The holiday we celebrate today 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 here 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 in its history 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. 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) to downtown Seattle.
The mayor was awoken and his permission was requested, 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, gathering downtown around The Seattle Times building at 5th and Stewart, where there was a news readerboard.
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.
If not quite a “Chokepoint,” it was total gridlock from Stewart all the way down Second Avenue, which was the main commercial street in those days, all the way down 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 a very musical celebration. It’s hard to picture this nowadays, but almost every group had its own band: companies, shipyards, lodges, ethnic organizations. 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, like Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan. Several of their standards became homefront war anthems and then victory songs.
There was a huge fireworks show put on by The Seattle Times downtown on Monday night and the celebrations continued until after midnight.
Beyond the city, places like Bothell had their own celebrations, with big bonfires and a lot 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 in August 1945.
Also going on at this same time was the Spanish Flu epidemic; 1,500 people would die 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.