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.