Seattle was a Streetcar City. Then it Wasn’t. Here’s What Happened


In the 1930s, streetcars were the principal means of public transit in Seattle. The city had more than 230 miles of tracks. People rode to work on the streetcars, rode to school on them, and rode them downtown to the city’s great department stores. Yet, early in the 1940s, before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the city ripped out the tracks and replaced the streetcars with buses.

For years, I’ve heard people express their regret over that decision. Seattle people love streetcars — at least, the idea of them. In recent times, they’ve allowed their leaders to spend millions of dollars on two short streetcar lines that hardly go anywhere and aren’t connected. Now the city has a plan to spend millions more to connect them in a line that still won’t amount to much. Yet the city once had a system that had lines to West Seattle and the Rainier Valley, to the U District and Ballard, and a web of lines covering Queen Anne, Capitol Hill, and the Central District.

Here and there, you can see where the lines ran. A street will seem unusually wide, such as Greenlake Avenue North south of Woodland Park, or will have a median strip, such as 8th Avenue Northwest in Ballard. Those ghosts were once streetcar lines.

Was it a mistake to scrap them? A look at the history suggests that it was a good decision, and one that hardly could have been avoided.

The first electric streetcars in Seattle came in the late 1880s. They were privately owned and operated for profit. In the days before automobiles, public transit was operated by private enterprise, without public subsidy.

Many of Seattle’s electric streetcar lines were built by real estate developers. Their profit wasn’t from collecting nickels at the farebox, but from selling land accessible by this early transit. After the Panic of 1893, which included a real estate crash, many of the streetcar lines went bust. In 1900, Seattle’s ablest banker, Jacob Furth, gathered Seattle’s forlorn streetcar lines, except the Rainier Valley line, and sold them to the company now known as Puget Sound Energy, then called the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company. It provided the electricity the streetcars used.

The turn of the last century was an era of mergers. In 1901, financier J.P. Morgan (the Morgan of today’s Chase Bank) put together the largest merger in U.S. history to create U.S. Steel. The merger of Seattle’s streetcar lines was peanuts compared with that one, but the idea was the same — to create one modern, profitable operation out of a bunch of weaklings.

The downside was that Seattle’s streetcars came under the control of an East Coast company. (Puget was then owned by Stone & Webster, a company in Boston.) In the first years of the last century, a movement rose against private monopolies. One answer was to break them up; another was to socialize them, as when people created the Port of Seattle and Seattle City Light.

The chance for public ownership of the streetcars came in 1918, at the end of World War I. Seattle’s big wartime employers were the shipyards. Forty thousand workers were commuting to shipyards on the Duwamish and Elliott Bay, most of them getting there by streetcar. This was not entirely good news for Puget Sound Traction. War had brought inflation. The company’s streetcar workers were pushing for a big pay increase. If they didn’t get it, the workers threatened to quit en masse and go to work for the shipyards. Puget admitted that it needed to pay its workers more, but to do that, it needed to raise streetcar fares from a nickel to 6 or 7 cents. State law, however, limited streetcar fares to a nickel — if the lines were private. If they were public, the law didn’t apply.

Federal authorities were not interested in Seattle’s problems. They told the city that if the streetcars couldn’t get the men to work, Seattle’s shipyards would get no more federal contracts. That’s when Mayor Ole Hanson and the city council agreed to buy Puget’s streetcar system and turn it into a sister agency of City Light.

Mayor Hanson argued, “A city-owned utility, operated at cost, can surely furnish cheaper and better transportation than a company operated by absentee owners for profit. Under the plan of purchase, the receipts from car fare alone will pay for the company’s property and at the end of twenty years we will own it.”

The price for 206 miles of street railway was set $15 million ($303 million in today’s dollars) in 5-percent revenue bonds to be redeemed over 20 years.

Was it a fair price? Puget said it was. The engineers from the state said it was. The accountants hired by the city said it was. However, the city’s own accountant, Isaac Comeaux, thought it was way too much. Because he disagreed with his boss, he secretly passed his calculations to City Councilman Oliver T. Erickson. Erickson had long been a champion of public ownership, so it was something of a shock when he argued that the $15-million price was double or triple what the lines were worth.

Councilman Erickson also said, “If we buy this property and the motor vehicle continues to make such inroads on the trolley system as it has in the last five years, we may wake up and find ourselves driving a white elephant. And the fancy price paid may make adjustment to new conditions extremely difficult.”

And that’s what happened.

In November 1918, Seattle voters approved by a 3-to-1 vote the $15-million deal. In 1919, the city took over the lines and handed over the bonds. In 1920, the city raised fares from a nickel to three rides for a quarter. And in 1921, revenues for the system were the highest they would ever be again.

In the 1920s, Seattle’s streetcar revenues were sucked up by the bondholders and the workers. There was no money or new streetcars, or much for maintenance, either. As Seattle people bought automobiles, streetcar ridership fell by one-third. In 1931 the Argus, a longtime Seattle weekly, wrote, “If anybody predicted fifteen years ago that the time would come when we would have miles and miles of rusty rails and rotten ties, sunken at the joints; that the service would be as rotten as the equipment; that the system would be plunging deeper into debt every day, that we would become so used to it that we would hardly criticize it, he would have looked at them with scorn. Yet that is what has happened.”

By 1929, the city had met its bond payments for 10 years, and had paid down the sum owed Puget from $15 million to $8.3 million. The streetcar boss, George Avery, said paying the rest from farebox revenue was not possible. He asked for a 2½-mill property tax.

Supporting public transit with taxes was a new idea, and established opinion was against it. The problem of the streetcar system, the Seattle Times said, was that it had been run by politicians; the answer was to put it in the hands of a businessman who knew how to make a profit. In the Depression year 1932, the city council handed over management of the city streetcar lines to Walter M. Brown, the president and principal stockholder of the city’s last remaining private line, the Seattle & Rainier Valley Railway, which ran to Renton. The Rainier Valley line was not much of a money-maker. It had defaulted on its bonds and was in terrible shape. But Brown was a businessman.

Brown wanted to impose pay cuts on the city workers, but he wasn’t allowed to do that. On some lines he cut out every other stop, so that the cars would move faster. His reforms saved money, but the public hated them — and at the next election they threw out the mayor, Robert Harlin. The new mayor-elect, John Dore, promised to fire Brown on his first day in office. Brown got the message and went back to his private streetcar line.

Dore kept most of his reforms, which did help. Still, for the next five years, Seattle’s municipal streetcar system was in constant crisis. Service was bad. The Depression was on, and property owners were in no mood to raise property taxes. All around the country, streetcars were dying. In Seattle, Walter Brown’s Rainier Valley line ran its last car on January 1, 1937. The city took over the tracks and cars, sold them for scrap and replaced them with buses.

Puget brought in a consultant from New York, and a plan was devised for the city system. The Seattle Municipal Street Railway would borrow $12 million ($255 million in today’s money) from Wall Street, pay off the remaining debt to Puget at 56 cents on the dollar, and buy a whole new system. It would not include streetcars; the new cars cost too much and weighed too much. To use modern streetcars, Seattle’s 200 miles of remaining track, much of it on wooden ties dating to the 1890s, would have to be replaced with new track laid in pavement. The New Deal had been willing to fund Grand Coulee Dam and would help fund the Mercer Island floating bridge — but not this. That meant for Seattle, it would be buses or nothing. The buses could be electric trolleys, but they would have rubber tires. No tracks.

In March 1937, this new deal was put to the people. Mayor Dore, who had no alternative plan, denounced the deal the council had made. In a debate with Councilman Arthur Langlie, who supported the deal, Dore called it a “wicked swindle” by Puget Power that was “so crooked it smells to high heaven.” Dore’s populism worked. Voters recalled the swindle of 1918 and voted 58 percent no.

A year later, when Dore was dead and Langlie was mayor, the plan came up again. The loan, which was from the federal government, was a bit less, and Puget’s share, 36 cents on the dollar, was less, but the plan was essentially the same. The streetcars would be replaced by buses, and 200 miles of tracks ripped out. The people of Seattle were not asked to vote on it. City officials just did it.

Were they wrong? Buses were what the city could afford. They were also safer, because buses come to the curb. Streetcars ran down the middle of the street, so that passengers getting on and off had to cross automobile traffic, and when the streetcar turned a corner, it had to cross automobile traffic, too. Every year, people were injured or killed in streetcar accidents.

Still, Seattle people loved their streetcars. Their votes suggest that most of them wanted nice, new ones, with no increase in taxes. And that was not possible. Langlie gave voters  the system they needed, and they accepted it. It was not a bad decision. Probably it was the only decision. No other plan was seriously offered.


Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey
Bruce Ramsey was a business reporter and columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in the 1980s and 1990s and from 2000 to his retirement in 2013 was an editorial writer and columnist for the Seattle Times. He is the author of The Panic of 1893: The Untold Story of Washington State’s first Depression, and is at work on a history of Seattle in the 1930s. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Anne.


  1. … this is really about the ferries, isn’t it? “Isn’t that bridge built yet?” “No, son, and it won’t be, until free hands on both sides of the Big Ditch can push the same button at the same time.”

  2. Bruce Ramsey’s comprehensive history of street cars in Seattle is a history lesson well worth the research that went into it. Vis-a-vis today’s transportation issues analogies to the past as lessons for the future tend to fail. Circumstances and changes have altered the landscape.
    The key to transportation is not whether people “fall in love” with one form of transportation or another; the key is what works often for the few who have no other choice.
    The rest of the developed world, and the developing world have settled the issue. Cities have built intterlaced transportation systems including subways, suburban lines that usually enter a city center sharing rails with in-town subways and in some cases downtown trolleys, plus busses, and cabs. These are not either-or choices. They are all needed for public transport.
    While Mr. Ramsey outlines the struggle over who owned the city’s former trolley lines, a basic point is lost. Public transportation systems in most cities outside the United States are considered just that: public. Most systems operate at a loss and were rarely conceived of as profit centers or part of private enterprise. The period in Mr Ramsey’s history is also the period when monopolies were in vogue and the “robber barons” of industry held sway. Monopolies have since been declared illegal for good reasons.
    The long range rail systems in the US followed similar histories. Now we have Amtrak as a quasi-public corporation that gets its subsidies from Congress. But the basic concept is: public transport is not a private enterprise and should not have to meet the demands of profit and loss on a balance sheet.
    After decades of struggle and debate the US is finally approaching the understanding that health care is a public necessity and while the for profit model delivered high quality medical care to those who could afford it, tens of millions of people had little or no care. Medicare and Medicaid are now the first steps in the model that says health is a public necessity and right.
    Transportation is no different. People need to get from point A to point B and back.There are choices to be made, but until the country and cities recognize the public nature of transportation the argument will be stuck on whether one or another line is needed. Ask any disabeled person in NY the challenge they face using the country’s biggest public transportation system built by public interests who, like Seattle, gave up when profits disappeared and never considered the needs of the public, or the disabled. The issues of where, when, and how are complex, but solutions all start with basic principles.
    “Lines to nowhere” often become lines to somewhere, or as is the case with light rail throughout Seattle and neighboring townships, the housing that is being built around and near the stations tell you what developers know and understand. Build public transportation and the people will come.

  3. Interesting. I once read that the automobile companies bought up the private street car companies in many cities to remove the competition. Bill Stafford

    • Actually it was a management group called National City Lines, which was owned indirectly by General Motors. They would come into a city transit company that was struggling to operate on farebox revenue and make them a deal they couldn’t refuse. Soon after taking over the management cuts would be made and buses would be ordered to replace street cars, GM buses. GM knew that people didn’t like buses and they were less efficient than rail systems. They knew that rapid suburbanization would force transit out of the picture as newer suburbs were designed to serve automobiles only. The result was increasing auto ownership which the automakers wanted in the first place.

      • 60 MINUTES reported and produced a story on the assassination of Los Angeles’ tram lines soon after the Second World War. John Cox gets it right. In addition we discovered via the court case that went on for years against the consortium of assassines that included GM, Firestone and Ford “hidden” by their front corporation, that their technique was that once they had bought a tram line, the first thing they did was to reduce service on the outer legs of the lines where ridership was weakest. Then they went to the city and town councils and lobbied for the right to end service along those outer routes. Once permission was given, the rails were torn up within 24 hours to make sure there was no resurrection.
        The consortia lost the case. The monetary loss was $1 as the age of the case made the entire mess an artifact that couldn’t be properly calculated. A sad symbolic victory.

  4. Much has been made about how the car companies bought up LAos Angeles’ streetcar lines to kill them. I don’t know the facts of the LA system’s demise, but considering how Seattle’s and other cities’ lines were failing without the help of wicked Detroit conspiracies, there may be less to that account than meets the hype.
    The streetcar companies themselves weren’t above conniving to kill the competition: they persuaded cities to ban the jitneys that provide fast, cheap,and flexible collective transportation where people needed to go now, not where developers wanted them to go–on grounds the jitneys were unsafe. Bruce nicely skewers the myth of streetcar safety. (Side note: my great-uncle Emmanuel was killed by a Boston streetcar on Christmas Eve. A sunken streetcar track on Westlake came close to doing the same to me when a pushy driver forced me and my into bike into it.)
    Spare a cheer for Seattle’s foresight in keeping its overhead trolley lines when it tore out the tracks below (one of only five or so cities to do so). Trolley buses preserved the streetcars’ one big advantage for people who weren’t developers: running on current rather than belching diesel fumes. And unlike metal streetcar wheels, their tires can actually climb Seattle’s hills. For a tenth the capital cost of the ID-to-Broadway streetcar line, the city could have run trolley buses straight up Yesler Way, past Harborview and Yesler Terrace, and reached Broadway in half the time and distance the streetcar must take to avoid climbing.
    Foresight, alas, is a quality that atrophies with disuse, as this city’s history so often shows. Thanks to Bruce for illuminating another example.

    • I would love to take the wonderful old Queen Anne counterbalance streetcar up Queen Anne Avenue North. Just the idea of it is charming. As Paul Dorpat has written on History Link, “electric trolleys aided by a system of counterbalances — up for power, down for brakes. ” The QA trolley streetcar stopped running in 1970, I believe, which was a little bit before my time. And the tracks were taken out even earlier, during the Second World War. I don’t know if anyone is around who remembers the old counterbalance. I’d love to hear from them.

  5. You can still see the remnants of Seattle’s streetcar system in retaining walls held together by old trolley rails. The most accessible is the north retaining wall under the freeway at South Jackson Street.

    The city also recycled the trolley rails as posts in outdoor staircases. If you see a wooden railiong on a staircase outside, look at the post. Most are old rails.

  6. You conveniently left out the part where the oil and asphalt industry was, as they do today, lobbying extensively to get rid of streetcars (and every other form of transit). Their second greatest success, after getting rid of streetcars and the Interurban, was the 18th Amendment to the Washington State Constitution, which declares that gas taxes can only be used for roads, highways, and bridges. While the Amendment has been tinkered with, and ferries were deemed to be part of the highway system, that has hampered investments in transit for more than 80 years.

    I greatly appreciate Peter Herford’s comparison of transit to the health care system. It is long past time to recognize that these systems are so inherently important, they save taxpayers in the long run.

    • David Brewster’s timely suggestion of jitneys has a model that is effective in what may be the best served public transport city in the world: Hong Kong. Hong Kong has a far reaching subway system throughout a city that is challening in its verticality and the densest population of any city in the world. The subway system is efficiently run, s much so, that trains run at less than 3 minutes apart during rush hours to accomodate the flow of riders. Next level is a bus system that intersectts with subway stops and covers the parts of the city less accessible to subway stops. Then come to the local neighborhoods which are served by Hong Kong “jitneys”, 16 passenger buses that are owned and operated under license by individual drivers who have franchised routes. many of these jitneys serve as school busses for the young who travel at low or no subsidized rates. And lest anyone forget, and they are hard to forget, are the trams that date from the early pats of the 20th century, double decks that travel at crawling speed. The tracks run all over Hong Kong city often nose to tail. A pedestrian is rarely more than mnutes away from a choice of any of these public transport systems. Dream on.

      • The Philippines has these, instead called “Jeepneys”, as they were made from Jeeps left behind by the American military after World War II. The big issue now is replacing those gas-guzzlers with upgraded models (electric?), while still maintaining their traffic flexibility and the wonderfully gaudy paint jobs.

  7. Excellent piece. I was disappointed when the waterfront streetcar was shutdown. I was hoping it would expand to South Lake Union and the stadium district. Sadly I don’t think it will ever happen with the streetcars being sold.

  8. Great article; thanks for the detailed historical perspective. Interesting to note that the proposed 1st Ave. 1.3- mile connector project’s estimated $300million+ cost would be about the same as the value of the 1918 206-mile network, adjusted for inflation, despite being less than 1% of the network’s distance. And even that was considered to be way over priced. The article also constructively brought to light the streetcar’s hightened dangers, particularly to pedestrians (but fast forward, to two wheelers and vehicles as well). This is a major red flag for the proposed connector in this, the most pedestrian-dense zone in the city

  9. You helped unravel aspects of our PNW public transportation system. It might be useful to also shine a light on our cable cars – we were at one time the San Franisco of the north (including the thrilling Queen Anne Counterbalance ride, which I recall as young boy returning from Frederick and Nelson with my mother). If you would like an earlier version of this urban travel adventure see my 2002 book, “The Last Electric Trolley,” Tommie Press, Seattle.

    • Wonderful! Back then, you had no idea that outing to “Fredericks'” with your mother would become an unbearably sweet memory. Back then, you were just going about your day.


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