Horse Power

Remnants of Seattle's Equine Past

Back in the day, in early Seattle, horsepower meant horse power, at least in regard to transportation. Street trolleys, fire engines, wagons, and carts were some of the 3,945 horse-drawn vehicles noted in a traffic count on December 23, 1904, at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Pike Street; there were 14 automobiles. All of those horses had to be housed somewhere. According to the Polk’s Seattle City Directory, at least 17 public livery, sale, and boarding stables dotted the urban landscape in 1890, with a peak of 37 in 1910.

I know of only three remaining in the city but suspect there are others. The oldest was built in 1902 as the Rainier Boarding and Livery Stable. Located on Western Avenue, it used to house a human-powered vehicle store and now has a brewery. Next younger is the C.B Van Vorst Building at 415 Boren Ave N. Built in 1909, it had room for 250 horses, mostly used by one of Seattle’s long-loved institutions, Frederick & Nelson. Although designated a City of Seattle Landmark in 2000, the structure was mostly altered via a facademy, which left behind just the facade of the original building.

My favorite and the lone one that casual passersby might suspect has an equine connection is a block north of the old Rainier Stable. The Union Stables opened in 1910 and had room for 300 horses, which could access the upper floors of the five story building via an internal ramp. What makes the building my favorite is the big horse head mounted high on the facade. It is a clear reminder of who used to be the priority inside the building.

Note the N and S on the either side of the horse, all that’s left of the words “Union Stables.” And, in case you worried, the ear on the horse has been refurbished.

These are not the lone links to Seattle’s horse-powered past. Up on Capitol Hill along 14th Avenue—often called Millionaire’s Row—are two reminders: hitching posts and stepping stones. At the former home of Elbridge Amos Stuart, the man who started the Carnation Evaporated Milk Company, is a granite block where a rider or passenger could place their foot when disembarking. Another is a couple blocks north.

A wee bit south of Mr. Stuart’s stepping stone are two granite hitching posts. Two more are on 22nd Ave E, near Prospect Street and another is in front of the Frye Museum and came from the home of Charles and Emma Frye. My pal Valarie Bunn also reported one on the southwest corner of Minor Avenue and James Street. And, finally, there are two hitching posts, or at structures that look very similar to one, on Queen Anne Hill. One is where Fifth Ave W and W. Kinnear Pl curve together and the second is slightly east, where Fifth Ave W and W. Kinnear Pl split. 

I am still interested in tracking down these connections to the past so if you know of any others, please let me know. It is features like these that I treasure because they bring urban history to light and help us see the deeper stories of place that unite past and present.

And, with Father’s Day just around the bend, I thought I’d recommend my book Homewaters. It’s sure to satisfy and if you order from me you can even get it signed.

My next event will be June 10 with the Salish Sea Institute where I will share the screen with Elin Kelsey, author of Hope Matters, and Rena Priest, Washington Poet Laureate.