Street Railways in Seattle

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 10/02/2000
  • Essay 2707
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Road travel in and around Seattle was difficult and dangerous before 1884, when the first horse-drawn streetcar line was established downtown. The first cable car line was introduced in 1887, and electric streetcars entered service in 1889. Private street railways quickly multiplied, often in tandem with new real estate developments, until Seattle could boast of 22 separate streetcar lines. Beginning in 1898, these were consolidated under the control of the Seattle Electric Railway Company, an arm of the national Stone & Webster utility cartel, which also developed interurban railways between Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett. The company won a lucrative city franchise in 1900, but was losing money by World War I and sold its local lines to Seattle in 1918. The resulting debt and growing competition from autos hobbled the Municipal Street Railway system from the outset. It was finally dismantled in early 1941. Urban and interurban railways still survive in such diverse forms as the Seattle Center Monorail, Sound Transit's light rail, and Seattle's South Lake Union Streetcar.

Seattle's first streetcar line was built in 1884 along 2nd Avenue in downtown Seattle by Frank Osgood (1852-1934). The horse-drawn line was an instant success, and in 1889 Osgood introduced electric streetcars. Meanwhile, in 1887, J. M. Thompson and Fred Sander constructed a cable car line from Pioneer Square to Leschi Park via Yesler Way and Jackson Street. (The cable ran like a pulley-drawn ski lift but on the ground, under the car. The car clamped onto the moving cable and to stop, unclamped, while the cable continued revolving.) This line effectively linked Elliott Bay steamers with Lake Washington ferries, creating the region's first "intermodal" transportation system.

Inspired by the success of these early lines, entrepreneurs such as David Denny (1832-1903), Guy Phinney (1852-1893), and John McGilvra (1827-1903) built lines to the University District, Woodland Park, and Madison Park respectively. Development of outlying neighborhoods was as much their aim as serving early commuters. By 1892, Seattle was served by 48 miles of streetcar track and 22 miles of cable railways.

Street railway trackage doubled during the 1890s, despite the economic Panic of 1893, which bankrupted many street railways. These early lines established much of Seattle's urban fabric, promoting new neighborhoods and business districts in "suburban" areas such as Ballard, Greenwood, Rainier Valley, and West Seattle. Many of today's buses still follow routes established by the first streetcar and interurban lines.

Starting in 1898, Seattle banker Jacob Furth (1840-1914) quietly began buying up the city's 22 independent streetcar lines on behalf of the national utility holding company Stone & Webster. Its local Seattle Electric Railway company won a 40-year city franchise in 1900, over the vocal objections of reformers who feared the creation of a transit monopoly. Stone & Webster also invested in development of electric interurban lines linking Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett. These holdings were ultimately consolidated in the Puget Sound Power, Light & Traction Company, forerunner of Puget Power and Washington Energy.

Aging and Erratic

By the eve of World War I, Seattle Electric was losing money due to mandated nickel fares, numerous strikes, and growing competition from automobiles and private buses. Commuters had also grown impatient with aging equipment and erratic service. After failing to buy the Seattle-Renton interurban in 1911, Seattle developed its first municipal streetcar line between downtown and Ballard in 1914. (The honor of being the nation's first city to own a street railway belongs to West Seattle, which purchased a private line in 1902 and operated it briefly before annexing to Seattle in 1907.)

In a controversial deal, Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson (1874-1940) agreed to buy the streetcar system for $15 million, which voters approved in 1918. This high price crippled the new Municipal Street Railway with debt from the outset and the State Supreme Court later blocked any subsidies to aid the system. Through Puget Power, Stone & Webster tried to manipulate the crisis in a bid to acquire Seattle City Light, which had been established in 1902 to counteract Puget Power's monopoly over electrical service. This power struggle contributed to the defeat of Seattle Mayor Bertha K. Landes (1868-1943) in 1928 and to the recall of her successor, Frank Edwards, two years later.

In Debt and Desperate

By 1936, the Municipal Street Railway operated 410 streetcars on 26 electric routes, and three cable railways (Yesler-Jackson, James Street, and Madison Street) totaling 231 miles of track, plus 60 buses on 18 other routes. Despite average daily fares of $11,000, the system had run up a $4 million deficit and still owed half of the principal on its 1918 bonds.

By the mid-1930s, Seattle was desperate for an escape route. The city retained the John C. Beeler Organization to devise a solution, but rejected the organization's first proposal for a mixed system of streetcars and buses. The City Council liked a new Beeler plan for electric "trackless trolleys" and motor buses. Mayor John Dore, organized labor, and many civic and neighborhood groups disagreed, and in 1937 voters soundly rejected the "Beeler Plan."

This "victory" did not pay the bills, and Mayor Dore died amid the worsening financial crisis. His successor and future governor Arthur Langlie (1900-1966) appealed to the Federal Government for emergency aid. In May 1939, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation loaned Seattle $10 million to pay off the streetcar debt and to implement a revised version of the Beeler Plan.

Seattle's last streetcar completed its final run on April 13, 1941, but the lure of rail transit never quite died. The idea of building a modern rapid transit system played a major role in the battle over a proposed King County charter in 1952, and four years later the Seattle Transit Commission appealed to the State Highway Commission to include rail right-of-ways in early plans for Interstate-5. The request was rejected as too expensive at an estimated $16 million. By the mid-1950s, car was king, and powerful highway and suburban developers had little interest in funding a rail competitor that would naturally favor Seattle's dense urban neighborhoods.

Enter Metro

The first proposal for theĀ Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle, or Metro, included authority to plan and operate a mass transit system, but this was turned down in March 1958. Metro won the right to clean up water pollution the following September, but it still dreamed of building a rail transit system to combat traffic congestion and suburban sprawl.

The 1962 Seattle World's Fair introduced a new kind of rail transit, the Monorail, which many thought should be extended to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Metro tried to tap public interest by asking anew for transit planning authority in 1962, but its request coincided with the opening of I-5. For a brief moment, traffic congestion was not an issue and voters said no.

In 1966, the Puget Sound region's first comprehensive transportation plan flatly rejected rail transit in favor of a massive new system of freeways and bridges. Reformers led by Metro founder James Ellis refused to surrender. They included an ambitious billion-dollar rail transit system in a package of "Forward Thrust" bond issues. Many proposals such as the Kingdome won in 1968, but not transit. Forward Thrust tried again in 1970, but the "Boeing Bust" recession dampened any public tolerance for new taxes. As a result, a billion dollars of federal aid reserved for Seattle's rail system was sent to Atlanta instead.

By 1972, the Seattle Transit System and most suburban bus companies were on the verge of collapse. Voters finally gave Metro authority to run a transit system, but only with buses. This did not prevent rail planning, however. Numerous proposals were developed and debated during the 1970s and 1980s, but there was no political or financial support for their implementation. The public mood had shifted by 1988, when a sizable majority of King County voters cast advisory ballots in favor of accelerated rail transit planning.

New Age of Rail?

The tracks took a new turn in 1990, when Metro's governance was found to be unconstitutional. That same year, the state legislature passed strong new laws for growth management and rail-transit development. Metro passed the rail-transit torch to a new Regional Transit Authority (RTA) and its bus system was taken over by King County. On its second try, in 1996, the RTA won voter approval for its Sound Transit system combining light rail, commuter rail, and express buses.

The following year, Seattle voters hopped a ride back to the future by authorizing expansion of the Seattle Center Monorail into a citywide system, but soaring costs and problems raising capital caused voters to scrap the project in 2005. However, the year after that the City of Seattle broke ground for the South Lake Union Streetcar, a new 1.3-mile streetcar line running from Westlake Center to the south end of the lake, which began service in December 2007.


Leslie Blanchard, The Street Railway Era in Seattle: A Chronicle of Six Decades (Forty Fort, PA: Harold E. Cox, 1968); Walt Crowley, Routes: A Brief History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: Metro Transit, 1993); Bob Lane, Better Than Promised: An informal history of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: King County Department of Metropolitan Services, 1995); Robert C. Wing, A Century of Service: The Puget Power Story (Bellevue: Puget Sound Power & Light).
Note: This entry was updated on March 13, 2009, corrected on May 27, 2009, and revised on January 8, 2019.

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