Tacoma Trolleys, 1890-1930

  • By Steve Dunkelberger
  • Posted 1/26/2004
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5640

Sound Transit's mass transportation system has some of its roots in Tacoma's trolley systems of the 1890s. The Tacoma and Steilacoom Railway Company started in 1890. The company used steam engines to shuttle Tacomans to the bustling town of Steilacoom, located on Puget Sound just south of Tacoma. Then horse-drawn trolleys replaced those steam engines. After just a year, electrical cars replaced the horse-drawn trolleys. The train company was the world’s first interurban streetcar system. It was at that time the longest electric line in the world. It ran 12 miles, from downtown Tacoma to Steilacoom, by running through present-day University Place and down Chambers Creek.

To Dinner in Steilacoom

Tacomans would shuttle to Steilacoom for a fancy dinner or for a relaxing weekend getaway at one of the posh hotels of the day. Travelers would sit and have a sundae or soda in the Bair store while they waited for the train. The lights in the soda shop, which is still in operation, would flicker as the train drained electricity from the lines as it climbed Lafayette Street. The flicker would warn the travelers that their train was near the station. The company later shifted the route to run along Steilacoom Boulevard, so it could service the mental hospital (then called Washington State Hospital for the Insane, now Western State Hospital) on its way to town.

Other small, passenger trolley companies sprung up around the turn of the century. Their tracks shuttled residents around Tacoma and the outlining areas, including many stops in Lakewood, just south of Tacoma. One route went from Tacoma and ran along South Tacoma Way. Another track darted from Tacoma, across the prairie, to what is now Mountain View Cemetery. The tracks continued to the Lakewood Colonial Center.

American Traction Line went to Manitou and Lake City. The Tacoma Rail and Power had a station near what is now Park Lodge School. The business viability of so many companies operating was short lived. Companies shut down or merged shortly after they opened.

From Old Light Rail to New Light Rail

By 1928, the city directory shows only three companies left. The directory shows that the Pacific Traction Company, which ran tracks to American Lake; the Tacoma Railway and Power Company, which ran to Steilacoom; and the Puget Sound Electric Railway, which ran lines to Kent and Seattle, were run from the same office.

The whole system died out by the mid-1930s, only to restart with the Sound Transit vote of 1996, which approved a tax that would establish yet another light rail line. The Tacoma Link that runs from the Tacoma Dome Station to the city’s Theater District went live in mid-2003, marking the return of commuter rail to Puget Sound after an absence of more than 70 years.


Jack Sage, "The Tacoma and Steilacoom Railway Co," the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association Research Library.

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