Seattle Now & Then: Coals from Newcastle – an 1874 Tramway

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: Looking west from the top of the tramway under construction, an unknown photographer snapped our “Then” photo in the summer of 1874. In October of that year, trams loaded with coal began their round trips to the Seattle waterfront. An almost invisible ghost of Mercer Island hovers in the upper distance. (courtesy, Eastside Heritage Center)
THEN2: Shot on the same day as our primary “then,” this east-facing prospect looks up the tramway toward the mines of Newcastle. (courtesy, Eastside Heritage Center)
NOW: These historical detectives, mostly members of the Newcastle Historical Society, line up across the gully they discovered, just above the midpoint of the “then” photo. Mercer Island still hovers through the trees behind them while I-405 roars directly below. Before this “now” photo was taken, the group spent a day clearing out brush and bear scat. From left: Kent Sullivan; Matt McCauley; Russ Segner, NHS president; Cameron McCauley; Kathleen Voelbel, property owner; Gary Dutt; Harry Dursh; Ryan Kauzlarich; and Mike Intlekofer, NHS collections manager. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in Seattle Times online on Sept. 19, 2019,
and in print on Sept. 22, 2019)

A suburban Eastside gully emerges as elusive 1874 coal tramway
By Jean Sherrard

Let’s begin with dispelling some myths. X rarely marks the spot. Most “Eureka!” moments occur after long and exacting endeavor. And there is no free lunch. Actually solving a mystery demands insight; hard work; and, occasionally, dumb luck. 

Our intrepid crew of historical treasure hunters did just that, combining resources to defy odds and, with two extraordinary images pointing the way (one is this week’s “Then” photo), rediscover a slice of a forgotten world.

In our July 21 column, we featured Kurt E. Armbruster’s book, “Pacific Coast: Seattle’s Own Railroad,” which relates a blockbuster story of trains and coal. Here’s the prequel.

Four years before the first steam engine rounded the southern bend of Lake Washington, the Seattle Coal and Transportation Company built a 1,200-foot tramway descending precipitously from a collection point in the Newcastle hills to docks on the lake.

For 39 months, between October 1874 and January 1878, the counterbalanced trams — each hauling three tons of coal — made more than 85,000 trips. In 1874, 9,027 tons of coal were delivered by Seattle Coal and Transportation to Seattle docks. In 1875, the first full year after the tramway’s completion, the company delivered 70,157 tons.

Muscling the trams onto barges docked at the tramway’s foot was only the first stage of a complicated, gargantuan journey. Towed 10 miles north, the trams were offloaded onto tracks crossing the quarter-mile-wide Montlake Portage and rolled onto barges traversing Lake Union. More tracks led to bunkers at the foot of Pike Street, whence waiting freighters delivered coal to energy-hungry San Francisco.

Although this history was thoroughly documented, one nagging question persisted: Exactly where was that first inclined tramway? The missing link emerged when a unique pair of 145-year-old photos arrived out of the blue at the Eastside Heritage Center. Tantalizing clues beckoned.

Rising to the occasion was a crack team of investigators, from railroad and maritime buffs to Newcastle coal-mine authorities — even a scuba diver. For several years, armed with metal detectors, diving equipment and hiking boots, they combed possible locations. Our “Then” photo supplied talismanic authority, but could its unique view ever be rediscovered amid a clutter of suburban roads and houses?

Their final answer: a resounding yes. Months of toil culminated in their discovery of an untouched, ivy-choked gully, originally carved out by the tramway, between Lake Washington Boulevard and Interstate 405. Celebrating this “Eureka” moment, they marked the spot with an enthusiastic (but figurative) X.

Eastside historian Kent Sullivan offers the following coda: “We’re just people who are willing to pick at threads. We pull on them without a clue as to whether they lead to an end. And what’s even more exciting,” he confesses, “is if there isn’t any end.”

Please join the Newcastle Historical Society at 7 p.m. Sept. 26, at Bellevue Library’s Room 1, for a presentation on this discovery and other rare images.

WEB EXTRAS

You can also check out our narrated 360-degree video, shot on location below Newcastle.

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