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Voters re-elect businessman Robert Moran as mayor of the City of Seattle on July 8, 1889. Essay 2789 : Printer-Friendly Format

On July 8, 1889, voters re-elect businessman Robert Moran (1857-1943) as mayor of the City of Seattle.

Moran, founder of the Moran Brothers shipbuilding and iron working company, was re-elected to a second term just one month after most of Seattle’s downtown business district was destroyed by what became known as the Great Fire. His leadership in organizing relief efforts in the aftermath of the fire inspired confidence and contributed to his re-election.

Moran faced a number of challenges during his second term, beginning with the critical need to improve the city’s water system. Seattle at that time relied on water from wells and springs, supplied by a number of private companies. Moran had first become aware of the inadequacies in the system in 1887, as a member of the Common Council (predecessor to the City Council). Shortly after taking office as mayor for the first time, in August 1888, he had recommended that the city buy out the private companies and build its own system, using water from the Cedar River. The issue was still pending when the Great Fire struck on June 6, 1889.

At the same time they re-elected Moran, Seattle voters authorized the construction of a municipal water system with its source at Rock Creek, a tributary of the Cedar River. At Moran’s suggestion, the council hired Benezette Williams, a hydraulics engineer from Chicago, to prepare plans. Williams concluded that Rock Creek was not an adequate source, and recommended drawing water from the Cedar River itself. The engineering challenges and expense in developing the Cedar River system delayed construction for more than a decade.

Meanwhile, in January 1890, the city purchased the Spring Hill Water Company (the largest of the private water companies serving Seattle) and began the development of a municipally owned water system.

A second issue during Moran’s second term was a campaign to rewrite the city charter. The existing charter, adopted by the Washington Territorial Legislature in 1869, put legislative authority in the hands of a Common Council, limited the terms of the mayor and councilmen to one year, and designated the second Monday in July as the date of the annual general election. After months of debate, Seattle voters approved a new charter on October 1, 1890. Known as the Freeholders Charter, it set a two-year term of office for the mayor, limited the circumstances under which mayors could be re-elected, and created a dual legislative body (a Board of eight aldermen and a House of 16 delegates).

Moran also faced the challenges of rebuilding his own business, a machine shop and factory he had established with two of his brothers in 1882. The shop and most of its contents, including machine tools and engineering equipment, were destroyed in the Great Fire. The Moran Brothers Company moved to a new location, on a tract of tideland at the bottom of Charles Street, and were back in business just 10 days after the old plant was swept away. Demand for their services was high as the city rebuilt its wharves, streets, sidewalks, and sewers. In December 1889, the company was reorganized, with a capitalization of $250,000. Robert Moran was named president, secretary, and treasurer; Peter Moran served as vice president (another brother, William, had left the company several years earlier).

Moran Brothers moved into shipbuilding in the mid-1890s and eventually became one of the premier shipbuilders in the Northwest. The apex of Moran’s career came in 1904, when his shipyard launched the USS Nebraska, the only battleship to be built in Washington state. The ship was the flagship of the U.S. Navy’s “Great White Fleet.” Consumed and exhausted by its construction, Moran sold the company and retired in 1906.

Moran spent his later years on Orcas Island, one of the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound. He eventually acquired 7,800 acres of land on the island. He personally supervised the construction of an elaborate mansion on an estate he named Rosario, after the local post office. The mansion, completed in 1909, includes a living-dining room paneled in rich Honduran mahogany and teak, reminiscent of ship’s carpentry, and windows made of the same Belgian plate glass used as ship’s glass. It is open today (2004) as a luxury resort, with 116 rooms and suites.

Moran’s wife of 51 years, Melissa, died in 1932. With his personal fortune eroded by the Great Depression, he had difficulty maintaining the estate after that. In 1938, he sold the mansion and 1,939 acres of surrounding land to a California industrialist for only $50,000 (the Aeolian pipe organ, installed in the mansion’s second floor music room in 1913, cost almost half that price). Moran remained on the island, in a small house, until his death in 1943.

Seattle City Clerk, "Mayors of the City of Seattle," (; “The Moran Brothers,” Whatcom Museum of History and Art Website, accessed Sept. 17, 2004 (; Clarence B. Bagley, History of Seattle From the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time, Vols. 1-3 (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1916).

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Robert Moran (1857-1943) depicted in an Argus cartoon ca. 1906

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