Site 9 - Seattle Streetcar

Seattle Streetcar

7th and Jackson

(Board 'Capitol Hill via Broadway' streetcar to go east/uphill to 12th & Jackson)

Audio on this page read by David Sproull

Welcome onto the new Seattle Streetcar! Seattle got its first streetcar in 1884 - eleven years after San Francisco opened its first line - but these earliest streetcars were horse-drawn and they frequently derailed or overturned. In 1887, Seattle started switching over to cars pulled by cables below the street itself (i.e. "cable cars").

Finally, in 1889 Seattle switched again to electric streetcars and significantly expanded the routes to reach the various neighborhoods of the city and beyond. The operator was the privately-owned Seattle Electric Railway Company, until purchased by the City in 1918.

By the early 1900s, trolleys traveled Yesler and Jackson Streets, all the way from the downtown waterfront to 31st Avenue. This connected various residential parts of Seattle with the business areas, and helped to establish a dense business district along Jackson Street.

Many of the lines converged downtown and near the train depots, meaning that visitors and workers coming in from the railroad could easily switch to the streetcars to access other parts of the city.

By at least 1914, one of the cable car lines stopped right at the storied intersection of 12th and Jackson; a boon to the businesses operating there.

Initially, the trolley system was not public infrastructure: it was privately owned until the City of Seattle purchased it in 1918 for what may have been an astronomically inflated price. Fares did not generate enough revenue to cover the City's debt on the purchase.

Simultaneously, the proliferation of public buses and private cars reduced the public's reliance on the streetcar system. Private cars provided their owners with greater range and flexibility than the streetcar system, including regional travel. Furthermore, it was difficult for the tracked system to coexist alongside motor vehicles, which could manuever around the trolleys and create congestion the trolleys couldn't avoid because they were track-bound.

By 1941 the rails were pulled up and sold as scrap. Seattle switched to "trackless trolleys" (i.e. busses), which remain a major mode of transportation through the city today. Several bus routes today have the same numbering as the old trolley routes they replaced.

As of 2021, streetcars are again part of the transit network through parts of central Seattle. What’s now referred to as the First Hill streetcar line makes some of the same stops as the old line, bringing us right to 12th and Jackson.

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Noodles Smith and three friends with vintage car, Seattle, ca. 1935. Noodles sits in the driver's seat with Burr "Blackie" Williams seated next to him; the other two men are unidentified. Increasing private car ownership contributed to the end of the trolley system. Image Property of The Black Heritage Society of Washington State, Inc.

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