City of Seattle begins first full day as sole owner and operator of entire streetcar system on April 1, 1919.

  • By David Wilma and HistoryLink Staff
  • Posted 7/11/2000
  • Essay 2535

With the first streetcar run of the morning on April 1, 1919, the City of Seattle begins its first full day of owning and operating the entire streetcar system serving the city. The transfer of the city's main street railway system from the privately owned Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company to the city officially took place on the afternoon of March 31, when the city delivered $15 million in utility bonds to the traction company in return for the contracts and deeds evidencing ownership of the system, and by late that evening the city was collecting the fares paid by streetcar passengers. But it was, as The Seattle Times of April 1 puts it, "This morning at 4:30, when the first car left the North Seattle barn for Alki [that] the city began the operation of the lines full tilt, entitled to all the income and responsible for all the bills" ("City-owned Cars ..."). The city system is named the Seattle Municipal Railway.

Troubled Franchise

In 1900 Stone & Webster, the Boston-based national utility giant, began acquiring the many competing street railways then operating in Seattle. The conglomerate incorporated the Seattle Electric Company to run Seattle's street railways as well as the city's main power company, which it also controlled. Seattle Electric Company sought a 40-year franchise from the city to operate the street railway system. Progressives who opposed private monopoly control of utilities including transportation and power objected, but won only a slight reduction in the length of the rail franchise, to 35 years. However, the franchise mandated a fare of no more than five cents, a limit that would play a role in the system's subsequent troubles. Seattle voters also sought to counter the Stone & Webster monopoly by forming Seattle City Light in 1902 and by purchasing two small streetcar lines in 1911 and 1913.

In 1912 Stone & Webster consolidated the interurban rail lines it owned connecting various cities in the Puget Sound region and the Seattle Electric Company into the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company. The interurban lines did well, but within a few years Seattle's streetcar system was floundering, in part due to increasing demand during World War I.

Complicated Transaction

Unable to raise streetcar fares, Puget Sound Traction attempted to make up operating losses by cutting wages of the streetcar operators. This triggered a strike and the federal government intervened to keep area shipyards open. Stone & Webster was ready to sell the unprofitable operation and Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson (1874-1940) offered to buy it for $15 million, a price later estimated to be about three times the actual value. On November 5, 1918, voters approved the purchase, and on December 31, the Seattle City Council authorized issuing the $15 million in utility bonds that would be used to pay Puget Sound Traction.

It took some time to issue and confirm the legality of the utility bonds and finalize all the other details, so the formal transfer of the street railway system from Puget Sound Traction to the City of Seattle was scheduled for March 31, 1919. That afternoon, top officials of the city and the company gathered at city hall for the final approval of the city purchase and the complex transfer of documents that made it official. The city council recessed from its regular meeting to go into session as a committee of the whole to review and approve all the documents. Then it returned to regular session, accepted the report of its committee session, and at last passed "the motion that authorized the final action that put the city in possession of the property" ("City-owned Cars ..."). Only then did that final action occur:

"Transfer of the legal papers which are to be filed took place in the office of City Comptroller Harry W. Carroll. Receipts for the $15,000,000 in utility bonds were signed by Attorney Howe for the traction company and the deal was completed.
"Employe[e]s of the traction company sealed the bonds in boxes of 500 each and they were taken at 6:30 last night from the city comptroller's office to the Seattle National Bank, where they will be held subject to the company's order" ("City-owned Cars ...").

"Not a Good Omen"

At 11:00 that night, as The Seattle Times reported the next morning, "the city began collecting fares from street car passengers ... and from that hour the utilities department was responsible for operation of all the late cars" ("City-owned Cars ..."). The April 1 article about the transfer began by stating "Seattle this morning took its place as the first city in the world to operate a complete municipal electric street railway system" ("City-owned Cars ..."). The article also noted that "up to noon today no unusual occurrences or accidents had been reported" and that "a number of congratulatory messages were received and several friends sent flowers" to the city utilities department ("City-owned Cars ...").

Despite the smooth start on the morning of April 1, "the date was not a good omen" for the new city-owned system, named the Seattle Municipal Railway (Crowley, 14). The huge debt the city took on to acquire the system hampered all efforts to make improvements. Seattle officials soon learned that they could not retain the popular nickel fare and still pay off the bond debt. They tried subsidizing the street railway from general tax revenues, but the state supreme court ruled in 1922 that they could not do so. For the next 20 years successive mayors struggled to keep the streetcars running, but between the debt and the rise of automobiles and "trackless trolleys" or buses, it was a losing effort. Seattle's last streetcar made its final run on April 13, 1941.


"City-owned Cars Run on Schedules," The Seattle Times, April 1, 1919, p. 10; Walt Crowley, Routes: A Brief History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle (Seattle: Metro, 1993), 11-19; A Century of Service: The Puget Power Story ed. by Robert C. Wing (Bellevue: Puget Power & Light Co., 1987), 59-60; Richard C. Berner, Seattle in the 20th Century, Vol. 2 (Seattle: Charles Press, 1992), 416-434.
Note: This entry was revised and expanded on December 11, 2018.

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