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Profanity Hill: A Hard Climb In Downtown Seattle, Washington

Yesler Way in Seattle, Washington travels up First Hill in a westerly direction and then through the southern part of the City’s downtown and eventually ends up in Pioneer Square near Elliot Bay, and the Alaska Way which we have visited earlier. The Hill is named after City businessman Henry Yesler, who purchased a part of it to harvest timber growing on it in the mid to late-1800s.

First developed in the late-1880 to ’90s the area to the north and south of Yester Way soon became a neighborhood of the well to do who built residences there. A new King County Courthouse was constructed on the Hill circa 1911, and Seattle lawyers caused it to become known as “Profanity Hill” due to their harsh comments about the steep climb up to the courthouse. The Yester Building in the center of the photo was apparently also known as the Public Service Building.

This circa photograph of the hill with only two parked cars visible on it apparently demonstrates that motorists of the time may have avoided using the thoroughfare whenever possible. The steep climb must have been very hard on cars with engines using a splash-feed oiling system, and on clutches and transmissions. Vehicles with a gravity-feed gasoline delivery system could not climb it unless driven in reverse, the decent also strained the two-wheel braking systems in use at the time.

Tell us what you find of interest in this image courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives.

19 responses to “Profanity Hill: A Hard Climb In Downtown Seattle, Washington

  1. A friend who drove a Model T on those hills told me that drivers would tap the reverse pedal to help control their speed on the descent, presumably at great cost to the longevity of the transmission belts.
    These days the only time there’s a problem is when we get snow, which in this climate immediately turns to ice.

  2. I am only vaguely familiar with the topography of Seattle, and wondered if this is the same “skid road” that was used by the lumber industry to get the logs from the top of the incline down to the water, where they could be easily transported elsewhere? We were told was that the term “skid road” eventually devolved into “skid row,” which became the name for the run-down area of many towns.

    • Jeff —
      According to legend, Yesler Way was indeed the original skid road, although that was never its official name. It was “paved” with planks that were sometimes even greased (I suppose with animal tallow, rather than petroleum) to keep the logs sliding straight and fast.

  3. Wonderful street scene and perspective from this artist’s viewpoint. Spectacular for lovers of architecture and cars.
    Question, does the scene still look the same, do most of the buildings still exist? Sure hope so.

      • The triangle building is still there. It also looks like the Hotel Reynolds building is still there but google maps wasn’t letting me stand where I could check architectural details & be sure. The whole intersection (4th & Yesler),park & overpass still look generally the same.

        • I could not go on the street on Google Street View to check the buildings because Yester has been under construction for quite a while. A historical post at Seattle Times reported the triangle building has been replaced twice, which is the reason it was reported as not existing.

    • The triangle municipal building was restored several years ago and still stands. Many high rises have changed the look of this neighborhood . The tracks running up Yesler Way was the Yesler cable car line; Seattle had cable cars on 4 different hills until the 1940’s when they were replaced by electric “trackless” trolleys.

  4. Almost every car is a convertible/phaeton/roadster. It’s pretty amazing that there only appears to be one hardtop among 45 cars. Great picture. Thanks for posting it Dave!

  5. I believe the photo was taken after a snowfall and that one can see tire tracks through the snow on the road of the hill. Also, there appears to be snow on the roofs of cars that were parked during the snowfall.

  6. At the very far left it looks like one motorist is tinkering under the hood of his car. You can’t beat today’s reliability, but boy I’d love to have a large tourer from the post WWI era.

  7. Not many of the cars are readily recognisable. There are a couple of Ford Ts and a few Dodges hear the front. One unusual one is at the bottom of the triangle – a 1916 or ’17 Franklin.

  8. Looking at the parked cars appears to show quite a few that did not steer the front wheels into the curb. If the car brakes were to let go the car would roll down the steep inclines shown in a few cases it looks like that would have been across traffic the way the wheels are pointed! I have to wonder how many times someone returned to their parking spot only to find the car gone because it rolled away.

  9. This photograph Shows a variety of Cars, mostly less expensive ones, all of the “open ones “- do not have: “Side Curtains “on their doors & side panels in place, — the pedestrians are wearing suit coats and not heavy weather gear. so: The scene is: “moderate” weather. “Front Wheels In! going Downhill , wheels Out, going Uphill is the rule. The street LOOKS to me like BRICK, (as boards would not endure and be Way slicker in bad weather!) the rails are a Cable Car, – “immune to hills”! The (3!) Pedal Story: — Only belongs to: Model “T” and TT vehicles! (1909 to 1927) (not All of the Other “cars” in the picture!) (Left to right) “C, R, B!” “C” = “Clutch , Low Speed & Direct drive, “R” : = Brake “B” = Brake Band (In the transmission , on the drive shaft! [only! ]) , “C . Early Model “T”‘s have (under the seat )Gas Tanks for “gravity feed “: Should the (early!) Model”T” have an almost Empty tank —they won’t climb! Using the Reverse pedal, (car backing up —(only an emergency procedure!) —Might allow the car to Climb! (Buy some Gas!!!, Cheapskate!) As far “Stopping a “T “is concerned: “Overloaded — And steep Down-hiil “are concerned: “T”‘s are: “Marginal Stoppers” ! Lore: “Push any TWO pedals”! , (” Brake” Pedal being one of them !)” Many “T” Owners put: “Rocky Mountain” Auxiliary large 2- Wheel Brakes on their “T”‘s. The “T”s had “adequate” design. Most of the” Bad Lore” comes from: Bad Maintenance or poor driving habits — or the combination -of both! The Latest model “T”‘s and TT’s did not have Gas Flow starvation (Cowl tank)!!! , (like: Models: “AA ” & “A”! ) “Judge ye not” —the TT or T unless you have personal experience with them ! They DO as designed ! (Today!!!) they Do not do — as Not designed ! )That’s how Most “Lore” is started! 15 Million “T”‘s were Made & Bought and still endure!!! Do you have a Choice of: Very complete Catalogs for a: Non – Ford car??? NO! Many Quality Parts are available for 1909 through Flathead V-8 Cars & Trucks & Tractors!!! Go drive a “T”or an “A” Ford— and see what’s right about them ! Come over and experience an AA Truck Ride — and re-live: “Country Roads” — and the vehicles that conquered them, here in W. V.!!!

  10. It may seem completely obvious to most of you who view this photograph, but as an automotive historian, I am continually amazed by pictures such as this, where twenty-five years before it was taken there probably wouldn’t have been an automobile parked anywhere. It is a testimony to the extraordinarily rapid social and economic changes made in just a few short decades of the early Twentieth Century by the introduction of the automobile.

  11. Many years ago I was told that the “open cars” went to the country and the “closed cars” went to the city. But from the looks of this picture I think that I was given inaccurate information.

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