Scene in Edmonds: The alleys of Edmonds

The alley between Elm and Pine streets.
The alley between Elm and Pine streets.

By Eric Brotman

What: The alleys of Edmonds

Where: Various locations in the Edmonds bowl (the representative photo is of an alleyway running south to north from Elm Street to the Pine Street Playfield, between 6th Avenue South and ‘A’ Avenue South.)

The narrow and weathered alleys of Edmonds endure as unusual urban roadways, where the traffic of neighbors and pedestrians can be greater than that of strangers and cars.

Some alleys are paved, though in many spots the pavement has crumbled. Other sections have remained, or reverted to, grass-edged beds of dirt and gravel.

The above photograph, taken approximately eight-tenths of a mile from the center of downtown Edmonds, could easily pass as a rural scene, and many residents with property along the quieter alleyways seem to embrace the spirit of a bygone time in their approaches to landscaping and decorative choice.

The handles of an oldplow rise from a garden along the alleyway running west to eastbetween Bell and Main streets, above 8th Avenue North.
The handles of an old
plow rise from a garden along the alleyway running west to east
between Bell and Main streets, above 8th Avenue North.

No history of alleys in Edmonds has been written, so their original purpose is unclear and often in dispute.

In interviews conducted in the spring of 2010, several residents of Edmonds shared their thoughts and memories of our local alleys.

LeRoy Middleton, a retired civil engineer and surveyor, was 85 in March of 2010 when he unfurled a 1910 surveyor’s map of Edmonds in his living room. Between nearly every parallel set of streets an alley was indicated.

When asked if the alleys might have been deliberately planned for pick-up and delivery vehicles to use, Middleton was doubtful. Such usage would have come only in later years, he explained, because “some of the oldest alleys were just grass, trees, and rocks.”

He believed the first alley in Edmonds was planned by a developer who simply thought it looked good, or wanted to give people another place to walk at a time when extended walking was a common activity (Middleton noted alleys are legally considered “public ways”).

He went on to say successive developers who routinely copied the design feature effectively would have made it traditional. “It’s the way they did things in those days,” Middleton said with a shrug.

Mildred Kelly Engels was a few months shy of her 95th birthday in March of 2010 when she reminisced about the alleys of Edmonds. For 20 years, between 1936 and 1956, she lived along what has become perhaps the busiest alley in downtown Edmonds. It’s the one parallel to, and sandwiched between 3rd and 4th Avenues, running south to north between Dayton and Main Streets. Customers patronizing any of the three banks and several restaurants in the vicinity often drive through the alley on their way to a convenient municipal parking area.

Engels remembered the alleyway mostly as “very quiet and peaceful.” As a young woman, she would see the alley narrow down to a pathway as she approached her back door. Farther along the way, the path widened into an alley again. “Everyone living along the alley kept their backyards beautiful,” Engels said. “Some of the other alleys in Edmonds were just wide and rutted grassy areas. They were very pleasant to walk through.”

Jane Yost Sorensen, born in Edmonds in 1918, lived along an alley off Alder street between 6th and 7th Avenues South. As she recalled, “The alley was used for all sorts of things,” when she was 5 or 6. Coal deliveries for the home furnace were made in the alleyway, as were deliveries of milk.

“Occasionally,” Sorensen said, “someone came by with a horse and trailer to pick up the garbage.  It was so nice to have everything picked up in back, out of sight. The convenience was great.

“Our chicken coop was out there, too. Other kids in the neighborhood would want to see the chickens if they didn’t have any of their own.

“We knew everyone in every home along the alley. We were just plain neighborly.”

In 2013, a number of alleys remain for walkers to enjoy while imagining what life was like when the public ways were first laid out. The City of Edmonds maintains an official street map at the City Engineer’s office. It shows all the current alleyways accessible to the public.

Brick sun rays seen atan alleyway entrance just beyond the right-centerfield fence at Pine Street Playfield, between Pine and Fir streets.
Brick sun rays seen at
an alleyway entrance just beyond the right-centerfield fence at Pine
Street Playfield, between Pine and Fir streets.
  1. I love that there are alleys here in Edmonds. They add to what I feel is a lovely friendly and homey city! I hope that they won’t be considered passe eventually. Thanks for this article. I truly enjoyed it.
    I spent my teens in Seattle in the Wallingford area and there were alleys there as well. I haven’t been back in years; I wonder if they still exist?

  2. What a fascinating expose. Funny how you never really notice things until they are pointed out to you. I’ll look at my beloved city a little closer now and take a moment to appreciate those alleys.

  3. I enjoy walking the alleys when I want to get a fresh angle on Edmonds after years and years of walking.

  4. I have been walking these alleys with a friend for about a year now and always wondered about their history and think they would be even more wonderful made into an art/garden walking tour. Edmonds has many untapped treasure that should be more celebrated.

  5. We purchased a home in the bowl last year with the alley access to park our motorhome being a major decision on the house. Lived in West Seattle years ago with alley access and really appreciate having one again. Will have to walk more of them after seeing this article.

  6. I also grew up in West Seattle, and now live on the alley pictured in the article. I took it for granted, given my growing up experience, so thank you for reminding me how special it is. Sound Disposal picks up our garbage in the alley, and it is fabulous. Someday I hope they’ll decide to do the same with yard waste and recycle.

  7. The Edmonds in Bloom Garden Competition allows people with gardens on the alley to enter the competition. We often have entrants on the alley. The gardens have to be visible from the alley.
    Sometimes you have to stand on your tiptoes and peek over the fence to see the alley gardens. But often they are quite easy to see. I agree that they add to the charm of Edmonds.

  8. Ah, the alleys of Edmonds have stories to tell. As one drives or walks along the alleys, you see much older buildings in the back, that were likely garages or storage for who knows what. You can almost hear horse-drawn wagons, model-T Fords and kids on bicycles going up, down and through the alleys. It would be great to learn more and find the stories that need telling.

  9. County records do not show an ownership for the alleys. The same reference is given to the streets as well. So it looks like the alleys belong to the city

  10. Ron, my understanding is that the underlying fee title is owned by the adjoining private parties and the City has a public easement right allowing the public to use the private party’s fee title property for public ingress and egress. The private fee titled property that is burdened by a public easement is called the servient estate. The rights related to the public easement are known as the dominant estate.

    There also appear to be legal differences related to whether or not the alley has been opened for use or if it remains unopened.

    I have been through much turmoil related to the unopened 7 1/2 foot wide “half” an alley next to my home. The “half” an alley was established in 1890 when the City was originally platted.

  11. Ken & Darrol:

    Thank you for the research. Some of these lanes are badly in need of patches, but our streets obviously need to be a higher priority.

  12. I have been walking and enjoying the alleys of Edmonds for the past five or more years Always there is something new and interesting. you can feel yesteryear. Point to remember there are alleyways through the countrymaking them a good place to stroll.

  13. As with many things, the alleys of Edmonds can be a positive as well as a negative. I strongly encourage all Edmonds Citizens living adjacent to alleys to review their legal rights and responsibilities related to the alley. If the alley is unopened and has never been improved and made into an actual alley to access property via the right-or-way, I believe the need to know your legal rights and responsibilities is even more critical.

    I have read an argument that unopened public rights of way are treated no differently than private property with regard to access rights. The argument is that property owners abutting a right of way that has never been made into an actual street, road, avenue, alley, etc. do not have any legally recognized rights to access their property via that right of way. The general rule that proprietary rights of an abutter do not begin until a street is opened for use as such are discussed in 10A McQuillin. Municipal Corporations, 5 30.56.10 at 371 (3d ed. 1990).

    It is possible that the underlying fee title property owner has a legal right to make reasonable use of his fee title property prior to the City improving and opening the alley for public ingress/egress. I believe this is consistent with constitutional law that promotes the efficient use of land.

  14. Citizens owning alley property subject to right of way easements that the City has never improved and/or opened for public ingress/egress, may want to pursue vacation of the City’s unused easement.

    If citizens choose to do so, I encourage citizens to be very diligent in administrating this effort. Based on my research, I believe almost every street/alley vacation done by the City of Edmonds between at least 2000 and 2011 violated the City’s own Code for one reason or another.

    Improvements to the City’s Street Vacation Code have been made and I hope more improvements are coming. For example, Ordinance 3901 was passed on December 4, 2012 establishing Expanded Notice Requirements for Easements retained by the City during the street vacation process. Ordinance 3901 ADDS another law prohibiting last second “surprise” easements on citizen’s fee title property during the street vacation process.

    State law does allow the City to retain an easement or the right to exercise and grant easements in respect to the vacated land for the construction, repair, and maintenance of public utilities and services. To do so, I believe the City must have a current or future need to CONSTRUCT, REPAIR or MAINTAIN a public utility and/or a public service.

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