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(Published in the Seattle Times online on May 28, 2020
and in the PacificNW Magazine print edition on May 31, 2020)
Cable-car bells signaled ‘back to normal’ after Great Seattle Fire
By Clay Eals
Have you ever unearthed an old family photo you’ve never seen before? Instantly, it’s a treasure.
Seattle has its own family album, with familiar images of legendary events. To the many photos depicting the aftermath of the devastating June 6, 1889, Great Seattle Fire, this week we add a rare stunner.
Its focus is crisp, its vertical orientation unusual and its composition arresting. The torn corner even contributes charm. Best of all, in spotlighting the fledgling Front Street Cable Railway, it symbolizes the Seattle’s resilience and determination to rebuild after the fire destroyed the city’s 30-block core.
Backed by the peaked façade of burned-out Merchants National Bank, this view looks northwest along Front Street (today’s First Avenue) just north of its intersection with Cherry Street, along what had been Seattle’s showpiece commercial strip. Behind the photographer was what would become the resurrected Pioneer Square.
Contrary to a handwritten caption that denotes the fire date, the photo likely was taken days afterward, perhaps on Tuesday, June 18. That’s when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that the private cable line, which had opened three months prior to the fire, was resuming service after repairing its heat-warped underground guide-irons.
The firm’s nattily dressed executives seem to have been among the posers, including what appears to be Jacob Furth, president, the only bareheaded gent.
Echoing our present-day desires during coronaviral times, local street-rail historian Mike Bergman says the photo’s message is clear: “Hey, folks, things are getting back to normal.”
More efficient electric streetcars were to prevail in the coming century, but in 1889 cable cars were the height of urban transit. Rides cost 5 cents, and cars traveled up to 10 mph. This line ran to and from the terminus depicted here, north along Front Street, jogging to Second Street (now avenue) and over then-Denny Hill (now the regraded Belltown) to a car barn at Depot Street (Denny Way).
For this line, cars traveled in pairs. An open “grip car” generated movement when a gripman pulled a handle to grasp a moving underground cable, while an unpowered, closed trailer car tagged along. Shown here are #6 of the firm’s six grip cars and #2 of its six trailers. The gripman stands, center, in dark uniform. Above his right arm is a cord he would pull to ring a bell alerting the conductor, in striped hat, and pedestrians of a change in speed.
Today, the only such manually operated cable railway in the world is, of course, in San Francisco, where 27 single cars propel no trailers. In times when we’re not social distancing, it is the only way to come close to experiencing the cable-car page of Seattle’s family album.
To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!
We extend special thanks to Mike Bergman and Ron Edge for their assistance in the preparation of this column.
Below is an additional photo as well as 22 clippings from Washington Digital Newspapers and The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) that were helpful in the preparation of this column.