Y'know those bumper stickers and t-shirts that say "Free Ballard" on them. Weird, right? I've got one, yet am often at a loss to explain


Free Ballard

The real (and really long) story behind those peculiar bumper stickers.

Y'know those bumper stickers and t-shirts that say "Free Ballard" on them. Weird, right? I've got one, yet am often at a loss to explain what the slogan means -- namely because it's pretty complicated. Today, a group of Ballardites who understand its full meaning (it has something to do with annexation and water rights in the early 1900's) will gather at  Bell Tower Park at 22nd Ave. NW and Ballard Ave. NW for its annual "protest" of the City of Seattle's 1907 annexation of Ballard. Neighborhood lore has it that Ballardites used to raise the Ballard Bridge for the day in commemoration of this fatal maneuver. Today, at 3 p.m., they're just going to ring a really loud bell 22 times. A comprehensive explanation as to why can be found after the jump.

The Ballard Newspaper reported: "Shortly after 3 o'clock yesterday afternoon the fire bell of the city hall rang 22 times and the flags on the city hall and fire headquarters were lowered, and Ballard became part of history, and was made part of Greater Seattle. Many of the citizens, while favoring annexation to Seattle, wore a look of sorrow as the former city went out of existence."

The date was May 29, 1907, the official day of annexation, when Ballard became just another Seattle community. It was also the day that Seattle expanded north of Salmon Bay, gaining the booming industrial businesses located there, along with Ballard's 15,000 industrious and tax-paying residents.

One hundred years later, Ballardites are still saddened. Saddened that our forefathers and mothers were forced to give up their autonomy in order to obtain clean and plentiful drinking water. Saddened that we were no longer free.

On Tuesday, May 29, 2007, the citizens of Ballard will gather round the site of the old City Hall on Ballard Avenue and ring the original bell another 22 times in remembrance of our independence and to "anti-celebrate" this auspicious occasion. The bell tower, a representation of the original building lost after the 1965 earthquake, will again be draped in black. Ballardites will don black armbands and drink from special bottles of Ballard water. After a moment of silence, all will head down Ballard Avenue to our historic watering holes for more anti-celebrations. A few moments in Conor Byrne's (formerly the Owl Tavern, the oldest continually operating drinking establishment west of the Mississippi), the Old Towne Ale House or Hattie's Hat will take anti-celebrants back to the olden days, back to that golden era when Ballard had autonomy--its own mayor, its own governance.

Back when many in Ballard were opposed to annexation. After all, it was a modern metropolis, boasting a thriving waterfront and industrial area and a prosperous commercial main street. Wilhelm's magazine, The Coast, printed a very positive profile of "The Mill Town of King County, Ballard Washington," in its December 1903 issue. It boosted to its national readership:

Ballard...has realized the hope of its founders and is the milling center of King County. It has electric lights, water works, sewer systems, telephone system, streetcars, and all the conveniences of a modern city. It has streets paved in brick, fine brick business blocks, beautiful homes and excellent schools, church and social and fraternal organizations. In its post office...a large showing is made for a second-class office.

Three times Ballard thwarted annexation. In the aftermath of the Yukon Gold Rush, Seattle was growing and changing, eager to become the largest and most prosperous city in the state. But in order to grow, it needed to do something about the obstacles at its borders-those being Ballard, West Seattle, Columbia City, and Rainier Beach. The following excerpt from an October 28, 1906 Seattle Times editorial was reprinted in The Ballard Newspaper:

"The Times wants every suburb skirting the boundaries of Seattle annexed before the next census...in June 1910....The Times will favor and aid financially any scheme that will bring these suburbs into the greater city. We say again that we do not care what the method may be to secure annexation of these seven suburbs, but they must be annexed at any cost." What a coup it would be for Seattle to absorb the communities all around it, and along with them, the assets and resources they controlled.

Drinking water was that method. The artesian springs that supplied water to Ballard's population of 1,500 in 1890 were hard pressed to supply water for a population that had expanded to 15,000 by 1906. While residents eagerly awaited new waterworks, a two-year drought exacerbated the problem. The water flowing out of Ballard taps and pumps smelled like a dead horse, leading to the urban legend that some hooligans from Seattle had dumped a dead animal in the new well. Ballard tried to negotiate with Seattle for access to its Cedar River watershed, but was refused. Seattle had its bargaining chip.
Rather than concede, Mayor Zook took Seattle to court over the water issue, but in the State Supreme Court, Ballard's fate was sealed when Seattle's right was upheld to refuse to sell or share water with its neighbors.

So, Ballard gave in. The annexation vote was held on April 6, 1907. (It's been suggested that holding the election in early April guaranteed that many of the annexation opponents would be out of town and unable to vote because of their seasonal business activities.) There were 2,146 citizens registered to vote in this special election. Of those, 1,874 actually voted, 998 for and 876 against, a margin of only 122 votes. Ballard's fate was sealed.

This spring, the City of Seattle hung proud centennial banners and dispatched Mayor Nickels to plant a special tree in our civic center. But in Ballard, we have a different take on the day that put us at the mercy of Seattle's politicians. They still want our taxes, yet are stingy with the services they provide. The battle rages on about a lack of policemen and public safety concerns. Seattle City Council has crafted nightlife ordinances to curb the rowdy drinking in the saloons of Ballard. Utility and transportation taxes continue to climb, but where are our new water mains and nicely paved streets. It begs the question, did Ballard get sold out? How high a price for water?

Clearly we can't go back in time and reverse that vote. But we can gather together and let it be known that Ballard is a force to be reckoned with. The Ballard Chamber of Commerce invites everyone to join in our Anti-Celebration of the Centennial Anniversary of Annexation. While we can't leave the bridge up for the day, we can dress in black and shout out "Free Ballard." Ballardites have always been and will always be free and fiercely independent people.

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