Hidden cable car relics revealed on Madison Street

Aug 2, 2023, 1:11 PM | Updated: 4:23 pm

A Madison Street cable car, circa 1900. (MOHAI) Artifacts of the old cable car line discovered underneath Madison Street. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Close-up view of rusty "yokes" from Madison Street cable car line, circa 1890. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Dozens of yokes like these stacked along Madison Street have turned up during a recent construction project. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Madison Street is getting upgrades to the Bus Rapid Transit or "BRT" line which uses the roadway for buses; cable cars ran on Madison from 1890 to 1940. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) Joe Finelli, a business owner and history buff from West Seattle, spotted the artifacts as he drove past last week. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio) A construction photo from 1907 shows an alternate style of yoke - or guide for the moving cable which gave cable cars their motion - circled in yellow. (MOHAI)

As work continues on the “Bus Rapid Transit” (BRT) line on Madison Street over Capitol Hill in Seattle, a West Seattle business owner and history buff noticed that construction workers recently uncovered some unusual artifacts from a long-lost and mostly forgotten mode of transportation that was once common in our hilly city.

“I was doing some work at the foot of Madison,” Finelli told KIRO Newsradio Tuesday afternoon, as he stood near where contractors are working on the BRT, replacing long stretches of roadway with new lengths of reinforced concrete to accommodate buses. “And as I was driving up Madison, my eyes wandered and I saw probably 70 [railroad] ties. And then I thought, ‘I gotta get out and have a closer look.’

“And that’s when I saw these metal yokes,” Finelli continued.

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Finelli had read a MyNorthwest story from August 2020 about the old Yesler Street cable car line that went from downtown Seattle over the hill to Leschi and Lake Washington. As the radio station reported at that time, one car from that line is preserved in the Smithsonian, and MOHAI has one in storage in Seattle. The story included speculation about what might be still hiding under the streets on that old Yesler line or along the other cable car lines around the city, including Madison Street.

Finelli didn’t yet know the term “yoke” when he spotted the artifacts last week. It was over the weekend, after he shared some images on the “Seattle Vintage” Facebook group and some knowledgeable commentators weighed in that Finelli learned what the objects were called, and that they were likely part of the old Madison Street cable car.

Cable cars are a different animal compared with the street cars which returned to Seattle this century in the South Lake Union neighborhood and on First Hill. Those current systems feature tracks, of course, but the street cars themselves are propelled by electric motors powered by electricity drawn from overhead wires.

From 1887 until 1940, Seattle had San Francisco-style cable cars, powered by a moving steel cable under the street that had to be gripped by the cable car operator using a special piece of gear called, not surprisingly, a grip. Cable cars work great in hilly cities because operators don’t have to worry about the wheels of the cable car losing traction and spinning on a steep hill – the “traction” happens underground, as long as the grip is connected to the cable. The Madison Street line began operating in 1890.

“The cable would have gone through the center of it riding across a pulley,” Finelli said. “So you wouldn’t be able to see these from the street except for maybe just a little bit looking down into that channel.”

Seen up close, the yokes uncovered from the old cable car system look like a bed frame without legs, measuring roughly three feet wide by four feet high. They’re made from short pieces of angle iron riveted together, assembly work which may have taken place in a local fabrication shop. The yokes are rusty; under the roadway, they stood upright beneath the cable car tracks, space perhaps 10 feet apart, and guiding the heavy, moving cable to keep it from getting tangled or otherwise disrupted.

“All this was buried in concrete,” Finelli continued. “And the cable ran through that slot.”

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The cable that moved the cable cars on Madison Street was put in motion from a powerhouse at the top of the hill. It was initially steam-powered, but was electrified around 1911. One cable served the city side or west side of Madison down to Elliott Bay, while the other served the lake side or east side down to Madison Park on Lake Washington. There was a gap at the top of the hill between cables where cable cars would coast until they reached the other side and reconnected; gripping the cable functioned as a brake to slow downhill cable cars from going too fast.

The city side of the line is believed to have been converted to electric street cars sometime in the 1930s, but the cable-powered cars on the Lake Washington side of the hill were in operation until April 1940. That was the year when the last of Seattle’s old – and very troubled — street railway system was converted to buses and so-called “trackless trolleys” or electric trolley buses.

So just how old are the yokes which turned up on Madison Street?

“These are the original cable stuff which was put in in the 1890s,” Finelli said.

To find out more about what’s been uncovered and what plans might be in place to preserve these or other urban archaeological artifacts turned up along Madison, KIRO Newsradio on Tuesday morning reached out to the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT).

Via email, a spokesperson said that the contractor on the project has uncovered a lot of railroad ties from the 1930s-era streetcar line, as well as what’s believed to be artifacts of the 1890 Madison Street cable car line – neither of which they say has any historical value.

“After the initial archeological assessment, it was determined that the old cable car infrastructure did not meet the requirements to be deemed historically significant,” the spokesperson wrote. “And since then no real effort has been made to preserve them in any way.”

As KIRO Newsradio was interviewing Joe Finelli, a worker told him that crews had found hundreds of yokes during the work on Madison Street over the past year. The worker also described the discovery near the top of the hill of “a cable anchor which looked like a big wire spool [that] was about three feet high and probably weighed a ton.”

Finelli believes that may have been a key piece of equipment, perhaps marking the top of the city-side or lake-side cable, and functioning as a pulley where the moving cable shifts from uphill to downhill direction.

As of Tuesday afternoon, SDOT is trying to determine where this particular artifact ended up and to track down photos which the contractor is believed to have taken when it was found.

Joe Finelli hopes some local institution will step forward to take an interest in saving the rusty old artifacts and will pick a choice example or two to preserve in their collection.

MOHAI told Finelli in an email that they were not interested in collecting any of the yokes. KIRO Newsradio reached out to the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma late Tuesday; a spokesperson there is checking with curatorial staff to see if they might be interested.

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For any museum willing to collect one of the yokes – with SDOT’s permission, of course, Finelli said he’s happy to take a wire brush to all that rust, and to then neutralize any further oxidization.

“[I hope] at least one of them gets saved,” Finelli said, pointing out that it doesn’t have to be a local museum like MOHAI or the state historical society.

“The Smithsonian has one of our cable cars,” Finelli said. “It’d be kind of cool if they had this example of how the cable ran through there. That would be the ultimate.”

Either way, Finelli – whose eagle eyes first spotted the yokes and brought them to everyone’s attention – might once again be forced to take matters into his own hands if no museum does so.

“Maybe I’ll find a way to keep one myself,” he said.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks here.

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Hidden cable car relics revealed on Madison Street