City of Seattle sends Cold War artifact to the dump

Apr 10, 2024, 10:21 AM | Updated: Apr 12, 2024, 1:33 pm

Northacres Park siren...

A Cold War-era air-raid siren and tower were quietly removed from Seattle's Northacres Park in March and send to a scrapyard in Kent; history enthusiasts are hoping to rescue the siren and restore it. (Via Reddit)

(Via Reddit)

A giant and very loud artifact of the Cold War – from the “Duck and Cover” era – disappeared from its perch in a park in North Seattle last month. Now, local history enthusiasts are wondering why it was taken down and where it went.

Like many recent stories in Seattle area history revolving around large rusted artifacts, this is a twisted tale. There’s some bad news and then some good news, and then perhaps a chance for some better news in the near future.

KIRO Newsradio received a Facebook message on Monday from a history fan named Doug Pratt who lives in Elma but who grew up in the Houghton neighborhood of Kirkland. Pratt said that he had stumbled across a Reddit page that showed recent pictures of a giant Cold War-era air raid siren and tower being taken down and likely hauled away.

Sirens standing at the ready

Sirens like this were all over populated areas beginning in the early 1950s and were tested regularly – as often as once a week. They were standing at the ready in case the Soviet Union sent bombers to attack with nuclear weapons.

At first, Pratt believed the photos he found were of the air raid siren atop a tower on Phinney Ridge, adjacent to the Phinney Neighborhood Association in Seattle. That building – and the siren and tower – are well-known and beloved landmarks just north of the Woodland Park Zoo.

Then, Pratt figured out that the siren in the photos – incidentally, the same model and vintage as the siren still standing at Phinney Ridge – was actually at a place called Northacres Park. Northacres Park is owned by Seattle Parks & Recreation and is located at 130th and I-5, just north of Northgate. The tower and siren had stood there for more than 70 years, dating back to when the land was the property of Seattle Public Schools.

“I’m wondering what happened to it,” Pratt said in a phone interview on Monday, “because those things are worth money.”

The most valuable part of the siren, Pratt says, is the Chrysler V-8 “Hemi” engine that powers the compressor to pump air through the siren’s horns and create the distinctive and eerie sound that can carry for miles. Those engines have applications far beyond only air raid sirens, Pratt says.

“I’m wondering, too, did the City of Seattle, you know, were they able to sell it?” Pratt continued. “Or did they just haul it off to the scrap yard?”

“What happened to it?” Pratt said.

Priceless historical value

Pratt says that beyond the value of the “Hemi,” the air raid siren also has priceless historical value for its role in the Cold War. He remembers hearing a similar siren at Houghton City Hall – then a separate jurisdiction but nowadays part of Kirkland – that sounded regularly to alert volunteer firefighters and for air raid drills back in the 1950s.

Pratt was there, as a child, for the darkest days of the Cold War.

“I lived through it,” Pratt said. “I was there. I was one of them kids, ‘If the siren goes off, get underneath your desk, kiss your ass good bye'” – though that’s not exactly the words his elementary school teacher used, Pratt admits.

“It was back in them days back in the 50s, you know, and that was it,” Pratt said.

KIRO Newsradio reached out to Seattle Parks and Recreation on Monday morning. They wouldn’t agree to a phone interview, but through a series of emails, spokesperson Rachel Schulkin shared information about the fate of the siren and the tower.

Siren tower no longer safe

“The tower was removed starting on March 18 because it contained lead paint and [it was] not safe to be in the park (especially since it was aging and may soon become a fall hazard),” Schulkin wrote.

“Seattle Parks and Recreation reached out to several historic organizations to see if they wanted it, but they all declined,” Schulkin continued. “The motor is being restored by Binford Metals in Kent. Let me know if you have any other questions.”

We did have other questions, but we didn’t get substantive answers from Seattle Parks & Recreation for another 24 hours.

In the meantime, KIRO Newsradio called Binford Metals on Monday afternoon. Nobody we spoke to there had any idea about the siren or the tower.

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As for the “several historic organizations” who were asked if they wanted the siren – Seattle Parks later said it was just two groups who were contacted, one of which was Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI).

So KIRO Newsradio checked with MOHAI.

A member of the collections staff there said MOHAI received an email offering them the siren about five years ago. At the time, MOHAI asked some clarifying questions (about the siren’s condition, and what it would take to move it) in an email back to Seattle Parks, but they say that Seattle Parks never responded to those questions. In fact, MOHAI says they are still interested in learning more about the siren.

As of late Tuesday, Rachel Schulkin is sticking by her claims that MOHAI was contacted about the siren and that they said they did not want it. At the very least, it appears that some kind of miscommunication may have taken place. The other organization Seattle Parks says they contacted about the siren is the Lewis County Historical Museum in Chehalis; on Wednesday morning, Jason Mattson, executive director there, said his group was not contacted, either.

Another organization not contacted by Seattle Parks is the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, which maintains an expansive collection that includes many large objects. Spokesperson Derek Nguyen there wrote in an email on Monday to KIRO Newsradio that the museum’s collections team “is open and receptive to speaking with them if they were to reach out.”

Zeroing in on the siren’s location

On Tuesday afternoon, Binford Metals, the salvage company in Kent, responded to KIRO Newsradio’s inquiries.

In a phone conversation, the employee, who didn’t want to give his name, told KIRO Newsradio that Rick Estes, owner of a company called Ascendent Demolition – who Seattle Parks reportedly hired to remove the siren and tower from Northacres Park – gave the siren (the motor and horns) free of charge to Dave Binford, owner of Binford Metals.

It appears that the remains of the tower itself – the legs and platform for the siren – were scrapped. This has not been confirmed, but the Binford Metals employee surmises that this is likely what happened.

However, that Chrysler V-8, with the siren horns still attached, is now reportedly on Binford Metals property in an area they called the “Field of Dreams” – which is their nickname for an outdoor collection of rusting trucks, farm implements and other items that might someday be restored, but that form a kind of organic display of oxidized metals.

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The obvious hope now is that Dave Binford will find it in his heart to donate the siren and motor to MOHAI or some other local museum willing to accept it.

If a museum does now step forward, and if the siren does make its way from the “Field of Dreams to a historical exhibit on the Cold War, chances are 17-year old Nathan Veress will have had something to do with it.

KIRO Newsradio listeners might remember Veress, the Seattle high school student profiled in 2023 who’s an expert on these esoteric things.

As reported last year, Seattle City Light gave Veress a smaller World War II siren, which he then restored and donated to the Flying Heritage Museum at Paine Field.

KIRO Newsradio reached Nathan Veress late Tuesday. He was disappointed to learn that the siren from Northacres Park had been sent to the scrapyard because he’s had his eye on it for years and had hoped to one day lead an effort to restore it.

“I do believe this one at Northacres is probably in better condition” than the siren at Phinney Ridge because they haven’t removed the driveshaft or anything like that, so it’s still all there,” Veress said.

Efforts are beginning to restore the siren

Clearly, Veress hasn’t given up on his dream. He even says he’s willing to lead the charge now to restore this rare Cold War artifact and find a good home for it at a museum where it can be displayed and interpreted, provided Dave Binford is willing to let that happen.

“This siren itself is very rare and unique, so I feel there would be options where we could, just thinking ahead a little bit, where we can get funding and stuff for it,” Veress said excitedly. “I think we can find a museum to work with and create a good partnership that should help restore it and get it all good.”

Before speaking with Veress, KIRO Newsradio had asked the unnamed Binford Metals employee if Dave Binford would be amenable to some kind of arrangement.

During the conversation Tuesday, the employee was not able to make any promises but did not reject the possibility out of hand.

KIRO Newsradio also reached out late Tuesday to Seattle Parks & Recreation’s Rachel Schulkin and to the staff of Seattle City Council members Joy Hollingsworth and Sara Nelson (chair and co-chairs, respectively, of the Parks, Public Utilities and Technology Committee, which oversees the Parks & Recreation Department) to see if they would be willing to help facilitate a solution involving Nathan Veress.

One thing is very clear. There aren’t many 17-year-old World War II and Cold War air raid siren experts in the world, but it seems we’re lucky enough to have one right here in our own backyard with a track record of success.

“You don’t ever come across these sirens, ever. Not for sale, (not) available,” Veress said. “They’re either rusting or, like, in a museum, so you know when you’ve got a chance like this, you can’t really let it slip through your hands.”

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks. You can also follow Feliks on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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City of Seattle sends Cold War artifact to the dump