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1827 Broadway: Johnny "Second Chance" Quinlan

*This is a spin-off story that explores, in greater depth, the life of John Quinlan who plays a supporting role in my story titled 1827 Broadway Part II: A Story of Iron and Blood.

Image: University of Washington Special Collections


Jerry Quinlan. Courtesy Quinlan family.
There Will Be Blood. Miramax Films, 2007

Johnny "Second Chance" Quinlan, as I like to call him, because of all the chances he gave and received, was born in Port Townsend, Washington on December 1, 1893 or 94. He was orphaned early on and adopted by his step-father Jeremiah Quinlan, but it isn't clear exactly when or where. One source suggests Jeremiah, or Jerry as most called him, may have adopted John in Skagway, where Jerry had been living since about 1898 and had been the White Pass and Yukon Railroad's conductor ever since it was built that year. So perhaps it was a scenario similar to the one depicted in the film There Will Be Blood in which the main character Daniel Plainview adopts the boy of a man who died while prospecting for oil. Perhaps John's father similarly died while prospecting for Gold. Heck, Jerry and Daniel even look a little bit alike, it must be true! Comparisons aside, here's an interesting side note. In October of 1910, Jeremiah sent a letter to the Seattle Times taking offense to an article written about his railroad in that month's issue of Technical World Magazine, but I digress. That same year, John was going to school while living with Jerry and his step-mother Agnes in Skagway and another source says he worked as a "wiper" basically an engineer's assistant, so he probably worked at his step-father's side. After about 1914, Jerry's health started to decline and he retired. He died on April 15, 1917 at the age of 56 after being confined to bed at his sister's home for six months.

On to Seattle

World War I Draft Registration Card via

Shortly thereafter, John moved to Spokane, WA where he took up work as an electrician for a couple years as evidenced by his WWI draft registration card. In 1919, he moved to Seattle where he met and married a local music teacher named Helen Boyd on September 24th that year. They had their first child Mary the following year. To support his family, John got in the habit of giving failing towing garages a second chance by taking them over and rescuing them. You could even say they were orphans and he was adopting them, much like he was when his step-parents adopted him, hinting at a difficult childhood--especially if he was an orphan in Skagway of all places.


In any case, John proved difficult as an adult. He had a short temper and a foul mouth. According to Helen, while she was sick with the Flu in February of 1920, he told her (for reasons unstated) he didn't care whether she got better, stormed out of the house, and didn't return for 3 whole weeks. Thereafter, John frequently referred to Helen as a "yellow dog," told her to "go to hell" or "go jump in the reservoir." (now Cal Anderson Park). Outbursts like these occasionally escalated to outright violence and threats of violence though John denied it in court. That's right, by July of 1923 Helen had had enough and sued John for a divorce and alimony and asked the court for a restraining order and full custody of their daughter Mary. In response, John turned over management of one of his garages (Nagle Place Garage, 1831 Nagle Place) to his brother-in-law Garfield so he could resolve matters with Helen. Ultimately, the court ordered John be restrained from visiting Helen for a time and pay her $80/month alimony. He also couldn't visit his daughter Mary more than one day per week. John, down, but not out, moved into an apartment a block away at 1020 E Denny Way and with the unexpected free time, threw himself into his work.

A Second Chance

Utility Towing letterhead. Seattle Municipal Archives.

And over the following year, he cleaned up his act--or so it appeared. So Helen, you guessed it, gave him a second chance in 1924 and allowed him to resume living with her at her parent's house at 124 11th Ave E. They also incorporated the Utitlity Towing and Wrecking service together in February that year and conceived their second child Daniel a few months later. Although, Daniel tragically died of polio at the age of 6 months on November 5, 1925. This event along with a pending lawsuit of $4,000 (worth over $55,000 today) against Utility Towing likely put a lot of stress on John and Helen's reconciliation considering how poorly John managed his own emotions. So it would only be a matter of time before their relationship would break down again, but first there was business to attend to.

Traffic Jam

Seattle Times. October 1, 1925

Seattle Traffic Jam circa 1925.

That summer, it seems Seattle hit a critical mass of automobiles. Double parking, parking in no parking zones, and parking over the time limit had become an epidemic in Seattle. Part of the problem was the ineffective efforts to curb these activities with ticketing, which drivers routinely ignored. This prompted the city to start calling on towing companies like Utility Towing to remove and impound violators' vehicles until they paid. Meaning, anyone with a tow truck and garage could suddenly reap considerable profits. So within a few days, nearly a hundred cars were towed away, (many by Utility Towing Service no doubt), often just minutes after their drivers stepped out of them. Such that tow trucks had to have been camping out in high traffic areas watching and waiting like vultures. The tow truck drivers probably even competed fiercely with one another over turf. And who could blame them? Well, the drivers, that's who. They descended upon police headquarters in a deluge of ire forcing Police Chief Severyns to put a moratorium on the practice. It isn't currently clear when exactly the process resumed hereafter.

Moving On Up

However, John Quinlan and other tow company operators must have known that it was only temporary because they all seem to have expanded their operations during this time. Or maybe it was just because the 1920s in general were a time of plenty. Whatever the reason, a mechanic named Martin Cordes from across the street bought 1830 Broadway including its basement unit, 1831 Nagle Place where Utility Towing was. Martin wanted the whole place to himself and seeing that the Quinlans wanted out of the basement, he set them up in his old 1827 Broadway space. Both parties couldn't have been more satisfied.

1827 Broadway circa 1937. Washington State Archives.

With all the extra space, John decided to file additional articles of incorporation alongside the ones he had filed with Helen. It seems he wanted to be more official. He declared himself president and hired an accountant up the street to be his secretary and treasurer, and invited a mechanic buddy of his from Spokane named Harold Lilliequist to be his manager. The pressure was on though, because just days before filing the papers in Olympia, that pending lawsuit was increased from $4000 to a whopping $15,000 (worth over $200,000 today!). Clearly he was not about to let anything get in the way of the life he and Helen had worked so hard to rebuild. Fate had taken their son, but it would take no more. So John doubled down and fate gave them another chance instead. On December 6, 1926, just 5 days after John's 32nd birthday, the plaintiff dropped the charges. By all appearances, the rest of the 1920s were clear sailing.

Black Tuesday

Unfortunately, this good luck only got them so far. It isn't entirely clear how and where things exactly went wrong, but by July of 1930, Utility Towing was out of business. Perhaps they overextended themselves only to fall with the market in 1929 when business would have slumped. Or maybe it was because John had taken to drinking heavily and fell into his old abusive habits. Or maybe it was a combination of the two. However it came to be, they were deeply in debt. On March 3, 1930 they had mortgaged their towing equipment to Helen's father to secure a $1300 loan from him (worth $18,000 today). When it seemed they weren't going to be able to repay the loan, Helen's father foreclosed on the mortgage and towed the business away along with it.


circa 1937. Washington State Archives

For all those times John called Helen a "yellow dog" he seemed to do a good job of living up to that name himself. Down and out now, Helen sent him out to the dog house: an apartment at 1815 Broadway. To escape his woes, he drowned himself in a reservoir of liquor--in a manner of speaking--only to find himself escaping from the law. John denied the accusation, but according to the arresting police officer, John drunkenly crashed into a parked car at the corner of Olive and Denny Ways. John and the officer got into scuffle both accusing the other of starting it. John broke free and fled from the scene towards his apartment. The officer chased John inside until John locked himself in the bedroom, jumped out the window, slid off the steep roof, and fell to the ground landing himself in the hospital. And as if it couldn't get any worse, his wife Helen took him to court again on January 12, 1932 seeking a restraining order and alimony--he'd apparently grown violent towards her again. Parts of the case are missing, but assuming she won it, it like the first time, was a wake up call for John.

Yet Another Chance!

Over the next few years, John cleaned himself up again and regrouped, proving that he could be as much of a smooth talker as he was a trash talker. In 1935 he moved back in with Helen, her parents, and their daughter Mary and reopened Utility Towing at 1827 Broadway under the auspices of their benevolent patrons the House of Cordes. However the towing business in general had changed a great deal in his absence.

First off, his competitors (including Cordes Garage now) were way ahead of him. They had not only managed to weather the market crash in '29, but in most cases, had expanded their operations through prudent management and effective advertising. The Two ads below are from two super service stations who offered towing services.

The question of towing and impounding of vehicles had also become incredibly political. Debates in city government over whether it should exist and how had been going on for years. Concurrently, the larger towing firms had been cozying up to city officials in order to acquire city towing contracts. The whole thing turned into a racket. So John and Helen both wrote letters to the city council on June 3, 1935.

John complained that A-1 Towing, who at the time had a contract with the city, towed a car that was in an accident and auctioned it off in a mere three days(!) before the owner could even make arrangements to remove it from their garage. In his letter, John wrote:

"Have we reached a point in City Government where business men holding city contract can brow-beat our citizens to the extent that property can be taken from them (stolen?) and no compensation made?"

For all of John's horrible qualities you had to hand it to him, at least he was an honest businessman and he was right in this instance.

As was Helen who recalled a time where the city called on their business to clear certain streets on April 6 or "Navy Day." After filing all the proper paper work they were unfairly denied the contract because apparently they didn't rub elbows with people who were close enough to the current city administration. In her letter Helen wrote:

"If toadying to any office seeking political clique is necessary to obtain city business and render service to our citizens, then it is about time this requirement be broadcast and made known to the people."

City council heeded their complaints and later that year, discussed a proposal to establish a central city garage and eliminate the profiting on towing and impounding by private companies and their buddies in city administration. The debate went on for years, but by 1939 its detractors defeated it. From that point forward the city awarded contracts to private towing companies as before which ultimately went to the duopoly held by Terry and Cordes Garage. So it would seem these two had the most friends in the city.

Seattle Times April 15, 1946.


However, this was all a moot point for John and Helen who by 1937, had left the business for good. Perhaps the bigger towing companies, who had fought so hard for private city towing contacts, pushed these rabble-rousers out of the market. Besides, it's not like Utility Towing ever had a good track record anyway. Honestly, ask yourself, would you trust? A drunken lout like John Quinlan or an upstanding citizen like Walter Cordes? Whichever way you could spin it, John more or less fell into obscurity thereafter. One source suggest that he spent the rest of his time at sea, probably as a ship's engineer until his death aboard one in 1949. Helen returned to her long lost music career and remarried to a man named Arthur Stenvall in 1939.

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