For Ballard newspaper, a history of rebellion

It’s no secret that Ballardites have an impulse for rebellion when it comes to their place in Seattle. There’s the constant threat of secession, the “Free Ballard” bumper stickers, the prideful ringing of the old town hall bell -- the slight twitch in a Ballardite’s eye when they’re reminded that Ballard is just a neighborhood of Seattle and no longer a city.

What many people may not know is that impulse has plenty of history, even in its own newspaper.

Recently, the Ballard News-Tribune took a trip to the Nordic Heritage Museum to pore through the archives of our historical counterpart: the Ballard News, owned by A.E. Ruffner and sons. What we found was, while Ballard was being annexed, the Ballard News played a central role in fighting tooth and nail against what they perceived as snotty, self-serving Seattleites.

It transformed from impartial news source to something not unlike a scathing, cornered animal. Editorial was weaved into every story about annexation -- mostly on the front page City Council beat -- and namecalling became the norm.

Notable was the paper’s antagonism toward the Seattle Times, which had been running an aggressive campaign explaining the case for annexation. It wasn’t long before the Ballard News began referring to the Times solely as the “Seattle Garbage Can.”

Take, for example, a Feb. 8 report detailing a Ballard-based pro-annexation club meeting, where a committee was formed to try and get pro-annexation reporters to replace Ballard correspondents for the Seattle P-I and Seattle Star:

“A committee was composed at the annexation club to wait on the Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Star and see if correspondents who would deal out the kind of dope the Seattle Garbage Can handles could not be put in Ballard in place of the present men. The P-I and the Star have been sticking close to the truth in the matter and playing no favorites, so the annexation club is not pleased with their works.”

And in an editorial titled simply, “Why?”, the Ballard News accused the Seattle Times of lobbying in Olympia to kill bills that would benefit Ballard, including one that would allow Ballard to buy water from Seattle. The Ballard News argued that the Seattle Times wanted the added population so they could qualify for an Associated Press morning telegraph.

“The Seattle Garbage Can and other Seattle papers have stated that it was immaterial to Seattle whether Ballard annexed or not. In the face of this statement, why is it that they are then moving heaven and earth to force us in, stopping at nothing to accomplish this end?” the Ballard News asked. They then ended the piece with, “This is no fairy story. Think over the actions of the Garbage Can and the paid emissaries of the Seattle bunch in Ballard, and see if you can’t find the basis for the annexation struggle.”

The Ballard News even argued that Ballard’s water was overblown. We haven’t done much research to see if their claims were substantiated, but it presents an interesting alternative to the usual story told today.

In the Passport to Ballard (published by Ballard News-Tribune in 1988), it is detailed that the water was often contaminated from sewer seepage of out-houses and barns. Tainted water spread disease, and with a shortage looming over the city, clean water became harder to come by. In 1901, Ballard suffered outbreaks of diphtheria, scarlet fever and small pox. Citizens were quarantined to “pest houses” and a new ordinance declared that being caught in public with a contagion was a misdemeanor. At one point, a dead horse was found at the bottom of a dried up water supply.

Annexation to Seattle then meant a connection to a reliable water supply, the Cedar River Watershed, which Seattle had sole rights to. For Seattle, annexing Ballard meant the booming city could expand even more.

But the Ballard News did a funny thing. They contended that there was no water problem, or at least not a big one.

Consider this excerpt:

“Ballard water is as pure as Cedar River dares to be, the headwaters of which are used as a dumping place for construction crews. There are fewer cases of typhoid, population considered, in Ballard than any city on the coast, and when a case does show up it is always a home which uses well water.”

Or, if that isn’t convincing enough, here’s another:

“Though reservoirs in Seattle are cleaned frequently, we have the word of a Seattle resident that he drew 15 worms out of his bathroom faucet recently.”

The Ballard News was aware that there was indeed some kind of problem, however. They reprimanded city officials for not making sure the water sources were not consistently cleaned, criticized citizens for using too much water and they pitched sometimes outlandish ideas. One involved shooting nitroglycerine down a deep well to create a 200 foot wide basin which would “furnish us with a supply of water that could never be pumped dry in an hundred thousand years, as to do so you would have to drain the Sound and Lakes Union and Washington.”

Despite the Ballard News’ best efforts, though, the citizens of Ballard voted to annex the city to Seattle in early April at a special election. Nine-hundred ninety-six voters said “Yes” and eight-hundred seventy-four said “No” to annexation, according to the Passport to Ballard.

Strangely, the next issue of the Ballard News had no hate-tinged news article, editorial or column. Instead, they published a Seattle P-I article stating in bland, straightforward terms that annexation had passed.

The Ballard News then went on with pitch-perfect impartiality to report on what changes the annexation involved and when they would take effect. On May 29, 1907, at 3:45 p.m., the city of Ballard officially became a suburb of Seattle.

On May 31, the Ballard News published an article titled “WE ARE NOW PART OF SEATTLE.” Again, no editorializing, and the nickname “Seattle Garbage Can” was officially retired.

In summarizing the history of Ballard News, The Passport to Ballard states that the Ruffner ownership worked hard to maintain a non-partisan point of view. During the politically volatile 1930’s, the Ballard News went on record as not being in politics. The editors said the paper is “read in over 10,000 homes because of its clean news and advertising. We do not have, nor do we desire to have, any political pull with anybody.”

Furthermore, according to the Passport to Ballard, the successful newspaper specialized in puff pieces, including several short articles concerning the activities and achievements of Ballard people, clubs and events. Typical issues featured columns such as “20 Years Ago,” a column on historical Ballard; and “Scrambled Eggs,” Ruffner’s sometimes serious, often light-hearted commentary on the Ballard scene.

But, for a brief time prior to annexation in 1907, the Ballard News was a different beast, and the Ruffners were not taking any of the “dope” the “Seattle Garbage Can” was handing out.

Special thanks to the Nordic Heritage Museum for allowing access to the Ballard News archives. Extra research was attained from the 1988 book, Passport to Ballard, published by the Ballard News-Tribune with significant contribution from the Nordic Heritage Museum.

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