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Up and Down Again: A Seattle Tale

Posted by Johnine Larsen on June 20, 2018
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We consider ourselves neighborhood experts. From the finest restaurants to the deepest secrets to the best dog parks, we know Seattle. The quietest neighborhood? The origin of Phinney Ridge? We’ve got it covered. But when it comes to the public stairways in Queen Anne, we shut up, sit down, and take notes, because Queen Anne has a stair expert.

stair-expert

Meet Thomas Horton, Stair Master. The man mapped all of Queen Anne’s 125 public stairways, and he knows more about Seattle’s stairs than almost any other human being alive. Think it’s quirky? Of course it’s quirky. But it’s also impressive, and as it turns out, those Queen Anne stairways have quite a few gems scattered among them.

stair-expert-stairsTake, for example, the 109-year-old Galer Crown staircase, with an astounding 785 steps. Or Wilcox Wall, a century-old holdover from a plan to encircle Queen Anne Hill with an urban parkway. Or pick from a host of other stairways built from the city’s old and recycled trolley lines. These stairs hold Seattle’s history. Many times, they’re some of the most beautiful places in Queen Anne, if only you stopped to notice them.

“There’s a lot I like about QA,” Horton told us. “It is just about in the heart of the city, but because people have to go up a big hill, no one usually bothers unless they live there. So it’s kind of like an island.”

Horton has walked every single of one of Queen Anne’s public stairs. He spent a summer and a half searching for every stairway, counting every step, and recording every location on a meticulously hand-drawn map. It was a personal project, at first. But when the Queen Anne Historical Society learned about Horton’s work, they wanted to make it public. So Horton added research to his mapping. He made enough visits to the Seattle Department of Transportation that SDOT joked that they should give Horton his own desk. Now, with the project completed, you can buy a copy of Horton’s map for $5 from Queen Anne Books.

stair-expert-diagram

“There were a number of things I enjoyed [about the project],” Horton said. “The exercise, exploring the neighborhood, and talking with people who were also interested in the stairs. My favorite conversation was about how the West Boston St. stair was closed/haunted.”

Horton also runs a website, where he discusses his project, showcases the most interesting stairs, and presents short walking routes. You can print his walking guides, and they come with ratings for difficulty, adventure, number of stairs, and elevation gain. Our favorite walk: Haunted Hike of Queen Anne. Horton’s recommendation: The Galer Cross Hill.

“It has a great sampling of interests on the hill,” he said. “Kind of a sampler box.”

We asked Horton a few more questions about his project. Here’s a piece of our discussion:

stair-expert-mapReal Estate Gals: Do you still walk through Queen Anne? Or have you moved on to a new area?

Thomas Horton: I still walk through QA on occasion. I live in West Seattle now, so I don’t get over there too often. There aren’t as many stairs over here, so I haven’t pursued a Map for this neighborhood. 

REGals: What steps do you think should Seattle take to become a more walkable city? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about our ability to transition away from an automobile-centric culture?

Horton: If the money is there, I’d like to see more grand infrastructure that elevates the pedestrian. The Comstock Grande Dame was originally planned to have light fixtures built into it. Could you image how beautiful that would have looked? Out on an evening stroll, late summer, a bright pathway. People love to walk along the Wilcox retaining wall because they feel 100 feet tall looking out at the view of the Sound. We could make more of these spaces for people to walk, or even places to walk to. They don’t need to be expensive or large. They do need to be built to last.

REGals: If you could give one piece of advice to our readers, what would it be?

Horton: I don’t feel a need to give a piece of advice. But it makes for good reading so I’ll say, “Get out and do some Urban Hiking. Explore on foot to get good exercise, meet more people, and discover new restaurants/coffee shops.”

 

wilcox-wall

 
Final Wilcox Wall photo by Sue Larsen. All other photos by Thomas Horton. Used with permission.