Seattle Now & Then: Front Street Cable Railway after Great Seattle Fire, 1889

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN: With inscrutable countenances typical in photos from the era, 15 men look southeast along Front Street (now First Avenue) while surrounding the #6 grip car and #2 trailer car of the Front Street Cable Railway in June 1889 following the Great Seattle Fire. Framing them is the gloomy façade of Merchants National Bank. (Courtesy Dan Kerlee and Orv Mallott)
NOW: In place of the 1889 cable-car posers and on the cusp of the 131st anniversary of the Great Seattle Fire, historical photo-collecting friends Dan Kerlee (left) of Magnolia and Orv Mallott of Federal Way stand at First and Cherry. The 10-story parking garage behind them was built in 1968. (Jean Sherrard)

(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.

Jacob Furth, president, Front Street Cable Railway (Seattle Times)

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.

A combined map and photo from 1889 show the vantage and location of our “Then” photo, indicated by a small, red “X.” (Courtesy Ron Edge)
Jan. 18, 1889, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
March 2, 1889, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
March 7, 1889, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 3
April 11, 1889, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
June 7, 1889, Seattle Post-Intelligencer front page
June 10, 1889, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 2
June 11, 1889, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 1
June 12, 1889, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 1
June 18, 1889, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 4
June 25, 1889, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 4
Nov. 10, 1889, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 8
Oct. 24, 1896, Seattle Times, page 8
Feb. 24, 1897, Seattle Times, page 5
May 21, 1897, Seattle Times, page 5
Dec. 24, 1898, Seattle Times, page 8
Jan. 2, 1899, Seattle Times, page 8
April 5, 1899, Seattle Times, page 10
April 26, 1899, Seattle Times, page 5
Jan. 3, 1912, Seattle Times, page 10
Nov. 1, 1959, Seattle Times, page 143
Aug. 8, 1965, Seattle Times, page 110
Oct. 10, 1971, Seattle Times, page 36

3 thoughts on “Seattle Now & Then: Front Street Cable Railway after Great Seattle Fire, 1889”

  1. The father of early pro baseball in Seattle (Dan Dugdale) arrived in the Emerald City from the Midwest in 1898. Before making his fortune in real estate and baseball, he worked as a gripman on these cable cars.

    1. Colman Park still has the cable-car overpass from the Yesler/Jackson Street line.

  2. Correction: That was Leschi, not Colman Park.
    I’m still slightly unclear as to if the Yesler trestle at Leschi also served as the Jackson Street trestle returning to town. Literature accounts and photos depict the Jackson Street trestle as wooden and unreliable. If so and it were torn down, at what geographic point did it access Jackson Street, considering the steep bluff where Jackson currently ends eastwardly at 31st Avenue South. Moreover, if a Jackson Street trestle were eliminated before, say, 1895 and the cable still returned to downtown via a Yesler trestle still at Leschi Park, then at what geographic point does it get back over to Jackson Street from Yesler Way? 31st, 30th?

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