The California Street Cable Railroad Company’s
Connection to the Emerald City - Seattle

By Don F. Holmgren


In 1888 the California Street Cable R.R. Co. (Cal Cable) in collaboration with John Hammond & Co., a well-known San Francisco car builder, developed the California-type cable car. This new concept combined the grip or dummy and trailer into a single unit, approximately thirty feet long. This design featured open sections at each end and an enclosed center section. California-type cable cars are capable of being operated from either end, thereby eliminating the need for a turntable, such as required for the single-end Powell Street combination cars or a double crossover needed at the end of the line for two car cable trains. The operational advantages of this new “California-type” car did not go unnoticed to the owners of the cable properties in Seattle. In 1900-1901 the Hammond Car Co. constructed a total of sixteen California-type cars for the two Seattle properties; twelve for the Seattle City Ry. Co.’s Yesler Way line and four for the Seattle Electric Co.’s James Street operation. Seeing the success of these new cars, the Seattle Electric Co. using a Hammond car as a pattern, constructed in 1907, seven additional cars in their Georgetown Shops.

Seattle Electric Company (SECo) California-type cable car No. 3 (built by Hammond in 1900) outbound on Yesler Way ascending from Pioneer Square is shown crossing the SECo’s electric car tracks on Second Avenue. Its ultimate destination was Leschi Park on the shores of Lake Washington. Visible in the background is a SECo inbound James Street cable car about to reach its western terminus at First Avenue. Secondary Collections, originally Washington State Historical Society

Mechanical Details:

As originally built, Seattle’s Hammond cars differed slightly from their California cousins. They were likely equipped with a large single jaw side grip, common to all Seattle cable lines. The single grip, located at one end of the car, therefore, would have been connected to an operating lever at the car’s other end by a connecting rod running the length of the car, as was the practice of Cal Cable. It is not known if the California-type cars were shipped to Seattle with trucks similar to those designed and developed by Hammond and the Cal Cable. The Seattle City Railway Co. previously used several different truck and wheel designs. There is a strong possibility that the trucks were supplied by a local source, i.e., the Washington Iron Works. Circa 1901, the majority of Seattle’s car lines operated on a track-gauge of 3ft. 6in., the lone exception being the Yesler Way line, which was an even 3ft. In addition to the traditional truck fenders, Seattle’s cable cars sported basket-type swing fenders (refer to photograph).

Seattle Electric Co. No. 69, built by Hammond in 1901 on that company's James Street cable car line, shortly after arriving from San Francisco. The car is in its handsome original configuration. The legacy of a California Street Cable Railroad car is clearly illustrated by No. 69's center section. Note, the basket-type swing fenders on the car's ends. The only San Francisco cable car line to use fenders was the post 1906 earthquake and fire Castro cable.

1913-1915 Modifications:

Concerned with the rising number of step-boarding accidents and to eliminate accidents to passengers riding on the open step, the Puget Sound Traction & Power Co. (Seattle Electric Co.’s successor) embarked upon a comprehensive cable car modification program for Pay-As-You-Enter operation. Both open sections were enclosed and fitted with removable windows and sliding doors with folding steps, noticeably widening the car. The original decorative paint scheme with the destinations shown on the letter board gave way to basic traction orange with only the car number indicated. It is assumed that at this time the conversion was made from oil lamps to a battery-powered electric lighting system. This allowed for the removal of the four distinctive exhaust ventilators on the deck roof. The resulting modifications made for a squat, breadbox like appearance that became synonymous with Seattle’s cable cars.

Seattle Municipal Street Railway cable car No. 3, a 1900 Hammond product, illustrating the 1913-1915 modifications that created a squat breadbox like austere appearance that became synonymous with Seattle’s cable cars. No 3 in this 1938 view is shown after having descended the 5% grade into the ferry terminal in Leschi Park on the shores of Lake Washington. In the background is the 18% grade of the Seattle Electric Company trestle.


In July 1938 the Seattle Board of Public Works decided that the three remaining cable car lines would be abandoned as part of the city’s transit revitalization program. Yesler Way was the last cable car line to operate in Seattle, being converted to motor coaches on August 9, 1940. Car No.2, one of the original eight original Hammond-built cars is said to have made the last run.


In 1955 there was a proposal to construct a new cable line in Seattle’s Lincoln Park. This new line would have run through Lincoln Park from the end of the #18 Fauntleroy-Lincoln Park trolley coach line to the swimming pool, approximately three-quarters-of-a-mile. Four surplus California Street cars would provide the service. Winding machinery would be obtained from the now closed former Cal Cable carbarn at California and Hyde Streets. Little is known why this proposal was not implemented.

Cable Cars