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Bill Phalen's Store: W.W. Phalen was a Business and Community Leader

One of Columbia’s most active and civic-minded businessmen was William W. Phalen: grocer, baseball player, and town mayor.

Phalen settles in Columbia City in 1901, when he was about 40 years old. His early years prepared him well for the demands of running a business and participating in civic events.

At age 21, he left his family’s farm, going to work in a grocery store. He worked in Senator Falls, N.Y., and then in New York City. Evidently, Bill spent some time traveling by railroad. His travels took him to Wentworth, S.D., where he worked for Charles H. Weiss, father of Pierre and Phil Weiss. (The Weiss family also moved to Columbia City in 1905, and they too, were active community members.)

Prior to moving to Columbia City, Phalen also played professional baseball for 13 years. In 1895, he played for Mankato, Minn., team, but he also played in New York and South Dakota. He was a grocer during his off-season employment, a necessity in the early days of the game.

Community Organizer

When Bill came to Columbia he was full of energy, with a vision of the future. Not afraid of asserting himself, Bill organized the volunteer fire department and a baseball team, which he managed for two years.

The Rainier Valley Historical Society had a photograph of the fire department, taken in 1906, which shows Pierre Weiss as part of the team. This photo may have been taken as a farewell as Columbia City was about to become annexed into Seattle and the fire department was about to be replaced by Seattle station No. 28, on Rainier Avenue and South Orcas Street.

Phalen opened a grocery store, which quickly became the largest in the area. It employed several men on horseback to visit homes and solicit grocery orders. Orders were then delivered by horse-drawn carriages. The store was in the process of changing its name when its picture, which accompanies this column, was taken. The sign above the store reads Reliance General Store, while the carriages’ signs were tagged W.W. Phalen, Your Grocer.

The store, at 4863 Rainier Avenue South, was a frame building with an ornate, two-story façade. Phalen had purchased the building shortly after moving here from the East. At the time of purchase, it was known as the Knights of Pythias Hall. The second-floor hall was often the site of community meetings and social gatherings. After a short time, it became known as “Phalen’s Hall.”

As Phalen’s grocery business prospered, so did his standing in the community. Elected as mayor in 1905 and 1907, he put up street signs and donated land to Columbia City. It is interesting to note that he ran for mayor in 1906 but was defeated because he opposed an attempt by the Citizens Telephone Co. to obtain a 50-year franchise.

He was elected in 1907, on the condition that Columbia City becomes part of Seattle.

Town Celebration Phalen served his community. He was chairman of the Rainier Valley Fiesta, an annual town celebration, for its first three years, beginning in 1915. The annual Fiesta was an event to remember: There were bands, booths, parades and rides. One publication at the time estimated the attendance of the first Fiesta to be 20,000 people.

Phalen is remembered not only as one on the fairest and most impartial officers ever elected in Columbia City but also as a man who loved people and joyfully celebrated life.

He died on a trip to New York City to attend the World Series in 1917.


South District Journal 9/25/1996

By Mary Ann Balch

This column was compiled from articles printed in past issues of the Rainier Valley Historical Society newsletter. The compiler was Mary Ann Balch, a Southeast Seattle resident and a member of the society.


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