Highland Park & Lake Burien Railroad begins service on July 1, 1912.

  • By Dotty DeCoster
  • Posted 5/28/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10401

On July 1, 1912, service begins on the Highland Park & Lake Burien Railroad. Picnics are scheduled along the new route for the next several days leading up to July 4th. Now people can travel by electric streetcar between Seattle and Lake Burien in southwest King County, a distance of about nine miles, transferring between the new railroad and Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company cars at Riverside Avenue and Iowa Street. Through-service on the line between Seattle and Burien will be discontinued in May 1929.

Service to the South

The Highland Park & Lake Burien Railroad had been in the works for a few years as Seattle-based real estate developers and local landowners tried to interest people in buying property in what are now known as Highland Park, White Center, Oak Park, Sunnydale, Lake Burien, Burien, Seahurst, Gregory Heights, and Three Tree Point south of Seattle (roughly between Puget Sound on the west and where Sea-Tac Airport was later developed on the east). Most of the area was farmland, interspersed with stands of timber and woods teeming with wildlife that appealed to hunters.

Summer homes and vacation spots along Puget Sound beaches and on Lake Burien were in development as well. In 1912, the area was not well-served by roads of any kind. It was a long trek for local farmers to get their produce to Seattle's Pike Place Market and for suburbanites to reach their places of business in downtown Seattle.

The chief promoter of the railroad was George W. H. White, who had been granted a franchise by the King County Commissioners to build a street railroad between Highland Park and Lake Burien. (White Center came to be named for him.) White joined with W. Coughlin, who had a franchise to build a railway on "Michigan and other streets," to develop a route that would serve their interests (Blanchard). The route was partly within the limits of the incorporated City of Seattle and partly in unincorporated King County. The original incorporators of the company were William H. Murphy (1869-?), Linden I. Gregory (1876-1946), Fred W. Dashley (1860?-1939), Charles Schoening (1867-1937), Joseph R. McLaughlin, George W. H. White, David I. Burkhart (1871-1944), J. F. McElroy, and Chauncey A. Doty (1860?-1959), all Seattle businessmen. They attracted 97 local investors, including Jacob Ambaum (1866?-1935), who was also engaged in road-building and farming. Part of the planned route paralleled Ambaum Road.

The final permit to lay track in Seattle was issued on May 3, 1912, by the Seattle Board of Public Works for the following streets:

"Iowa Street between West Spokane and Seventeenth Avenue Southwest, Seventeenth and Sixteenth Avenue Southwest between Iowa Street and the county road, on the county road between Sixteenth Avenue Southwest and West Graham Street, on private right of way between West Graham Street and West Kenyon Street, Ninth Avenue Southwest between West Kenyon and West Henderson Streets, West Henderson Street between Ninth and Sixteenth Avenue Southwest and on Sixteenth Avenue Southwest between West Henderson Street and the city limits. . . The terminus of the line in Seattle will be at the intersection of Iowa Street and West Spokane Street ... " ("Lake Burien Road ... ")

From the Seattle city limits the route continued south along 16th Street through White Center, then turned east at S 107th Street (now SW 107th) to 12th Avenue (now 12th Avenue SW), continuing south to S 118th (now SW 118th), taking a small semi-circular detour around Salmon Creek, and then continuing along 12th Avenue (now 12th Avenue SW) to the intersection of 128th (now SW 128th). Then it went south along Ambaum Road (now Ambaum Road SW) to Sunnydale (now Burien), where it turned west between 151st (now 151st SW) and 152nd (now 152nd SW) streets and continued to Seahurst.

It is very difficult to discern this route on today's maps. Iowa Street is no longer shown, but was just south of Spokane Street. The designation "SW" later was added to the avenue names and replaced "S" in the street names. The route up the West Seattle ridge to 9th Avenue SW is completely obscured now by development of South Seattle Community College and several parks and greenbelts. The site of the tracks has been paved over on W Marginal Way, formerly Riverside, and on Ambaum Boulevard, and has been obscured between 151st SW and 152nd SW as well. Several maps cited in the sources at the end of this essay help to illustrate the route.

Graft on the "Galloping Goose"

Leslie Blanchard notes that the Highland Park & Lake Burien "system was absolutely unique among the electric lines of Seattle. Neither 'fish nor fowl', it was part street railway, part interurban, and partook of the characteristics of both without really being either" (Blanchard, 81).

Local people called it the "Toonerville Trolley" or the "Galloping Goose." It was a single-track line with the ties laid on dirt, following the contours of the hill-and-dale topography, with just one trolley connection overhead for power and with no loop or wye to turn around at Lake Burien.

The building of railroads is often reported to have been an opportunity for graft, and the Highland Park & Lake Burien road was no exception. The chief engineer for the project, Carl P. Stevens, and grading contractor O. Linquist were accused by King County Prosecuting Attorney John R. Murphy of making "a false representation to the company as to the amount of earth that had been removed from the right-of-way and that on the report the company issued to the contractor a check for $560.67" ("Odd Theft Charged"). On July 15, 1912, The Seattle Times reported that Stevens pled guilty and was sent to jail for three months and fined $300.

Repairs and Red Ink

All went well with the new route, more or less, until a landslide on November 8, 1912, covered the tracks and the right-of-way between Riverside Avenue (now W Marginal Way) and 9th Avenue SW, along the segment that climbed and descended the West Seattle Ridge. It must have been an exceptionally rainy winter, as landslides were reported all over Western Washington. Fortunately, no one appears to have been hurt in this slide. But the company that built the line did not have the financing or the equipment to repair the damage, and a possible buyout by East Coast capitalists, mentioned in The Seattle Times on September 25, 1912, before the slide, never came to fruition.

The City of Seattle, however, was beginning to try developing a municipal railway, consolidating private companies and routes. The owners of the Highland Park & Lake Burien Railroad sought to give the line to the new Seattle Municipal Railway, but first had to raise $30,000 (more than $700,000 in 2012 dollars) to cover their debts. The communities served by the line raised the funds in order to retain service.

In early May 1914, the Municipal Railway cleared the slide debris from the tracks -- no easy task, apparently -- and by May 14th service was re-established. This service route was numbered "4" and designated Division "C". Using several double-ended Cincinnati cars, divested of their second trolley poles, the route carried both passengers and freight on its single track. For a time it was profitable, contributing, perhaps, to a building boom along its path.

A Difficult Line

On September 4, 1919, the Seattle Municipal Railway's elevated line along Spokane Street and Railroad Avenue opened to traffic. The line was carried on a trestle along Railroad Avenue (now Western Avenue) on the Seattle waterfront and by bridge over the Duwamish River dividing Seattle from West Seattle. Through-service into and out of Seattle was now possible, and on April 11, 1920, it officially began. From 1920, cars for this line were housed in both White Center and downtown Seattle, since difficulties on the line between W. Marginal Way (Riverside) and 9th Avenue SW continued.

There are numerous stories about problems on the line. Along the wooded stretch in spring, for instance, caterpillars falling off the trees were sometimes so numerous that they made the tracks slick, and scrapers had to be employed. Kids sometimes hung onto the outside to avoid the fare, which was paid inside the cars. Drivers told stories about passengers shooting wildlife on their way through the woods. And there were many breakdowns in service, sometimes small landslides, sometimes power failures.

Connecting New Communities

The stops on the line were places where small commercial enterprises developed: a store or a post office, sometimes with telephones. White Center had a car barn, and there were occasional sidings along the way. The railway drivers got to know shopkeepers, post-mistresses, and many of the local young people. Historian Rob Ketcherside created an interactive map in 2007 showing where the stops likely were located and what has been there over time.

Through-service from Seattle to Burien and Seahurst was discontinued on May 3, 1929, and a shuttle to and from White Center was run, requiring a transfer at White Center to go to or from Seattle. It didn't last. Service was abandoned on July 15, 1931; the rails and overhead were removed, and the line was renamed White Center. The White Center line lasted until 1933. By that time trucks had taken over the freight service and buses the passenger traffic. Several of the earlier roads were significantly improved, paved first with gravel, then bricks, then widened and paved with asphalt.


Sources: Leslie Blanchard, The Street Railway Era in Seattle: A Chronicle of Six Decades (Forty Fort, Pennsylvania: H. E. Cox, 1968), 81-83, 115, pocket insert "Seattle Municipal Street Railway Track Map April 1933"; Esther Balzarini, "Our Burien," manuscript, Seattle Room, Seattle Public Library, 40-42; Melba Eyler and Evelyn Yeager, The Many Roads to Highline (Burien, Washington: The Highline Publishing Co., 1972), 12-14; "West Marginal Way Stub Trolley Line," Report to the City of Seattle on its Municipal Street Railway System (New York: The Beeler Organization, 1935), 71; "Valentine Favors New Short Line Franchise," The Seattle Times, November 23, 1910, p. 14; "Franchise for Street Railway Line Desired," Ibid., January 1, 1911, p. 4; "Will Open Large and Attractive Section," Ibid., February 11, 1912, p. 43; "Wm. H. Murphy, Successful Business Man of Seattle," Ibid., March 3, 1912, p. 28."Lake Burien Road Gets Permit to Lay Tracks," Ibid., May 3, 1912, p. 19; "Odd Theft Charged," Ibid., May 17, 1912, p. 28; "Residents Celebrate Opening of New Road," Ibid., July 2, 1912, p. 12; "Engineer Stevens Receives Sentence," Ibid., July 15, 1912, p. 13; "Eastern Men May Buy Lake Burien Electric," Ibid., September 25, 1912, p. 17; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "White Center -- Thumbnail History" (by Ron Richardson), http://www.historylink.org (accessed April 10, 2013); Rebecca Pixler, Assistant Archivist, King County Archives, email to Dotty DeCoster, April 15, 2013, in possession of Dotty DeCoster, Seattle, Washington; Rob Ketcherside, "Notes from Highland Park & Lake Burien Line Board Minutes," ZombieZodiac.com website accessed May 1, 2013 (http://www.zombiezodiac.com/rob/hplb/content/history/hplb_board _meeting_minutes_various_dates.html); Ketcherside, "Interactive route map of the Highland Park & Lake Burien Line," Bing.com website accessed May 8, 2013 (http://www.bing.com/maps/?v=2&cid=8F493D79049225A6!506); Ketcherside, "Map of Investors in the Highland Park & Lake Burien Line," Bing.com website accessed May 9, 2013 (http://www.bing.com/maps/?v=2&cp=47.478001~-122.275002&lvl=4&dir=0&sty=r&cid=8F493D79049225A6!1039); S. Morgan Friedman, "The Inflation Counter 2012," Westegg.com website accessed May 5, 2013 (http://www.westegg.com/inflation/infl.cgi); "Guide to the Seattle Municipal Railway Photograph Collection 1913-1940," University of Washington Libraries website accessed May 1, 2013 (http://digital.lib.washington.edu/findingaids/view?docId=SeattleMunicipalRailwayPHColl266.xml); Notes of Seattle Street Railway Historical Society May 3, 2013, meeting, in possession of Dotty Decoster; Rob Ketcherside, Al Ramey, and John Cox, emails to Dotty Decoster, May 2013, in possession of Dotty DeCoster.

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