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Group wants to bring vintage trolleys back with the Center City Connector line

The trolleys made their last run in the mid-2000s

Seattle Municipal Archives item no. 78498

A group called Friends of the Benson Trolleys, who advocate for the preservation of the vintage Seattle streetcars that used to run along the waterfront, has launched a fundraising campaign to bring the old cars back to life.

The campaign was launched as early work begins on a streetcar line set to run along First Avenue—just east of the original line’s run. The group hopes to restore the trolleys, modifying them to be able to run on a higher-voltage line, and says that the feasibility stage alone could cost $28,000.

The waterfront trolley and its vintage vehicles are a prominent dot on Seattle’s streetcar history, popping up in a relatively streetcar-less era.

Seattle city councilor George Benson—the “Benson” in “Benson Trolleys”—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 he persisted, gaining success every step of the way: By 1977 he got a green light from the city. He found vintage trolleys for the line in Melbourne, Australia. In 1981 he convinced waterfront property owners to agree to a $1.2 million tax to fund the trolley.

After nearly a decade of work, the line made its inaugural run between Pioneer Square and Pier 70 on May 29, 1982, drawing 3,000 people.

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.” That turned out to not be true: The trolley line made its last run in 2005, when its maintenance barn was torn down to make way for the Olympic Sculpture Park.

The disruption was supposed to be temporary, but as the search for a new location stretched on, the deep-bore tunnel ultimately dashed those plans—first, halting plans until after the viaduct replacement (which is, currently, also years behind schedule), and next by removing some of the trolley tracks.

In the interim, three of the cars ended up going to St. Louis to operate on their Loop Trolley line. Two more are still in storage in Anacortes.

Which brings us to today. Although some federal funding is still in jeopardy, work has already begun to get the Center City connector ready service in 2020—connecting the two existing First Hill and South Lake Union lines. It’s the closest thing Seattle has to a plan to restore the old waterfront line, and Friends of the Benson Trolleys wants the vintage cars to be a part of it:

Running from the Chinatown-International District, through Pioneer Square, past the Pike Place Market and on to MOHAI, these vintage trolleys will connect the fabric of our historic neighborhoods and sites with an authentic historic experience that is increasingly hard to find in our city. In this time of record growth and change, it’s more important than ever to connect to our City’s history and cultural past.

SDOT, a spokesperson for the department said, “is working with [King County] Metro and the Friends group in support of their efforts to restore the Benson trollies to service on the Seattle Streetcar system.”

SDOT acknowledged that the trolleys would “need to meet modern safety and operational standards to run as a part of our modern streetcar system,” but that the department is “very supportive” of the current project.

This article has been updated with a statement from SDOT.