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All Over The Map: Giant ‘Port of Seattle’ sign was a long-ago waterfront landmark

It was 90 years ago this Sunday when a giant waterfront landmark – and nighttime beacon for ships, sailors, and passengers – was first switched on in downtown Seattle.

The illuminated landmark was a sign that said “PORT OF SEATTLE” in letters that ranged from 18 to 22 feet high, mounted on metal framework roughly 30 feet tall. The words “PORT” and “SEATTLE” were straight, but the “OF” was set off at a jaunty little angle in between. The sign measured 320 feet long – that’s a football field, including part of the end zones – and newspaper accounts at the time said that the thirteen letters contained an estimated 1,500 feet of neon tubing.

These big letters were mounted roughly 60 feet above street level on top of the old Bell Street Terminal at what’s now Pier 66; it was a freight warehouse in those years, but is now where the Bell Street Cruise Terminal stands. The surface of the letters was white, making the sign appear white and reflective during the day. The double rows of neon tubes were red, so the letters lit up red at night – to beckon through darkness, rain, and fog – for what would turn out to be more than four decades.

Origins of the ideas for the sign are not clear, but Port Commissioners agreed in June 1930 to lease it from a sign company called General Illumination for $170 a month. While the stock market had crashed the previous October and the Great Depression was setting in, it appears that the economy, at least in the Pacific Northwest, had not yet nosedived enough to deter what was designed to be a promotional centerpiece for the Port’s operations on Elliott Bay. General Illumination had just opened a new sign shop along Westlake Avenue on Lake Union, and workers constructed the metal and neon sign there during the summer and early autumn of 1930.

When the glowing “PORT OF SEATTLE” billboard was first lit up on Oct. 25, 1930, it was described – in glowing terms, naturally – as the biggest neon sign in Washington, and one of the biggest marine displays in the world (whatever that means).

The electric landmark was a big hit with ferry riders and other waterfront habitués, and it quickly became an informal navigation landmark. The sign appears on old nautical charts, and it’s even mentioned in the official “Coast Pilot,” and described as a handy way to find Seattle by water.

“Approaching the city at night,” says the 1934 edition of the Coast Pilot, “the large neon sign ‘Port of Seattle’ at the Bell Street Terminal afford[s] good marks.”

But even those who never dipped a toe in Elliott Bay could see the “PORT OF SEATTLE” sign frequently, as it figured prominently in the opening sequence made up of nighttime Seattle scenes that preceded the late night “Fourmost Movie” on KOMO TV from the late 1960s until the mid 1970s. “Fourmost” was spelled that way to call attention to KOMO’s channel number, of course, which was a common program-naming gimmick in the early decades of local television. In Seattle, KOMO had “Fourmost,” while KING had the “5 Star Movie,” and KIRO had the “Big 7 Movie” – none of which appear to have lasted beyond the 1980s.

The iconic sign went away even sooner, but not before providing a few unintended chuckles along the way. In January 1958, the “R” burned out in a windstorm, and for a while, the sign said “POT OF SEATTLE.” By March 1972, the Seattle Times reported that several letters had burned out, and that the Port was looking at repair or removal options for the now deteriorated structure.

By early 1973, the Port of Seattle decided to take the old sign down. One estimate for fixing it was $100,000 – which would be about $600,000 in 2020 – while removal costs were estimated at $7,500. Apart from a few lines in maritime newspaper columns, there doesn’t appear to have been much of a public outcry over the impending loss or any attempts to “save” the sign. Winning bid for removal came in at just over $3,000, with work taking place sometime in March or April 1973.

One Seattle Times article said that pieces of the old sign were destined for storage in the basement of Bell Street Terminal. It’s unclear if that was sincere or if this was some kind of a snarky ‘waterfront insider’ joke — last time anyone checked, it would be impossible for a building constructed atop an Elliott Bay pier to have a basement.

Port spokesperson Peter McGraw told KIRO Radio on Thursday that it appears the old “PORT OF SEATTLE” sign is, indeed, long-gone.

A scouring of this week’s TV schedule confirms that the same could be said of the “Fourmost Movie.”

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News and read more from him here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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