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History of Seattle Plumbing

March 21st, 2022

As strange as it may seem, the history of plumbing in Seattle is actually full of strife and intrigue. From nasty reverse plumbing issues to city-spanning fires, there have been some interesting blips in Seattle’s plumbing since the late 1800′s.

In 1870, the very first bathtub with working plumbing was installed. It was the start of the plumbing movement in Seattle. Soon, the Seattle folk found themselves in an interesting situation. Because the city was built on low mud flats, sewage was just as likely to flow into a house as it was to flow out. Unfortunately, disease became a serious problem. The raw sewage in the streets was promoting disease and other nastiness. There was a clear need for a plumbing overhaul but that capability was not quite available yet. In 1885 the city passed an ordinance requiring attached sewer lines for all new residences. This new ordinance vastly helped the disease problem and created a code for builders to follow when creating new homes. Previously sewer lines were something only the wealthy were able to purchase. However, there was another, even scarier disaster bearing down on Seattle.

The Great Seattle Fire on June 6th 1889 brought the racing city to a stunning halt. 29 city blocks were destroyed by the fire; completely demolishing most of the central business district. Amazingly, no one suffered fatal injuries from the fire. In the aftermath of the fire, plumbing problems began to appear. Whenever high tide would roll around, the draining sewage would be pushed back up through the pipes. This caused exploding pipes and even worse, exploding toilets! Can you imagine sitting on a toilet that exploded? There was some good that came in the wake of the fire. Prior to the disaster, most of the buildings in Seattle heavily relied on wood. In addition to helping the fire, the wood suffered from the already faulty plumbing. Years of leaky pipes had caused the wood to become soft and ready to bust. The fire enabled new buildings to come up and be created with brick and stone. These stronger buildings still stand today in Seattle.

Aside from exploding toilets and great fires Seattle has been hit with some other difficult times. In October of 1908 the largest employer of plumbers on the coast at the time Ernst Hardware & Plumbing Company was part of a movement that sent hundreds of Seattle plumbers to Spokane. The point of this massive labor movement was to disperse jobs out of just the Seattle area. This put Seattle at a plumber shortage, driving up the costs of services. Eventually, more plumbers came in to Seattle and a potential sewer overload was narrowly avoided.

In August of 1964 Seattle was again struck by yet another problem, plumbers strike. Over four thousand plumbers in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho went on strike over wage disputes. At the time, the wages in the three states were set at $4.38 per hour plus an additional 35 cents in other benefits. 35 cents does not seem like too much of a benefit for someone who keeps modern civilization running. Their demands were that over the next three years the hourly wage would increase by $1. The industry counter offered with an increase of 36 cents an hour at the rate of 12 cents each year until 1967. This strike greatly affected the entire Pacific Northwest region. It was estimated that more than $131 million worth of construction time was lost due to the strike.

Less than ten years after the massive strike a labor contract was reached for plumbers and pipefitters in Washington, Northern Idaho, and Northeastern Oregon. The agreement affected about 400 employers and 3,500 employees. The contract gave the workers 50 cents more an hour plus 7 cents an hour in health and welfare benefits, bringing the wage scale at the time to $8.02 an hour (it had grown since 1964). Over the time span of a decade the hourly wage had nearly doubled.