clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
The Capitol Hill electric trolley line at 15th and Aloha circa 1903.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 64767

Filed under:

Looking back on Seattle streetcars and trolleys

We’re building out a new line—the latest in a long history

Seattle is building out a modern-day streetcar system. Two lines are currently operational: one in South Lake Union and another connecting Pioneer Square, the International District, First Hill, and Capitol Hill. A third line, the Center City Connector, is planned to bridge the gap between the two lines—but the process is moving slowly, with current estimates putting its opening day in 2025.

But Seattle has a long history with streetcars and trolleys dating back to 1884. Let’s take a look at some of Seattle’s earliest transportation systems—and some of our more recent streetcar and trolley developments.

Horse-drawn streetcars and the Lake Washington Cable Railway

Seattle’s earliest streetcars, operated by transit innovator Frank Osgood, ran down Second Avenue starting in 1884, pulled by horses. Eventually, that line reached the southern edge of Lake Union—and from there, steamboats would carry passengers to northern neighborhoods like Fremont. But a horse-drawn public transportation system wasn’t entirely practical to serve an entire city as hilly as Seattle.

So other investors started operating cars pulled by cables under the street—cable cars, like in similarly-hilly San Francisco—in 1889.

That first cable line carried passengers between Leschi and Pioneer Square. While the Seattle Times pointed out that it was a popular line for lake picnicking, Historylink observed that by connecting Elliott Bay steamers with Lake Washington ferries, the cable line created an early multi-modal transportation system.

A cable car derailed on Madison Street in January 1929.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 3258

Seattle Electric Railway

Meanwhile, electric streetcars had been unveiled in Virginia, and Osgood worked with a group of local investors to bring them to Seattle.

Before people actually saw the cars in action, there was a lot of fear around switching to electricity, as Historylink notes:

The use of electricity caused some public apprehension. Some feared that the newfangled streetcars would magnetize watches or zap pedestrians with bolts of lightning. Skeptics doubted their ability to master Seattle's steep grades.

Osgood tested Seattle’s first electric streetcar in 1889, and just days later began phasing out horses.

A 1901 Seattle Electric Railway car.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 2863

Other investors started building other lines to the University District, Woodland Park, and Madison Park. By 1892—just three years after testing the first electric streetcar—Seattle had almost 50 miles of streetcar track, plus 22 miles of cable rail. (By contrast, it’s been nearly a decade since the South Lake Union Streetcar line was completed.)

That boom included the Seattle Renton and Southern Railway, Seattle’s first interurban railroad, which started operations in 1891 and reached Renton in 1895. That line ran up Washington Street to 14th Avenue South, then to Jackson Street, then down Rainier Avenue. Seattle also completed its own municipal line to Ballard.

Utility holding company Stone and Webster started slowly buying up the various private light rail lines. They consolidated them under the Seattle Electric Railway Company, and in 1900 won a 40-year city agreement—although some cautioned that they were being given a transit monopoly.

Stone and Webster opened up their own interurban in 1902, which reached down to Kent. By 1910, that reached north to Everett, too.

The company wouldn’t finish their 40-year city agreement, though; in 1918, then-mayor Ole Hanson led the effort for the city to buy Stone and Webster’s Seattle lines for $15 million—triple their value. Voters approved the sale, and making the line owned by the city.

Ole Hanson rides a streetcar over the University Bridge during a line dedication in 1919.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 12660

Decline of the original streetcars

This was the beginning of the end of Seattle’s streetcars. Because the city had bought the streetcars at a high price, the system was riddled with debt, and the State Supreme Court blocked subsidies to the system, forcing them to operate on fare revenue alone. Attempts to refinance that debt failed after automakers pressured bond houses to deny the city.

Streetcar debt and operation became a hot-button political issue, contributing to mayor Bertha Knight Landes’s failed reelection campaign—and to her successor, Frank Edwards, being recalled two years later.

By 1936, the city’s railway system was running an operating deficit of $4 million, despite $11,000 per day in revenue from 26 electric streetcar routes and three cable car lines.

An electric trolley—or trackless trolley—in operation in 1937.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 11433

Enter trackless trolleys—the buses that run on electrical cables that are still familiar today. A city plan would have replaced the streetcars with those, but voters rejected the effort in 1937, fearing loss of transit service.

Still, the streetcar and cable cars’ days were numbered. Earlier that year, the Renton and Southern Railway had ceased operations. Interurban service to Everett ended just two years later in 1939; the cable-car lines were abandoned the very next year.

New Deal agency Reconstruction Finance Corporation eventually loaned Seattle $10.2 million to buy off the rest of the streetcar’s debt and replace the system with buses and electric trolleys.

The last remaining streetcar completed its Ballard run on April 13, 1941. The tracks were sold for scrap.

The Yesler Way streetcar on its last day.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 39626

The waterfront trolley

Seattle City Councilmember George Benson first started floating the idea of running a trolley along existing tracks on the waterfront in 1974. The idea was initially called his “folly,” but by 1977 he got a green light from the city.

He then set out to find vintage trolleys to run on the line, and found them—in Melbourne, Australia. Then he found funding: in 1981 he convinced waterfront property owners to agree to a $1.2 million tax to fund the trolley.

The line made its inaugural run between Pioneer Square and Pier 70 on May 29, 1982, drawing 3,000 people.

The Seattle Waterfront Streetcar on its first day.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 78498

In 1990, the streetcar’s popularity inspired King County Metro to extend the line east to Union Station on the edge of Chinatown International District. Eventually, ridership reached 200,000 annually.

In a 1992 presentation to the International Light Rail conference, Benson said, “many Seattle citizens would sooner chop down the Space Needle than scrap the Streetcars.” But alas, the trolley line made its last run in 2005, when its maintenance barn was torn down to make way for the Olympic Sculpture Park.

While it was supposed to be only a two-year disruption, city, county, and port officials ended up spending several years looking for a new location. Then deep-bore tunnel construction came through, putting streetcar operation on ice until after viaduct replacement. Ultimately, some tracks were lost to deep-bore tunnel construction.

In the meantime, King County Metro started running a somewhat-limited shuttle bus with poor ridership along the route. In the past year, the route switched to become kind of adjacent to the original route, instead.

With the Center City Connector slated to run along First Avenue, at this point, it could be redundant if it did ever come back. But an old trolley station is still standing in Pioneer Square as almost a monument to the old line—and to confuse people trying to catch the First Hill Streetcar a block away.

Modern day streetcars: SLU, First Hill, and Center City

In 2006, Seattle broke ground on the first streetcar line of the current wave: the 1.3-mile The South Lake Union Streetcar.

Vulcan, a a major booster of the streetcar project, claims that the name was always South Lake Union Streetcar, but it’s still known to many as the South Lake Union Trolley—and the decade-old acronym-based joke is still on t-shirts.

The South Lake Union Streetcar on its opening day.
Courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, item No. 156925

The jokey t-shirts had a real concern behind them, though: the Cascade neighborhood was rapidly being eclipsed under the South Lake Union umbrella as rapid development entered the neighborhood. “We learned how fun it is to change the name of things,” t-shirt co-creator Don Clifton said at the time.

“I don't care what you call it, as long as you ride it,” said then-mayor Greg Nickels.

Jokes and controversy aside, 8,460 people rode the streetcar on its first day, exceeding ridership expectations. It would be almost a decade before the new streetcar system exceeded that 1.3 miles, though.

The First Hill Streetcar, originally proposed as an alternative to abandoned plans for a light rail stop in the neighborhood, broke ground in April 2012. It was originally supposed to open in 2014, but supplier Inkeon fell behind schedule, pushing the opening date back two years.

The line finally opened with a soft launch on January 23, 2016 and a big grand opening during Lunar New Year celebrations on February 13.

Lower-than-expected 2016 ridership on the line led to some concerns, especially from city councilmember Lisa Herbold, about accepting federal money for the planned Center City Connector. Mounting cost overruns prompted Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to place the project on ice starting in March 2018, pending further review—which found that costs were much higher than estimated, but ridership would be improved on all three lines with the downtown connection.

The hold was lifted in early 2019, and the Center City connector is slated to begin service in 2025—connecting the two existing lines. It’s a far cry from 50 miles in three years, but it’s a start.

Editor’s note: This story was first published on September 18, 2017. It has been updated with more current information.