Looking for a Strong Female Lead

Mairead and I have agreed that our main character will be a girl living in the earliest years of the 20th century. In my role as artist, I’ve been trying to determine what our lead character will look like.  I’ve been studying photos of children in Seattle in the early 1900’s, and making sketches.

I love this photo of the Franklin High Girls Basketball Team, 1915. It comes from the Seattle Public Schools Archive, and can be seen on their Flickr pages

How did they ever play basketball dressed like that?

The Relocation of a River

The Georgetown Steam Plant was originally built right on the Duwamish River. It was designed to take in river water for cooling, and to expel used water back into the river. But if you visit the steam plant today, there is no river anywhere in sight; it’s almost a mile away. What happened?

Georgetown Steam Plant 1909
A photo of the steam plant beside the Duwamish River in 1909.

The Duwamish was originally a winding river with large curves called “oxbows.” The Duwamish people, who lived on the river for thousands of years (the river was named “Duwamish” in the 19th century as an English language approximation of the name of the indigenous people living there), made use of this winding landscape for (among other things) catching ducks in the air and salmon in the water. For ships in the early 20th century, the curves made traveling up the river slow and sometimes dangerous, with submerged logs becoming jammed in the river’s twists. Ocean-going vessels could not travel on the river.

The river was also prone to flooding. After a series of destructive floods in 1906, an investigative board headed by Hiram Chittenden convened to study the problem and concluded that the river should be straightened and controlled. The Army Corps of Engineers began a project to straighten the river in 1913. By 1920, the oxbows were filled with dirt, and the river, now reshaped into the ‘Duwamish Waterway,’ flowed in a straight path past Georgetown and South Park, and had a depth of 50 feet for four and a half miles.

This 1922 survey map shows how the oxbows have been filled in, with the waterway to the left. The steam plant location is roughly in the center.

The steam plant, originally built on an oxbow, now found itself landlocked, quite a distance from the river it was designed to make use of. In 1917 a pumping station was built along the waterway to provide water to the steam plant across the new distance. A massive new flume was also constructed to expel wastewater.

The next time you visit the plant, take a look south, toward Boeing Field, and imagine a winding river rolling past.

The straightening of the river affected the land animals, marine life, and people who had lived in harmony with the it for generations. It also cleared the way for industry that would pollute the river’s waters with chemical waste. For more extensive information on the history of the Duwamish River, and what is being done to clean up and reclaim the river, see the website duwamishrevelaed.com.

And for an extensive history of changes to the land and water of the Seattle area, do not miss the Burke Museum’s excellent Waterlines project.



The Gilbreth Family

When you tour the Steam Plant, two names that pop up almost immediately are Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. You might already know them as the adult stars of the semi-autobiographical novels Cheaper By the Dozen and Belles On Their Toes, written by their children Frank and Ernestine.

Frank and Lillian at work (self-portrait)

Frank was also an efficiency expert and industrial management pioneer, meaning he studied ways to build structures more quickly, safely, and durably. He identified eighteen actions – called “therbligs” (“Gilbreth” spelled backwards) – that could be combined to complete virtually any specific task with maximum efficiency. Frank and Lillian’s twelve children were often used as initial test subjects, and as the kids grew older they were even financially rewarded for incorporating these skills into their everyday chores. As Ernest wrote:

Dad took moving pictures of us children washing dishes, so that he could figure out how we could reduce our motions and thus hurry through the task. Irregular jobs, such as painting the back porch or removing a stump from the front lawn, were awarded on a low-bid basis. Each child who wanted extra pocket money submitted a sealed bid saying what he would do the job for. The lowest bidder got the contract.

The children were encouraged – some of them might say pressured – into 24/7 efficiency. They even listened to French language records while brushing their teeth!

Lilian with some of her children. (source: Gilbreth Archive, Purdue University)

Frank and Lillian were a particularly cool twentieth century couple because they both went to college (Lillian earned her doctorate too, in Industrial Psychology), and once they started a family they shared work both inside and outside the home. In the Gilbreth household, it wasn’t uncommon for Frank to stay home with the kids while Lillian travelled for a lecture.

When the Steam Plant commissioned Frank to help build the plant, he and Lillian were already married and had just started their family. (Their second-oldest, Mary, died at a young age, making the phrase “cheaper by the dozen” particularly poignant.) At first, Frank planned to build the plant out of brick, as that was his initial claim to fame, but after the San Francisco earthquake destroyed multiple steel-enforced brick buildings, they switched their plan to reinforced concrete. And now, over one hundred years later, the Plant stands.

A Visit to MOHAI

Hello, and welcome back to Steam Plant Graphic Novel HQ! This week’s snack of choice is dill pickle almonds and black coffee. That stuff really keeps you awake.

One of the places we visited for research is the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), founded in 1952 and now located in Lake Union Park next to the Center for Wooden Boats. I remember visiting the museum when I was a kid and it was located in McCurdy Park. My friends and I liked watching the footage of the Ivars Dancing Clams because they were weird and irreverent, and we didn’t know those words yet. Today the museum displays treasures like replicas of the Post-Intelligencer globe (they own the original too, but right now it’s too heavy to be housed in the building), Lincoln Towing’s hot pink toe truck, and a musical history lesson about the Seattle Fire, staring a glue pot and plastic fire.

What I remember most about MOHAI, in the 1990s and now, is how directly it addresses both the racism, sexism, and classism in America’s roots and the incredible industrial advances we’ve made. Instead of abstracting or minimizing either topic, MOHAI uses each to illuminate the other. What kinds of jobs did Seattle’s Chinese population have at the end of the 20th century? Were there Black Riveters? What stories did the Duwamish tell their children? Even when an exhibit wasn’t directly chronologically related to the story David and I are telling, it’s all connected because it’s all Seattle.

Here are some images from our latest visit:

In 1907, Jim Casey and Claude Ryan (not pictured) got a $100 loan and started UPS in a Pioneer Square basement.


Here, a team of independently-owned steamrollers pave a neighborhood street in 1906.


When people started harassing Chinese-owned businesses after the Seattle Fire, this is what Mayor Henry Yesler had to say. We at Steam Plant HQ do not condone dynamite as a problem-solver, but we definitely support Mayor Yesler’s fierce refusal of racism.


The very first Nordstrom, founded by Carl Wallin, a shoemaker, and John Nordstrom, a Swedish man who came to Ellis Island as a sixteen-year-old with five dollars and no English. A few years after that, John and Carl met in Alaska, where they took gold to open the store at Fourth and Pike.

MOHAI is open seven days a week from 10a-5p.

Library Research

We are deep in research mode, and for me that means a lot of visits to the Seattle Public Library. I have been working toward learning more about the Georgetown Steam Plant and it’s environs in the early 20th century, as well as the Seattle-Tacoma interurban trains and neighborhood streetcars that the plant powered. Just look at all these sepia-photo-covered books that I have stacking up!

A selection of books on Seattle’s history from the Seattle Public Library

I wanted to share this lively photo of the Renton local electric train No.125, circa 1910-15, at its Seattle starting point at Occidental and Yesler in Pioneer Square (making all stops between here an Renton Junction).  The Interurban Building can’t be seen in this photo, but it’s just to the right. The light colored building in the background is the Seattle Hotel, a site which is today occupied by a structure we commonly know as the “sinking ship parking lot.”
(From the collection of the Washington State Historical Society, published in the lavishly illustrated book “To Tacoma by Trolley” by Warren W. Wing, 1995.)

photo from the Washington State Historical Society
The Renton Local waits in front of Seattle’s Interurban Building, circa 1910-15

For further reading on the Interurban and this Pioneer Square intersection, you can’t go wrong with Seattle Now and Then.

A Visit to the Steam Plant!

In November, David and Mairead spent a day at the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, meeting everyone and going over plans and contracts. We even ate lunch in an underground cafeteria!

After that, we toured the plant with wizards Michael Aronowitz, Rebecca Osso, Maija McKnight, and Laurie Geissinger. Here are some pictures from the day.


These pictures are outside of the Plant – it’s a historic concrete building, so when they were checking the structure for safety a person tapped a hammer, very carefully, all along the outside. If the noise changed it meant the concrete was weak there. That’s why there are mysterious black circles on the outside of the Plant!

This is one of the places where workers hung tools. The shapes were traced into the wall so folks knew once everything was put away. This reminded us of both art school classrooms and prison kitchens.

Do you remember the part in Ramona Quimby where her class is reading Mike Mulligan and she asks her teacher how Mike went to the bathroom when he was digging holes all day? Good news: the plant has a staff bathroom complete with sinks and lockers.

This is the second floor supervisor’s office. We resisted the urge to pick up the phone and ask the ghosts if their refrigerator was running.

This is the sign that now greets folks at the door! Shout-out left-handers. David Bowie was a left-hander.

(The Plant features free, open-to-the-public tours on the second Saturday of every month. You should go! The hours and information are here.)

There is still a stretcher, all ready, in case someone gets hurt. There was not a hospital very close by, when the plant was starting, but there was a brewery.

A green NO. What does it mean?!!

Hi! From L-R: Maija, David, Mairead, and Laurie. (Congratulations on your retirement from City Light, Laurie!)

The Georgetown Steam Plant shimmers – it really does! – with gorgeous handmade details, and pearly gray light on green paint, and concrete metal echo. Special thanks to Michael and Rebecca, and Laurie, for teaching us.

The Origins of This Project

How did the city of Seattle decide to commission a graphic novel?

Many people have congratulated me (and Mairead Case) on receiving the commission to create a fictional graphic novel focused on the Georgetown Steam Plant. They often follow it up with the question: “How did the city decide to do this?” This project is unique enough that it’s a fair question. Very few US cities have commissioned graphic novels (Everett, WA comes to mind, but beyond that…?). So how did this come about?

I talked about it with Maija McKnight, who is a Public Art Project Manager for Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture (and is our project manager as we create the graphic novel). “This is a new type of project for the Office of Arts and Culture, the creation of a book and graphic novel,” said McKnight, “and to the best of my knowledge a new way of implementing Percent for Art funding amongst national government agencies.”

Seattle was one of the first cities (beginning in 1973) to implement a 1 Percent for Art ordinance, which mandates 1/100th of all city capital improvement project funds go toward the commission, purchase, and installation of artworks in a variety of settings. This can be a work of art about the site (for example, a work about wastewater drainage) or a work on the site (for example, the “Hammering Man” sculpture in front of SAM).

I was assigned as the project manager September of last year,” continued McKnight, “and met with Laurie [Geissinger, of Seattle City Light] to start my learning process about the Steam Plant. I was able to visit the plant for the public tour and do some pretty basic research to learn more.”

McKnight met with a group of City Light’s employees who are involved with preserving and promoting the Steam Plant. They began to brainstorm potential projects. Among the possibilities suggested: sculptural art along the new access drive, artwork as part of new signage, a mosaic on the plant’s large concrete cistern… They also discussed the potential of outreach to schools as part of an artist-in-residence program.

The Georgetown Steam Plant is undergoing exterior renovation and is only open to the public one day of every month, so the group wondered how the arts project could be used to leverage more access to the plant than even the building itself could accommodate. They were also interested in being able to tell the story of the steam plant in a non-didactic way, and in doing so, build awareness, and appreciation of the historic landmark.

Another consideration: “The capital project associated with the funding is a new access drive that increases visibility into the site. How can this art project reinforce the idea/goal of access and visibility?”

McKnight says it was City Light’s Strategic Advisor for Environmental Affairs, Laurie Geissinger, who brought up the suggestion of a graphic novel. They immediately felt that this would address a lot of the lingering questions they’d been discussing. Adds McKnight: “From there, we then went back to our teams, talked about this idea, checked out many graphic novels from the library… In somewhat unfamiliar territory for this media, I relied heavily on many meetings/conversations with professionals in the industry to help to put together a scope of work and a call-to-artists to best reflect our goals of the project.”

I checked in with Laurie Geissinger to ask what lead her to the idea of a graphic novel. Via email, she wrote: “I began to think more deeply about increasing GTSP [Georgetown Steam Plant] visibility and access, getting the word out to diverse populations, about the GTSP, and the stories that could capture the imagination of visitors and potential visitors. Wanted to improve not just physical access – but access to minds, imagination and create a self-perpetuating and layered conversation steeped in an exciting historical adventure. I hoped we could somehow create work that would perpetuate a long lasting love affair with the steam plant, history and human ingenuity.”

Geissinger says it was the brainstorming session that led to the “finch and dandelion moment” where she and McKnight both realized a graphic novel was the solution they had been seeking.

I wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘finch and dandelion’. I did a web search and found that finches are birds who pull apart dandelions to eat the seeds. Geissinger added: “The thought graphic novel did light up as small bird on my shoulder (weird enough) followed by a cloud of dandelion seeds floating in all directions (weirder yet)… Dandelions have this exquisitely designed system for seed dispersal. As an artistic medium, a graphic novel seems dandelion-like; a vessel with built in ability to transport seed-stories beyond the immediate physical realm and locale, for birds everywhere to enjoy! I was in.”

-David Lasky

Goldfinch eating a dandelion seed

Hi, Welcome to our Blog!

Welcome to the Steam Plant Graphic Novel: The Blog!

We will post details of our research, samples of our work, historic and contemporary photos, events, and surprises.

Thanks for joining us on the adventure!

Mairead & David