EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an edited excerpt from the new book “Transit: The Story of Public Transportation in the Puget Sound Region” by Jim Kershner.
BY 1935, SEATTLE’S 225-mile street railway system stood at a turning point. The automobile had stolen many of its passengers. The streetcars were old, in poor repair and leaking money.
To make matters worse, the system was still laboring under a crushing debt, dating from the day the city had purchased the system in 1919. The city still owed Puget Sound Power & Light $8 million. The power company offered to shave more than $3 million off the debt and accept $5 million, yet Seattle would have to borrow that money from the federal government, and the city would first have to deliver a sound plan for modernizing its transit system. The power company hired a respected engineering firm, the John C. Beeler Organization, to study Seattle’s street railway system and create a new, modern transit plan. This would allow the city to “start anew with a clean slate,” said Puget Sound Power & Light’s president, Frank McLaughlin.
The 1935 Beeler Report proposed a combined rail-bus system — familiar in outline to systems that would be proposed 70 years later. The plan would reduce the total railway mileage just a touch — from 225 to 195 miles. The report advised replacing several of the existing streetcar lines with buses — but only a few. This was hardly a “clean slate” solution, and the federal government refused to issue a New Deal loan.
In 1936, the city, the power company and Beeler cast their eyes toward New York bankers in hopes of getting a much bigger loan, as much as $12 million to $13 million, financed by a bond issue, to pay off the debt and completely modernize the Seattle transit system. The New York financiers refused any plan that attempted to merely tinker with the outmoded street railway system. That August, Beeler issued a new and far more controversial report. This one called for scrapping the street railway system entirely.
It proposed the purchase of 135 gasoline buses and 240 trackless trolleys, which were rubber-tired electric vehicles that dispensed with tracks, but not with overhead trolley wires. “We have only the alternatives of accepting it or of trying to keep on with our present dilapidated system, which has about reached its limit and is losing $500,000 to $600,000 a year,” said city councilman David E. Lockwood. “By accepting the syndicate’s plan, we would have all new equipment and better service which the people would patronize, no rail lines and broken-down cars to maintain at huge annual cost, and for all of this we would owe only about $1,500,000 more than we do now for a bunch of junk.”
Seattle Mayor John F. Dore and the Street Car Men’s Union continued to push a plan that would retain most of the street railways, but the bankers stood firm. One of those bankers, Guy C. Meyers, succinctly outlined the case against streetcars: “Streetcars, cumbersome and slow, will not weave in and out of modern traffic. They force passengers to go into the middle of busy streets to climb aboard. This factor … is corrected by the trackless trolley buses and gasoline buses.”
The council eventually settled on a $12.5 million bond issue, which would pay off the old debt and leave $5 million or $6 million for purchasing a brand-new rubber-tired transit system. Beeler claimed that the entire changeover from rails to rubber could be accomplished in 12 months.
THIS KICKED OFF a furious public debate leading up to the March 9, 1937, bond issue vote. Dore continued to oppose it, siding with the Street Car Men’s Union, which believed that it would cost its members jobs. Dore acidly pointed out that Beeler had previously declared trackless trolleys “impracticable” for Seattle, not to mention financially unsound, and “then he [Beeler] gets hired by these people [the financiers] and so now he says the trackless trolley is the only thing for Seattle.” On the other side, proponents of the plan printed elaborate brochures calling it a vote for modernization. “Horse Car Days Are Gone,” they declared in a headline.
The pro-streetcar forces were certainly not helped by the events of Jan. 8, 1937, when a streetcar on the Fauntleroy line in West Seattle slid out of control. “The car, roaring into the hairpin, with its air brakes apparently frozen after descending the Avalon Way hill, pitched off the tracks onto a heavy concrete pillar,” reported The Seattle Times. A headline blared, “Shattered Vehicle Totters on Edge of Guard Rail With Its Screaming Load of Dying and Injured Passengers.” Three passengers died, and 60 were injured. It was the worst streetcar tragedy in Seattle’s history.
The campaign culminated in a debate — often more of a shouting match — on the day before the election, between Mayor Dore and city councilman Arthur B. Langlie. About 6,000 people jammed the Civic Auditorium to cheer, boo, catcall and heckle. Dore went on the attack. He called the plan a “wicked swindle” and said it was “so crooked, it smells in high heaven.” He called it a scheme propagated by New York banks, not Seattle. He said the trackless trolley “is all right in its place; so’s a pig.”
Langlie retorted that the only person who had been swindled was “Honest John,” a sarcastic reference to Dore. Langlie suggested it was better to take the old, dangerous streetcars and burn them in a bonfire, rather than “burn them up on the Eastlake line, loaded with passengers.” Both men were greeted with jeers and applause. But in an omen of what was to come at the polls, Dore’s applause was louder.
On March 9, 1937, Seattle voters rejected the $12.5 million plan by a solid majority of 53,501 against versus 39,069 in favor. Dore relished the triumph and announced preliminary plans for a modest rehabilitation of the Seattle Municipal Street Railway, involving replacing streetcars as needed, “piece by piece.” Dore even floated a vague idea for subways in the congested areas, but admitted the money did not currently exist for that pipe dream. One new councilman, Hugh DeLacey, was swept into office by dredging up that ever-popular Seattle idea: the return of the nickel streetcar fare.
This bit of wishful thinking was spectacularly unsuited to the situation, because the Seattle Municipal Street Railway’s finances were worse than ever. Bankers continued to reject all loan proposals that included keeping the street railway intact. The system finally went bankrupt, and the city defaulted on its loan payments. Facing no good options, Dore was compelled to “confiscate” dimes and nickels directly out of the fare boxes to meet the workers’ payroll. Dore still vowed to prevent the demise of the street railway system but, as fate would have it, Dore met his demise first. He was defeated in the February 1938 primary and died on April 18, 1938. His old debating foe, Arthur Langlie, became mayor.
LANGLIE IMMEDIATELY set out to revive an old idea: financing a complete transit revamp by asking the federal government for a low-interest New Deal loan. This time, the government’s answer was yes. In June 1939, Seattle secured a $10.2 million loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, a New Deal recovery agency. The loan allocated $4.5 million to retire the system’s debt, $3.25 million of it going to Puget Sound Power & Light. That was only about 40% of what the city truly owed, but the power company agreed to this bargain price because of a “desire to give constructive aid in this situation,” according to a Puget Power historian — or possibly because, after 20 years, getting something was better than nothing. The rest went to the system’s other main creditor, the union workers. That left $5.7 million to purchase a whole new transit system. Some observers noted that this was about 38% of what the city had paid for its old transit system in 1919 — without even factoring in inflation.
Beeler issued one more report in 1939, laying out the plan for the new system. It called for scrapping the rail system, buying 235 trackless trolleys and 102 buses (for a total of 175 buses, counting the buses the city already owned). This report put to rest the debate over rail versus rubber, seemingly once and for all.
The new report, like the one from 1936, opted for trackless trolleys because it said they were more economical and had the advantage of loading at the curb. The report noted that trackless trolleys were the best fit for many of Seattle’s steepest routes — including the old cable-car routes — because no “self-propelled vehicle (bus) can exert a sustained tractive effort comparable to that of a vehicle of equal weight drawing its power from an electric power station.” This is one reason Seattle would retain its trackless trolleys to the present day, especially on steep routes.
THE 1939 REPORT set in motion the next great turning point in Seattle’s transit tale: the utter demise of Seattle’s entire street rail system. Beeler’s 12-month window for converting from rails to rubber proved a little optimistic, but not by much. New trackless trolley coaches and gas buses began arriving at the beginning of 1940. Exactly $1 million had been allocated to stringing new trolley wires to accommodate the two-wire trackless trolleys. Route by route, the new trolleys and buses began taking over, and the old trolley cars were trundled off to the wrecking yard. “A common sight on many a summer evening in 1940 was a long string of orange cars being hauled to the boneyard in Georgetown,” recalled streetcar historian Leslie Blanchard. That spring and summer, the three old cable-car lines — Madison, James, Yesler — along with the Queen Anne Counterbalance, were disassembled.
Sometimes, the final runs were celebrated with raucous “last mile” revels — in the case of the Counterbalance, far too raucous. A mob of 70 Queen Anne youths stormed the final trolley, pelted the passengers with corn cobs and tomatoes, broke out every window, and tossed the seats into the streets. Police rounded up 20 on vandalism charges, and the Counterbalance car limped into history. By spring 1941, the changeover was almost complete. On April 13, 1941, nothing remained except the final streetcar on the final rail route, the Eighth Avenue Northwest route.
“Compressed air sighed in the shadows at Second Avenue South and Main Street 1:02 o’clock this morning,” wrote a Seattle Times reporter that day. “The jaundiced bulk of the last streetcar to be operated in Seattle groaned, stirred, and moved uptown, starting and stopping slowly as if the lights hurt her eyes. Out in the dark suburban districts, she began going faster, waltzing tipsily on the old rails with a spurious jauntiness, like a tired dowager remembering her youth. But at the end of the 8th Avenue Northwest line, she groaned wearily again, and ground her lonely way to the Fremont car barns and the end of her career, like the dinosaur going off to die.”
Most of the dinosaurs were headed to the Northwest Steel Rolling Mills, where they would be junked for scrap. The Seattle Times indulged in a modest spread of nostalgic trolley photos, but also noted, “The city will engage in no official weeping.” In fact, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce declared it Seattle Transit Progress Week.
No trace remained of the old system, not even the name. It became the Seattle Transit System. Soon even the rails would be ripped from the streets. In the words of the late historian Walt Crowley, “After scrimping for more than a generation to secure clear title to its own street railway system, Seattle promptly dismantled it.”
A rails-to-rubber denouement had also played out in Tacoma. At the end of 1937, Tacoma Railway & Power placed orders for 85 motor coaches (buses) to replace the entire 76-mile streetcar track system. The company made the conversion to an all-bus system in the middle of 1938. Tacoma residents chose to celebrate the final streetcar day on June 11, 1938, with a series of raucous citywide parties, many taking place right inside the old cars. Life magazine photographers showed up to document the merriment, which included a barbershop chorus version of “The Old Streetcar Ain’t What She Used to Be,” led by Tacoma Railway & Power president Curtis Hill.
There was a whiff of bittersweet nostalgia amid the revelry. “Mayor John C. Siegle declared the day of their demise a public holiday to be celebrated with appropriate rites,” reported Life. Partygoers “were allowed to detach as souvenirs anything they could detach with their bare hands” — including the trolley bells and gongs. They stripped 21 streetcars in two hours. After a Gay ’90s dance at the Winthrop Hotel, revelers jumped on the last streetcar and rode it to the car barns, where the old trolley was, in the words of the mayor, “suitably cremated with public ceremony.” Many of the 10,000 celebrants looked on, “sentimentally sobered for the moment.”