Bits of yesteryear

Posted by Tom Camfield

History pops up in many forms. The above are just a couple of envelopes from the early 1890s that I salvaged from somewhere probably around 55 years ago (along with their contents). In that 1890s era, local business places generally utilized letterheads featuring various fancy type faces. Some included also neat etchings of their premises—as also did such envelopes as these.

The one at top here, Waterman & Katz (“General Merchandise & Commission Merchants”) is clearly dated as 1892 in two places. They apparently had a customer on Tatoosh Island. The illustration includes one of the city’s early streetcars, along with a horse-drawn wagon. The building still stands at the southwest corner of Water & Quincy Sts. The sensational side of history has jumped all over the life of entrepreneur Israel Katz, who one evening disappeared mysteriously from his home on uptown Tyler Street and whose fate remains unknown unto the present day. It all makes for rampant speculation by slap-dash historians.

However, I’ve always been more interested in the local history of B. S. Miller who built the “Miller & Burkett, real estate brokers” building shown on the other envelope. It is located at the southwest corner of Washington and Taylor Sts. It was built in 1889 and this envelope is from shortly thereafter.

One reason for my continued harping on B. S. Miller is that over the past century or so, hurried historians and the public in general have distractedly dismissed the structure as the “Elks Building,” stemming from its long occupancy by B. P. O. Elks Lodge 317. The structure saw many uses in the earlier years, including housing a commercial club, ground-floor grocery store, etc. For some years more recently it has been occupied by the Silver Water restaurant.

Written history is rife with Hastings, Eisenbeis, Kuhn, Hill and some others, but Miller has never been appropriately recognized for his role in things. His surviving contribution to the downtown architectural scene remains referred to as the “Elks Building.”

The B. S. Miller building was erected in 1889 at a cost of $28,000. The Elks actually did own the building on through most of its history, acquiring it in 1904. A news item of the day stated: “The ground floor was occupied by F. W. Eisenbeis, the grocer. The second floor contained handsome parlors, reading rooms, butler’s pantry, a large lunch room and a very commodious billiards and pool room. The third floor was occupied mainly by the lodge room.” Later expanding to a cocktail lounge/dance floor, barroom, pool and card room, kitchen/dining room and lodge meeting room, the Elks utilized the entire building until moving to new quarters on Otto Street, outside the City Limits, in fairly recent times.

Benjamin S. Miller, after having settled in Port Gamble, came to Port Townsend, Washington Territory, in 1874 and lett a fair-sized swath in the scheme of things. He was, among other things, a jeweler, contractor, 3-term county sheriff and real estate broker before moving to Seattle in 1894—after Port Townsend’s early glory had faded away in the great 1893 recession.

He started as a local jeweler and moved to the old Central Hotel after it was built in 1875. Disposing of that business he was elected to three terms as sheriff, and it was he who captured notorious local murderer Henry L. (Harry) Sutton, former P. T. newspaper editor, near Port Angeles in 1877 (see a blog to follow here soon). He later was a contractor, mainly providing the charcoal for the Pacific Steel Company’s furnace in Irondale. Still later, he went into the real estate business in his new building in downtown P. T. during the height of the city’s “land boom” of about 1888-’92.

He also built the city’s motor line street railway.

Life for the Miller family became a disaster after the move to Seattle. Late in 1894 Ben was recovering from a broken shoulder blade and collar bone after being thrown from a stagecoach. A son, Ben L., went north in Klondike gold rush days and froze to death in Alaska in 1901. In May of 1905, Benjamin S. Miller was cut to pieces by a train when rushing through the Northern Pacific yard. He was en route home from Everett to catch the last boat for home, the steamer Dix bound for Alki Point.

History had given short shrift to Miller, including his construction of a downtown landmark, which is why I made him one of the focal points during the 46 years of research prior to my first volume of local history in 2000.


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