Seattle Waterfront Streetcar inaugurates service on May 29, 1982.

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 1/01/2000
  • Essay 2699
On May 29, 1982, the downtown Seattle Waterfront Streetcar makes its inaugural run between Pioneer Square and Pier 70. The event caps an eight-year crusade by Seattle City Council Member George Benson, and the service is an instant hit with tourists and Seattleites alike. In 1990, the line is extended through Pioneer Square to Union Station.

Benson Cuts Gordian Knot

The idea of running a streetcar along the downtown waterfront did not originate with George Benson (he credits streetcar enthusiast Robert Hively for the notion), but he made its development a personal mission. Fulfilling this vision involved untangling a Gordian knot of complexities: leasing and upgrading existing railroad track, arranging for an operator, resolving union jurisdictional issues, locating rolling stock, building handicap-accessible platforms, etc. As each problem was solved the costs escalated to more than $3 million, and the plan became widely derided as "Benson's Folly."

The pharmacist-turned-politician persevered. He found 1920s-vintage, functional streetcars in Melbourne, Australia, and recruited hundreds of volunteers to refurbish them. Waterfront businesses, led by Trident store owner Charles Peterson, voted to tax themselves $1.2 million to build the line.

The streetcars' debut attracted 3,000 citizens. Its success prompted Metro Transit, its operator, to extend the line in 1990 through Pioneer Square to Union Station on the edge of the Chinatown-International District.

Sources: Walt Crowley, Routes: A Brief History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: Metro Transit, 1993).

Related Topics:   Government & Politics | Infrastructure | Roads & Rails

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