Seattle's streetcar history
Frank Osgood, widely known as the father of Seattle's public-transportation system, begins operating a horse-drawn trolley on Sept. 23. Passengers pay a nickel for...
From horse-drawn trolleys, to the Interurban, to the sleek new South Lake Union trains, streetcars have come and gone over the years.
Frank Osgood, widely known as the father of Seattle's public-transportation system, begins operating a horse-drawn trolley on Sept. 23. Passengers pay a nickel for a trip along steel tracks, laid in the mud of Second Avenue.
Osgood's horses — known also as "hayburners" — had trouble with Seattle's hills, so cars pulled by cables beneath the street are introduced. The Lake Washington Cable Railway, linking Leschi and Pioneer Square, is especially popular in the summer, when people ride along Yesler Way or Madison Street for a picnic at the lake.
Osgood unveils Seattle's first electric streetcar, despite fears that the line would magnetize pocket watches and shock horses with stray bolts of electricity. On the first run, a car stalls, forcing passengers to push it to the end of the line.
Within days, horse-drawn trolleys are phased out, making Seattle the first West Coast city to offer fully electric streetcar service.
By 1891, streetcars and freight cars are sharing a precarious line to Interbay and Ballard.
Boston-based Stone & Webster, which also controlled the city's electrical grid, buys up Seattle streetcar lines and wins a 35-year streetcar franchise. The Seattle Times publishes guides on how to greet strangers, share a newspaper or give up a seat to an elderly rider. The first automobile also arrives in King County, but it will be years before many Seattleites own one.
Stone & Webster opens the Seattle-Tacoma Interurban Railway, which includes stops in Rainier Beach, Renton and Kent.
The Interurban is extended to Everett. Two years later, a Mount Vernon-to-Bellingham line opens, but a link to Everett and Seattle is never completed.
Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson agrees to buy Stone & Webster's Seattle lines for $15 million, three times the appraised value. A long decline begins, marked by poor equipment maintenance and money and labor troubles.
Highway 99 is completed between Tacoma and Seattle, and North Coast Lines begins bus service between the two cities. The interurban train service to Tacoma ends.
The state builds Aurora Bridge without streetcar tracks.
Seattle-Everett interurban service ends. Seattle residents vote to retain local streetcars, but automakers block needed financing.
Cable-car lines on Yesler, James and Madison streets are abandoned, despite citizen protests.
The federal Reconstruction Finance Corp. lends Seattle $10 million to retire streetcar debt, and to fund buses and trackless, rubber-tired electric trolleys.
On April 13, Seattle's last streetcar rolls into the Fremont car barn after its morning run. The tracks are sold for scrap.
Seattle City Councilman George Benson proposes a streetcar line; other council members are unconvinced.
The 1.6-mile, $3.2 million Seattle waterfront streetcar along Alaskan Way begins service. Benson, its main advocate, traveled to Melbourne, Australia, to negotiate the purchase of the 1920s-vintage wood-paneled cars. The line was later extended a half-mile to Union Station.
The waterfront streetcar line is renamed the George Benson Waterfront Streetcar Line.
The waterfront streetcar's maintenance barn is torn down to make way for the Olympic Sculpture Park. Meanwhile, the Seattle City Council approves the finance plan for a new South Lake Union streetcar, including a tax on nearby landowners to pay half the $52 million cost.
On July 7, the city breaks ground on the South Lake Union streetcar line.
Testing begins in October for the new streetcar, to open Dec. 12
Compiled by Rick Lund and Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times staff. Sources: Seattle Times archives, HistoryLink.org and The Street Railway Era in Seattle by Leslie Blanchard
The information in this article, originally published December 10, 2007, was corrected December 11, 2007. Cable-car service in Seattle ended in 1940. A historical time line said cable-car lines were abandoned in 1938, but that was the year the shutdown was announced.
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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