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1827 Broadway: A Prequel of Iron and Blood

*I call this a prequel because it precedes the main story arc of 1827 Broadway Part II: A Story of Iron and Blood set in Seattle. However, this story's position therein makes it more of an interlude since it covers the time between Martin Cordes' arrival in the U.S. and his arrival in Seattle.

New York City Circa 1880s. Castle Garden Immigration building at center bottom. Library of Congress.


Steamship Westphalia.

Martin arrived in New York City on September 23, 1879 via the steamship Westphalia. The temperature range that day was between a comfortable 51 to 71 degrees, though it would likely have been a bit cooler on the water coming in. The sight would have been much different from how we know/imagine it today. Immigrants would not have seen the Statue of Liberty nor would they have disembarked at Ellis Island because neither had been built yet. Rather they would have disembarked at Castle Garden and seen a New York like the one depicted above. Now unfortunately, after disembarking there, Martin's first decade in the U.S. remains untraceable. It isn't until 1889 that available public records place him at 314 Folsom Street, San Francisco, where he was living with his then recent wife Katherine Hunter. He worked as a machinist at Golden State & Miners' Iron Works, a manufacturer of mining machinery located on 1st Street between Howard and Folsom (currently a vacant lot). It was just a short walk from their home. It used to be two separate entities that merged in the late 1870s. When originally founded, both were co-operatives in which workers shared profits with the owners. So it is not surprising Martin ended up there and probably did so fairly early on—assuming it was still a co-operative after the merger. However it played out though, by 1889 he would have been a very skilled machinist perhaps even earning a decent enough wage to settle down and start a family. So that year, he and Katherine had a son and named him August.


However trouble was afoot. On March 2, 1890, the 300-member Iron Molders' Union, on whose work 700 others depended, including machinists like Martin, went on strike affecting fourteen iron works in the city. Apparently the owners of all these Iron Works were collectively planning to reduce the minimum wage from $3.50 to $2.50 and had started hiring non-union workers in direct violation with union rules. Many of the machinists met that night to discuss the strike and while initially hesitant, for fear of losing their jobs, ultimately chose to endorse it a few days later, but only through financial support. Otherwise, it seems they continued to work whenever work was available. And so for nearly two years The Molders' Union were gripped in a gut-wrenching standoff with the Engineers and Foundrymen's Association. On numerous occasion mob beatings of non-union “scabs”, who were shipped in from the east, erupted on the streets in broad daylight. By the summertime, tensions were at their highest when, on the night of August 3rd, 1890, a shower of shotgun fire poured into the apartment windows of some non-union workers. So just imagine the horror of this scene for Martin and his family who would have lived within earshot of it. Their young son August and their second son Otto, who by the way, had just been born 5 days before this event, would likely have woken up screaming and in fear for their lives. So Martin was obviously in a difficult position. While likely in agreement with his fellow machinists who supported the strikers, he had the well-being and safety of his family to consider now. And so it seems for the good of his family, he and Katherine may have left for nearby Oakland to lay low for a while as evidenced by the Oakland Tribune's announcement of the birth of their third son Walter in March of 1892. This was about four months after the strike ended in defeat for the Molders. Either unable or not desiring to return to the Iron Works, Martin and his family moved to nearby San Jose where Martin took up machine work with the San Jose Fruit Packing Company.

False Hopes and Longing for Home

Drawing of San Jose Fruit Packing Co. Circa 1890s.

The first several months or so in San Jose was a welcome relief for the Cordes family. The fruit company had just opened their new state of the art facility in 1893 and that spring, demands for their product were coming in from as far away as Copenhagen, Denmark. However, the excitement proved only temporary as global markets crashed that same year and the San Jose Fruit Packing Company's exports dropped by 90% the following year. Furthermore, the credit crunch at the banks meant the company couldn't borrow money to pay their idle workers. They had to issue scrip instead.

So after a year or so of these conditions, it seems Martin was beginning to wonder why he ever left Germany in the first place. He'd likely been hearing about how much more influence the Social Democratic party had recently gained there and how much Germany's industrial economy had grown since he left. He must have also had a sense of pride and nostalgia for his homeland that he wanted to share with his family. So in 1895 they moved to Germany after the birth of a fourth son Martin Jr. Just in case it didn't work out though, Martin became a U.S. citizen before he and his family left.

Hamburg waterfront complete with street car. Circa 1895.

Old Gray Germany, Ain't What She Used To Be

Hamburg-Amerika Line ticket office, circa 1900. The Cordes' most likely purchased their tickets here.

Other than four more children, Mathias, Herman, Katherine, and Henry, joining the Cordes family while in Germany, their activities there remain unknown. Now not having the time to get too deep into the weeds, it should suffice to say that it was vastly different Germany than it was in Bismarck's time. Large industrial conglomerates were emerging and colluding with government for greater control. Toxic patriotism, militarism, and imperialism were on the rise. Political rivalries intensified and Germany became more isolated going into the 20th century. Though there really is no way to know, disillusionment with these changes combined with the hardship of yet another economic panic in 1901 may ultimately have been what lead the Cordes family to return to the U.S. in October 1903. Departing yet again via Hamburg to New York City.

Back to the United States

Main Street Auburn, WA from a 1909 issue of The Coast magazine. Image: Hathi Trust.

Not long after their arrival they headed for Auburn, WA a small suburb of Seattle that was booming at the time. In 1902, the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power company built the Seattle-Tacoma Interurban line passing right through Auburn. This, and the Northern Pacific Rail, made Auburn an excellent shipping locale. Such that it enticed companies like Borden's Condensed Milk of New York to build a new factory there in 1903. So when Martin arrived late that year, his prior experience with canning machinery in San Jose made him a shoe-in. Henceforth, they enjoyed much greater stability than they had in California and Germany, especially since the panic of 1907 seemed to hardly even phase them. In fact, while still working at Borden's, Martin started a side business in 1909 with his eldest son August. They called it The Auburn News & Stationary Company.

An Epiphany

Now keep in mind this was Martin's first business venture and for the preceding 20 years he had always worked under the employ of others so one can imagine the profound effect this would have had on him. A new perspective like this could easily have lead him to reflect on it all—his life, his family, and his work. Martin was a machinist, he and his son Walter worked side-by-side at Borden's and the rest of the kids were taking an interest in machinery and probably auto mechanics as well. So Martin, perhaps after paying one of many visits to Seattle via the interurban and seeing all the convergence of machine and automotive talent on Capitol Hill realized something. If he could start his own business, why not do so there and join the fray of automotive pioneers where he and his family could work together and each could fully reap the fruits of their labor? Because in retrospect working for the benefit of others clearly wasn't the answer. Rather, “Iron and Blood” was the answer, remember? And with those he could forge his own empire, just like Bismarck. And the fortune and glory would far outstrip any gained from a mere newsstand and machine shop in a cannery. It was no contest. They moved to Seattle in 1912 and never looked back.

Seattle waterfront 1912.  Image: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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