Lake Washington Coal Cars (1875)

This 1898 image was taken on Lake Whatcom, but illustrates the method used by the Seattle Coal & Transportation Company to barge its coal cars across Lake Washington between 1872 – 78. An 1875 windstorm sent 18 of its cars to the bottom under 200 feet of water.

On the morning of January 12, 1875, one of the most severe windstorms in recent memory swept through the Seattle area, creating whitecaps on Lake Washington. Amid this, the small sternwheel steamboat Chehalis, in service to the Seattle Coal & Transportation Company was enroute from its eastern coal wharf located in today’s south Bellevue to its wharf on Union Bay, located about where now SR-520 meets the narrow Montlake Isthmus. As the boat passed the north end of Mercer Island, leaving behind the relative protection of the East Channel and into the open expanse of windswept lake, the shallow-draft Chehalis struggled through the tempest with a barge with 18 fully loaded 3-ton coal cars on its deck under tow. Chugging northwest, about equidistant between today’s Madison Park and Medina, the lines creaked and strained as the wind pounded the shallow draft river boat into large swells.

The barge lurched and careened. In an instant the cars were loose, flying off the end of the barge into the frigid, heaving lake, coming to settle on the muddy bottom, about 200 feet below. The cars’ heavy cast iron wheelsets sank them rapidly, some hitting the soft, muddy bottom still upright with much of their coal loads still in place.   

The cars were to have crossed over a short length of rails linking lakes Washington and Union, shuttled again by barge across Lake Union to rails at its south end that led down the route of today’s Westlake Avenue to Pike Street at the western end of which lay the company’s salt water wharf, where they were emptied into a bunker and loaded onto ships bound for the coal-hungry San Francisco market, which was also the home of most of the Seattle Coal & Transportation Company’s owners (Much to the chagrin of many of Seattle’s pioneer families, who had tried to develop the mines at Newcastle themselves, but were unable to raise the capital necessary to overcome the sizable costs of transporting the mined coal to Elliott Bay).

The Northwest Shipwreck Alliance has partnered with the Newcastle Historical Society in conducting sonar and video surveys of the cars’ site. The groups are currently studying the feasibility of recovering under accepted archeological protocols one or more of the cars for restoration and display in a local museum.  

For more information on the fascinating history of Newcastle, WA and the various historic coal mines located there please visit: .


Two hundred feet beneath Lake Washington our ROV pilot gives us a close look at the coal load still sitting in the small wooden rail car into which it was loaded in January, 1875.
Northwest Shipwreck Alliance Director Duane Engle and Capt. Herb Hunt deploy an ROV during the coal cars survey.

Seattle’s January 16, 1875 Weekly Intellingencer account of the incident.
Route from the Newcastle Coal mines to the Seattle waterfront in 1875.
The Seattle Coal & Transportation Company brought the first narrow gauge first steam locomotive to Puget Sound country in 1872 to move its barged coal cars from the south end of Lake Union to its saltwater bunker at the foot of Pike Street. The route to Pike Street eventually evolved into Seattle’s Westlake Avenue. The diminutive 0-4-0 locomotive was later nicknamed the Ant and was soon replaced by larger, more efficient machines. It was eventually sold and spent decades pulling logs in southwestern Washington, until ultimately meeting its end during a WWII scrap drive.
Ruins of the 1872 Seattle Coal & Transportation Company coal wharf at today’s south Bellevue were still visible in this 1939 King County Assessor’s photo. The old pilings rise so high above the water because the lake level was lowered nearly 10 feet in 1916 when the Lake Washington Ship Canal and locks opened. The coal cars on the bottom were loaded onto the barge here.
The Seattle Coal & Transportation Company coal wharves and bunkers at the foot of Pike Street are seen in the c.1876 image at right in the background, where a side-wheel steamboat is taking on coal. This photo was taken from Yesler’s Wharf and views north. Here the cars would have been emptied into the bunker and returned via lakes Union and Washington to the mines at Newcastle.