Looking Back: The birth and evolution of Highway 99 in south Snohomish County, part 2

The entire Snohomish County sheriff’s department in 1940 in front of the county jail in Everett. Left to right: Harry A. Deasy, criminal deputy; Ellsworth R. Johnson, chief civil deputy; Walter A. Deebach, identification officer (my father); Floyd Darling, jailer; Wm. E. Davis, jailer; Ray Ryan, sheriff; Hazel E. Waite, juvenile deputy; E. L. Weaver, criminal deputy; Fred S. Plymale, undersheriff; Fred French, deputy; and J. E. Tuttle, criminal deputy. (Photo from Betty Lou Gaeng’s private collection)

Part 2 of 2. You can read Part 1 here.

Prohibition and a new highway make strange bedfellows

The stretch of highway between Seattle Heights and the King/Snohomish line became home to several roadhouses besides McKenzie’s Bungalow Inn mentioned earlier. The most well-known were the doomed Blakewood Inn at Seattle Heights; The Ranch, one-half mile south of Seattle Heights on the west side of the highway near the village of Esperance (at the southwest corner of today’s 220th Street Southwest). There was no cross street at that time. Also, a short distance further south was Jungle Temple No. 2; Merry Max Dine and Dance near today’s 225th Street Southwest; and the Golden Slipper, which was close to the county line.

McKenzie’s Bungalow Inn had a very short life. The building burned to the ground about 2 a.m., Thursday, May 15, 1930. The fire started on the outside of the building and spread through the floor before it was even discovered. The fire department from Edmonds responded to the call, but before the firemen arrived on the scene, the fire had spread through the entire building. It was believed to be of incendiary origin — arson.

A new and very noticeable change the highway brought was the presence of law officers. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office and the Washington State Patrol now had a handy connection to the large unincorporated portion of south Snohomish County. This was something they didn’t have before, and with prohibition and gambling violations, robberies, racing cars, motorists ignoring the new stop signs at arterial intersections, and drunken motorists on the highway at all hours, the law officers were kept busy — their presence became a common sight along the highway.

Prohibition and the new highway seemed be an exceptionally poor mix and in addition to robberies and racing cars, the highway would be the scene of more activity. When the highway first opened, the well-known Ranch roadhouse was called by another name — Doc Hamilton’s Barbecue Ranch. One of the most extensive raids regarding gambling and prohibition violations occurred at Doc Hamilton’s and Jungle Temple No. 2, as well as two other businesses a mile or so further north from Seattle Heights. Those were the Maryland Tavern and the Olympic Tavern. It was on an early Sunday morning and the New Year’s Eve revelry welcoming 1928 was still in full swing. The raid was led by the Snohomish County sheriff and his deputies, with assistance from federal officers. The four businesses were raided simultaneously, and the proprietors were arrested and booked into the Snohomish County Jail — charged with liquor possession, gambling, and/or operating an establishment where liquor was found. Doc Hamilton’s Barbecue Ranch was charged with the more serious crime of bootlegging; the building’s doors were padlocked and the two managers held for trial.

John Henry (Doc) Hamilton

It was the owner of Doc Hamilton’s Barbecue Ranch whose story is of interest. When John Henry “Doc” Hamilton expanded his nightclub business into Snohomish County following the opening of the new highway, he became Snohomish County’s first celebrity law-breaker.

Doc Hamilton was already a famous prohibition-era nightclub owner in Seattle when he opened his roadhouse in Snohomish County. His nefarious career had its beginning after he returned as hero from service in WWI with the famous African-American “Buffalo Division” in France.

John Henry Hamilton started his life of crime at the beginning of prohibition by opening his first speakeasy in his own home at 10th and East Union Street in Seattle. He operated his speakeasy for four years before the Seattle police discovered his “club” and shut it down. That didn’t stop him, and he soon became a very well-known figure to the Seattle Police Department and other law enforcement officials. His most famous Seattle club was named Doc Hamilton’s Barbecue Pit and it was considered similar to New York’s once-famous Cotton Club, the legendary night spot in the Harlem district of New York City. Doc Hamilton’s nightclub had what was called an “elegant interior” and it was frequented by some of the most important Seattle businessmen, politicians, judges and even the mayor of Seattle. Doc Hamilton not only served a lot of liquor, he personally barbecued the meat in a giant pit. The entertainment was provided by some of the best musicians Seattle had to offer. An elaborate alarm system was installed to protect the high-end customers, and it was well known that Doc Hamilton really kept his businesses operating by payments to the local law enforcement officers. However, that practice would eventually end.

Most of the time, Doc Hamilton was simply jailed for a night after an arrest and his punishment was to simply pay a fine. His career of breaking the law was over when his Seattle club was raided by a King County sheriff with a much sterner idea regarding the law. Doc Hamilton was charged with the federal crime of bootlegging and sentenced by a judge to five years in a federal prison. This was considered very severe punishment — no white prohibition club owner up to that time had ever received such harsh treatment. With the ending of prohibition in 1933, Doc Hamilton was pardoned after 10 months in prison. By that time, he had lost everything, including his nightclubs and his beautiful home. He died in 1942 at a hotel in Seattle’s Chinatown — alone and impoverished. Doc Hamilton’s story was told in a 2007 book by Philip Metcalfe — Whispering Wires: The Tragic Tale of an American Bootlegger.

The Ranch Roadhouse, courtesy of Museum of History and Industry.

During all of this, new owners had taken over Doc Hamilton’s Barbecue Ranch along the Pacific Highway in Snohomish County and it became known as The Ranch.

After prohibition, more problems

With the ending of prohibition in 1933, life seemed much quieter for the roadhouses and they were now more often called nightclubs. Even though gambling laws were still in effect and there were laws against the serving of liquor by the drink, little attention was paid to violations by the clubs. That is, until the election of Everett’s young Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson, who became the Snohomish County prosecuting attorney under the promise of law and order — which included cracking down on all corruption in the county. The years 1939 and 1940 saw almost weekly raids of numerous clubs along Highway 99, with Prosecutor Jackson, in person, leading the sheriff and his deputies on those raids. The Ranch had become famous and very popular in spite of its violations of current liquor and gambling laws, and it received most of the attention from the sheriff’s department. The Blakewood Inn had also been notorious for its violations, but as noted earlier, it had been destroyed by a fire in 1935, and was never rebuilt. In fact, several clubs seemed to disappear from the scene during the crack-down years–mostly due to what appeared to be rather convenient fires.

Another nightclub, Jungle Temple No. 2, had its own problems. Following a raid in 1934, it was declared a public nuisance and occupancy was forbidden for one year. The two well-known proprietors were sentenced to the State Penitentiary in Walla Walla for 14 to 30 months. After that, Jungle Temple No. 2 seemed to fade away.

In addition to cleaning up the drinking, gambling and prostitution at the nightclubs, Jackson was cracking down on the taverns and the little “mom and pop” stores as well. The owners of the stores and taverns complained they were being pinched by Jackson’s April 1939 ultimatum requiring that all slot and pinball machines be removed from Snohomish County. The south end of Highway 99 had quite a collection of those, and the owners let Jackson know that he was taking away a good share of their incomes. Jackson replied that he was more concerned that school children were spending their lunch money on the pinball machines, and also many housewives had complained to him that their spouses were spending all of their paychecks on either the slots or pin ball machines, instead of supporting their families.

Through it all, The Ranch seemed to be impervious to all the raids and fines and managed to hang on. In spite of the well-known fact that the nightclub had the most wide-open gambling, it was also considered to have the best entertainment and some of the best food and liquor in the entire Northwest. The nightclub had become very popular.

Henry “Scoop” Jackson, courtesy UW Special Collections via HistoryLink.org

When Henry Jackson left Snohomish County and went to Washington, D.C. in the early 1940s and became even more well known as a congressman and then as a senator, the pressure on the nightclubs, taverns and “mom and pop” stores was lighter, and everything seemed more peaceful along the highway. The country’s entrance into WWII may have had something to do with less pressure on the nightclubs. There were many more serious problems on the minds of people.

However, for my own part, since my father was one of the raiding deputies from the sheriff’s department, those two years of raids on The Ranch did not make my school years very pleasant. The popular vocalist at The Ranch was the father of a classmate of mine — she often reminded me that my father had the audacity to arrest her father and haul him off to the county jail. Some of the other parents of classmates occasionally had been caught up in the raids, and I sometimes heard about that too.

My classmate’s father is gone now, and I never had the chance to hear him sing. He was called the Gentleman of Song and since The Ranch was considered a classy nightclub with the best entertainment for miles around, he must have been a pretty good vocalist. He died in 1953 at the age of 48. Twenty-five years ago, my classmate also passed away. She never spoke to me anymore, so I guess the connection always bothered her.

The times and more changes

To end this little tale of the wild side of life along a short stretch of Highway 99, I probably should finish the rest of the story regarding the fate of The Ranch, since it was the most well-known of all the nightclubs. Even though it seemed to lead a charmed life during its long and infamous existence — that would change.

Everything has its time, and the most popular time of the nightclubs seemed to come to a close, or perhaps it was more just a change. Although, some clubs, such as Parker’s Ballroom at Shoreline, stayed on longer than others — probably because it was a great place to dance, and dancing to big band music was becoming the rage. The Ranch became more of a family restaurant, its name changed to El Rancho. Following its stint as a restaurant, it opened as a bingo parlor, often frequented by grandmotherly-type women. Of course, it was almost a certainty that its bingo games would run afoul of the law regarding gambling and the raids would begin again. There was a change though — the site of the El Rancho had by then become part of the land annexed to Edmonds on May 12, 1959, and the infractions now became the problem of Edmonds Police Chief Reuben C. (Rube) Grimstad and not the sheriff’s office. Chief Grimstad warned the El Rancho’s manager that if the gambling wasn’t shut down, the Edmonds Police Department would do the closing.

Very early Sunday morning on May 28, 1959, Chief Grimstad visited the El Rancho to give the operator his final warning to shut the bingo games down. The club did close about 2:00 o’clock on Sunday morning. Approximately two hours later, fire broke out in the old wood-frame building. The caretaker on the property noticed it, as did a passing Washington State Patrol officer, and even though the building was on the southwest corner of 220th Street Southwest and Highway 99, on land that had been annexed to Edmonds, the Fire District was the first to be notified.

Edmonds Police Sergeant Douglas Cain was out on patrol when he saw the flames and he then called the Edmonds Fire Department. Altogether, seven fire trucks responded, including not only the Fire District and Edmonds, also Mountlake Terrace firemen joined them to fight a blaze that was soon out of control. The wind helped to fan the flames; an explosion shattered glass in a building across the street. A large beam in the core of the building collapsed and sparks and flames began shooting in every direction. All the firemen could do was to keep the flames from spreading to the nearby structures. They were successful with that, but the old building was completely destroyed. One Mountlake Terrace fireman had a minor shoulder injury — he returned to duty after treatment by a physician.

The embers from the fire continued to smolder and then blazed up again Monday morning. The Edmonds Fire Department was called back at 7 a.m. and completely put out the second fire.

It was believed that the fire started near the bandstand area of the 12,000-foot sprawling structure. Because of the addition of little rooms and walls made to the original building through the years, the firemen had trouble battling the fire. The Edmonds Fire Department was not able to determine the cause of the fire, and thus the state fire marshal’s office took over the investigation. No conclusion was noted. The general feeling seemed to be “good riddance.”

It was the end of the line for a building that had become a Highway 99 landmark. Owner H. B. Nielsen of Seattle told reporters that he had no plans to rebuild. The loss of the building left a big hole in the landscape. It seemed almost unbelievable that after almost 32 years, there would be no more drinking, dancing or gambling — not even bingo in the legendary building–and certainly, no more need for late-night raids by law enforcement.

Final closure also came for the little village of Seattle Heights following the annexation of a portion of its land by Edmonds and then the rest by Lynnwood. The end really came in 1973, when after almost 63 years of distributing the mail, the Seattle Heights Post Office officially closed its doors for good. In our time, many people who are new to the area may not even realize there was once a village known as Seattle Heights.

I have often wondered if any other highway had the unusual beginnings that our Highway 99 experienced or was it somehow different because of the times — prohibition and the Great Depression. Also, it has always meant a lot to me that the old highway and I have a strong connection. Not only did I live beside it for a few years when both of us were a lot younger — the highway and I were born the same year.

– By Betty Lou Gaeng

Betty Gaeng is a long-time resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, coming to the area in 1933. She researches and writes about the history and the people of South Snohomish County. She is also on the Edmonds Cemetery Board.

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