What could have been: A subway from Magnolia Bluff to Madison Park (with a few transfers), among other neighborhoods.

On March 5, 1912, some 40,000 Seattleites filed into voting booths across the city to decide whether its future would be directed by a 273-page comprehensive plan designed by civil engineer Virgil G. Bogue, a practitioner of nationwide “City Beautiful” movement.

The plan was bold and ambitious, fitting for a newly-christened city that was in the middle of a massive period of growth following the Great Fire of 1889 and the Alaska-Pacific-Yukon Exhibition of 1909, capitalizing on recent public works projects by city engineer R. H. Thomson (for whom the R. H. Thomson Expressway was to be named). Thomson’s ongoing regrade of Denny Hill would provide 38 acres of flat land for a grand, European-style civic center in modern-day Belltown. The civic center would feature a central train station (replacing the then-new King Street Station) and a city hall designed in the Beaux-Arts architectural style, resembling Paris more than New York (with a strict height limit on buildings, advocated for by Bogue).

Over 60,000 acres of parkland, building upon an earlier plan by the Olmsted Brothers, stretched along tree-lined boulevards in the city and beyond to the Eastside; in his plan, Bogue proposed that the 4,000-acre Mercer Island be acquired for a “people’s playground, worthy of the city of millions which will someday surround Lake Washington”. A network of highways would radiate out from the city, providing wide, free-flowing roads for recreational automobiles that would serve suburban areas outside of the city limits.

By far the most ambitious part of Bogue’s vision was its 90 miles of rail transit, something present in a handful of American cities at a time when streetcars and interurbans ruled city streets. The network spanned from Burien to Lake City and, when overlaid over a modern map of the city, has striking similarities to corridors part of ST3 and visions from modern transit advocates. The downtown spine (Route 1) follows the path of the modern transit tunnel, Route 7 is a variant of the popular Ballard-UW subway, and Route 2 mirrors the Interbay routing of the Ballard-Downtown light rail line approved in ST3. There are, of course, oddities left over from the era, including a looping surface-level line on Queen Anne Hill to serve the city’s elites, re-using the interurban right-of-way to the north and south of the city, and prioritizing service to Fort Lawton in Magnolia, at the time an active military post.

A description of each subway route can be found in the plan’s third appendix, but I’ve summarized them with modern neighborhood and street names:

  • Route 1: A trunk subway line under 3rd Avenue from the Civic Center to Jackson Street
  • Route 2: A subway line under 2nd Avenue from the Civic Center north to Ballard (via a bridge crossing the Ship Canal), and then cutting northwest on the surface to Golden Gardens Park via Loyal Heights
  • Route 3: A looping, elevated line serving Magnolia and Fort Lawton
  • Route 4: A subway from the Civic Center to Queen Anne Hill, with surface lines serving the hill in two loops
  • Route 5: A subway from the Civic Center to Fremont and Green Lake
  • Route 7: A subway from Ballard to Wallingford, the University District and Laurelhurst, and continuing north on Sand Point Way to Lake City
  • Route 8: A subway from the Civic Center to Eastlake, the University District, Roosevelt and Maple Leaf via Roosevelt Way
  • Route 9: A subway under Pine and Pike streets from Downtown to Capitol Hill and Madrona, ending at a ferry dock on Lake Washington
  • Route 10: A subway loop under Capitol Hill from First Hill to Volunteer Park, following Broadway and 19th Avenue
  • Route 11: An elevated line along Jackson Street, Dearborn Street and Day Street, serving Downtown (Pioneer Square), Chinatown, and Atlantic
  • Route 12: A subway from Atlantic to Lake City via the Central District, University of Washington, and Ravenna
  • Route 13: A short connecting subway between Eastlake and Montlake on the south side of Portage Bay
  • Route 14: A short, elevated line connecting Madison Park to Route 12
  • Route 15: An elevated line on Rainier Avenue to Rainier Beach
  • Route 16: An elevated line along the Duwamish River from Downtown to Georgetown and Tukwila
  • Route 17: A subway under 1st Avenue from Downtown to the Industrial District
  • Route 18: An elevated and surface line on Delridge Way from modern SODO to White Center and Burien (providing the main access to West Seattle)
  • Route 19: A short elevated line connecting Route 18 to West Seattle Junction
  • Route 20: A surface line from Alki to the Admiral District, connecting with Route 18 near Youngstown
  • Route 21: A surface line on California Avenue in West Seattle, from Fauntleroy to the Admiral District

It’s not hard to imagine how different the Seattle of today would have been, even if it had suffered partial dismantlement during the post-war era like other, older transit systems. The whole system was to be built by 1935 (though, in all likelihood, would have been delayed further or not fully built due to World War I and the Great Depression), with the elevated portions to be converted into subways at a later date. The development of a suburban transit system would have likely come in the late 20th century alongside other cities, but with the benefit of building a complementary system that would solely fit its role for suburban rail, rather than split the difference like Link will.

Bogue’s plan would sadly fail to convince the business establishment of the time, who feared that their downtown holdings (in modern-day Pioneer Square) would be left behind as the center of commerce shifted north to the new city center. All three of Seattle’s daily newspapers, the Daily TimesStar, and Post-Intelligencer, ran editorials against the plan, with the former warning adoption of the plan would result in a “lamentable spectacle” of taxpayer waste. The public were also unconvinced of the plan’s financing, with confusion over how such ambitious efforts would be funded.

A 10,000-vote margin may have rejected Bogue’s grand plans for Seattle, but its legacy lived on. The center of commerce would eventually move further and further north from Pioneer Square in the 1910s and 1920s, culminating in our modern-day boom in Denny Triangle and South Lake Union. The civic center was partially realized in the Seattle Center built for the World’s Fair, though without some of the civic buildings in the plan. And our modern light rail system will follow the same corridors plotted by Bogue a century ago, and other in the time since then, finally fulfilling the dream of an urban subway in Seattle.

I leave you with this poem composed by a self-described taxpayer in a letter to The Times on February 4, 1912:

The Seattle Times has run several great articles on the Bogue plan in retrospect, including this 1991 piece by editor Ross Anderson and this 1972 piece by historian Walt Crowley. I would highly recommend reading both, although the latter requires a Seattle Public Library card (which grants access to a vast archive of Times articles from 1895 onwards). Surely, by now, the paper has regretted its opposition to a forward-thinking transit plan, but only time will tell.

Below, I’ve embedded the full plan (courtesy of Archive.org; an alternate version can be found on Google Books), as well as my map of the rapid transit system overlaid onto Google Maps. The four original maps from the plan are also available on Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of the Seattle Public Library.

17 Replies to “Our Subway Plan, Rejected 105 Years Ago”

  1. Really interesting to see that Ross Anderson starts out his article saying how bad traffic had gotten, and that we’d outgrown our city. This was in 1991, 26 years ago.

    1. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

      If you say “traffic is bad,” you really mean “traffic is worse than what I am used to.”

      If you say, “we’ve outgrown the city,” you really mean “my static vision of a city no longer fits the reality of the dynamic city I live in”

    2. Look at actual photographs of many cities a hundred years ago. Difference was that jammed traffic was often horse-drawn. Causing both pollution and danger we can’t imagine.

      So many city dwellers would’ve considered a comfortable seat in an air conditioned vehicle to be sci-fi beyond belief. At pretty much same speed as carriage.

      Bicycles were some interesting part of history in those days too. Some think that it was the bicyclists who initiated pavement. So lay off complaints about bike lanes, everybody. You wouldn’t have liked changing a tire, even a hard rubber one, without the bicylists.


  2. Interesting network. A 3-seat ride from Madison Park to Civic Center, becoming a 4-seat ride to points south? That seems too much even for ultra frequent service, especially for distances of less than 3 miles.

  3. When was the first time anybody had any idea that the average person could ever own an automobile? And and a free-standing house surrounded by grass and trees? And that this country would ever be looking at a situation where greatest threat to freedom of movement was sheer number of cars?

    Third answer? Just getting started. Along with a generation of young people starting to feel the same way about the Wall of Malls as their many times great grandparents felt about life in tenements. Luckily, we can elevate and tunnel without killing a generation of Irishmen, Poles, Italians, Germans and other people our ethnic majority wanted vetted and deported for their very real terrorist history.

    Real question: Will ST’s present service area even be one block in the “Old Town” of Washington State? But at least LINK and other TBM-work will give us History’s greatest Underground!

    Mark Dublin

    1. I wonder if some voters took a look at this proposal and said “2035? By then, everyone will have cars, and we won’t need a subway or public transportation!” Sort of how some people nowadays say we don’t need light rail because driverless cars are in our future.

  4. These maps show 17th Ave NW in Ballard as an “Existing Arterial Highway”, which is hard to believe, considering how narrow it is. If it was a mislabeled “Proposed Arterial Highway”, that’s pretty cool that it ended up a Greenway, almost 100 years later.

    1. 15th is an arterial highway. Which map are you looking at? It may have meant 15th, or plans may have changed since then.

      14th and 8th are so wide they must have had streetcars.

      1. 8th Ave. NW had streetcars. 14th Ave. NW had a railroad spur serving industries south of Market St., most notably the Bardahl plant.

  5. Fascinating stuff. Even if only half of this would have been built it would have transformed the region.

  6. Great write-up! Sadly, that all of that plan most likely could have built for cheaper (in today’s dollars) that what we’re getting with ST3.

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