Intro: or why I’m posting all this Fremont related content in the first place
Traveling isn’t an option for Clay and I right now––for safety concerns and general busyness––so I’ve been devoting those traveling energies and curiosities towards my own backyard. Combing through Seattle and getting to know it a little bit better. Although in the grand scheme of life we haven’t been here that long, we have lived in the same exact spot for almost 3 years. And with 1 car between the two of us, running errands usually means walking/biking everywhere. This combination of slow travel and my over active attention to detail has given me an intimate knowledge of the neighborhood. Like knowing where the most amusing bumper stickers are located and on which lampposts, for instance.
Or take the Fremont Rocket, a Seattle landmark that I walk by multiple times a week. Like many of the other quirky landmarks in Fremont, the rocket is larger than life, and yet, sometimes I forget its there. After seeing it for the umpteenth time, it just blends into the background. Which is an absurd confession.
For reference: I’m talking about a 53 foot rocket bolted to the side of what is now the Burnt Sugar boutique, a building that’s maybe 15 feet tall, maybe. Needless to say, the Fremont Rocket sticks out like a sore thumb.
So, to my fellow locals: I’m not saying this short essay about the rocket will change your life, but maybe it will deepen your appreciation like it did for me. Maybe you’ll learn something new, or be inspired to “travel” to the faraway land of Fremont and re-explore the area.
And tourists: tuck this into your mental library for future reference. We will travel again!
Fremont Rocket: origin story
Fremont is like that friend who can wear almost anything and pull it off; like ‘wearing’ a 53 foot rocket for instance.
We get it, Fremont, you’re quirky. ;)
Even so, the Fremont Rocket is hard to miss. It is currently bolted to the side of a disproportionately small building near the heart of Fremont, at N 36th St. and Evanston Ave. N, where it has lived for nearly three decades.
Uneducated tourists might take one look at the laser accessories and assume that the rocket is a prop, but they’d only be half right. The rocket is a bonafide relic with real mechanics, however it is not technically a rocket. The tail fins and lasers were added to pull the ensemble together, but the main body is constructed from the nose cone and fuselage parts from a tail boom of a 1950’s Fairchild C-119 aircraft. Aka the planes that used parachutes to drop supplies from the sky; nicknamed “flying boxcars” for their ability to carry 62 troops or 30,000 pounds of cargo.
Previously, the rocket was bolted to the exterior of PJ’s army surplus store in Belltown. And before that, it was lying in a scrapyard at the Hill Air Force base in Utah. The owner of PJ’s, Mel Beagle, found the parts sticking out of the heap and bought it for about $300. He then welded it back to life to use it as a sign for his store. (As one article mentioned, locals of this era might remember that the rocket used to be reddish-orange and was visible from the Alaskan Way Viaduct.)
The rocket lived at PJ’s for 30 years until 1990 when building owners demolished the property to make way for––you guessed it––apartment buildings. Coincidentally, Beagle owned another surplus store in Alaska named ‘Rocket Surplus’ and intended to take the rocket with him, but for one reason or another that didn’t happen.
In 1991 a live newscast reported that Seattle’s beloved rocket was being dismantled and still didn’t have a home. This caught the attention of the Fremont Business Association (FBA) who purchased the rocket for $750 but didn’t have a clear plan for it. According to the ‘Story of the Rocket’ plaque just below the rocket, the landmark “languished in back lots until 1993.” After a failed attempt to get the rocket up, it sat dormant again until 1994.
John Hoge, a local sculptor, and a small team of people eventually rebuilt and retrofitted the rocket. Three months and $20,000 later, the rocket had a whole new look. The makeover included neon laser pods, fins, space-themed engine mounts (visible when you stand underneath), and at one point, years ago, it had a coin operated feature that released steam vapor from the bottom.
Additionally, the rocket also bears the Fremont crest and motto, which nicely fits in with the rocket’s own unique history: De Libertas Quirkas, or ‘Freedom to be Peculiar’.
I can’t think of a more appropriate motto for a neighborhood like Fremont, and I love how the Fremont Rocket embodies that attitude. Not only is it a Seattle fixture, and a labor of love, but it’s also a representation of the neighborhood’s (and the city’s) penchant for uniqueness. It’s a over-sized nudge to take the Fremont motto seriously–– come as you are, be peculiar.
(And yes, it’s also a 53 foot metal reminder to walk on the other side of the street, should you find yourself walking around it during a thunderstorm*.)
*Thankfully thunderstorms are rare in Seattle, but my research did yield one story of the rocket being struck by lightning.
Bjorhus, Jennifer. “Fremont Blasts off Fund-Raising Effort – Auction, Party to Finance Work on Rocket Landmark.” The Seattle Times, 1994, p. B1. Access World News – Historical and Current, infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.spl.org/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/0EB5378E477BA3DC.
“Chapter 3, Fremont’s Revival.” Seattle’s Fremont, by Helen Divjak, Arcadia Pub., 2006, pp. 149–150.
Dugovich, Bill C. “Rocket’s Heading for a Fall.” The Seattle Times, 1990, p. C3. Access World News – Historical and Current, infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.spl.org/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/0EB533D11F589EC0.
Godden, Jean. “A Custom Unknown to Customs.” The Seattle Times, 1999, p. B1. Access World News – Historical and Current, infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.spl.org/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/0ED1C829A3ACF962.
Hahn, Jon. “Time Marches on for War Surplus Store.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1990, p. C2. Access World News – Historical and Current, infoweb-newsbank-com.ezproxy.spl.org/apps/news/document-view?p=WORLDNEWS&docref=news/0EB04966F7A543D6.
Hegeman, Jon, and Kirby Lindsay. “Story of the Rocket.” From the city plaque beneath the rocket, Seattle.
“Houston We Have Lift Off.” Fremont.com, Fremont Chamber of Commerce of Seattle, WA, fremont.com/explore/sights/rocket/.