WHILE LEADING HISTORICAL tours in West Seattle’s shopping hub, which in 1907 was named The Junction for its streetcar intersection, I often assert that transportation fuels our very existence. It guides where we reside, work and play. To live, we’ve gotta move.
This, of course, applied at the turn of the 20th century, when autos were new and owned by only a few. So to quickly cross town, Seattleites frequently rode the rails of a cable car or electric streetcar. Originally charted by 13 companies, the routes evolved into a grid that gave shape to downtown and outlying neighborhoods (dubbed “streetcar suburbs”).
To document this, historian Leslie Blanchard, a longtime city engineer, assembled a landmark book, “The Street Railway Era in Seattle: A Chronicle of Six Decades,” published in 1968.
Enter Mike Bergman.
Growing up atop Queen Anne Hill, Bergman pestered trolley-bus drivers about how their vehicles worked. Clerking at the downtown library in 1968 while a senior at the old Queen Anne High School, he repeatedly observed Blanchard examining documents, and even introduced himself to the researcher. The seeds of Bergman’s future were growing.
Fifty-three years later, he is a retired planner, with 16 years at Sound Transit and 20 years at King County Metro. Emulating Blanchard with countless study hours at the Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive in Burien, Bergman has produced his own large-format book, “Seattle’s Streetcar Era: An Illustrated History 1884- 1941,” which will be published by WSU Press.
Blanchard’s 1968 primer is long out of print. Surviving copies go for hundreds of dollars online. But Bergman’s book, with 130 crisply reproduced historical photos and 13 new maps, offers a fresh chance to, as he writes, “give the reader more of a feeling of being there.”
That feeling — in today’s city of 737,000 people, clogged with 461,000 cars — might be elusive. But Bergman’s book evokes the social and political trends of a time when citizens surmounted Seattle’s legendary hills aboard railcars, akin to San Francisco’s famed fleet but enclosed because of our chillier clime.
Highlights include the saga of the Queen Anne counterbalance, the ingenious, gravity-powered underground rig that propelled cars up and down the district’s 18%-grade hill. Its can-do ethic reflected the era.
Bergman also charts the city’s bumpy takeover of the streetcar network in 1919, when yearly trips peaked at 133 million, as well as the system’s demise and conversion to rubber-tired buses by World War II.
Then, as now, civic debate over public transportation was rife. But as Bergman notes, today’s multijurisdictional light-rail web is steadily expanding while shaping a Seattle that just keeps moving.