The railway on the street that was to become the Counterbalance began life as part of the Front Street Cable Railway. Composed of three segments, the northern and last to be finished segment ran from the cable car power house at 2nd & Denny north up 2nd Ave. N. to Aloha, then west to Queen Anne Ave., and then north to its terminus at Highland Dr. (Bradley St.). Completed on March 1, 1891, the northward extension was separately incorporated as the North Seattle Cable Railway. It was built with a cheap and impermanent wooden conduit, forcing a replacement within the first ten years of the line.
In early 1893 David T. Denny and associates purchased a majority interest in the cable car line, with the plan to incorporate it into another downtown railway company they owned. Before that could happen, the 1893 financial panic ensued and Denny lost control of the company. The company struggled for years, finally going bankrupt around 1898, due mainly to poor service and weak financial condition. Sold to the bondholders under foreclosure, the line was reorganized as the First Avenue Railway, but could not compete with the parallel line electric railway running along 2nd Avenue (a non-Queen Anne section of the route), and subsequently was refused a franchise by the city to convert to electricity, which forced the sale of the line to the Seattle Electric Company in 1900.
In order for the new electric cars to safely climb and descend the steep hill on Queen Anne Ave., Seattle Electric installed a counterbalance between Mercer and Comstock Streets. As a car approached each end, it stopped, and the counterbalance attendant would hook up the car to the counterbalance, a heavy 16-ton weight attached to a cable that would move the opposite direction to the travel of the street car. The weight aided the electric cars in climbing the hill, as well as reducing the use of brakes on the downhill route.
Once in a rare while the counterbalance weight wasn’t connected, and downhill passengers were then in for quite a ride! Listen to Martha, who grew up on Queen Anne, talk about one of those fateful days:
Seattle Municipal Street Railway outfitted cars #311 through 320 for the West Queen Anne Counterbalance line. Built in 1902 by the Stephenson Car Co., most cars served until end of service in August, 1940.
The last counterbalance car climbed Queen Anne Hill on August 10, 1940.
Read an article at Historylink.org about the Counterbalance.
Streetcars of Queen Anne
There were numerous streetcars that ran on Queen Anne, beginning with the Front St. Cable Railway in 1891, and continuing up to 1940, when the last line was replaced by a bus.
Although the Counterbalance is the most famous (with its cable car heritage), six other lines were running on the hill in 1910, as shown in this map redrawn at right, which was reconstructed from the R. L. Polk Seattle Directory of that year.
Historic Routes of Queen Anne Streetcars
EAST QUEEN ANNE: A branch line, running north from Galer along Second Ave. N to Blaine, thence west along Blaine to Queen Anne Ave. Makes connections with West Queen Anne and North Queen Anne and McGraw street lines.
BALLARD BEACH: From Pioneer Square, thence northwest along First Ave. to Denny Way, west to Western Ave., northwest to First Ave. W, north to W. Mercer, west to Beach Dr. northwest along Beach Dr. and Elliott Ave. to Fifteenth Ave. U, north to Thorndyke Ave., northeast to Thirteenth Ave. W, north to Salmon Bay, crossing Salmon Bay, thence north along Fourteenth Ave. NW to W Forty-seventh, west to Ballard Ave., continuing to downtown Ballard. [Ed. Interesting crossing across Salmon Bay, as the current Ballard Bridge was not yet built.]
FREMONT AND BALLARD: From Pioneer Square north and northwest along First Ave. to Pike, east to Westlake Ave., thence north and northwest along Westlake Ave. to Fourth Ave. N, north along Fourth Ave. N and Fremont Ave. to Ewing, west to Evanston Ave., north to Kilbourne, northwest to Third Ave. NW, north to W Forty-first, west to Sixth Ave. NW, north to W Forty-fifth, west to Eighth Ave. NW, north W Forty-seventh, west to Ballard Ave., to Ballard. Note: parts of PHINNEY AVE. and WALLINGFORD AVE. lines run through the Westlake section also.
KINNEAR PARK: From First Ave. S and Jackson, thence north and northwest along First Ave. S and First Ave. to intersection of Denny way and First Ave. N, thence north along First Ave. N to Harrison, west to Queen Anne Ave., north to W Mercer west to First Ave. W, north to W Roy, west to Second Ave. W, north to Olympic pl., west and northwest along Olympic pl. and Olympic way to Tenth Ave. W, thence north along Tenth Ave. W to W Crockett, the terminus.
NORTH QUEEN ANNE AND McGRAW ST.: From Second Ave. S and Jackson, thence west along Jackson to Occidental Ave., north to Main, east to Second Ave. S, north and northwest along Second Ave. S to Cedar, northeast to Fifth Ave. N, north to Aloha, east to Taylor Ave., north to E Queen Anne Dr, northwest to Fifth Ave. N, north to Boston, west to Queen Anne Ave., north to W McGraw, west to Seventh Ave. W, north to W Ray, the terminus.
NORTH QUEEN ANNE AND RAY ST.: From Second Ave. S and Jackson, thence along Jackson, west to Occidental Ave., north to Main, east to Second Ave. S, north and northwest along Second Ave. S and Second Ave. to Second Ave. N, north to Roy, east to Third Ave. N, north to Aloha, east to Taylor Ave., north to E Queen Anne Dr, northwest to Fifth Ave. N, north to Boston, west to Queen Anne Ave., north to W Ray, the terminus.
WEST QUEEN ANNE: From Walker and First Ave. S, thence north and northwest along First Ave. S and First Ave. to intersection of Denny way and First Ave. N, thence north along First Ave. N to Harrison, west to Queen Anne Ave., north to W Galer, west to Sixth Ave. W, north to W Crockett, west to Seventh Ave. W, north to W McGraw, the terminus. A branch of this line runs north along Queen Anne Ave. from Harrison to Blaine, connecting with E Queen Anne line.
Railway Lines Source: R. L.Polk & Co. 1910 Seattle Address Directory