The Sand Pit. July 20, 2010
I became aware of the Sand Pit when I began first grade in 1937. My class of 20 or so kids played in the corner nearest to the pit with a small kick ball and game area where Miss Gibbony could supervise boys and girls ‘recessing’ together. From the beginning of school the repeated message was “That is the Sand Pit and children are not to go in there”. “It is a dangerous place”. A low 3 foot high fence of square posts and rails with wire mesh was all that marked the school boundary. The ‘Fear of God’ was a bigger deterrent than a fence for that first year.
In Second grade the boys found another corner for rudimentary baseball where bases were gouged in the sand and gravel surface. We seldom played in the rain because being on base meant standing with one foot in a water puddle and you would suffer if you came home with wet shoes.
The girls formed up in the enclosed and covered play court or on the paved sidewalks with jump rope, hopscotch and dodge ball. Boys would tease the girls and make them scream by coming near the girl’s play court entrance where the rule of ‘No Boys’ was also subject to the ‘Fear of God’. Some of the more criminal 2nd grade boys would break the rule though and got a bad reputation.
For a school having 8 grades at the time I attended, North Queen Anne School and playground was very small. When we returned from the summer of 1938, the playfield was paved with asphalt and the entire property enclosed by a 6 foot chain link fence that sealed off access to the Sand Pit.
The sand pit was a mystery that first year. If we went to the top of the side walk on the 1st Ave North boundary it was seen to be a very large, overgrown and tumbled area of many trees and plants stretching to the West for 2 city blocks, an area that was unknown to me at that time. At the top of the hill to the South was David Roger’s Park where a tennis court, paths, swings, teeter totter, and slide and a rest room were present. Our first grade class made several walking tours to the park that first year.
The new fencing of the school continued up the hill one block to the park closing off the East side of the pit at the tennis courts. To the North the fencing continued to 3rd Ave West where the lowest point of the pit was a little above the level of the street. An old timber and wire gate there between the sand cliffs looked ready to fall in, but this lone curious mischief destined explorer was not deterred; the gap right beneath the ‘No Admittance’ ‘KEEP OUT’ sign was no trouble to crawl under.
For a short way beyond a rutted and eroded road of a sort penetrated the swamp, small alders and willows grew up at the water’s edge and taller cottonwoods added to the jungle canopy effect far above my head. Imagined beasts and varmints I knew just had to be there but they were shy of being seen. Darkness in the undergrowth suggested danger and adventure as did the fortress like formations and battlements of sand castles rising up into the leaves of the trees and here and there sliding banks of sand while all underfoot a brown covering of leaf litter extended even over the water’s surface under which ‘things’ moved. One of the moving things came close to the water’s edge and looked at me and as I jumped back I saw it was a catfish with a convoy of black babies trailing in an S pattern in their parents wake.
I found out at a later time that the sand pit was a source for street building materials for Queen Anne’s Third Ave West as it descended the hill Northward from West McGraw Street. Apparently the less critical street work had been stopped about 10 years before during the Depression as a number of the steep crossing streets were unpaved and gravel and at times even small boulders cascaded onto 3rd Ave West when there was hard rain. Even more recently I discovered a history of Nils Peterson who homesteaded the North Queen Anne and took gravel out of the pit prior to 1883. It must have done a good job as I sure never saw a lot of gravel in the pit.
After our family moved in 1939 I lived less than a block from its West end and the sand pit was an even more intriguing place to investigate as the timber and wire gate showed evidence of repair despite its age and neglect which did little to exclude the curious lad that I was. Work had begun inside the pit. Near the gate a big catch basin made of wood had been added that collected water and sent it out to a drain in the street. Many of the trees were down and there were big water pipes connected to what looked like fire hoses delivering water to nozzles shooting streams into the sand knocking down the buttes and banks in a wash of sandy flood water. I was a constant visitor inside the pit in spite of being told on numerous occasions that it was dangerous for kids to be in here. Mostly I behaved and was fascinated by the changes taking place as I wandered among the towers and canyons, rivers and mud flows that were constantly being created and destroyed. It was wonderful to be close by when a high pressure stream of water would bite into the base of a tower or bank and the whole would collapse with a rush and the surface would change. Several men worked about a year as the low areas of the pit rose above the old entry gate and a new gate with a new chain link fence closed off the street along 3rd Ave West.
The shape of the pit had changed. It was now huge by all previous comparisons and it was shaped like a monster bathtub though the North side was much lower that the South which bordered the park.
This one did not have a blade in the front but instead it dragged a scraper behind, which looked about like my mother’s rolling pin, that would fill up and then turn over and dump the sand in rows. Every so often a man would come with a tripod and telescope that had a string and plumb bob below it and he would drive wooden stakes into the sand and the tractor would follow his stakes but not move them as the surface was further scraped away leaving the stakes on top of foot high squares of sand. Many a day or afternoon was spent following the path of the scraper and judging when it was going to roll over and dump another row. One memory that sticks with me is that rocks and stones or even pebbles were rarely exposed by the scraper as the sand pit was truly all sand. When stones or other lumps of material came to the surface they were worthy of investigation as they were most often oddly shaped concretions of fine grey clay-stone. I knew little of the Ice Age or glaciers and their work in those days.
Today even little kids have seen at least one of the ICE AGE videos.
Around the edge of the large field the Sand Pit wall banks were constantly were being contoured and the first of many trees were planted. Then a running track was laid out with wooden 12 inch curbs and trucks began arriving with cinders from industrial furnaces and a red road of sorts circled the field. I remembering asking about the cinders and being told that the best running tracks were built this way but it took a lot of years to establish one.
As the years passed I used the field that eventually became the Queen Anne Bowl for continuing adventures and explorations of imagination, flying model airplanes, touch football, running a mile, baseball, soccer and bringing my own kids to play. Now trees that never existed when I was young are tall, strong and even stately and provide stability and shade where I first viewed the power of water over sand and experienced adventure up close.