Hanson, Ole Thorsteinsson (1874-1940)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 8/28/2015
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11101

Ole Hanson was a man who packed multiple lives into one. He's best known in Washington for his role, as the city's mayor, in ending Seattle's 1919 general strike, but he's also well known for founding the city of San Clemente, California, six years later. Though opportunistic and erratic, Hanson was a shrewd politician and realtor who left fascinating stories in his wake.


Hanson was born January 6, 1874, in Union Grove, Wisconsin. He was the fifth of sixth children born to Thorstein Hansson-Andersson Hanson (Rusten) and Goro Kristoffersdotter Hanson, Norwegian immigrants who had arrived in the United States as young adults and made their way west to Wisconsin. He graduated from public school at the age of 13 (probably seventh or eighth grade, which was common in those days), but he was far from done with school. He obtained a teaching certificate and taught younger children the basics (reading, writing, and arithmetic) during the day while continuing his studies at night. He began studying law when he was 17 and passed the Wisconsin Bar at age 19, two years too young to practice law in the state. This turned out not to matter, because he soon realized he was more interested in business.

With a head of thick red hair (which would already be turning white by his early 40s) and an adventurous spirit, Hanson was ready to go forth and conquer as he entered his 20s. He found the excitement he was looking for when he landed a sales job that required extensive travel. He traveled much of the United States selling drug supplies and discovered he had an aptitude for sales and the gift of gab necessary to be a good salesman. But it all came to a screeching halt in 1900 when his legs were badly injured in a train wreck. Doctors told him he would probably be permanently paralyzed, but he didn't accept the diagnosis. Instead he rehabilitated himself through a combination of extensive exercise and dogged determination.

Seattle and Lake Forest Park

On May 12, 1895, Hanson married Nellie May Leona Ray (1878-1944). They eventually had 11 children, and 10 (six sons and four daughters) survived into adulthood. The growing family moved to Seattle in 1902. Legend has it that the first night in town they pitched a tent on Beacon Hill, but they soon moved on to more pleasant accommodations. Hanson first bought a grocery store but sold out after seven months. He next sold life insurance but then turned to real estate, which was booming in Seattle and a far more lucrative opportunity.

In December 1909 Hanson and his wife's nephew, Alexander Reid, incorporated the North Seattle Improvement Company, and the company began buying and developing land along Lake Washington's northwestern shoreline beyond the city of Seattle's northern boundary. The new community was named Lake Forest Park (after Lake Forest in Illinois) and its lots were laid out to follow the contours of the topography and trees. Lot sizes ranged from one to 10 acres, and anyone could buy a lot (prices started at $500 an acre) with certain restrictions: no apartments, roadhouses, or saloons. During this same time period -- the end of the first decade and through the second decade of the twentieth century -- Hanson also operated another realty company, Ole Hanson & Company, in the New York Block building on the corner of 2nd Avenue and Cherry Street in downtown Seattle.


Hanson was a natural for politics. He was a powerful speaker (and writer) who loved an audience. In 1908 he was elected to the Washington State Legislature from the 43rd District, which included his home neighborhood of Beacon Hill. He achieved some early recognition in the 1909 legislature by introducing the first bill in the session, which sought to prohibit betting on horse racing. He supported an eight-hour workday for women, a direct primary, a minimum-wage bill, and state industrial insurance; in many ways he wasn't much different from other progressive Republicans of the era. He also had a strong moral streak. He complained about police corruption and attacked Seattle's city government for tolerating the city's red-light district. Wags branded him "Holy Ole," and it stuck.

Nevertheless, Hanson was viewed as an effective, energetic legislator. He received several endorsements from organized labor for his work on the House Labor Committee. Yet he chose not to run for reelection in 1910. He returned to real estate, but the political bug had bitten him. He worked on Theodore Roosevelt's (1858-1919) unsuccessful 1912 campaign for president, and in 1914 he ran for the U.S. Senate as a member of Roosevelt's Progressive ("Bull Moose") Party. However, he came in third in a field of three.

By this time World War I was raging in Europe, and America entered the war in April 1917. By the end of that year, the restless Hanson had decided to run for mayor of Seattle in the March 1918 election, having convinced himself that Seattle wanted a wartime mayor and he was the one. He added a new issue to his repertoire and made it a chief one in his campaign: "Americanism," which was usually sunnily described as versions of "The American spirit of liberty, justice, and equal opportunity ... [and] rule of law, democracy, ... [and] morality" ("Ole and the Reds ...").

Hanson was convinced that the gravest threat to Americanism was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) union and its talk of a worker's revolution and class warfare. Speaking shortly before the election he explained, "I am against the IWW and all that it stands for, because it is against me and against you and against our government, the freest and best government on the face of the earth. They should be driven from our city, from our state, from our country" ("Americanism Big Issue ..."). He spoke frequently of the threat and of his determination to quash it. The audience (at least most) loved it.

Mayor Ole Hanson

Hanson was elected mayor by a fairly comfortable margin on March 5, 1918. The Seattle Star, long a Hanson supporter, had endorsed him in a glowing editorial the day before, citing his record of "fighting side by side with labor" ("The Labor Issue"). It would have been more accurate to write that Hanson and labor had happened to see eye-to-eye on some of the big issues of the 1910s, such as an eight-hour day for women and direct primaries. But Hanson knew who had helped elect him, and he acknowledged labor on election night, affirming "My sympathies and my endeavors for those who toil, from whom I sprang, are unshaken" ("Hanson Wins ...").

He was sworn in on March 18. During the first 10 months of his term he raised the minimum wage of city workers from $3.50 to $4 a day. Labor was grateful, though Hanson had other motives, explaining "A well-paid worker is not susceptible to the rainbow-hued promises of the Bolsheviki" ("Ole and the Reds ..."). He championed the City of Seattle's purchase of the city's streetcar lines from the giant utility firm of Stone & Webster. The $15 million purchase, approved by voters in November 1918 to take effect April 1, 1919, was probably Hanson's crowning achievement during the first part of his term. By and large he was viewed as a progressive and effective mayor, but there was little particularly unusual about his mayoralty in 1918 that stands out in Seattle's history. That changed in early 1919.

The Strike

To understand the mood leading into the Seattle General Strike, one needs to understand the mood of 1919 America. Many middle- and upper-class Americans had reacted to the 1917 communist revolution in Russia with surprise and fear, but at the same time many unionized workers hoped it would encourage a worker's revolt in the United States. And though World War I ended in November 1918 peace had not followed; as 1919 dawned revolutions were ongoing in Europe and insurrections were igniting elsewhere, while in the United States tensions between management and labor were boiling. In numerous American cities in 1919 strikes large and small broke out, and some of them turned violent and ended with fatalities. (There also were bombings by anarchists and race riots in America that year, further inflaming the country.) Fear of communism, often called Bolshevism in 1919, was every bit as intense as it was during the better-known McCarthy era of the early 1950s. It was against this increasingly paranoid backdrop that the strike began.

The fuse was lit on January 21, 1919, when 35,000 shipyard workers (most of them members of the Metal Trades Council) struck. Faced with fierce resistance from their employers (and the U.S. government), the strikers appealed to the Seattle Central Labor Council, an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor consisting of more than 100 unions, for a general strike. Local unions found themselves caught up in the rush. On Thursday, February 6, another 65,000 workers, representing 115 local unions, went on strike.

Hanson -- and many in Seattle and across the country -- saw the strike as the first salvo of a worker's revolution. Yet its first day passed with a deafening silence. Streetcars stopped, most schools closed, and many businesses closed. At the same time many key services, exempt from the strike, continued operating. Seattle's lights stayed on, its water kept running, and its policemen (other than the traffic cops, who were needed elsewhere) kept working.

The situation changed overnight. More than a thousand soldiers from Camp Lewis, the army base (later named Fort Lewis) in Pierce County, were hustled into Seattle under cover of darkness, and on February 7 hundreds of volunteers showed up at police headquarters. More than 3,000 men were available by noon that day, armed with clubs, guns, and, in a few cases, machine guns mounted on trucks. They patrolled the streets and outlying areas and kept an eagle eye out for anticipated demonstrations by the strikers, but these never came.

Hanson didn't stop there. That same day the Seattle Star published a front-page proclamation he wrote that catapulted him into the national spotlight:

"The time has come for the people in Seattle to show their Americanism. Go about your daily duties without fear. We will see to it that you have food, transportation, water, light, gas and all necessities.

"The anarchists in this community shall not rule its affairs.

"All persons violating the laws will be dealt with summarily" ("Proclamation").

He threatened to impose martial law if the strike was not called off by 8 a.m. on Saturday, February 8, but it was a hollow threat; he didn't have the authority. The deadline passed with no response, but by this time the strikers were battling dissent in their own ranks. Some realized the strike lacked specific goals and that the workers were risking losing what gains they had gotten from business over the years. Other local unions were told by their international unions to get back to work. The strike committee began debating whether to call off the strike, and voted whether to end it at midnight on February 8. The vote failed, but the handwriting was on the wall.

Seattle's streetcar workers had already defected on the 8th. Over the next two days more and more strikers returned to work; by Monday, February 10th, activity in downtown Seattle was so close to normal that a casual observer would have had a hard time noticing anything was amiss. The strike officially ended at noon on February 11. There had been none of the feared bloodshed and only a few arrests. Ole Hanson suddenly found himself the man of the hour. To steal a phrase popular a century later, he "went viral" overnight.

Tributes poured in not just from Western Washingtonians but from citizens and businesses across the country. Hanson's steadfastness in the face of perceived anarchy received almost universal praise (except, of course, from the labor movement), but historians have since debated how much of an effect he had on ending the strike. Many give him almost exclusive credit, while some suggest he was merely a showboat and the strike would have imploded anyway. The truth lies somewhere in between. His actions and tough talk may have ended the strike sooner than it otherwise would have, but it likely would have eventually disintegrated on its own, though perhaps not peacefully.

Ole Rising

Hanson's ego soared. He was the man who had stopped a Bolshevik revolution in Seattle, and with the country singing his praises, perhaps bigger opportunities lay just ahead. He eagerly accepted when he was invited to tour America in April 1919 as part of a Victory Liberty Loan speaking tour, the country's final effort to sell bonds to cover the costs of World War I. It was while he was on this tour, on Monday, April 28, that an innocuous-looking package bearing the return address of Gimbel Brothers (a department store in New York City) arrived in his office. The package contained a crude bomb, but it failed to explode when a clerk opened the package upside down.

The bomb was part of a larger plot by some anarchists to attack a cross-section of prominent American politicians and businessmen on or about May 1, a traditional workers' holiday favored by communists and socialists. As it turned out, Hanson was among the first, if not the first, to receive his bomb. Over the next several days more bombs arrived in homes and offices of various officials, and at least one detonated, severely injuring the wife and a maid of a former U.S. senator in Georgia. Eventually at least 36 bombs were located. Though no one died in the attacks, the shock and fear they created played right into Hanson's hands.

He was quickly losing interest in being mayor of Seattle. After returning from the tour, he was offered other speaking opportunities and a book deal. His name floated as a possible presidential candidate in 1920. By June 1919 he had announced he would not seek reelection when his term expired the following March. By early August he was talking to the Seattle City Council about resigning and who his replacement would be.

At that point the council was not especially sorry to see Hanson go. He had made enemies not only with labor but also with many on the council. Rumors circulated that Hanson might step down, and he began leaving his office early to work on his book. Still, it was big news when he did resign on August 28, claiming exhaustion, though he was careful to insist that "my health is not broken" ("Fitzgerald Is ..."). He told the press he was going fishing. There was some truth to that, except that he was fishing for something bigger than fish.

Ole Setting

Hanson's book Americanism Versus Bolshevism was released in 1920. In its preface, he thundered:

"Bolshevism is the autocratic rule of the lowest, least intelligent, least able class who believe that by 'direct action' and 'force' they can terrorize our people into turning over to them the conduct, ownership, and control of everything. Strikingly ignorant, malignantly cruel, with no concept of history, with but an elementary knowledge of social production, with little productive capacity, with no constructive ability, this movement in our country would be ludicrous were it not for the sentimental, weak-minded followers who, steeped in idealism and fanaticism, really believe in a bolshevik Utopia, where free milk will run in the water mains and life may be supported without toil, where knowledge may be gained without effort, and where the established truths of the centuries will be overthrown by soviet resolutions.

"With syndicalism -- and its youngest child, bolshevism -- thrive murder, rape, pillage, arson, free love, poverty, want, starvation, filth, slavery, autocracy, suppression, sorrow and Hell on earth. It is a class government of the unable, the unfit, the untrained; of the scum, of the dregs, of the cruel, and of the failures. Freedom disappears, liberty emigrates, universal suffrage is abolished, progress ceases, manhood and womanhood are destroyed, decency and fair dealing are forgotten, and a militant minority, great only in their self-conceit, reincarnate under the Dictatorship of the Proletariat a greater tyranny than ever existed under czar, emperor, or potentate" (Americanism Versus Bolshevism).

It was perhaps his finest rhetorical moment, for in 1920 his star set as quickly as it had risen in 1919. He went to the 1920 Republican National Convention that June with hopes for the presidential nomination, but he didn't get far. People were tired of the bitter strife and heated rhetoric that had dominated the country since the war's end and Hanson's bellicosity had lost its appeal. The nomination instead went to Warren G. Harding (1865-1923), whose soothing promises of a "return to normalcy" during the autumn campaign were a balm to America's shaken ear. He won the presidency that November in a landslide.

San Clemente

Hanson was not long for Seattle. In 1921 the Mexican government granted him an oil concession on 50,000 acres in Mexico, and he and his family moved to Los Angeles that summer so he could more easily manage it. His wife told The Seattle Times that they would eventually return to Seattle, but they never did. Hanson soon saw greener pastures in California real estate.

He worked in Los Angeles and briefly in Santa Barbara, but his crowning achievement during his California years was founding San Clemente, located on the Pacific Coast roughly between Los Angeles and San Diego. During an earlier visit to southern Spain he had been impressed by its homes with tile roofs and stucco walls, and he returned to California with a dream to build a similar "Spanish village." He did exactly that, founding the city on December 6, 1925, with a sales pitch in a tent. The new community mushroomed and so did Hanson's fortune.

By 1928 San Clemente's population was approaching 1,000, and it was known as one of the wealthiest cities per capita in the United States. It had its own beach, a golf course, 17 miles of bridle trails, a hospital, a water system, and an elementary school. Its homes were required to be built in a Spanish Colonial style with red-tile roofs and white-stucco walls (a restriction later lifted), and property deeds restricted ownership to Caucasians (a common restriction in many American cities at the time and for years thereafter; such discriminatory provisions were eventually invalidated by the courts). As with his development 15 years earlier at Lake Forest Park, Hanson instructed that the homes and buildings flow with the contours of the land.

Later Years

Neither San Clemente nor Hanson fared well when the country spiraled into the Great Depression in the early 1930s. Many residents were unable to pay their mortgages and simply abandoned their homes, and the city's population dropped by about 70 percent. Hanson's San Clemente home (now known as Casa Romantica) was foreclosed on, and in 1934 he was sued by the Internal Revenue Service for more than $84,000 in back taxes.

Hanson spent the last years of his life bouncing from project to project. In 1935 he began development of what he envisioned as an ideal desert community in Twentynine Palms, California, but he sold out to his son-in-law, Trafford Huteson, two years later. He spent the rest of his life developing outdoor ice-skating rinks around Los Angeles. He died of a heart attack at his Los Angeles home on July 6, 1940.

Sources: Jeremy Brecher, Strike! (Oakland: PM Press, 2014), 101-138; Ole Hanson, Americanism Versus Bolshevism (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1920), preface; "Ole Hanson, Once Mayor of Seattle," The New York Times, July 8, 1940, p. 17; Jim Shilander, "Who Was Ole Hanson?" San Clemente Times, December 12, 2013, (http://www.sanclementetimes.com); Don Kindred, "The Legend of Ole Hanson, Reprinted from the San Clemente Journal," George Eastman House website accessed July 17, 2015 (http://www.geh.org/link/SN/o-hanson.html); "Mayor Hanson's Stand on Strike Given Commendation by Whole of United States," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 11, 1919, p. 13; "Change in Executives Said to Have Support of Council Majority," Ibid., August 28, 1919, pp. 1, 2; "The Labor Issue," The Seattle Star, March 4, 1918, p. 6; "Hanson Wins by Same Margin That Recalls Anna Louise Strong," Ibid., March 6, 1918, pp. 1, 10; Ole Hanson, "Proclamation," Ibid., February 7, 1919, p. 1; "Federal Forces Ready for Any Crisis in City," Ibid., February 7, 1919, p. 1; "Fitzgerald Is to Be the New Chief Executive," Ibid., August 28, 1919, p. 1; "Americanism Big Issue in Seattle, Says Mr. Hanson," The Seattle Times, March 3, 1918, p. 5; "Radicals Rule by Vote of 76 to 45 After Long Debate," Ibid., February 9, 1919, pp. 1, 2; "Street Cars Hailed With Cries of Joy," Ibid., February 9, 1919, pp. 1, 10; "City Humming With Activity as Workers Resume Their Jobs," Ibid., February 11, 1919, pp. 1, 2; "Explosion Prevented by Chance," Ibid., April 28, 1919, pp. 1, 3; "Chemists to Probe Contents," Ibid., April 29, 1919, pp. 1, 8; "Fitzgerald Succeeds to Position," Ibid., August 28, 1919, pp. 1, 5; "Ole Hanson Gets Oil Concession," Ibid., July 11, 1921, p. 1; "Ole Hanson Is Sued in $84,223 Income Tax Case," Ibid., February 11, 1934, p. 1; HistoryLink. org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Lake Forest Park -- Thumbnail History" (by Alan Stein), "Lake Forest Park -- 1912 Promotional Brochure" (written by Ole Hanson), "Seattle General Strike, 1919" (by Patrick McRoberts), "Seattle Transportation: From Trolleys to Monorails, A Timeline" (by Walt Crowley), http://www.historylink.org (accessed July 17, 2015); "Ole Thorsteinsson Hanson," Geni website accessed July 15, 2015 (http://www.geni.com/people/Ole-Hanson/6000000016527293156); "Nellie May Leona Rose Hanson," Geni website accessed July 15, 2015 (http://www.geni.com/people/Nellie-May-Leona-Rose-Hanson/6000000022483782086); "Development," City of Lake Forest Park website accessed July 17, 2015 (http://www.cityoflfp.com/index.aspx?NID=245); Terje I. Leiren, "Ole and the Reds: The 'Americanism' of Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson," Norwegian-American Historical Association website accessed July 4, 2015 (http://www.naha.stolaf.edu/pubs/nas/volume30/vol30_03.htm); Jennifer Thornton, "Red Barn Realty," Twentynine Palms Historical Society website accessed August 4, 2015 (http://www.29palmshistorical.com/historicSites/RedBarnRealty.php).

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You