At Large in Ballard: The Ballard Beach Line
When Seattle Department of Transportation recently dug up a nearby intersection for a traffic circle they dug up a lot more than concrete and dirt. No time capsule beneath the pavement, but given the reminiscences inspired by the sight of the old trolley line on NW 64th the result was the same, except more interesting.
Passers-by took turns gazing into the pile of broken concrete and splintered rail ties resting on yet another slab of concrete. Slow digging, just as Seattle Department of Transportation veteran John Olsen knew it would be on top of an old trolley line. In Ballard it’s usually a fair guess that wider streets were served by Seattle Electric Street Car Line, but deciphering which route is a bit trickier.
In 2009 Jana Wright from King County METRO gave a talk at Ballard Historical Society called “Where’s My Trolley? The History of Transportation in Ballard 1851-2008.” Although it was well attended it probably lacked the visual quality that people on NW 64th have been able to experience since the dig.
The barricades and rubble definitely created a gathering place for middle of the street storytelling. A neighbor closest to the intersection recounted what an older gentleman told him some years ago. He said that as a boy he’d been running to catch the trolley before it went down the hill to 36th NW. His hand got caught and severed, while the trolley continued. The boy had run to this very same house for help. The older gentleman, name never known, recalled that the lady of the house fainted when she saw all the blood.
Seeing the remnants of the trolley line reminded James Hafterson of the stories told him by a man who lived and died just a few houses north of the intersection. Knutsen, he recalled, was a mechanic who’d lived his whole life in Ballard in the same house. A photograph of his father’s fishing boat Constitution is part of the permanent “Coming to America” display at the Nordic Heritage Museum.
Knutsen had told James that when he was a kid the trolley would go west two blocks, then uphill on 36th NW. Knutsen said the trolley man would simply unhook the cable to the electrical line and let the trolley coast back down the hill to where the street car began its inbound route. He’d re-hook the electrical cable and then take a break. That’s when the neighbor boys, including Knutsen, would sneak out of the woods and unhook the electrical again.
In addition to refreshing his memory about Knutsen, James was inspired to track down his signed copy of Warren W. Wing’s “To Seattle by Trolley.” Between this book, the map of Ballard before annexation and the graphics in the Metro report I studied the trolley lines that form the basis of today’s bus routes right down to the original numbers.
The newest traffic circle was once the main thoroughfare of the Ballard Beach Streetcar (#17). The only transit to the Mosquito Fleet ferry to Ludlow or Suquamish was by taking the Ballard Beach Streetcar to 36th NW and walking under the Great Northern railroad line. The beach was its own attraction, with one-time Loyal Heights Electric Railway advertising on the side of one its three trolleys, “This car to Golden Gardens Bathhouse and Beach. Refreshments served.”
As if the sight of broken railroad ties wasn’t enough to get the nostalgia flowing, the dig also brought attention to a big cast iron round that went unnoticed when it was in the street. Once beached on the planting strip like a big whale we all took a second look.
Made by Ballard’s own Salmon Bay Foundry, we’ve learned that we’ve been living within feet of a Washington State Survey Monument Marker. As such the “monument” is part of a geodetic database, is under the protection of Public Land Survey Office and is really heavy. We can only hope that no one needs to use the monument marker to resolve a land boundary dispute before its placed back into its proper latitude and longitude.
The Ballard Beach trolley remains will soon be covered in dirt, part of a roundabout designed to keep drivers approaching one another from assuming that each has the right of way. The landscape volunteers will sort out plantings and everyone will return to passing by without a second look, without exchanging stories, oblivious to the presence of a monument to a storied past and a safer future.