Front Street Cable Railway, running through heart of Seattle business district, begins operating on March 1, 1889.

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 1/04/2019
  • Essay 20701
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On March 1, 1889, the Front Street Cable Railway Company line through the heart of Seattle's business district commences operations. It is one of several Seattle cable-car lines in this era. Its southern terminus is at Front Street (later 1st Avenue) and King Street. Its northern terminus is at 2nd Avenue and Denny Way, where the company's headquarters and powerhouse are built. In 1891 the line will be extended to the top of Queen Anne Hill. The line will run into financial troubles in the mid-1890s and be put into receivership. In 1900, it will be acquired by the Seattle Electric Company as part of a larger consolidation of the city's tangle of street-railway lines. The line will be converted to electricity that year, and the cables ripped out.

"Welcomed at Its Birth"

Front Street (now 1st Avenue) was Seattle's main downtown street at the time. Five years earlier, Frank Osgood (1852-1934) had proposed that it be the route of the city's first streetcar line. However, Front Street merchants worried that the clanging horse-drawn streetcars would scare away wagon traffic, so Osgood built Seattle's first street railway line on 2nd Avenue instead. It was a success. By 1889, the Front Street merchants realized their mistake and a group of investors successfully proposed a street-railway line -- this time using cable-car technology -- on Front Street. Cable cars were pulled along by an underground cable, powered by steam.

The new line was "welcomed at its birth as a great enterprise," said The Seattle Times ("Will Follow City's Lead"). The cable's southern turntable -- where the cars were turned around -- was at the terminus of the line at Front Street and King Street (in 1896 a new turntable was installed a block north, on Jackson Street). The northbound line ran up Front Street, then jogged uphill on Pike Street to 2nd Avenue, which it followed north all the way to Denny Way (also called Depot Street). The southbound tracks followed the same 2nd Avenue route, except they turned downhill at Pine Street, not Pike Street, in order to get back over to Front Street. The railway was well-used, but had frequent maintenance delays, usually involving the cable or the turntables.

The Front Street Cable Railway's steam powerhouse was at the original northern terminus, 2nd Avenue and Denny Way. In 1891 the line was extended north to the top of Queen Anne Hill. Its route went north on 2nd Avenue to Aloha, then west to Queen Anne Avenue, on which it continued north up the hill to a terminus at Highland Drive. In its early years, the company also had ambitions to extend the cable line south of Pioneer Square on a trestle, and to build a spur from downtown to Lake Union.

"A Disgrace"

Those plans were never realized. The Front Street Cable Railway ran into financial trouble in the financial panics of the mid 1890s, along with many of Seattle's other street railway lines. It also faced competition from Frank Osgood's parallel line on 2nd Avenue. The Front Street Cable Railway went into receivership and was sold to investors, who formed the First Avenue Cable Railway Co., the street having acquired its present name (although the line continued to be known mostly by its old name).

In August 1900, The Seattle Times editorial page lambasted the condition of the Front Street Cable Railway and said it "would be a disgrace to a country town in Indiana" ("Now for ..."). The three main problems were that the line was constructed poorly, the route was so long it required "about ten thousand dollars per annum for cables alone," and "it has spent a large portion of its existence in the hands of receivers" ("Now for ...").

That same year, most of Seattle's jumble of competing street-railway lines, including the Front Street Cable Railway, were snapped up and consolidated by the Seattle Electric Company, a Stone & Webster subsidiary that later evolved into Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power. The new company said it intended to accomplish something that the old owners of the Front Street Cable Railway had been proposing for nearly a year. It wanted to convert the cable line to a more modern and efficient method of propulsion: electricity, in which power was delivered via overhead wires to electric trolley cars.

"Last Sad Rites"

In October 1900, the Seattle Electric Company began tearing up the old cable trench, paving it over, and laying new tracks for electric streetcars. Electric trolley wires were added overhead, and the old cable cars were replaced with electric streetcars. The Seattle Times said this marked "the last sad rites" of the old cable line that had become, in its last years, "too antiquated for the needs and requirements of the Queen City of the Sound" ("Will Follow City's Lead").

Three of Seattle's other cable-car lines -- the Madison, James, and Yesler lines -- survived for four more decades. Yet electricity was clearly the future. Most of Seattle's newest streetcar lines were electric. After the Front Street line was fully converted to electricity in 1901, the portion that went up the steep Queen Anne Hill was converted to a counterbalance system, which included a complex system of underground weights to help pull the electric streetcars up the hill and to brake them on the way down.

That was necessary for an ironic reason: Electric streetcars, unlike cable cars, could not make it up steep hills like Queen Anne without assistance.


Leslie Blanchard, The Street Railway Era in Seattle (Forty Fort, Pennsylvania: Harold E. Cox, 1968); Walt Crowley, Routes: A Brief History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, 1993); Jim Kershner and the HistoryLink Staff, Transit: The Story of Public Transportation in the Puget Sound Region (Seattle: HistoryLink/Documentary Media, forthcoming 2019); "The New Turntable," The Seattle Times, September 28, 1896, p. 8; "Front Street Road to Be Sold," The Seattle Times, October 21, 1897, p. 5; "Want Electricity," The Seattle Times, April 26, 1899, p. 5; "Now for Street Railway Improvements," The Seattle Times, August 21, 1900, p. 6; "Will Follow City's Lead," The Seattle Times, October 9, 1900, p. 8; Steve Raymond, "Remember When Seattle Had Cable," The Seattle Times, August 8, 1965, Sunday magazine, pp. 10-11.

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