What Public Transit Looked Like in 1939 Seattle

The Seattle Room, on the top floor of the Seattle Public Library, is a great place to get lost in for a few hours.  A few years ago, looking around for old documents about the Alaskan Way Viaduct, I stumbled across a book detailing a proposal to redesign the Seattle transit system back in 1939.

Inside this book were two really interesting maps, one showing the existing system in 1939 and the other detailing a proposed overhaul of the whole system using only buses (using both electric- and gas-powered coaches).  I photocopied the two maps, scanned the photocopies (pasting the odd-sized maps together with MS Paint), and now that I remembered I had them, put them online.  Here is what public transit looked like toward the end of the Great Depression:

1939 Seattle Public Transit System Map

A Patchwork System

As mentioned in Vox not too long ago, trolley service had been in decline for decades by the Great Depression, and not just because of the automobile.  Many streetcar operators were hampered by contracts that prevented raising fares to pay for escalating operating costs.  This also prevented expansion of any streetcar system, as seen with Seattle’s myriad of bus routes operating shuttles and connectors on the fringes of the city and in places where expansion of a particular rail line might otherwise seem more logical (like Route X along Lake Washington Blvd.).  Other factors, like congestion (which streetcars couldn’t avoid well) and the increased affordability of private vehicles, made streetcars all the more obsolete.

Still, even in 1930’s Seattle, it seemed that streetcars were expected to stick around: one of the first things you might notice about the system map is that the numbering scheme seems backwards. Streetcar routes use numbers, while gas-powered bus routes use capitol letters.  As you can see from the map, they were quickly running out of letters for their buses.  Perhaps using letters for bus routes signified a desire to keep streetcar route numbers intact – after all, they have been used for decades by that time.  Perhaps planners thought gas-powered buses were merely a stopgap to use until trolley lines were extended into those new neighborhoods.

Most likely, they didn’t think that far ahead.  After all, two of the glaring exceptions to the above theories are the “R” and “E” lines, respectively serving Rainier Avenue and Empire Way.  These two routes would be as important as any other for the entirely of Seattle’s existence, but trolleys never operated along these major corridors – a sign that Rainier Valley (and, by extension, its mostly non-white population) was disconnected from the rest of Seattle in more ways than one.  Be sure to note that the streetcars from Routes 9 and 14 stay high up on Mt. Baker, since there would be little interest in connecting to the valley below.

(Not that this should explain the dangling appendix that is the Mt. Baker portion of Route 14 still in use today, judging the residents of the valley below with its fancy-pants hilltop boulevard turnabout… wouldn’t Route 14 drivers rather terminate near the Safeway down the hill?  Just curious.)

The next thing you might notice about the map in general is that the transit corridors themselves haven’t changed all that much over the last century, even though the route numbers have (except Route 14 in Mt. Baker… that route seems to be the only one to survive the streetcar-to-bus transition intact).

In fact, aside from a few deviations into Ballard and Columbia City, only Route I along 3rd Avenue (N)W is significantly different than today, and was probably abandoned due to a combination of being exactly halfway between 1/2-mile-spaced transit corridors (the baseline distance of North Seattle bus routes today), while also serving a relatively-affluent neighborhood (and therefore has less demand).

What you might not be able to see clearly on the scanned photocopy are the three cable car lines:

  • The “a” line traveled along Madison Street, but only between 1st and 14th Avenues.  At 14th, the “a” line connected with the 8 and 12 trolleys, serving Madrona and Madison Park, respectively.
  • The “b” line served James Street between 1st Avenue and Broadway (connecting with the 11 trolley, which continues to Madrona, á la current Route 3).
  • The “c” line was probably the most impressive, running along the entirety of Yesler Way – which included an impressive trestle along the northern boundary of Leschi Park that brought the trolley from the top of the hill down to Lake Washington, connecting to a bus shuttle (the “X” line – a cool designation that route certainly did not deserve).

Quick Sidebar: The Madison BRT Line

I don’t know about you, but I feel that if you are seriously considering a BRT line along Madison Street, you should seriously consider a cable car connecting the “a” and “c” lines above, only instead of 1st Avenue, they should continue all the way down to Alaskan Way and serve the Colman Ferry Terminal as well.

The cable cars should use Madison/Marion Streets between Alaskan Way and 6th Avenue, then continue along Madison Street all the way to Madison Park.  Along Yesler, the trolley would operate to 32st Avenue, then descend Lake Dell Avenue S to Lake Washington Boulevard, like current KC Metro route 27.

Eventually, the trolley could be extended to follow Lake Washington Blvd. through the Frink Park and Colman Park curly-cues – how awesome would it be to ride a trolley though this Olmstead Pleasure Drive?  That could be a real tourist-driven money-maker in addition to providing an attractive alternative to the S Jackson Street corridor.  It could work (as long as the cable car uses the same gauge rails as the First Hill Streetcar, which would provide an incredible connection at the foot of Broadway).

The 1939 Proposal

1939 Seattle Transit Proposal System Map

The proposal is almost as fun to comb over just to see how much of the proposal was not only approved and enacted, but have yet to be changed to this day:

  • Routes 1, 2, 3 and 4 atop Queen Anne Hill have remained virtually the same for seven decades now, with only minor changes to the terminal turnarounds.  Route 1 has also directly served North Beacon Hill until very recently (via through-routing with Route 36).
  • Route 5 no longer serves Lower Fremont, but the rest of the Phinney/Greenwood routing remains the same.
  • Routes 10 and 11 on Beacon Hill remains the same (except for Route 11 operating along E Pike Street).
  • Route 14 was only recently replaced by Route 47 in the Summit neighborhood of West Capitol Hill.
  • Route 16 also still operates portions of the route along Stone Way N and in North Greenlake (this proposed version of Route 16 also serves Rainier Avenue S a la current Route 7, making a monster of a route).
  • Routes 15 and 18 appear to have switched places in Ballard, and Route 18 was moved to 15th Avenue W, but are otherwise still in action as express routes (and this version of Route 18 is currently served by Route 40).
  • Route 17 is also very similar, having detached from the W Nickerson Street routing only a few years ago (except for that weird four-block westward deviation between (NW) 62nd and 65th Streets).
  • Congratulations, Magnolia!  Route 19 is coming back!  That route just won’t die.  Speaking of which, what percentage of Magnolia homeowners do you think are older than this bus route?  I am guessing 40%.
  • Route 21 is unchanged almost to (SW) Roxbury Street, not including additional service added to the south.  (it should also be noted that Route 20 is the direct precursor to current Route 120, unchanged except for the additional service to the south of Roxbury).
  • Route 25 along Lakeview Blvd. and through Portage Bay is virtually unchanged – merely extended into Laurelhurst.

It’s also fun to trace back changes made.  For example, you can see that Route 1 operated to North Beacon Hill; eventually, the Beacon Hill routing got its own Route 36 designation when it combined with what was then Route 26 to serve the entirety of Beacon Avenue (S).

Downhill on Pike Street

You can also figure out something you might not know about the street alignment in Downtown Seattle.  Look at the turnaround for Route 22 in Downtown Seattle) on the map below, circled in purple:

1939 Proposed Seattle Transit Downtown Map

Notice it operates westbound on University Street?  This is the opposite of today, where University Street is an eastbound street that leads to the I-5 northbound on-ramp.  Also notice that Pine Street is a two-way street, which you can tell by the lack of a second corridor for Routes 9 and 10 (which serve Broadway and 15th Avenue, respectively).

This means that Pike and Union Streets each operated in the opposite direction as it does today, with downhill/westbound traffic using Pike Street and uphill/eastbound traffic using Union Street.  I am unsure if this was changed as a direct result from Interstate 5 construction (which destroyed Union and University Streets between 6th and 8th Avenues) or if the realignment happened prior.

Anyway, I have speculated enough – enjoy pouring over these old maps, fantasizing about a Seattle in which trolleys still operated along Pike/Pine!