Merchants Cafe - 1890

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Merchants is Seattle's oldest existing bar and restaurant. (The Central claims the title of Seattle's oldest "saloon," but this appears to be based on some particulars related to the term "saloon," rather than a claim to be the oldest bar, and it did not take on the "Central" name until prohibition. Jules Maes claims to date to 1888, but these claims do not appear to be accurate by any reckoning(see preceding link). There have been bars at the current location of the Queen City Grill since at least 1890, but is unclear when exactly the "Queen City" name was adopted and when the current brick structure replaced the previous wooden one (various sources have dated the building to 1900, 1901, and 1910).

Merchants stands in the center of Seattle history, on the very street that originated the term "Skid Row" (and "Skid Road"), on land staked by Doc Maynard, given to Henry Yesler, and sold to Charles Terry. The skid road that delivered logs to Yesler's sawmill became Mill Street and then Yesler Way, and was the seam joining the two conflicting platting systems, where Maynard's north/south streets crash into the shoreline oriented grid of Arthur Denny and Carson Boren. In the 19th century it was the border between the respectable businesses of Front Street (now 1st Avenue) and the box houses, brawls, and cathouses flourishing along Commercial Street (now 1st Avenue South). By the late 30s it was the de facto color line for jazz musicians, where the whites-only AFM Local 76 locked down the fancy hotel gigs, confining local talent like Ray Charles and Quincy Jones to the south until the unions merged in 1958. On the upper floor of the building here in 1864, E.M. Sammis took the only known photograph of Chief Seattle. One hundred years later a young, unknown Jimi Hendrix would pop in to play acoustic sets.

Merchant's Cafe has been here since the current building was completed in 1890, over the remains of the city from the Great Seattle Fire in 1889. I have found some sources claiming that it was not given the name "Merchant's" until Charles Osner purchased it in 1892, but one can find references to "Merchant's Cafe" at this address in 1890 newspapers (e.g. Seattle PI Sep 7, 1900 p10). It first appears in Polk city guides in the 1892 edition, listed as "The Merchants Exchange Saloon, 109 Yesler Ave., Charles Osner, proprietor."

Merchants is now a casual place that still has the original hammered tin ceiling, safe, gold scale, and grand back bar shipped around Cape Horn in the 1860s. If you go downstairs you can see vestiges of old Seattle, where prospectors traded Klondike gold dust in a "Sunday bank" from 1889 to 1910 -- the kind of trade that gave the place its name -- and patrons sipped illicit liquor during the prohibition/speakeasy days.

Some sources: Seattle PI - - Seattle Times

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