Seattle Now & Then: Are these five streetcars in Interbay or Belltown?

(click once and twice to enlarge photos)

THEN: This view, probably looking southeast at five streetcars heading north, dates from 1890, 17 years before Ballard annexed to Seattle. (Boyd and Brass photo, Ron Edge Collection)
NOW1: In this southeast-looking view, Ron Edge stands in Belltown near the intersection of Cedar and Western Avenue, one of two possible locations of our “then.” (Jean Sherrard)
NOW2: Also looking southeast, this view shows Ron warily dodging traffic in Interbay near the busy intersection of West Boston Street and 15th Avenue West, the other possible location of our “then.” (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in Seattle Times online on July 4, 2019,
and in print on July 7, 2019)

Somewhere on the line between Ballard and Seattle
By Paul Dorpat

We begin our installment with indecision – is it Interbay, or is it Belltown? – and hope that one or more of Seattle’s rail fans eventually will expose which of our two “now” images comes closer to repeating this week’s featured historical photograph.

Ron Edge appears in both of our “nows” because he first introduced the “then” to us. He acquired this slumbering classic of five early Seattle streetcars from an internet dealer in Austin, Texas. It would be interesting to know the travels of this cabinet card over the last 129 years and how many hands it passed through before returning home.

You may know by now that Ron frequently contributes to this weekly feature. An impassioned collector-cartographer, he has become familiar with Seattle’s history through clues found in its artifacts and ephemera. These may include artists’ panoramas and the calculations, sketches and maps held in private hands throughout the world – all of them awaiting researchers.

Such efforts often are revealed to us with the uncovering of an old photograph like this one. Although this is clearly a Seattle classic, after a half-century of looking I had never seen it. Surely many more unknown historic images of Seattle have been distributed to the four winds and are slowly reappearing for sale on the internet.

For our two “now” images, Ron put his safety in the clicking hands of Jean Sherrard, who posed him near the centerlines of two Seattle arterials, Western Avenue in Belltown and 15th Avenue West in Interbay.

In 1890, the likely year for our “then,” both streets were sections of then-new West Street and served by North End Electric Railway Company’s fresh franchise between its suburban terminus in the new and burgeoning Ballard and the Seattle waterfront near West (now Western Avenue) and Madison Street. For evidence of the line’s Ballard origin, note the “Salmon Bay” sign painted on the front car.


So which “now” is it, dear reader? Eventually, Ron persuaded Jean and me that these trolleys, along with two-dozen hatted motormen and gentleman passengers, are posing on Western Avenue, somewhere near Cedar Street in Belltown. To make this claim, Ron compared the relative inclines of Denny Hill (then still standing) above Western Avenue and the still-steep Queen Anne Hill ridge above 15th Avenue West.

There are, however, other “considerations.” For the curious among you, we might have elaborated them in our blog, listed below. But we shall not. The last word here (in the printed feature) is the liberal suggestion from Ron. He advises, “Perhaps we are all wrong.”  Riding this reluctance, we will wait on your our readers’ calculation.  It this Western Avenue or 15th Avenue West? Jean assures Clay and me that you readers know how to respond, and so we will expect your selections — Western or 15th — and in a week or three  share the accounting with our first “readers’ report.”


To see Jean Sherrard’s 360-degree video of the “now” prospect and compare it with the “then,” and to hear this column read aloud by Paul Dorpat, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Anything to add, fellas?  Sure, and easy, too — a few past links that touch on Ballard or approach it.











8 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Are these five streetcars in Interbay or Belltown?”

  1. Does the top of the building behind the third car give you a clue as to the “then” location? The building is large and seemingly noteworthy.

    Dave Townsend

    1. Greetings, David. Thanks for your question – unfortunately we couldn’t (and by we, I mean Ron Edge) find that particular building in any photographs of the time. There are possibilities, but nothing definitive.

    2. Finnish Brotherhood Hall(?) The 1940 Seattle City Directory list the address as 1960 15th avenue West; behind where Ron is standing in the Interbay picture.

  2. Ron may recall an 1899 Treasury Department/USC&GS map of Seattle (in the NOAA chart collection at 1801 Fairview) that he digitized prior to its donation to MOHAI. The question here prompted me to take a close look at my own digital copy – and in doing so I note that the street railway line passed through a swampy depression at the head of Smith Cove [the map legend says street railway lines are in brown ink, but they look blue in my copy]. The map seems to indicate some sort of platform or station between the intersections of Ray and Armour with 15th – and a plank platform would make good sense at this periodically wet and muddy location, especially the raised platform behind these cars. The map does not indicate such a platform at Cedar and Western, or anywhere else along Western. The topology indicated by the 1899 map of the Interbay area seems consistent with the photograph to me, but unfortunately we can’t see enough of it to be any more certain. An 1891 Bird’s-eye view of Seattle (Hughes Litho, Chicago,0.174,0.242,0.109,0) – indicates a “Power House of the West Street and North End Electric Railway Company” near this platform and to the southwest. Perhaps that would help with determining the location.

    1. Taking a closer look at that 1891 Birds-Eye view; there seems to be a (perhaps distorted and or misplaced) building – a boarding house or a hotel – that looks like it could be the building behind the third streetcar!

  3. Search as I may, I can’t seem to find even one datum needed to forensically place the subject’s longitude, yet alone its latitude. The position of the sun is somewhat discernible, but any shadows are not shown to full length along with their contributing object. If just one timepiece were visible that would be a second datum. Then the actual calendar date would be the third datum. With trigometry and the deviation between time o’clock and sun time one would at least have longitude.

  4. The buildings behind the last street car suggest to me the picture was taken in Belltown and we are seeing the downtown core. At the end of 15th Ave W, we wouldn’t see any large buildings as it heads toward Elliott Bay. Also, both the Then and Now pictures for Belltown appear to be uphill, while 15th Ave W slopes downhill.

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