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Sunday, January 14, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Workers Find Relic From Cable-Car Days -- Huge Wheel Is Discovered In Damp Vault

Archaeological finds have been scarce in the four years Metro has been building a bus tunnel beneath downtown Seattle.

But construction workers on another project last week found an important relic from the city's cable-car past as they began ripping up the pavement at Third Avenue and Yesler Way to prepare for resurfacing.

Engineers knew they would find a concrete vault beneath the blacktop and cobblestone paving in Yesler Way. But they didn't know that a huge grooved wheel - used to reverse the direction of the cable - would still be in place in the dark, damp vault.

City Councilman George Benson, Seattle's leading transit advocate, fancier of old transportation systems and cable-car passenger in his youth, was one of the first to peer into the vault.

``Oh my, oh my,'' he said on catching a glimpse of the 11-foot wheel.

``This is a classic. I thought it had been taken out long ago. This is a real memento.''

Benson worried about what would become of the relic.

Vic Oblas, project engineer for Metro, told Benson it would be saved.

And the two of them, standing in Yesler Way with auto traffic whizzing by, decided it should go on display in the nearby Pioneer Square Station in Metro's bus tunnel.

Accompanying photos and text, Benson said, should be provided to tell modern-day commuters about the cable-car line that operated along Yesler Way from 1889 to 1940.

Oblas said the top half of the vault would have to be removed for the street-paving work. The project contractor will be asked to cut away the top of the vault and hoist out the wheel.

Officials of the Museum of History and Industry plan to crawl into the vault tomorrow to photograph the equipment.

John Fjarlie, a Metro construction inspector, took a reporter and another Metro staffer into the vault. The mud was ankle-deep, and the wheel crowded the room. Rusted oil cans were along one wall, along with several old bottles. The rotted remains of a shovel leaned against another wall.

The wheel stands on a huge block of concrete; a steel beam supports it from above. Slots through which the cable once ran were visible in the opposite wall, looking east up Yesler.

Apparently made of iron, the wheel had been cast in sections and bolted together in the vault. It was covered with dirt and a layer of dry lubricating oil, but apparently free of rust.

The Yesler Way cable-car line originally ran from about Second Avenue to Leschi on Lake Washington. It was built by a group of Seattle businessmen.

In about 1930, with the line then operated by the city, the downtown terminal was moved to Third Avenue to avoid maintaining a cable crossing through streetcar lines operating on Second Avenue, Benson said.

That means the vault was built about 60 years ago, but the grooved cable wheel probably was moved to its new location and is likely much older than the vault.

Westbound cable cars coming down the Yesler hill would drop the cable on the east side of Third Avenue and coast through the intersection and along track that switched them to the other side of Yesler. There they would board passengers and then pick up the cable for the trip up the hill and to Leschi, Benson said.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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