustion. But they didn’t hang him. The Company’s board was less fortunate. Transported in chains to the infamous Isle of Man, most were, in fact, hung.

Still in shock, a few hundred loyalist Britons packed and fled north to British Columbia. The last Company man ashore, a junior clerk, unceremoniously hauled down the Union Jack just before boarding the waiting steamer. At the foot of the gangplank, his coat pocket jingled: a ring of warehouse, office and jail keys. Shrugging, he tossed the ring towards the foot of the naked flagpole. As many aboard gazed back for a final look at the lost colony, the clerk bent over a diary to note the disposition of the keys. Half an hour later, the eight-gun USS Beaver docked, bearing the temporary Federal governor and a fifty-man garrison for the new American territory.

The former PSS was straight away incorporated into Washington Territory and divided into three new counties. One was later renamed in honor of the departed temporary governor. Edwin DeVane King, famous nephew of a largely forgotten vice president, remained in place for little more than three months. His farewell speech was peppered with predictions of Seattle’s greatness as the sea, rail and air hub of the Northwest.

The change of ownership sparked a buying and building frenzy. Money and settlers poured in, a naval station and an army base were established, a commercial airfield opened three miles from the city. The county commissioners ignored grumbles about the distance. The deadly explosive potential of hydrogen was fresh in many minds, including those of two commissioners who survived the Baltimore disaster three years earlier.

With greatness just around the corner, a syndicate assembled an American version of a Hallistone Machine. Sitting among compressed air pistons and drive chains, the Machine powered a host of digging and levelling, earth-moving and pile-driving, mortar pumping and brick laying devices. Locals flocked to see and point in wonder at the speed and sureness as millions of bricks were laid to become the central rail station, maintenance sheds, water towers and warehouses, commercial blocks, pavered streets, tunnels and viaducts.

The Victoria Evening Telegraph choked back a measure of patriotic envy long enough to admit “the work of this modern mechanical marvel will secure Seattle’s place in the hearts and minds of all Americans on the west coast. Discerning Britons will understand that notice has been served in the North Pacific.”

Of course, all this was true only when the Machine was working. By May of 1874, the Hallistone’s devices had been motionless for nearly six weeks. A defect in the monster steam engine that powered the various activities rendered the construction precinct silent, all but abandoned.

As the flow of money dwindled, suppliers and builders and three-dollar-a-week laborers became restive. The governor and his treasurer discussed new public work projects to absorb some of the unemployed. He also quietly consulted with the colonel of the territorial militia about the possibility of general civil disorder. The arrival in Elliott Bay of the steamer carrying the replacement engine rendered a declaration of martial law unnecessary.

In the weeks prior to the arrival of the replacement, sharper minds recognized the real delay would occur after the ship docked. The original machine had been dragged in high summer, after months of preparing a skid causeway to the site, and routed through empty lands.

Now stretches of still-settling fill, winter rain ponds and permanent marshes, mud-greased hills and streets full of new construction lay between shore and site. It was thought a thousand horses and twice that many men would take twenty days to clear the way, then move the mass of iron. A quandary certainly, until an unnamed clerk jokingly suggested one modern marvel could move another.

Among the fleets moored at Union Bay Field, the Daphne lifted half again as much as the next largest airship. Boxwood and brass numerators slid and clacked to feed scores of pages of calculations. They found the Daphne provided insufficient lift. More clacking led to auxiliary balloons being attached to the engine’s mass. When the Daphne was actually harnessed, the load came nearly a foot off the ground. Close, but not quite.

Why not one modern marvel towing another which was lifting the third? Off came the motors and the massive springs that powered them. The rear gondola was stripped of every non-structural part: bulkheads were knocked out, ports stripped of glass and doors torn from hinges. Ballast tanks were emptied, then for good measure, cut off and added to the growing debris pile below. One spectator recalled to his grandchildren decades later that it was the most magnificent vandalism he ever witnessed.

The estimate of five hours before another ship could be fitted for towing the Daphne swept through the gathered throngs. With the grand spectacle now deferred for half a day, the crowds sorted themselves into knots of conversation, card or dice play and moody drinking.

As their impatient buzz took on an increasingly sullen tone, a number of ‘capital I’ important men gathered near the gutted Daphne. They glanced at each other, then gave their full attention to a large, bull-bodied man dressed in an outlandishly bright suit. He looked directly and deliberately into the face of each man before bowing his head briefly. Looking up, he spread his arms to make a gentle pulling motion, as if he were a referee bringing two pugilists in for the pre-fight talk. They closed in to stand nearly shoulder to shoulder. A ring of toughs insulated the Territory’s preeminent capitalists from eavesdroppers and other pests.

Arthur Brickley rolled out quick, muted sentences. “Gentlemen, we all know the mischief a bored mob can get up to. A nicely organized riot can be a very good thing. But this does not have the air of a beneficial situation. The delay of the promised show has put them barely one step from serious mischief. I can turn them, but only with your help. If you’re in, stay. Otherwise, good day.” He gestured to one of the toughs, who came over for whispered instructions. When the man left, Brickley looked up. Most stayed for the practical reason that Brickley had a nose for the dollar. A couple stayed with the hope of seeing him fail. The lesser lights remained because leaving might be seen as disrespect for him - never a good idea. Brickley knew who was in each camp, but ignored it in his drive for results.

“Right then. I am reminded of something Pa told me from the Old Country, just before he came over. Short of it is this. Pa built a balloon for fellow for ... for an adventure. This man, Poole, needed to move it quiet-like, but back then airships were moved by steam only. Poole had his own bullyboys to build it, then tow it by plain old main force. No idle minds, no idle bodies, see? It worked then. It can work for us.”

Some caught his drift right away, or pretended so. Others labored along to calculate the unknown cost against the equally unknown potential. In the end, each signalled his moral and financial support.

A scant half hour later, every able-bodied male spectator within shouting distance was called to one of four marshalling points. There, speakers delivered a mix of revival meeting catch phrases and native son rhetoric. They also delivered the “two plus two” promise: two dollars a man and tokens for two free drinks at any establishment in the county. Following three cheers, they set about readying the impromptu work gangs for the task ahead.

As the speeches rolled out, so too did four giant hawsers attached to the Daphne’s forward ring. The lines, long enough for three hundred hands to grip, were laid radiating out from the bow. Another trailed behind to provide a brake if needed. The first pistol shot prompted fifteen hundred men to lay hands on those lines. The second shot caused them to hoist lines to shoulders. The third shot signaled a slow walk forward.

Line scouts ran ahead, picking out the best routes along the maze of new streets. In a few instances the gangs, dragging through orchards, building sites and a cemetery, caused considerable damage. The last of the resulting suits was settled in territorial courts just before Washington gained statehood fifteen years later.

Those not bearing a hand stood along the way, cheering, shouting advice or simply gawking. Others sold drinks and hot snacks, or seats to the best viewpoints of what was being dubbed “The Great Seattle Progress”. The best views were from the city’s numerous hilltops.

Arthur Brickley and two of his partners climbed Queen Anne Hill to stand in front of Sal’s, one of the better sporting houses built during the British era. When the Company vacated, Sally Sharpe stayed on. Brickley was fond of saying that while her looks were long dulled, her tongue and temper still lived up to the name.

As if his thoughts were a summons, Sally appeared carrying a bottle in one hand and a stack of glasses in the other. She poured a round, including a generous measure for herself. The four stood sipping and admiring the panorama before them. Brickley eyed her with caution. There was a mercenary purpose in Sally’s every act, even when only providing a courtesy drink. Especially then.

“Lord, init a sight. Takes me back to me girlhood. I’se entertaining an over-nighter, and during a rest, I looks out the window. A great bag of canvas and rags, trailing ropes like jellyfish legs, floated right on by. A host of ruffians hung off’en them ropes. A couple of regulars waved friendly-like. Not a word was said while they drifted down the street, just so ghostly. Aye, an’ still a wonder after all these years.”

The three men looked at her, then at each other, unable to find the connection between her tale and the procession below. She saw the looks and added “What reminds me is that balloon was being towed by a gang, just the way this one is. Not nearly so many. Maybe forty thereabouts, I recollect. Seems they was off to yaffle up a rival stronghold. Might have done, ‘til the army put the yaffle to both gangs. It seemed a good time to set up in the colonies. I ended up here.”

There was some general nodding among the men, and Sally subsided into silence. Then, with the faintest hint of malice, she spoke again. “You know, Arthur, next week the Governor be holding a levee of sorts for investors up from both Californias. Lots of big names rubbing shoulders. You should come along. Mayhap even meet a nice gal to name your next airship after. I hear ‘Lizzy Ann’ is still available. Hee hee.”

The partners carefully hid their smiles. Brickley’s face reddened at the mention of that particularly sore spot. Recently, a young woman of substantial family publicly scorned his private offer to christen an airship after her, ridiculing his well-known practice of “name her after riding her”. Elizabeth Ann’s brothers issued a standing challenge to him to settle this matter of family and feminine honor. Brickley could have easily taken them one at a time, or even as a group, but didn’t want to alienate that family any further. He maintained an uncharacteristic silence to the challenge.

At this point, he also still needed the tidbits Sally regularly passed along. No sense in feuding with such a good source of gossip and hard intelligence. He offered a tight smile. With that neat twist of the knife, Sally felt vindicated for a recent cutting remark from the Brick. Returning his smile, she gathered the glasses before disappearing inside. Leaning against the closed door, she smugly thought it had been well worth a dollar in watered whiskey. Outside, Brickley spat.

The men turned to again watch the Great Progress. The cargo floated a scant fifteen feet above the ground. It was enough. The tow gangs stumbled, laughing and shouting, over uneven terrain, around houses, woodpiles and everything else. By noon, the Daphne floated beside the sheet iron engine house in the center of the moiling mud, rubble and humanity of the vast construction site. A dozen piles of stacked corrugated iron sheets ringed the building, whose rafters had been unbolted and pushed to the middle and either end.

Since the payload could not be lifted higher, a section of the wall was hastily knocked out. The new engine was guided into one end of the shed. The Daphne was then pulled to the far end to carry away the defective member. When all was ready, another airship towed the Daphne and its iron tonnage to a bayside breaking yard.

Workmen began reassembling rafters and roof as soon as the new engine was in place. By the time the airship lifted the old engine, the new one was nearly covered over. Mechanical crews worked in a frenzy to put the engine in operation by noon the next day. The crowds dispersed. The taverns soon filled up, and remained so until the early hours.

One bystander, who had ignored every invitation to join the work gangs, asked loudly why the hell they exploited all those workingmen when they could have had another balloon haul the Daphne along in the first place. His nearest neighbor rounded on him, looking him up and down before speaking.

“You sir, appear to be some sort of European. A Westphalian by accent, a bushman by dress, and an commu-anarchist by utterance. With all that baggage, I see how you were unable to apprehend the import of what just took place.”

Taking part in the dragging of the airship was an investment by each and every man who was there, he declared. Now waving his arms about in the manner of old men relating epics of their youth, he said those men would tell and retell their part in moving the mass of iron, and how they individually helped restart the engine which was building the heart and soul of their future metropolis.

“Why it is just like the men who fought with Henry at Agincourt. You could take that speech of his, change the names and it would be all the exact same, with some differences. But mostly the exact same.”

He gestured to the empty space where the businessmen had met. “Those gentlemen may own the machines, and profit mightily from them. But today, a legend is born, and born well. How all these modern marvels depended on the good graces of that oldest and most honorable power source – the brawn and sinew of patient men of the soil and sea. Throughout the ages, it was such men as labored to build Egyptian pyramids, Roman roads and French canals.

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