George Benson Streetcars

by TOM GIBBS

You know a city becomes mature when its citizens begin to celebrate their transportation history.  London, New York, San Francisco: these are all cities that have been pioneers in the field of transportation and have all embraced their own unique histories of moving people and goods.

Seattle is one such city—and while we are probably best known for pioneering the way people travel the globe by plane, our massive rail network of streetcars in the early part of the 20th Century was really quite remarkable. This network shaped the character of our city and provided critical access to the collection of neighborhoods we have today. And even though these streetcars were removed and replaced by “trackless trolleys”, their threads remain woven into our urban fabric and are still visible in the City we live in today.

As Seattle turns the page to a new chapter, we have an opportunity to connect back to, and embrace this formative part of our unique history. I am a part of a volunteer-led nonprofit, the Friends of the Benson Trolleys and we are spearheading an effort to restore some of Seattle’s vintage streetcars that once ran along the waterfront, and reintegrate them into the city’s streetcar network.

My affection for this mode of transportation comes from many wonderful memories. I have had the honor of witnessing much of Seattle’s transportation history, first hand. As a child in the late 1930’s I rode many of the lines shown on the map above with my great uncle during trips to Seattle. In lieu of a babysitter on these trips, I was given a window seat in the Moore Hotel on 2nd Avenue which afforded a view of Seattle’s streetcars below and captured my attention for many hours.

As an adult, my affection grew as I found excuses to ride streetcars in Budapest, Prague, Oslo, Amsterdam, Toronto, San Francisco, Boston, New Orleans and Melbourne. Professionally, I trained as an engineer and went onto help create and become the first Director of Metro Transit.

My personal and professional passions collided in the late 1970s when I was approached by my friend, and City Councilmember George Benson, who was proposing the installation of a trolley line on our waterfront using 1920’s Melbourne ‘trams’. I jumped at the chance to help–contributing engineering services and funds from my firm to help bring these vintage Australian streetcars to the waterfront.

When George Benson was elected to the City Council in 1973, he was a tireless booster of Capitol Hill, Seattle, and public transit. He also served on the Metropolitan Council’s Transit Committee where he led the efforts to make Metro Transit an immediate success. George’s many contributions to our transportation systems include strong advocacy for the Downtown Transit Tunnel in addition to establishing one of the first vintage rail fleets back into an American city–along the waterfront in Seattle.

In the last year of operation, nearly 500,000 folks rode these vintage waterfront streetcars. But, as everyone knows, the line was ‘temporarily’ discontinued in 2005 to make way for the construction of SAM’s Sculpture Park. While King County has taken great care of these cars, they remain in storage today, thirteen years later awaiting their next chapter in Seattle’s history.

Our coalition believes that George’s legacy and these beautiful vintage streetcars must be restored and brought back to use in some fashion. Now, coordinating with SDOT and Metro Transit executives, a group of us are working to preserve them. Thanks to feasibility studies commissioned by the governing boards of SAFECO Field and Century Link as well as SDOT, we know it would have been feasible to return these cars to waterfront. However, as plans for the new streetcar system and waterfront projects have evolved, the streetcar infrastructure investments were redirected to First Avenue.

In order to proceed with the restoration and reintegration along this new route we will need more information, which is why on February 1st, we launched a 30 day Kickstarter campaign to fund a new engineering/feasibility study to determine how best to integrate these vintage cars into the city’s streetcar system. If, or should I say ‘when’, we are successful we will commission a study to evaluate options to power the cars (batteries or voltage reduction from the existing higher voltage overhead contact systems), determine the cost of restoring dual-side loading capability and checking the braking system for adequacy.

There is great community support for these streetcars. We have been contacted by hundreds of people expressing their support for this restoration and reintegration effort. We have a large mailing list of supporters, many of whom have contacted local leaders and continue to demonstrate strong support. When the vintage Benson trolleys are placed in service on Seattle’s streetcar network, they will tie together our city’s most significant historic sites of the Chinatown-International District, Pioneer Square, the Pike Place Market and MOHAI and inspire a new generation to connect with our city’s transportation network and unique history.

If you’d like to see some of our transportation heritage preserved please voice your support on our website and back our Kickstarter campaign by the end of the month.

Tom Gibbs is Chair of Friends of the Benson Trolleys, former Director of Metro and Metro Transit, and former Vice Chair and Chair, SAFECO Field Public Facilities District. 

29 Replies to “Preserving Seattle’s Streetcar History”

  1. While a Kickstarter campaign is commendable work towards restoring the Benson Street Car should be the responsiblity of city government. It’s really a shame that the Melbourne street cars are still sitting in storage 13 years later.

    1. The city’s responsibility is mobility for its residents, workers, and visitors. It has a backlog of expensive priorities. Restoring the Benson cars is just the kind of thing that a private organization can do, like rescuing the old movie palaces. The city’s responsibility should be limited to setting interoperability standards, doing small things to help the organization meet them, and coordinating their rotation into operation and maintenance (whether O&M is publicly or privately funded).

      I found the Waterfront Streetcar slow, and when i rode the various vintage streetcars in San Francisco, I found all the pre-1950s ones slow and bumpy and loud. In contrast, the 1950s and later ones were as quiet and smooth as our contemporary streetcars — on the same track. So something happened in the 1950s to make streetcars much better, and the Benson cars are from before that period. So I don’t want the city to put significant resources into putting them back into operation on core transit lines, and I’m ambivalent whether to even allow it at all.

      1. Mike, I don’t remember that the ride was all that bad on the Benson cars themselves. Though our track was brand new in the 1980’s, and used only by those cars. But to me, they’re a secondary issue.

        When the Waterfront line itself went out of service in 2005, line haul service went away completely. Anybody tell me the Route 99 bus was service at all! But we didn’t lose a streetcar museum. We lost the only kind if transit that really made sense for the project.

        City Hall Plaza in Oslo, probably closest comparison with us, shows the clearest how close streetcars can be to pedestrians- and bicyclists- and not bother anybody. While not going particularly slow. Some examples.

        https://www.flickr.com/photos/43315334@N07/38482126330/in/dateposted-public/

        https://www.flickr.com/photos/43315334@N07/27297306929/in/dateposted-public/

        Between Union and Madison, our Waterfront will likely have some outdoor cafe’s that will probably enjoy them:

        https://www.flickr.com/photos/43315334@N07/30961678941/in/dateposted-public/

        Raised paving lets shoe-sole “feel” outer edge of the car:

        https://www.flickr.com/photos/43315334@N07/38366220284/in/dateposted-public/

        (Admitted, though is that literally from before they’re born, let alone their baby carriages, whole population can feel approach of a streetcar without looking. Give us about thirty years and we can take away barriers and warnings.

        Loss of the track to IDS literally took away an International connection. Could honestly say that with the Victoria Clipper five minutes away, we lost a link between international passenger aviation and Canada.

        I’m not sure about the Benson cars on the Waterfront. But wouldn’t mind South Lake Union.
        Having known City Councilman George Benson, I think he’d feel the same way about all of this. From the way the car-line progressively faded out of Project renderings, I suspect a lot of the Waterfront team originally felt the same way.

        So I don’t think this is another Ferris wheel. It’s a badly-needed component in a major new section of the city. Not panicked, though. If we don’t put the line back in- it’s a well-tried technology perfect for this exact use. Give it thirty years.

        Mark

      2. The reason the waterfront team didn’t want the streetcar on the waterfront is it gives more room for wide sidewalks and bike lanes and nature pockets. That’s a pretty good tradeoff for a track that was only used twice every twenty minutes when the streetcsr is running and is just unusable space the rest of the time. In other places we need transit lanes to go across town, vut the waterfront needs as much space as possible for recreation, and nobody will take the streetcar/bus across town because the waterfront is like a cul de sac. They did recommend an electric bus or minibus so it’s not like the waterfront will have no transit.

  2. A higher resolution 1941 streetcar map may be found here (on this historic Seattle Transit Blog page from 2008!) https://seattletransitblog.com/2008/10/15/seattle-street-car-maps/

    When I visited Melbourne in 1998 it was full of green and cream streetcars that looked exactly like our George Benson streetcars, which of course is no coincidence since that’s where they were from, but it was still a trip.

    A bonus map from San Francisco, 1928 (wow!): https://seattletransitblog.com/2008/10/14/san-francisco-streetcar-lines-circa-1928/

    1. A friend who had grown up in Melbourne but had been traveling the world for work for several years visited me around 2004, so i took him on the Waterfront Streetcar. He said it was very similar to his childhood.

      1. Yes. The Aurora Bridge never had streetcars, only trolley buses. Please, readers, don’t be misled by the 1941 trolleybus map.

  3. “Thanks to feasibility studies commissioned by the governing boards of SAFECO Field and Century Link as well as SDOT, we know it would have been feasible to return these cars to waterfront.”

    I would love to have the streetcar come back in some capacity, but what do the governing boards of our stadiums have to do with bringing it back?

    1. They paid for the studies. It says “commissioned by”, not “done by”. Presumably they think it would help sell more tickets at the stadiums.

      1. I mean, I guess if you’re Safeco Field, you’ll do anything to get attendance above 1,000 each game. They would need that trolley to be bringing better owners and players though.

      2. Mike,
        I sponsored the efforts by the two sports venues (and the teams) because we had an obligation to assist the Pioneer Square and International District communities. Both were hurt when the waterfront line was de-commissioned. We believed that bringing the Benson cars back would help business and fulfill some of our on going obligations to be good neighbors.

        Ticket sales had nothing to do with the decisions we made.

        Tom Gibbs

      3. Thanks for the clarification Tom.

        Note that my snark in the second post was solely related to me being an (unfortunate) M’s fan for 35 years and not targeted at the valiant efforts to bring back our iconic trolley.

    2. Book – 2011
      388.46097 U47S

      Tenth floor, Seattle Public Library. Point to me is that we’ve got some major “throw weight” behind the idea.

      Though extremely likely, other powerful interests opposed it. Pretty normal in politics. But same for re-matches.

      MD

    3. RapidRider,
      See my comments to Mike.
      When we built the ballpark, we made significant contributions to both neighboring communities – wider sidewalks on 1st, brick pavers on Occidental, column painting under I-5 on Jackson, etc..
      Bringing back the waterfront trolleys was part of a continuing obligation we embraced.

  4. Berlin has a streetcar line running through a pedestrian plaza, as do several other European cities. Then there’s MAX, running through Saturday Market every 3 minutes.

    So, there isn’t anything really that incompatible with the current pedestrian plaza plans and a tourist streetcar line.

  5. We can hope that the Center City Connector reaches its full potential by extending cars north through Belltown to Lower Queen Anne (solving the “Belltown Problem” for much less than a third tunnel would cost) and south to Lander, probably along Utah.

    Yes, this is ambitious, but it would leverage a high-quality right of way to extend development all along Alaskan Way.

    1. What full potential? What Belltown problem? So, you propose splitting the service between two branches? Alaskan Way? Funding?

      1. Belltown Problem? We could bring back the bus routes that used to run First, Second, and Fifth. Memory not certain whether trolleywire joined the Queen Anne wire and First and Broad.Though if it doesn’t, shouldn’t be hard to re-hang.

        Thought I’ve been checking out on foot. Doubt streetcar could climb Broad to First. And wire of any kind across the BN tracks…don’t, literally, go there. But if trolleybuses can have reserved lane along the Waterfront- streetcar or not- might make it up the hill to First on battery. On the roof. Not the street.

        Idea could be two-direction loop: Wire through Pioneer Square to the Waterfront, north to Broad, coach battery to First, and back south. And same route other direction. Also connecting Belltown with the Waterfront.

        Other possibilities. Wire at Second and James has been hanging unattached for 28 years- hope nobody counts everything we’ve left wasted. If the Feds want their money back, we’ll have to sell one of those new black glass buildings from Neptune. Lets pick the ugliest one.

        Streetcar wire stayed on the Waterfront gathering whatever copper does that isn’t rust. Tracks and ties are still there. But a couple of shifts could complete the block up James. Which could then connect the Waterfront with Harborview. Also, Madrona Park. Come on, Belltown, I really am trying. What do you think, eddiew?

        Mark

      2. Portland’s Vista Avenue used to have a streetcar line from Burnside to the top of Council Crest. It’s no Queen Anne hill in terms of steep, but at 1,500 feet up there it’s not flat either and really pushed the limits of what could be done with streetcars in 1904 in a city with rain.

        That section of Broad Street seems comparable to parts of Vista.

  6. St louis totally ruined their former Seattle former Melbourne cars as they also did with their former Portland vintage trolley car. The interior looks like the inside of a modern bus. Hopefully restoring service with these vintage cars wont mean ruining them.

    1. Thanks for the warning, poncho. Those hard plastic seats are bad enough on MUNI. And as if the purple and yellow livery on the outside isn’t bad enough, whoever ordered those should have to wear a suit made out of same weird silver and bamboo green seat covers.

      Also think “tags” on Melborne cars can’t be historic, because if anybody even committed the crime in Australia, nobody here would know if they were referring to an animal that thankfully doesn’t occur anyplace else on Earth, or a waterhole in which a sheep thief drowns himself in the national anthem.

      Though knowing the English judicial system, penalty for vandalism probably “transportation” (public, but chained to the wall of a ship) back to permanent exile in England. Rain, Prime Minister Teresa May, Brexit, and all. Only relief of misery: out of revenge from being colonized, Indian food now blatantly violating health codes forbidding flavor.

      Mark

    2. I agree Poncho – St. Louis did terrible things to the Benson cars.
      We’re committed to maintaining the cars as close as possible to the way they were on the waterfront. Certainly, the interiors will not be compromised. We might have to put a pantograph on them if batteries won’t work.

      Tom Gibbs

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