Armistice Day: The biggest party in Seattle history

Nov 9, 2018, 6:34 AM | Updated: Oct 4, 2022, 2:49 pm

Armistice Day...

Winged Victory Monument at Washington State Capitol (Courtesy of Washington State Historical Society.)

(Courtesy of Washington State Historical Society.)

The holiday we celebrate this weekend is called Veterans Day, but it’s only been known as that since 1954. The original holiday was first celebrated as Armistice Day on November 11, 1918 when the Great War — the War to End All Wars — came to a close in Europe.

The celebration that happened in Seattle is mostly forgotten, and there’s very little in the way of photographs, and no motion picture footage. But, it was the biggest party the city had ever seen, and it lasted for more than a day.

Word reached Seattle late on Sunday night — November 10 — that the Armistice had been signed in France and the Great War was over. The town went crazy. A group of 5,000 Navy cadets at the University of Washington were summoned by bugle and the whistle on a steamship. They formed a parade that marched around the University District, and then headed down Eastlake Avenue (right past where KIRO Radio is now located) to downtown Seattle.

Mayor Ole Hanson was awoken and he was asked permission for the activity, but it was academic at that point — the people had declared a holiday for themselves.

Much of the general public joined in the celebration around 8 a.m. Monday morning, gathering downtown around The Seattle Times building at 5th and Stewart (where there was a giant news reader board).

Also joining in the celebration were some 30,000 shipyard workers who’d been kept busy during the war building ships down along the waterfront near Yesler Way. Garbage cans and lunch buckets were pressed into service as impromptu noisemakers, as were just about every car horn and musical instrument.

In what was perhaps the first Sully-worthy “Chokepoint” in Pacific Northwest history, traffic was totally gridlocked from Stewart Street all the way down Second Avenue — which was the main commercial street in those days — to Yesler.

Police estimated that some 12,000 cars were jammed into downtown for the informal parade, which one newspaper writer described as “democracy in full tilt.”

It was also a very musical celebration. It’s hard to picture nowadays, but a century ago almost every group had its own band — companies, shipyards, lodges, ethnic organizations — and the streets were clogged with singers and pipers and all manner of musical groups performing songs of the day. This was the Golden Age of American “Tin Pan Alley” music — Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan — and there several standards that first became homefront war anthems and then victory songs.

Monday night, Nov. 11, 1918, there was a huge fireworks show put on by The Seattle Times downtown, and the celebrations continued until after midnight. Beyond the city, places like Bothell and Camp Lewis had their own celebrations, with big bonfires and lots of speech making. The region hadn’t seen anything like it before, and wouldn’t seen anything like it again until the end of World War II and VJ Day in August 1945.

One other reason for the big public celebration was probably a bit of the “cabin fever” that gripped the city in the weeks preceding the Armistice. This was the time of the Spanish Flu pandemic, and 1,500 people would die ultimately from influenza in Seattle by 1919.

Schools and other public places had been shut down since October 5, but would reopen later the week of the Armistice. It was time to celebrate the end of the “War to End All Wars.”

2018 Veterans Day and Armistice Day Centennial Events

This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, which later came to be known as World War I. The original event in 1918 was one of the biggest parties Seattle and environs had ever seen. For the centennial, more somber observances are planned all around Puget Sound.

Here are a few highlights:

Auburn Veterans Day Parade in Auburn
This local parade is one of the longest-running Veterans Day events in Washington. This year’s edition will take place on Saturday, Nov. 10 at 11 a.m. on Main Street.

Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent
A ceremony will be held at our region’s official veterans’ cemetery at the Flag Pole Assembly Area on Sunday, Nov. 11 at 11 a.m.

State Capitol Rotunda in Olympia
The Thurston County Veterans Council and Washington Department of Veterans Affairs will host an Armistice Day and World War I Centennial event in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building in Olympia starting at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018.

Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) in Seattle
MOHAI will offer a full weekend of special events to mark the centennial of the Armistice, including the ringing of its 1890 Seattle fire bell at 11 a.m. on Sunday as part of a nationwide event.

Other special programs and exhibits around the Evergreen State
This list of exhibits and other special World War I programs around the state, and this list of World War I monuments, was compiled by the Washington State Historical Society.

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Armistice Day: The biggest party in Seattle history