Seattle's Streetcar Era: An Illustrated History

Last revised: May 4, 2023

By: Adam Burns

"Seattle's Streetcar Era: An Illustrated History" is a book by Mike Bergman detailing the city's history of public transportation by rail.

Seattle's streetcar operation grew from a collection of small, horse-powered systems in the 19th century into a modern, electrified network.

Similar systems could be found throughout cities large and small across the United States at this time.

During an era predating the automobile and paved highways, the streetcar was viewed as the fastest, most reliable, and best way to move large volumes of people within an urban setting.

Interestingly, it was also seen as very clean and highly efficient, in contrast to sooty and dirty steam railroads that relied on coal-powered locomotives.

Alas, those who financed and built these zero-emissions systems could never have foreseen their short-lived accomplishments.  

The Ford Model-T was unveiled in 1908, during the height of the streetcar and interurban movement.  While it was not the first automobile ever built, it was the first produced on a large scale that was easily affordable to millions of Americans.

Despite the country's relatively poor roads at the beginning of the 20th century, the automobile still offered unprecedented freedom and the streetcar/interurban was the first to feel the effects.

As William Middleton notes in his book, "Traction Classics: The Interurbans, Extra Fast & Extra Fare, Volume II," by the end of World War I, interurbans were already experiencing financial difficulty.  Most streetcar systems were in a similar position.

The interurban and streetcar are technically two different operations although both carried many similar characteristics, including facing mounting losses by the 1920s.

The former was an intercity operation that linked two or more urban centers while the latter served a specific city or town and typically maintained its trackage on city streets.

The interurban enjoyed somewhat better success since they usually enjoyed greater freight traffic volume, which earned more than passenger fare.  However, both struggled to compete against the automobile.  

"Seattle's Streetcar Era" goes into great detail regarding the city's streetcar system.  It began in 1884 when Frank Osgood's Seattle Street Railway launched service on Second Avenue, which opened to the public on September 23rd between Pioneer Square and Pike Street.

As the book notes, Seattle had experienced tremendous growth between 1880 and 1890 (from 3,500 residents to 42,000), necessitating improved transportation in the downtown area near the Elliott Bay waterfront.

Much of the city's growth was thanks to the completion of America's second transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific Railway, which opened from Minneapolis/St. Paul to Tacoma in 1883. 

Direct service to Seattle, via Pasco, Washington was later completed in the spring of 1888.  In addition, the Great Northern Railway, following a different routing, also linked the Twin Cities with Seattle just five years later in 1893.

Horse or mule-drawn streetcars offered the fastest startup for new operations, whether in Seattle or any other city.  However, as operators quickly learned the animals required a great deal of maintenance and care.

In 1870, Zenobe Gramme unveiled a generator for commercial use while Werner von Siemens showcased the world's first electric locomotive at an exhibition in Berlin, Germany during 1879.  

Then, 1880 Thomas Edison tested an experimental electric locomotive, powered by a dynamo, which was operated on a stretch of track in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Finally, in 1886 Frank Sprague developed an electric motorcar in 1886 for the New York Elevated Railway whereby the motor(s) were situated between the axle, along with a trolley pole and multiple-unit control stand.  

This was the birth of the electrified streetcar, and systems around the country soon replaced their horse drawn operations with these newfangled machines.

Seattle's first electric streetcar, as Mr. Bergman notes, entered service on March 31, 1889.  It was part of the new Seattle Electric Railway & Power Company, which had absorbed the Seattle Street Railway.

The book goes on discuss all of the city's early, privately operated streetcar and cable car systems (the latter needed for steep graded streets, rampant throughout Seattle). 

Seattle's Cable Car Lines

  • Seattle City Railway

  • Madison Street Cable Railway Company

  • West Seattle Cable Railway

  • Front Street Cable Railway

  • Union Trunk Line

Seattle's Streetcar Lines

  • Seattle Electric Railway & Power Company

  • West Street & North End Electric Railway

  • Woodland Park Electric Railway

  • Rainier Power & Railway Company

  • The Union Trunk Line

  • Rainier Avenue Electric Railway

  • Grant Street Electric Railway

All of these properties eventually came under the Seattle Electric Railway umbrella, thanks largely to the financial Panic of 1893 that saw many of these small operations in ruin.

As Mr. Bergman's book notes, the Seattle Electric would later be reorganized as the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company (PSTL&P) in 1912.

This new operation, owned by a Boston engineering firm (Stone & Webster), was a consolidation of several streetcar systems and power utilities under a single entity (PSTL&P).

Private operation of Seattle's streetcar system ended on April 1, 1919 when the city acquired the properties and merged them into the new Municipal Railway.

By this time, most of the city's streetcar lines had already long been established although some improvements were made here and there. 

Its very last extension occurred in 1931 when a 1.8-mile section was opened from Spokane to Graham Street, situated along the Route 12/Jefferson Park line.

Mr. Bergman's book not only offers great information regarding all of Seattle's streetcar operations but also describes how the many private lines were originally combined to create a modern, unified network.

These disconnected systems were often inefficient and even cannibalized each other's business due to their close proximity.

The influx of increasingly more automobiles and highways eventually led to the abandonment of Seattle's streetcar network, replaced by buses and trolley coaches (trackless trolleys, which were essentially a bus chassis powered by overhead catenary).  

This conversion was hastily completed in 1940, although a few lines held out until April, 1941.  Ironically, the United States' involvement in World War II after December 7, 1941 led to unprecedented levels of renewed passenger traffic.

Some cities, which had shuttered their streetcar systems but still had the equipment in place, moved quickly to reactivate them.  However, Seattle did not have this option, having already removed its network.

If you enjoy streetcar history, and that of the Pacific Northwest in particular, you will certainly enjoy "Seattle's Streetcar Era: An Illustrated History."  The book is published by the Washington State University Press and can be purchased here.

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It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website. 

It is quite staggering and a must visit!