South Lake Union's Automobile Industry: Manufacturing, Assembly, and Retail

Although a large sawmill and several other timber-related industries (including furniture makers, shingle mills, and boat-makers) remained in operation through the first half of the 20th century, it quickly became clear that neither South Lake Union nor Seattle proper would be tied to extractive industries forever.  Buoyed in part by the completion of the ship canal and in part by the low grade created as a result of the Denny regrade, the neighborhood’s industrial character slowly shifted throughout the early 20th century and turned to support both the manufacture and retail sale of automobiles.  Over the period of about twenty years, South Lake Union morphed into one of Seattle’s most prominent “Auto Rows:” by 1939, there were 40 auto-related businesses on Westlake Avenue. 




The Ford Plant, completed in 1914, was the first automotive manufacturing plant to open in South Lake Union.  The company decided to locate the plant in South Lake Union because it anticipated a transportation advantage emerging because of the completion of the ship canal; the plant was also boosted by the cheaper power now available in the area following the completion of the power plant.  The plant was so successful in its early years that the production requirements of the Ford Motor Company soon outgrew the five-story reinforced concrete structure, however, and Ford moved the plant to a sprawling one-story East Marginal Way complex in 1920. 




Ford was not the only automotive manufacturing company to set up shop on the southern shore of Lake Union: Kenworth Trucks, a local, homegrown automotive company also set down roots in the neighborhood.  Kenworth Trucks built its plant on the corner of Yale Avenue and Mercer in in 1929; the building remained the company’s headquarters until 1946.  In addition to turning out the heavy-duty trucks the company remains known for today, the South Lake Union plant played an important role in the war effort.  Most of the plant’s employees during the war years were women who replaced the men who were fighting in Europe or the Pacific. 




In addition to turning out completed trucks and automobiles, South Lake Union was home to a thriving auto retail strip on Westlake Avenue known as "Auto Row."  Drawn by the flat grade created by the Denny regrade and the proximity of automobile production facilities, auto-related businesses flocked to South Lake Union: by 1939, there were more than 40 auto-related businesses lining Westlake Avenue.  William O. McKay, pictured above, was the most prominent auto salesman in South Lake Union and a well-known Seattle civic booster.  He opened his first Ford showroom in 1922 at Westlake and Mercer, a few blocks from the then-thriving Ford assembly plant, and kept it thriving until his death in 1956.



"Context Statement: South Lake Union Historic Survey and Inventory."  (2005).  Thomas Street History Services.  Accessed online here.  

"Ford Motor Company Assembly Plant (John Graham Sr., 1913)."  HistoryLink Walking Tour of South Lake Union.  Accessed online here

"Ford McKay Building (Warren H. Milner, 1922) and Pacific McKay Building (Harlan Thomas and Clyde Grainger, 1925)."  HistoryLink Walking Tour of South Lake Union.  Accessed online here.

Siefkes, Doug.  Kenworth: The First 75 Years.  Seattle: Documentary Book Publishers, 1998. 


South Lake Union's Automobile Industry: Manufacturing, Assembly, and Retail