In this March 3, 1934 photo, workers are undertaking a reconstruction of the Queen Anne Avenue counterbalance, the underground track-and-counterweight system that assisted electric streetcars in ascending the steep grade and supplemented their brakes on the descent. But this same week, just three years later, an event took place on the avenue that was the culmination of intense debate about the future of Seattle’s electric streetcar system which made its last run in April 1941.
Built in 1901, the counterbalance streetcar replaced a cable car route that was part of the original Front Street Cable Railway, launched in 1889; the route to Queen Anne, which went as far as Highland Drive, was added in 1891. The Seattle Electric Company purchased the lines in 1900 and ripped out the cable system to be replaced with electric streetcars. They designed the novel underground counterweight system, which ran between Roy and Comstock streets, and added a parallel line on the west side of the avenue in 1902.
By the 1930s the Seattle Municipal Railway, then owned by the city, was buried in debt and losing ridership to automobiles. In 1936, just two years after the reconstruction of the counterbalance, a city-commissioned report recommended tearing out the rail system and replacing it with gasoline-powered buses and “trackless trolleys” — trolleys that are powered by overhead electric lines but operate on tires, independent of tracks. The political debate was intense, with Mayor John Dore (1881-1938) adamantly opposed and city councilman Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) in favor. The plan to replace the old system would be put before voters on March 9, 1937.
In anticipation of the vote, proponents of the trackless trolley staged a demonstration on March 5, 1937 to prove the system’s superiority in the ultimate challenge: a race between a trackless trolley and a streetcar up the Queen Anne Avenue counterbalance. Citizens gathered along the route to cheer on their favored vehicle, but streetcar fans were disappointed. The trackless trolley won handily, even when the streetcar was given a head start halfway up the hill. Despite this impressive showing, the plan to replace the old system failed at the ballot box.
Mayor Dore died in 1938 and was succeeded by Langlie, who secured a New Deal loan to pay off the streetcar system’s debt and immediately implemented the plan to convert to gasoline buses and trackless trolleys. The streetcars made their final run along the counterbalance on August 11, 1940. The streetcars are long gone, but the tunnels and tracks of the counterbalance system remain below the surface to this day, and the trackless trolleys still roll overhead. In this image from the early 1940s, two trackless trolleys pass on Queen Anne Avenue.
(photos courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, image 8660; and National Archives)