Haunted Home

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Bainbridge Island, Washington, where I live, seemed to me amazingly unspoiled for a suburb of Seattle until one afternoon last spring,when I borrowed a neighbor’s kayak and for the first time pulled my way up Port Orchard Channel. I was top-heavy and a little ungainly with my dripping paddle, so I kept close enough to the beach to wade ashore in case I capsized. But the water was clear all the way down to the barnacled stones scattered along the bottom, and it was agreeable slipping north among the widgeons and pintails, cormorants and gulls.

 

The road that parallels the beach turns to gravel half a mile past my house and begins a treacherous climb back from the steep shoreline. So I always assumed that the houses had to leave off not much farther on and that from the end of Crystal Springs a mile or so to Fletcher Bay I would find nothing but woods.

As I paddled along, however, I discovered that no measure of ingenuity was being spared to build houses along the water, and the beach’s steep clay flanks were crisscrossed with wooden stairs. Some of the houses were a few decades old, and from the neatly stacked cordwood, the rusting swing sets, and peeling, overturned tender boats lying in weeds beyond the tide’s reach, I supposed that the occupants were probably venerable.

But among these old homes are brand-new houses making architectural statements, sometimes at the top of their voices. Looming expanses of tinted glass, and vertical-plank designer siding, and Wolmanized gazebos, and Japanesy pool enclosures have displaced the wooded shore of my wistful assumptions. Great stretches of beach had already been spoken for, and I could hear the whine of skill saws and the reports of nail guns and the heavy thud of pilings being driven in for yet another lofty deck.

The house I bought is eighty-five years old and seems sometimes to share my disdain for new construction. But in its time, which is to say turn of the century, it was no less an intrusion than the disportments of architectural whimsy now frolicking along the shore. In fact, my house was the first of its scale on the southwestern coast of Bainbridge Island to impose itself on what had been a sparse and informal smattering of Indian encampments, truck farms, summer cottages, and millworkers’ homes.

Some foggy mornings I pose on my deck like an explorer on a ship glimpsing a pristine, primordial world. But when the fog lifts, my view is punctuated by other houses, and my home testifies not to the island’s permanence but to the rangy flimflam and walleyed hubris of its history.

My house was built in 1905 by a real estate speculator and honorary Alabama colonel named Warren Lea Gazzam who dreamed of establishing a millionaire’s row along the Bainbridge side of Port Orchard Channel, which runs between the island and the Olympic Peninsula. In order to make his holdings accessible to commuters, he cofounded a ferry line called the Kitsap Transportation Company, and as its president he was the first man in America to equip a passenger vessel with a diesel engine.

The architect had to accommodate Colonel Gazzam’s pretensions, his wife’s austerity, and the lack of local craftsmen.

Nicknamed the White Collar Line for both Gazzam’s highfalutin airs and the distinctive white stripe on its smokestacks, the K.T.C.’s mosquito fleet ferried passengers and produce up and down the sound for almost a quarter of a century. From Tacoma to Seattle the K.T.C. and its competitors vied for dominance like opposing navies. Warfare extended beyond routes and rates to lawsuits, fistfights, races, and rammings and provided Puget Sound not only with its primary form of transportation but with a glorious year-round spectator sport until the construction of a few strategic bridges, the advent of the automobile, and the ravages of the Great Depression brought the game to a close.

I’ve been trying to pin down a few facts about the Colonel and his business ventures, but they are hard to come by. His influence, not to say his generosity, seems to have compromised a lot of the local newspaper accounts of his enterprises. Their stories are full of those exchanges that occur only in fully paid-for Edwardian booster journalism, in which the poor outclassed oaf who presumes to compete with the Colonel compounds his greed with cursing and bad grammar, whereas our hero coolly disguises his rapacity in the flag, fair play, and the mantle of progress without dangling so much as a participle.

The son of a prominent but impecunious family in Mobile, Alabama, Warren Gazzam suffered from tuberculosis as a young man and was sent to recuperate in Arizona, where, as an Indian agent, he collected tribal artifacts and was witness to the surrender of Geronimo. The West seemed to suit his entrepreneurial bent, and he proceeded to Seattle, where he opened an art gallery on Second Avenue. With his aristocratic Southern flourish the Colonel insinuated himself into Seattle high society, and at a time when men in the Northwest outnumbered women ten to one, he summoned and successfully married off all three of his Alabama sisters to men of substance.