A Walk, Some History & Brewpub Redemption

Much like ancient Rome, Seattle likes to portray itself as a city founded on seven hills. Among these fabled ‘Seven Hills of Seattle‘ is Queen Anne, which, due to its close proximity to downtown Seattle, has long been on my radar as a desirable urban hiking destination. Last week I made the trek and today I’m blogging about it…

This 5.6 mile walk, which begins and ends at Westlake Center (see map below), leaves downtown along 4th Avenue, heading through Belltown to the Space Needle, then crosses the Seattle Center. After exiting the Seattle Center I like to make a pit stop on Roy Street at McMenamins Queen Anne brewpub (more about that later). From Roy Street the heart-pounding ascent of Queen Anne Hill begins in earnest.

Queen Anne Avenue’s 8 blocks from the bottom of the hill (at Roy Street) to the top (at Galer Street) are notorious throughout Seattle for being if not the absolute steepest in the city, certainly the steepest for its length. The average grade along this roughly half mile stretch is just over 10% however some sections, notably the block between Prospect Street and Highland Drive (at almost 20%), are much steeper. This is why I refer to the ascent of Queen Anne Hill as ‘heart-pounding.’

This is also the stretch made famous whenever significant snows fall in Seattle. Invariably it is closed to traffic – nobody can get up or down safely anyway – and locals come out in droves to turn the hill into an impromptu ski slope. Our last major snow event was in January: here’s some video…

Before I move on there’s one more thing of interest (to me anyway) about this section of Queen Anne Avenue: due to a historical oddity that dates back more than 100 years, it is also known as “the counterbalance.” I’ll explain why in just a second.

One of the things that drove development from the foot of the hill (lower Queen Anne) up to the hilltop neighborhood of upper Queen Anne was the 1891 extension of the North Seattle Cable Railway. This cable car line was originally propelled using the same moving cable system that is still used today in San Francisco. However, Seattle’s cable cars soon gave way to electric streetcars, and the Queen Anne line was electrified in 1901; that’s when the fun began.

Early 1900s electric streetcars could safely climb or descend grades under their own power only up to around 5%. Even today’s modern streetcars are limited to 9%. Back in 1901, for Seattle’s streetcars to safely negotiate the steep grades of Queen Anne Hill, some pretty creative engineering was needed. The solution was ingenious: “the counterbalance.”

Queen Anne Counterbalance

It started out with the realization that although the original moving cable system was no longer needed for the new self-propelled electric streetcars, the cable could be useful to them in a different way.

Leveraging this, a tunnel was built beneath Queen Anne Avenue in which a ‘counterbalance car’ – a miniature streetcar weighted with 16 tons of concrete – ran on its own underground track up and down the hill. This counterbalance car was attached permanently to one end of the cable while streetcars traveling up or down the hill temporarily attached themselves to the other end.

When streetcars coming from downtown reached the bottom of the hill they stopped, engaged the cable, then the counterbalance car would be released from the top of the hill. As the counterbalance car descended down the hill, its weight helped pull the ascending streetcar up the hill. At the top of the hill the streetcar disengaged from the cable and continued from there under its own power, leaving the counterbalance car waiting in its tunnel at the bottom of the hill.

When descending streetcars reached the top of the hill they stopped, engaged the cable, then proceeded down the hill. The weight of the counterbalance car helped the descending streetcar control its speed and reduce the amount of braking needed. And as they descended they pulled the counterbalance car back to the top of the hill ready to repeat the cycle over again. Of course, this being the era of “Heath Robinson,” the counterbalance wasn’t a completely fool-proof system: let’s just say there were some hair-raising moments on Queen Anne Hill before the streetcars were eventually replaced by buses in 1940.

So, that’s the story behind why the locals call the south slope of Queen Anne Hill “the counterbalance,” and the neat part of it is that although the streetcar tracks and cable slots are long gone from the road’s surface, the tunnel and counterbalance car are still there beneath the roadway. There has even been some talk of an underground tour similar to the one in Pioneer Square.

Continuing onward and upward…

My map shows a route up Queen Anne Hill, at least as far as Highland Drive, following quieter residential streets along 3rd Avenue. Alternatively, from McMenamins continue west on Roy Street to Queen Anne Avenue. At this intersection you find Counterbalance Park: An Urban Oasis. Here there is more information about the counterbalance streetcar.

Whichever way you choose to get to the top of the hill, at Galer Street the topography levels off: we are now in upper Queen Anne. From this point the business district extends for the next half mile or so along Queen Anne Avenue to McGraw Street. This is a place to browse, maybe find a bakery or coffee shop, or just sit and take a break. By now your thighs will thank you. I found most places of interest, including the local parks, located on either side of Queen Anne Avenue within two to three blocks, and a concentration of small boutique shops, restaurants, coffee shops, around Boston Street.

Beyond McGraw Street the north side of Queen Anne Hill begins its slope down to the Fremont Cut of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. So, at McGraw Street, my route turns back towards downtown Seattle.

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One of the things I wanted to see in Queen Anne was the place where the most famous panoramic views of Seattle are taken from: Kerry Park. Of course, on such a beautiful sunny afternoon, I had to take a few shots of my own.

After enjoying the view from Kerry Park, this walk essentially heads back down to the bottom of the hill, wanders through lower Queen Anne, crosses the Seattle Center once again, and returns to Westlake Center through Belltown by way of 1st Avenue. As I said at the beginning of this post, by the time you return to Westlake, you will have walked 5.6 miles plus any unmapped detours you might make along the way.

Now, about the brewpub redemption mentioned in the title of this post…

In my previous posts about McMenamins pubs (here, here, and here) I have not been exactly complimentary. However based on McMenamins showing at Belgianfest 2012, and my feelings that Fremont’s loss (of Dad Watson’s) might be Queen Anne’s gain, I felt a reevaluation might be in order.

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As part of this walk I made a pit stop for lunch at McMenamins Queen Anne and was delighted to find Reinhold’s Flying Armadillo Belgian-style strong dark ale on tap.

This was the McMenamins brew that I gave honorable mention to at Belgianfest. But what impressed me even more was the five other specials and seasonals that were on tap in addition to McMenamins standard lineup. These included Monkeywrench, which made such a strong impression at Dad Watsons during last year’s Beer Trek.

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I also experienced friendlier service during this visit. Although McMenamins sample tray is intended to showcase their standard lineup, my server was very happy to accommodate my preferred selection: four from the specials and seasonals, and only two from the standards.

The food has improved too. One of the day’s specials was a freshly made Shepherd’s Pie – made the right way (without sweet corn) – and baked just right so the peaks of mashed potato on the top had that slightly burnt crispy quality. Simply the best I have had in this hemisphere.

As luck would have it the opportunity to make sure this experience wasn’t a fluke presented itself the very next day. After attending the Rat City Rollergirls bout at Key Arena, The Spouse and I had dinner at McMenamins Queen Anne. Despite choosing different food, different beer, and having different servers, the experience was just as good – and we were there right as the place got jammed to bursting on a Saturday night.

Right now – in Queen Anne at least – McMenamins is holding its own against all but the very best Seattle area brewpubs. This pleases me greatly because at last I am able to see why, on its home turf, McMenamins is so highly regarded. Portland after all is arguably the most hotly contested brewpub city in the world. As for the Seattle area McMenamins pubs, while limited seating for kids is still an issue, Queen Anne is now their best location, a brewpub redeemed. :)

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