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Grading of Rainier Valley's Streets

Orcas Street

93.01.661This snapshot depicts the equipment used to grade the streets in Rainier Valley during the early 1900’s. The photo is from the Hall-Summers Collection of the Rainier Valley Historical Society. 

The location of the grading in progress was on Orcas Street in Hillman City, almost a block west of Rainier Avenue in front of St. Edwards Catholic Church. The photo of the grading project was donated to the Pioneers of Columbia City by Mona and Hugo Sobottka, possibly in 1955, as it was that year the two of them shared the presidency of the Pioneers of Columbia City, the predecessor of the Rainier Valley Historical Society. 

Hugo Sobottka’s parents built their family home in 1907 on the southeast corner of Orcas Street and 42nd Avenue. This grading project would come up to the front of their house and around the corner, leaving their house and lot about four feet higher than the street that was about to be put in. 

In the photo the neighbors are looking over the grading equipment after working hours. One of the neighbors is at the controls, pretending to be the operator. The boys in the photo, one standing on the bucket while the other is leaning against it, are the Sobottka’s two sons, Hugo and Herb. Hugo, on the left, was born in 1900 and looks about ten in this photo which helps to date the photo at about 1910. The photo was probably shot from the north side of Orcas Street a little over half way up the block as the old St. Edwards Church can be seen in the photo to the right. 

The cables coming down from the overhead boom and attached to the bucket indicates it was a drag-line excavating project. The bucket was dropped from the end of the boom and scooped up the dirt as it was drawn toward the machine. Like most machinery in those days it was powered by steam. At the lower left in the photo you can see the steel railroad type wheel on a steel rail supported underneath by wood ties. This temporary rail line supported the machine and was extended forward as the work progressed. 

This machine was used on many street-grading projects in the valley and the streetcar tracks were used to transport it from one job to the other. A spur would be put in the main line at the site of a new project and the tracks were laid as the grading progressed up the hill.

On the lower right of the photo notice the 3 to 4 foot high bank that has resulted from the grading. If you look at many of the streets in the Valley where there is a steep slope, the grading that was done is apparent. A cement block retaining wall next to the sidewalk is very common on the hilly streets and many times there is a steep bank above the retaining wall. 

Another street that was graded is Hudson Street, east of Rainier Avenue, where some of the homes were 15 feet above the finished road. The accompanying photo was taken during this 1911grading project at 39th and Hudson, using the same machine as on the Orcas project. The machine is turned sideways on the track, showing the boom in operation with smoke or steam coming out of the stack ( Insert Hudson St grading photo here- 93.1.96 ).

Mona Sobottka died last August at the age of 91. She was very active in community affairs, was a “lifetime flower show judge” and worked for 23 years at Grayson & Brown Hardware and Furniture in Columbia City as, among other things, an interior decorator. In her early years she was valedictorian for the first graduation class at Garfield High School. She turned down a scholarship in business administration at the University of Washington as she wanted to pursue her dream of being an artist.

She took a job at Frederick and Nelson where she met her future husband, fellow employee Hugo. They were married and moved into the Sobottka family home on Orcas Street where they raised two sons, Hugh and Tom. Hugo worked for R.H. Brown Co. for most of his career. He died in 1972.

Mona and Hugo were approached by the church about buying their property and they agreed to sell. It is now the site of the new St. Edwards Church. Apparently more grading was done on the lot when the house was removed as the entry to the Church is now level with the street and sidewalk.

by Buzz Anderson

Days Gone By