Interurban Rail Transit in King County and the Puget Sound Region

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 9/19/2000
  • Essay 2667

Electric interurban railways played a major part in defining early twentieth century transportation routes and growth patterns in King County. Early roads were primitive and before the development of the first inter-city rail service in 1899, most shippers and commuters on Puget Sound relied on water transport and "Mosquito Fleet" steamers for mobility. By 1912, private interurban lines connected Tacoma, Seattle, and Everett, but modern highways would soon offer fatal competition. Seattle-Tacoma service ended in 1928 with the opening of Highway 99, and Seattle-Everett service ended 11 years later (Seattle ripped up its streetcar lines in 1941). After the rejection of previous rail rapid transit proposals, regional voters approved a Sound Transit system in 1996. In September 2000, Sound Transit inaugurated commuter rail service between Seattle and Tacoma.

The Advent of Electric Traction

In 1887, Frank J. Sprague demonstrated the first electric streetcar in Richmond, Virginia. His invention, dubbed electric traction, offered a new, cleaner, and more efficient way to move people which, combined with the safety elevator, would permit much denser urban development. It also created one of the first commercially profitable uses for electricity, preceding the spread of electric lighting, industrial machinery, and domestic appliances.

Two years later, local entrepreneur Frank Osgood (1852-1934), converted his existing horse-drawn streetcar lines in downtown Seattle to electricity. Despite fears that the line would magnetize pocket watches and zap pedestrians with runaway bolts of electricity, the line's debut on March 30, 1889 went flawlessly -- and the cars kept running through the Great Seattle Fire of the following June.

That same year, Fred Sander launched construction of an electric line to the southern municipality of Georgetown, which was completed in 1893. J. K. Edmiston began construction of an electric railway to Renton (later the Seattle, Renton & Southern Railway) in 1889 and completed it seven years later. In 1890, L. H. Griffith extended his existing Seattle streetcar line to the City of Ballard. Although Georgetown and Ballard later annexed to Seattle, these lines constitute King County's first "interurban" systems.

An Electric Octopus

At this time, streetcar services and most other utilities were privately financed and owned, although their performance was subject to charters or "franchises" granted by cities and other local governments. The rapid multiplication of uncoordinated streetcar and interurban lines in the late nineteenth century begged for consolidation.

This was initially achieved by the giant Stone & Webster Management Company, founded in Boston by engineer-entrepreneurs Charles A. Stone and Edwin S. Webster. They attracted significant capital for acquisition and/or development of urban utilities and transportation systems across the nation.

In 1898, Stone & Webster representatives visited King County for the first time. The company soon acquired the region's first hydroelectric plant at Snoqualmie Falls and retained local banker Jacob Furth (1840-1914) as its local agent for taking control of Seattle-area utilities and street railways. Furth did his job well, and Stone & Webster's subsidiary Seattle Electric Company owned the city's 22 streetcar lines within one year.

The concentration of so much control of vital urban systems in private hands alarmed local reformers and progressives, who won approval of a restrictive streetcar franchise (including nickel fares) in 1902. That same year, Seattle voters approved bonds allowing construction of a municipal hydroelectric plant on the Cedar River, which led to creation of Seattle City Light and a long "power struggle" between public and private utilities.

An Interurban Empire

Stone & Webster and its backers wielded control through an array of interlocking holding and operating companies. One of the first local combines was called the Puget Sound International Railway & Power Company, whose name expressed its financiers' vision of an interurban transportation and utility system extending from Olympia, Washington, to Vancouver, British Columbia. The primary local corporate instrument, however, was the Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power Company, which succeeded the Seattle Electric Company and various interurban lines, and later evolved into Puget Power and today's Washington Energy.

The private utility's first major step was acquisition of an incomplete interurban railway from Seattle to Tacoma, which had been launched by Henry Bucey in 1901. Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power completed the line, which it called the Puget Sound Electric Railway, and inaugurated service on September 25, 1902.

Development of a comparable line to Seattle's major northern neighbor, Everett, proved more daunting. Fred Sander began work on such a system in 1900 but it took him six years to cover six miles from Ballard to Hall's Lake in north Seattle. Stone & Webster took over the enterprise in 1908 and inaugurated its first Everett-Seattle service on April 30, 1910.

That same year, work began on a link between Mount Vernon and Bellingham. In 1912, Stone & Webster created a new subsidiary, Pacific Northwest Traction Company, and commenced construction of the missing link between Everett and Mount Vernon. This was never completed.

Back in Seattle

Public grievances with Stone & Webster's aging streetcars and increasingly erratic service boiled over on March 7, 1911, when voters approved municipal purchase of the existing Rainier Avenue interurban line to Renton. The owners reneged on the original sales price, and Seattle ended up spending the bonds to build a new streetcar line to Ballard.

Stone & Webster found its streetcar finances hobbled by franchise-mandated fares and growing labor unrest, despite the ridership generated by World War I defense workers. In a controversial move, Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson (1874-1940) negotiated a $15 million purchase of the entire city streetcar system, which voters approved on November 5, 1918.

The high price (three times market value) and resulting debt crippled municipal streetcar operations for the rest of their existence. Various refinance schemes failed and the city converted to buses and "trackless trolleys" in 1940. The old streetcar rails were torn up and sold to Japan for scrap.

End of the Line?

Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power retained ownership of its interurban lines, but progress on Highway 99 and the post-war explosion of private trucks and automobiles ultimately doomed the system. Seattle-Tacoma interurban rail service ended on December 30, 1928. By then, the company was already offering interurban bus service on its North Coast Lines, but it remained committed to the Seattle-Everett route and built a handsome bus-rail depot at 9th Avenue and Stewart Street in Seattle (now the Greyhound Terminal).

The independent Seattle & Rainier Valley Railway (the Renton interurban) struggled to survive under incompetent management. Weary of accidents and unsafe tracks, the City of Seattle revoked its franchise and the line folded on January 1, 1937.

Federal anti-trust regulators pulled the plug on Stone & Webster's national utility cartel in 1934, and the firm reorganized under a local board of directors. In a sign of changing attitudes, Highway 99's new Aurora Bridge opened in 1932 without provision for interurban rails. Anticipating Seattle's removal of local streetcar tracks, the company finally abandoned the Seattle-Everett railway on February 20, 1939.

Anti-trust regulators intervened again in the late 1940s, forcing Puget Sound Traction, Light & Power to sell off its remaining interurban bus services. In 1950, Seattle voters narrowly authorized City Light to acquire the private firm's remaining assets and services within the city limits, ending nearly a half-century of political and economic competition.

Back on Track

Following World War II, local urban planners and reformers made repeated attempts to recreate a regional rail transit system to counteract suburban sprawl and growing traffic congestion. King County voters were not convinced and rejected various mass transit plans in 1958, 1962, 1968, and 1970.

Attitudes began to shift in 1972, when voters did approve Metro Transit, an all-bus system now operated by King County. A two-to-one majority of King County voters endorsed a 1988 advisory ballot for accelerated development of a rail system, and the 1990 Growth Management Act and related state legislation authorized serious planning.

In 1995, voters in King, Snohomish, and Pierce Counties rejected a $6.7 billion Regional Transit Authority (RTA) proposal for light rail, standard-gauge commuter rail, and express buses. A scaled-back "Sound Transit" plan, valued at $3.9 billion, won approval on November 5, 1996.

On September 18, 2000, the first Sound Transit "Sounder" commuter trains rolled between Seattle and Tacoma almost 98 years to the day after interurban cars linked the two cities. Sounder runs are to be extended south to the Tacoma suburb of Lakewood and north to Everett, virtually retracing the region's original interurban rail system six decades later.


Richard C. Berner, Seattle in the 20th Century Vol. 1 & 2 (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991); Leslie Blanchard, The Street Railway Era in Seattle: A Chronicle of the First Six Decades (Forty Fort, PA: H.E. Cox, 1968); Walt Crowley, Routes: An Interpretive History of Public Transportation in Greater Seattle (Seattle: Metro Transit, 1993); Warren Wing, To Seattle by Trolley (Edmonds, WA: Pacific Fast Mail, 1988); Warren Wing, To Tacoma by Trolley (Edmonds, WA: Pacific Fast Mail, 1995).

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