George Benson: Seattle's Favorite Unpolitician

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 11/02/2004
  • Essay 7115

This appreciation was written by Walt Crowley in 2003 while assisting George Benson in organizing and publishing a memoir for his family. A popular Capitol Hill druggist, brass band musician, and five-term member of the Seattle City Council, Benson is best remembered as the father of the Seattle Waterfront Streetcar. He died at the age of 85 on October 25, 2004.

An Accidental Politician

George Benson’s first foray into politics -- a field he never planned on entering -- was motivated by the values that would later distinguish his long career as a public servant: decency, a sense of community responsibility, and personal loyalty.

In 1971, George Benson picked an unlikely and daunting target for his first electoral bid in young, popular, “progressive” City Council member Tim Hill. A standard-bearer of Citizens to Choose an Effective City Council, or “CHECC,” Hill had been elected four years earlier along with Phyllis Lampere. (CHECC leaders Bruce Chapman, John Miller, and George Cooley would join the council in later elections).

Although immediately labeled a conservative because of his business background and tough views on crime, Benson regarded himself as a moderate (and would cast many votes for “progressive” and “liberal” proposals). He might have been one of Hill’s supporters for re-election except that the Councilman had attacked John Nelson, then Superintendent of City Light and a personal friend of Benson’s. A veteran utility manager, Nelson drew fire from reformers as a leading advocate of nuclear power and a symbol of the “old guard” at City Light, and he was ultimately succeeded by Gordon Vickery in 1972.

“It just wasn’t fair,” Benson recalled in a 2003 conversation, “and it made me mad.” He, like many of his neighbors and small business owners across Seattle, was also sick of the city’s rising tide of drug crimes and robberies, which had targeted his Mission Pharmacy on Capitol Hill many times. Benson survived a primary election and racked up an impressive 53,574 votes against the 63,858 cast for the incumbent.

Benson had not planned on re-entering politics, but then City Council President Liem Tuai’s resigned his seat to challenge incumbent Mayor Wes Uhlman in 1973, creating an irresistible opportunity. With the help of supporters on Capitol Hill and beyond, Benson emerged from a crowded primary field to face Michael Ross, a controversial African American activist who had previously won election to a single term in the Washington State House of Representatives as a Republican. While Mayor Uhlman squeaked past Tuai by with barely 51 percent, Benson’s solidly “middle of the road” campaign overtook his opponent by 62 percent, 90,185 votes to 70,436.

Clang, Clang Goes the Trolley

Not long after taking the oath of office in January 1974, Benson was approached by Robert Hively, a fellow trolley buff and Seattle butcher, with the idea of running vintage streetcars on existing rails along the central waterfront. Benson had fond memories of the municipal streetcar system in his hometown of Minneapolis, and had purchased the running gear salvaged from one of that city’s streetcars back in 1952 with the notion of building one of his own. (He returned this machinery to Minneapolis for restoration of a museum streetcar in 1976.)

As Benson recalled in a 1992 paper on vintage trolley systems to the International Light Rail Conference in Calgary, Canada, Hively’s idea would quickly prove to be “deceptively simple” and impractical in its original form. Benson, who chaired the City Council’s transportation and utilities committees, was initially encouraged by Mayor Uhlman but discovered that the city’s planning staff dismissed the project as “Benson’s Folly.” Similarly, the regional Metro Transit agency offered only lip service while focusing on their goal of building a light rail system.

Benson was left on his own to face and overcome a series of ever higher hurdles. First, he had to convince the waterfront track’s private owners to allow streetcars. They balked until then-U.S. Senators Warren G. Magnuson and Henry M. Jackson interceded. After that, Burlington Northern’s regional vice president, Richard A. Buelke, became an ally for the project and helped Benson resolve key issues over regulations and jurisdiction between unions representing railroad and transit employees.

With indifferent staff support from the city and Metro, Benson “walked the waterfront” to win essential concessions from businesses and pier owners and to solicit their support for a local taxing district to help fund the streetcar line’s construction. He also scoured the planet in search of suitable running stock. His quest ended in Melbourne with the purchase of two Class W-2 cars for $5,000 each (three more cars would later join the system).

Unfortunately, it cost $26,000 to ship them to Seattle, but a legion of volunteers ranging from transit retirees to premier Seattle retailer Bruce Nordstrom joined in to refurbish the antique streetcars. Meanwhile, construction costs soared from an initial estimate of a few hundred thousand to more than $3 million, but the project’s momentum was unstoppable by then. The first pair of streetcars made their debut on May 29, 1982, and the line proved so popular that it was extended to Pioneer Square and the International District in 1990.

Tunnels and Transit

George Benson’s transit advocacy was not limited to the waterfront streetcar. He played a pivotal role in the delicate city-suburban negotiations that led to creation of the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel for dual-mode buses. He also insisted on the installation of tracks in the tunnel for future light rail (these later proved to be unusable due to poor engineering by Metro Transit) and championed preservation of Union Street Station as a future transit center, a vision now being realized by Sound Transit. As Parks Committee chair, he also sponsored a free shuttle service among Seattle parks.

Regardless of its long-term regional benefits, construction of the downtown transit tunnel was a near-term disaster for retailers along its route, especially on 3rd Avenue. As an owner of a small business, Benson recognized their pain and took every Friday afternoon to walk the construction zone and listen to proprietors’ concerns. He personally arranged for special signage, walkways, and credit extensions to keep 3rd Avenue businesses alive until the tunnel opened in 1990.

Benson also saved the 1962 World’s Fair Monorail from an early death in the late 1980s by demanding that a station be designed into the new Westlake Center. When engineers complained that they couldn’t provide access to both parallel tracks, Benson sketched out the retractable passenger ramps that make them work today. Without Benson’s innovative advocacy, current plans to build a citywide monorail system might never have germinated.

While he necessarily focused much of his energy on “big picture” issues of regional transportation, Benson was not blind to the little ideas and concerns that touch people’s daily lives. One day he read an article by the late Emmett Watson, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s curmudgeonly city scene columnist, proposing that the city should name a street in honor of legendary P-I sports writer and booster Royal Brougham. Occidental Avenue was suggested because it linked Pioneer Square with the Kingdome (since demolished for Seahawks Stadium).

Benson liked the sentiment, but he recognized that changing street names could cause residents and local businesses headaches and expense. He put on his walking shoes again to search the area for a suitable street that could be renamed without inconveniencing its neighbors, and came upon the short stretch of Connecticut Street between Alaskan Way and the International District. Only one business had an address on the street: the architectural firm of Harry Rich, who promptly agreed to the name change. 

Royal Brougham Way now separates Seahawks Stadium and Safeco Field, and serves suitably as the “main street” for big league sports in Seattle.

Garbage, Guns, and Gay Rights

Beyond transportation, Benson tackled -- and solved -- one of the city’s most daunting problems: garbage disposal. Seattle Mayor Charles Royer favored construction of a solid waste incinerator, so Benson, as chair of the utilities committee, toured the most advanced incineration facilities in Europe. “I remember the manager of a Swedish plant told us that it didn’t emit a single particle of pollution, but when we were driving away, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the stacks belching black smoke. I vowed that we’d never build one of those things in Seattle.”

Fortuitously, the mayor of Condon, Oregon, caught wind of Seattle’s needs and called Benson. “We’d be proud to take your garbage,” she said. As it turned out, Condon had both ample land for a sanitary landfill and ownership of an abandoned spur line, which made it easy and cheap to transport and safely bury Seattle’s non-recycled solid waste. The contract Benson negotiated won’t expire until 2042.

George Benson worked well with his colleagues and served as something of civic shock absorber when the Council divided over egos or ideology. He was not infallible, however, and he knew he was in trouble when long-time Council President Sam Smith (the city’s first African American Council member) would summon him “to Macedonia” a la the Apostle Paul for a little chat.

Benson also took a quiet but courageous stand for the rights of sexual minorities by hiring Cal Anderson as his aide. A skilled political operative and policy analyst, Anderson would build on his City Council experience to win election as the first openly gay member of the State House of Representatives in 1987. George and Cal remained friends until Anderson’s death from AIDS in 1995, a year after he had won a historic seat in the State Senate.

Of all the causes he took up, Benson’s successful advocacy of a 1985 city ban on firearms in bars and taverns proved the most wrenching. After facing numerous armed robbers in their Aloha Street pharmacy, George and Evelyn Benson were staunch advocates of responsible gun control. After more stringent regulations proved politically infeasible, Benson proposed a law requiring patrons to check their guns at the saloon door. It might seem simple common sense, Benson recalled, “but I lost a lot of friends over that one.”

A Graceful Exit

In the final two years of his last term, George Benson’s colleagues honored him with the post of City Council president. He wielded the gavel with his usual grace and modesty, treating friends and foes with fairness and decency to the end.

George Benson packed up his city hall office in January 1994, leaving behind the surplus desk he had personally refinished 20 years and five terms earlier. Soon after, he and his wife Evelyn sold their pharmacy, which she had managed during his political stint, to enjoy a peaceful retirement together (cut tragically short by her death in 2002).

Editorial encomiums and constituent’s bouquets saluted the departure of a man once dismissed as a “trolley nut” and well-meaning but naive legislator, and “Benson’s Folly” was officially renamed “The Benson Line.” Unlike many professional politicians, George Benson created a legacy of enduring  improvements and progress -- better public transit, safer neighborhoods, greater respect for human rights, and more responsible waste management, to name a few.

Foremost, his career epitomized the democratic ideal of an honest citizen who served his community selflessly and well.


Walt Crowley is a historian and Executive Director of History Ink and, which assisted George Benson in organizing his memoirs shortly before his death in 2004. Crowley served as program manager and policy planner in the administration of Mayor Wes Uhlman and worked closely with Benson on many issues.

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