On September 23, 1884, Seattle’s first public mass transit system commenced operations. The inaugural Seattle Street Railway line ran from Pioneer Square to Pike Street via Second Avenue. It only took 3 1/2 months to build the first line but planning for mass transit in Seattle had been going on for quite some time. In 1879 a franchise had been granted for a street railway system that included a line along Front Street (First Avenue) which was then Seattle’s main commercial district. The local merchants along Front Street however opposed the plan to lay tracks in front of their stores believing that the street railway would be a detriment to their fine businesses. After the original franchise expired, a young man who had recently arrived in Seattle, Frank Osgood, along with financial backing from Thomas Burke, David Denny and George Kinnear, proposed the Second Avenue line and they were granted a franchise by the Seattle City Council to build Seattle’s first street railway line. The original system consisted of 3 miles of track, 4 cars and 20 horses. Yes, Seattle’s first street railway was powered by one horse “engines”.

Fare on the original system was 5 cents and the system appears to have been popular. By the end of 1885 the line had been extended to provide hourly service to the Queen Anne neighborhood via First Avenue. Service to Lake Union was also provided every 2 hours. But there were some serious operating issues that were threatening the system’s viability. First, one horse wasn’t sufficient to pull the cars on the steep hills of downtown Seattle. In 1885 downtown Seattle hadn’t yet been regraded so it was necessary to add an extra horse to each car to maintain service. Unfortunately, the extra horses and the oats they ate were straining the system’s solvency. The corner of Front and Pike was also the scene of numerous derailments and a few injury accidents when the horses were unable to slow down while coming down the steep, pre-regrade hill from Pine Street. By 1886 it was clear that the horse-drawn rail car system was financially doomed and the investors began a search for a better propulsion system. Eventually the Seattle Street Railway system was converted to electric power and Seattle’s streetcar system expanded rapidly at the beginning of the 20th century.

In 1884, Seattle’s population was about 6,000 citizens. Today, the Seattle metropolitan area population is about 3.5 million. Transit service is still difficult to fully fund, the planning process is still too often dominated by short-sighted local interests and there still can be issues with service reliability. But it all started 133 years ago on September 23, 1884.

13 Replies to “Celebrating 133 Years of Mass Transit in Seattle”

  1. (Not sure if open thread but, in the spirit of celebrating milestones…)

    When the clock struck 5am, the 80-series of routes finally came to an end. I don’t know if anyone else did, but I rode the last 1.5 trips of the 84 (starting at the first turnaround at Madison Park at 2:30am) and Oran rode the last trip of -and his first ever trip on–the 82.

    My bus driver was very accommodating. He paused twice so I could take pictures of the front and side of our bus, chatted amiably with his regular riders (all of whom knew that the 84 would no longer operate after last night), and was very upbeat about the changes. He said that he’d *volunteered* to drive the E Line’s Owl trips. I was a little surprised that someone would volunteer and he said “it makes no difference to me; you open the doors and you close the doors and you drive safe and you let everything else roll off.” Very zen.

    The 84 occupied an interesting cubbyhole in my life because my household used it a lot when we lived in the CD and left on early morning Alaska Airlines flights. It was basically the only way to get to the airport that early. I also worked nights for the longest time while living there and the 84 rumbling past at 2:45 and then 3:45 on the weekends was my cue that bed time neared.

    If you’re interested in how Oran’s trip went, he posted running commentary on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/oranv/status/911537055217225728

    It was fun to read someone else being bus nerdy like I was, though I contented myself with just replying to some of his posts.

    Bring on the sane overnight network!

    1. The local merchants along Front Street however opposed the plan to lay tracks in front of their stores believing that the street railway would be a detriment to their fine businesses.

      Inaugurating the long and dishonorable tradition! Though, I’m surprised business owners would already oppose mass transit in the pre-automobile era. Were there also people who opposed paving streets for cars?

      Unfortunately, the extra horses and the oats they ate were straining the system’s solvency.

      High fuel prices. We know the problem well.

    2. Now I wish I had rode one of those last 83 rides.

      Years ago I would take the 83 from the u-dist to downtown for work. I think the one around 4am. It was always unnerving waiting for it because I was fearful that it would drive right past me. It actually did once but maybe a rider alerted the driver or something because it stopped mid-block and I was able to run to it. The quick ride to downtown was great. Then I would bike south of centurylink. Early morning fun.

  2. “The original system consisted of 3 miles of track, 4 cars and 20 horses.
    Seattle’s first street railway was powered by one horse engines.

    Such a likeable line could title the book you are writing, “One Horse Engines”
    Include plenty of Stephenson material.

    1. “In 1869, Andrew Smith Hallidie had the idea for a cable car system in San Francisco, reportedly after witnessing an accident where a streetcar drawn by horses over wet cobblestones slid backwards, killing the horses.”

      I doubt there was much grief over the end of horse-propulsion, especially among horses. Owners deferred a lot of maintenance, and often treated their animals worse than anybody would get away with treating a truck now.

      Very few pretty rich girls gave them apples and sugar cubes and kissed them on the nose. Though same could be said for these girls’ treatment of the horses’ owners.

      Strong and prone to react to surprises in ways that killed people, horses probably killed many more humans powered machinery of all kinds. One thing known to really spook horses was an automobile- I don’t think the first ones had mufflers.

      But black-and-white antiques photographs leave out some important evidence. Remember one technique that gave images in brown. Definitely closer to the color of what really covered the streets.

      I think Andrew Hallidie had been a mining engineer in Scotland. And he based the cable grip mechanism on similar equipment in the mines. Story says he saw one team get killed on those hills in San Francisco. Probably a lot more than that.

      I was in San Francisco maybe 20 yeas ago, when the cable car machinery was being completely renovated, technicians told me that some of the best mechanism from the beginning, there were tricks they could not duplicate. They couldn’t find a material for track brakes as good as the original wood.

      Reactionary. maybe, but I think most important function of working streetcar museums is that with electronic manufacture and operation- steel or rubber wheels- in last analysis, any robot is only as capable as the worst thing a human told it last. So best to “keep our hand in.”

      Also, as trolley-bus drivers gain experience, a lot of their improving performance owes to their learning to use road gradients, curves, gravity, and other natural forces. Unfortunately, full-time bus driving doesn’t result in many apples, sugar cubes, and that other thing either.


      1. Steep road gradients keep trolleybus lines operating. Full time bus drivers get plenty candy. HART could host an open-sided horse-drawn trolley from some Waipahu station to waterfront luau accommodations. What was the sound that scared horses? A backfire that sounded like gunfire scared veterans and victims of violence too. What’s the most logical reason for self-driving cars? Someone gets killed, it’s not the car’s fault, nor the insurer’s obligation to pay even funeral costs. Let’s not put a dummy in the driver’s seat.

  3. “The local merchants along Front Street however opposed the plan to lay tracks in front of their stores believing that the street railway would be a detriment to their fine businesses.”

    William C: “Inaugurating the long and dishonorable tradition! Though, I’m surprised business owners would already oppose mass transit in the pre-automobile era. Were there also people who opposed paving streets for cars?”

    The only competition was individual family carriages and taxis and walk-ups. People who could afford those were affluent, so maybe that’s what the merchants were getting at. But still, a streetcar line means many more potential customers seeing your storefront twice a day, and shooing it to another street means they’ll see those storefronts instead.

    Another issue, especially with electric streetcars that can go faster, is that as long as there are horse cars around them they would have to drive slowly enough to avoid scaring the horses. Maybe in the days before the first streetcar the merchants weren’t convinced the streetcar wouldn’t have negative impacts on other carriages beyond just the space of its lane.

    Street paving originated for bicycles before cars became common. So if anybody was against street paving, they were against bicycles. According to Wikipedia velocipeds originated in the 1810s and were also called “hobby horses”, “dandy horses”, and “boneshakers”. Modern-style bicycles that commuters and women could ride en masse seem to date to the 1880s and 1890s, and may have not reached the remote outpost of Seattle for longer.

    In The Diamond Age there’s a machine called the chevaline, like a bicycle with mechanical horse legs. Short name chev. Named after, I don’t know, some hills in Scotland probably. Nothing to do with Detroit, nothing at all. (Although actually in the novel the 20th century has occurred, and cars still exist in parts of the world, just not in those that follow 19th-century traditions.)

      1. Also derivation of “Cavalry”, “Cavalier”, and “Chivalry”. Wonder what French is for “War’s War?” Invention of machine guns finally did same thing to horses that cavaliers always did to chivalry.

        But might be good to inform modern bike-haters that if it hadn’t been for cyclists demanding pavement, average modern Brown Bear Car Wash couldn’t make their car be any other color than a non-polar bear.

        Down through history, average merchant survives on an extremely small margin, so is naturally wary of changes in general. But acceptance usually follows same course. When merchants start to see changed conditions attract customers that used to be theirs.


  4. I wish I could have seen horses pulling cars on tracks. Would’ve been cool.
    This is what I do remember:
    -The old Monorail station straddling Pine Street with the zig zag ramps to the platform.
    -The trolley redo in 78 or 79 with new wire going from U-Dub to Ballard.
    -Old red busses. 1970’s
    -Articulated busses with no wheelchair lift.
    -Non electronic fareboxes.
    -Diesel Bredas. (Loud)
    -24 hour ride free zone.
    -The 5 route was called “The Phinney” and one bus had animals all over it for the zoo.
    -White busses converted to school busses with actual green school bus seats. Late 80’s
    -Tour of the unfinished bus tunnel in 1988.
    -Bus tokens that were coins.
    -Fist fare I paid myself, 55 cents.
    -Looking at the old Mercer base hole in the ground across the street from the Seattle Center on 5th. (Current loacation of Gates Foundation).
    -The Northgate transit center was a Group Health and part of a creek.
    -The 46 used to go to Golden Gardens.
    -The Metro Daisy
    -Somebody handed out a whole bunch of pins that said “I’m no dummy, I take the bus”. I might still have it somewhere. I don’t remember the year. It was brown.
    -This is very sad, but I also remember the bus that went off the Aurora bridge. I think the Driver’s name was Mark. They renamed the 6 the 358 after that. Not sure if it was related.
    -The snow storm in either 1990 or early 1991 left stranded busses all over. Walked from 23rd and John to 46th and Phinney. Never made it home that day. Worse than 1996 or 2008.
    That’s a long enough list for now.

    1. Enjoyed the post, James — I remember most (if not all) of those things!

      In the spirit of the anniversary post, my grandfather became a driver for Seattle Transit in 1939 or so and worked for them (and then Metro) until his untimely death at 51 in 1974. He’d worked his way up to Assistant Superintendent by then and was involved in getting the first articulated test coach here, which I got to ride as a young boy. It was from one of the German transit systems and did a demonstration run on the 71 – I like to think because he lived on that line – that must have been in 1973 or 1974. I loved the part in the middle that actually articulated and pivoted! My sister and I called it the “bendy bus.” I still think of him when I ride our much newer versions – even though I rarely like to sit in the middle any more!

      I still have some of his old run cards, his metal change-maker (belt worn; not sure what it’s actually called but it dispensed coins as change for fare payments), a few in-house Metro newsletters and the like. I have no idea if MEHVA or any other museum wants things like that; unfortunately we don’t seem to actually have a transit museum in the region. I think one would be nice to go along with Avgeek Joe’s gift shop idea!

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