Seattle cable cars had grips on the side.
Seattle cable cars had grips on the side.

One of these days, I may get over my unrelenting interest (OK, my obsession) with the Counterbalance.  It certainly seems weird treating the system as magical. After all, it was nothing more than a waist-high block of cement that ran through a three- or four-foot tunnel on a buried miniature railroad to boost streetcars up Queen Anne Avenue or to slow them down on the descent. It seems I am not alone in my obsession, for just about everyone living in our neighborhood loves learning about these mysterious streetcars and those men who lived their days in little boxes, one at the hill top and one at the bottom.

My primary informant about the Counterbalance is Gary Gaffner, a founder of the Queen Anne Historical Society, longtime president of the Friends of Discovery Park and a member of Historic Seattle’s governing body from its founding in 1974 to 2017. Gary, a civil engineer, lawyer and ambitious entrepreneur, proved cleverer than me when it came to ferreting out information about that short stretch of our inner-city rail system.

It helped that he owned and restored the Harry W. Treat House at 1 W. Highland Drive and had relatively easy and cunning access to the underground tunnel just out the door. In fact, he is the only person I know to have walked the western tunnel. Gary died on Dec. 18, 2018. I fondly dedicate this article to his memory.

The usual photographs of the Counterbalance show streetcars wending their way up or down Queen Anne Avenue between 1902 and Aug. 10, 1940, when they got replaced by electric trolleys. Unfortunately, those photographs really don’t explain how the system worked nor do they show how well it was designed. All 10 cars were still running when the line shut down, and both Counterbalance railcars remain in the tunnels to this day.

Perhaps the most important thing to know is that the streetcars purchased for the Counterbalance began their run downtown and finished first at McGraw Street, and then later at Halladay on Sixth Avenue West. The Counterbalance climb was just a short bit of the roundtrip.

It also helps to know that these cars were designed with grips, not unlike those still operating on San Francisco cable cars. Two differences: In San Francisco the cable moves constantly through the middle of a grip whereas the Seattle grip grabbed the cable from the side. Also, in San Francisco, gripping the cable requires talent. Passengers don’t want to be jerked when the cable engages; moreover, the friction from the cable moving through the grip can wear parts out quickly.

 Apparently, it also required a special, but different talent to attach Queen Anne streetcars to their cable. Seattle’s system brilliantly solved the friction problem, having the Counterbalance cars stop before they were hooked onto the cable. Once the cars were attached, the gentle tug on the cable started the big block of concrete moving, to offset crashing down the hill or not getting up the slope at all.

On Queen Anne, the cable was attached and detached from the car by men who emerged from little boxes set on the curb to do the job; one at the top and one at the bottom of the hill. These men could also pop down into the tunnel to adjust the counterweights to approximate the weight of the streetcars and their loads. The basic counterweight, of which there were naturally two, was a 16-ton block of concrete on a small railroad car not quite waist high of the weigh master in the tunnel. It was this person’s job to estimate each trolley’s load and to adjust the weight of the counterbalances to meet it before gripping the cable. Each counterweight equaled the weight of a nearly empty streetcar, which was surely not enough weight to keep the morning rush hour crowd from racing to the bottom of the hill and not enough to pull the evening rush back to the top.

Gary reported that there were concrete blocks and chunks of iron that could be loaded on the counterweight car to offset heavy loads, and that the system had a “tractor” that could run through the tunnel on its own power, moving the concrete blocks or chunks of metal from the top or the bottom of the hill as needed. Gary also pointed out that the two tunnels were connected at the top and the bottom. I am not sure about the connection at the street intersections, but the larger spaces gave access to the pulleys that needed occasional lubrication.

Each set of tracks on Queen Anne Avenue had a slot between them, through which the car could be gripped to the cable. Noting that Queen Anne Avenue jogs midway on the hill at Prospect Street, Gary mentioned that the tracks ran in a straight line, above and below ground. Consequently, the streetcars occupied the middle of the avenue below Prospect, but above that point they ran just inside the street’s western curb.

When a streetcar coming from downtown arrived near Roy Street, the man charged with attaching the car to a cable had to determine (perhaps he was there to remember) which of the two concrete blocks was at the top of the hill. This meant that a car going up the hill might have to run on the “wrong side of street.” Tracks connecting the two sets of tracks, both at the bottom and the top of the hill, made it easy to switch the car to the track to use for the climb or the descent. The most popular image we have of the hill climb shows a car with its pole dragging, going up the track on the western or wrong side of the street. It would switch back to the “correct” side of the street at Lee. The same track switching applied to the car heading downtown, depending on the location of its counterbalance.

According to some sources (including Gary), lightly loaded trains going up the hill frequently had to counter the counterweight by applying their brakes. (Imagine that!) Lightly loaded trans going down the hill often had to use their motor to pull the weight up the hill as the car went down. It wasn’t rocket science, but it did take some care and some understanding of gravity.

A photo of the tunnel tells a lot of the story. We see the narrow tracks, the cable to which the streetcars attached and wooden buffers along the edge softening blows the concrete block might inflict on the tunnel walls or that the tunnel walls might have inflicted on the concrete block

Michael Herschensohn is president of the Queen Anne Historical Society. Learn more at