Mysterious demise of Pacific NW streetcars solved

Seattle cable car at Third & Yesler in 1940. Courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives

By Keith Seinfeld

Today’s stylish way to get from your high-tech office to an urbane lunch date was once so old, rickety and decrepit that it was melted into scrap-metal.

The revival of streetcars in Tacoma and Seattle would be a surprise to our civic leaders from the 1930’s. But they used to be prolific throughout the Northwest. What happened? Was it a conspiracy, or just the changing tides of fashion?


In the beginning

If you roam the streets of Seattle or Tacoma, Olympia or Bellingham, you might spot the ghosts of an electric streetcar. In the early 20th century, a public transit system of streetcars linked neighborhoods to downtowns in most cities.

By the 1940’s, they were gone.

(Here is an amazing historical, industrial 1940’s film documenting the end of Seattle's streetcar era, with scenes of trolleys in many Seattle neighborhoods and footage of Mayor Langlie announcing the end of the streetcar era.)


What happened? Conspiracy?

Partly, cars and buses became the new cool, modern technology, and the streetcar companies started adding buses as extensions. Paved roads were proliferating.

Portland – ever the transportation trend-setter – was experimenting with replacing a streetcar line with buses in the early 1930’s. Then, in 1938, Tacoma scrapped all of its trolleys and promoted itself as the first city in the west with a completely modern transit system, featuring sleek new buses.

The trend also had a sinister side. A secret cartel involving General Motors and Standard Oil, among others, was buying up streetcar lines in other American cities, outside the northwest, and converting them to buses. They ran a national advertising campaign, portraying buses as the wave of the future (as talked about in the excerpt to the right, from the 1996 documentary, "Taken for a Ride").

“And they made them sound sexy, and the people who bought those systems were modern,” said Scott Rutherford, a professor of civil engineering who teaches transportation planning at the University of Washington. “And buses were flexible. Trolleys would get stuck behind things and couldn’t go around.”


Buses vs. streetcars

Two buses are stopped at the corner of 11th and Pacific in front of Peoples Store to pick up passengers in early February of 1939. Courtesy of Tacoma Public Library. Workers use a special lever to pry up the street car tracks on Tacoma's Pacific Avenue in June of 1939.  Courtesy of Tacoma Public Library.

In Seattle, a bitter political fight broke out over buses versus streetcars. It lasted nearly a decade – and sounds strangely similar to the more recent debate over what to do with the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The city owned its trolleys, but the system was broke and falling apart. Should it be rehabilitated or replaced?

Experts were consulted, committees were formed. Eventually, outside financiers offered cheap  loans to go with buses instead.

But, voters said no to the bonds needed to pay for the transition.

Finally, in 1938, a new a mayor came in – Alfred Langlie. He negotiated a federal bailout loan, which would retire the streetcar system’s debt if the city switched to buses. The mayor explained, the city had no real choice: 

“As you know our transportation system for a number of years has been in very bad shape. We didn’t know how much longer we might be able to continue to operate the present system, but we did know that it couldn’t be for very long.” [speaking in an undated newsreel from the late 1930’s]

By April of 1941, Seattle had ripped up 230 miles of streetcar lines, melting them into steel for the war effort – and becoming the largest city in the country at that time to have no streetcars. Instead, the city got the electric trolley-bus system we still have today.


The mystery solved

Neglect it and you’ll lose it. Simple as that.

The biggest reason for the demise of the streetcar system was financial trouble … in Seattle, as in many cities. 

Rutherford says the way trolley lines originally evolved left them crippled later: “The regulatory agencies wouldn’t let them raise the fares. They had nickel fares, and costs went up and the revenue didn’t,” so maintenance and upgrades never happened. Tracks and cars were wearing out.

“If you were a transit company you had to maintain the rails, but bus companies don’t have to maintain the roads – they just used them,” said Rutherford.


What’s old is new and cool

In Tacoma, the streetcar idea is making a modest comeback. A modern, but short, trolley line connects the Tacoma Dome to downtown.

On a January afternoon, the 5 p.m. train was fairly full. Passengers like Holland Green say it’s a pleasant ride on the sparkling clean streetcar, but that’s not the biggest attraction:

“I ride it because it’s free and I can get the free parking … I don’t have to worry about incurring any fees or having to run out to the meter.”

Others, like Morgan Alexander say these new cars are nice enough, but he yearns for the trolleys you see in sepia photos.

“There was just something magical going on…. There was this whole other world that was going on, that’s missing now.”

 Alexander owns the Amocat Café and is a bit of a community activist. A few years ago, he started wondering about Tacoma’s streetcar past.

“I went to the library and they have this whole book of the old maps. It really is amazing how extensive the network was.”

It was a revelation – spreading out a map showing streetcars going everywhere. “What if …” he started wondering.

“What would have happened if they hadn’t been torn up? I wonder how the city would have developed, and that led to, I wonder what would it take to get them back.”

 That’s how he became a Tacoma streetcar crusader.  The city is actually studying the feasibility of adding extensions to its token streetcar, which might cost about $20 million per mile.


But, how wonderful was that bygone era?

The electric streetcars of the early 1900’s were connected to real estate schemes.

“They were privately developed as a way to sell land outside the central cities, because there was no good way to travel there, so developers built them,” said Rutherford.

Capitol Hill electric trolley, circa 1903. Courtesy of Seattle Municipal ArchivesElectric power companies built lines, too, to promote electricity use. Dozens of lines were built, connecting new neighborhoods to downtowns. By the 1920’s, these separately-owned lines consolidated into transit systems.

That’s when Paul and Ted Edquist started riding it in Seattle, form their home in West Seattle.

“And it was a thrill-ride to downtown. The conductor would open it wide up,” said Paul. “And they were starting to not do really good rail repair then, I guess, and that streetcar used to rock and roll through there,” across the trestle connecting to Spokane Street.

Paul is now 88 and his older brother Ted is 90.

The seats were very slick. And if you are a little boy in short pants and that car bounces and swerves, you are slipping off the seat all the time,” Ted recalls.

Along with some rough track, Ted remembers how noisy the trolleys were.

Not only people yelling at each other, but the bangety-bang on the railroad track and every time that track  turned, that thing would squeak and squawk something awful.”


Will streetcars replace buses?

Seattle Streetcar: South Lake Union.  Photo by Bejan/FlickrWith a new generation pining for streetcars, private developers once again see a benefit.

“My partner and I are downtown property owners and real believers in building downtown communities, and the streetcar was presented to us as a way of building community,” said Jim Falconer of the Vance Corporation, which has six office buildings in Seattle, near the South Lake Union streetcar.

 After seeing Portland’s new streetcar, he led a drive to get property owners to pay about half the construction cost of Seattle’s new line. They're touting it as a neighborhood amenity -- because now it’s streetcars, not buses, that are cool and modern.