Eastlake’s Municipal Streetcars 1919-40

One hundred years ago, Eastlake Avenue had three municipal streetcar lines, known together as the “Eastlake Line.” That line was Seattle’s most traveled corridor, carrying over ten percent of the city’s passengers. However, all was not well. Citywide streetcar ridership was decreasing in those early years of automobile ownership, and it would affect the Eastlake line. Ridership was down five percent between 1920 and 1926; the evening and Sunday ridership – the all-important recreational marketplace – was down 25 percent.  

Early History 1886-1918

The first privately owned horse-drawn streetcar line reached Lake Union in 1886.  It the first spur off Seattle’s first streetcar line, which ran mostly on 2nd Avenue out to Battery Street. The spur terminated at a pier where Yale Street Landing is now in South Lake Union. The 1886 streetcar pier was intended to serve ferries from Lake Washington, but the Montlake Cut would require another 30 years for completion, so the pier connected with only a couple small Lake Union ferries. Electricity soon replaced hay for horses, and in 1890 the spur was abandoned for a new line on pilings up the west side of the lake into Fremont. With electric power, streetcar lines proliferated citywide. 

The Eastlake line began as one of David Denny’s private enterprises in 1888. The line originally terminated at Lynn Street, which marked a Seattle city limit from 1883-91. In 1891 the streetcar line was extended with the completion of another Denny enterprise, the Latona Bridge, into Brooklyn, now the University District. The original Eastlake Line ran along Minor Avenue to Roanoke, then up to Eastlake Avenue and over the Latona Bridge, since demolished. (The high-power transmission lines over Lake Union parallel where the Latona Bridge once crossed.)

Between 1898 and 1900, Stone & Webster (a Boston-based private utility) purchased and assembled 22 Seattle streetcar lines into a system. Then it negotiated a 40-year franchise contract with the city. Eighteen years into the contract, the system was sold to the city.  By most accounts, City Hall overpaid Stone &Webster by plenty, but in Mayor Ole Hansen’s defense: we were a shipbuilding town during a wartime economy – moving shipyard workers to their wartime jobs was a higher priority than pinching civic pennies.

Soon thereafter, a judge ruled that the Municipal Railway could not tap into government coffers – the railway had to pay its own way, including annual payments to Stone & Webster. Throughout its life, the municipal railway system was hampered by desperate and foolish financing.  

The Eastlake Line merged with the Broadway #15 line to cross the University Bridge. Graphic by Dan Ballard

Eastlake’s Municipal Streetcars 1919-1940

The “Eastlake Line” was composed of the #16 Ravenna and #17 Cowen Park routes.  The #15 Broadway joined the Eastlake Line at the intersection of Harvard Avenue and Martin Street. All three routes crossed the 1919-built University Drawbridge that replaced the Latona Bridge.

The #16 Ravenna turned east at Ravenna Park and terminated in Wedgewood. The #17 Cowen Park kept north on 15th Avenue NE past the reservoir almost to Lake City Way.  The #15 Broadway terminated on University Avenue just short of 45th Street.   Fortieth Street NE (now Campus Parkway) was the transfer point for the East-West line over to Wallingford, Fremont and Ballard. 

Southbound, all three routes operated down the middle of Third Avenue and terminated at the Jackson Street loop just south of City Hall Park. Although most of our streetcars were double-ended, loops at the end of track lines were often a necessity for efficient operations.

Eastlake’s most famous streetcar #108. At 7:30 pm on July 1, 1919, Streetcar #108 inaugurates service over the University Drawbridge. Seattle had taken over the streetcar system three months before, so Mayor Hanson’s post-ride speech was more about streetcars than opening the bridge. Streetcar #108 also opened the Ballard drawbridge a year and a half earlier. Streetcar #108’s fame also came as a photo frame for Mayor Ole Hanson, who soon left office on a Bull Moose-type national speaking tour. ( photo credit :Seattle Municipal Archives).

A city trainman made roughly $7.50 a day – higher wages than bricklayers and good money for a job riding through the neighborhoods. Trainmen accounted for 1,000 of the 1,600 who worked for the Municipal Railway. By manpower comparison, the Seattle Police Department of 1926 was 600 strong.

Streetcar riding involved wooden bench seating and hand straps tethered to hand rails above with advertising posted inside as they do on buses today. Enter and pay at the front, exit in the rear – just like busses now that METRO has discontinued the downtown Free Ride Zone. A 1919 city ordinance prohibited smoking, spitting and littering inside a streetcar.

Student Token. Streetcar rides were 90% paid by token. Conductors on downtown sidewalks and neighborhood shopkeepers sold them. The impressive “S” in the middle of the STUDENT token often had its spine broken out by fidgeting young riders.  Eastlake students rode the #15 to Broadway High School.  The adult fare token was hollowed with a triangle and was smaller than a Mercury Head dime. (Photo credit: author)

Full fare for the municipal streetcar system was 10 cents, and the fare box accepted dimes and tokens. Conductors wore coin changers at their waists, but only about ten percent of the riders paid by coin; most purchased the discounted 8 1/3 cents tokens that were readily available for sale in neighborhood stores and sold on street corners downtown.  Student fare was 3 cents (2.5 cents by token) and Sunday school kids could use school tokens.

Orange on the outside, Seattle streetcars had “L”-shaped “pedestrian catchers” (lineage to 1880s locomotive cow catchers) as front bumpers and traveled along at a leisurely pace of 9 MPH.  Riders would get on and off mostly in the middle of traffic lanes. The law required vehicles going both ways to stop when a streetcar stopped.

Woman stepping off streetcar downtown at 5th and Pike in 1927. Streetcars stopped in the middle of the road with traffic stopped both ways for passengers to load and unload. Note the “L”-shaped “pedestrian catcher” at right. One of the positives of replacing streetcars with buses was curbside service. (Photo credit : University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections #SMR 95)


Eastlake Avenue had two curbside lanes for automobile parking, two traffic lanes for autos and trucks, and two center lanes that streetcars shared with automobiles. Streetcars stopped for passengers waiting in the middle of the street at almost every intersection. At Martin Street, there was a protectively-raised mid-street loading platform for pedestrians.

Eastlake and the Martin Street Stairs, circa 1926. Notice the raised platform with pedestrian and the lack of traffic lights and signs. Eastlake streetcars could round the corner drugstore to travel south on Harvard, then over to the Montlake Bridge to detour the University Bridge. (Photo credit unknown)

With so much traffic Eastlake Avenue became a notorious mess, and accidents were frequent. The Eastlake Line had a few worthy of local lore, along with a handful of fatalities:

  • Approaching the University Bridge early one September morning, Tom Been swerved to avoid a streetcar emerging from the fog ahead. He grabbed a hand railing as his car teetered on the brink.   His Hupmobile tipped into Lake Union and seconds later he followed.  Three hours later the Fire Department found an empty vehicle in 20 feet of water. Mr. Been had swum to shore.  He was found with his story at a local doctor’s office.
  • A late-night collision at the landing platform at Harvard and Eastlake sent 40 year old Cascade neighbor Ole Nestos to the hospital and his car to the scrap yard in December of 1925. 
  • In January 1934, a motorcycle police officer in pursuit slid into a 65-year-old woman crossing Eastlake at Garfield. The two then slid under an approaching streetcar. He was OK, she suffered two broken legs and internal injuries.
  • Not all incidents were accidents. In the days before the Aurora Bridge…    Sid Renner’s auto repair business had gone bust. He was on his third wife at age 50. So he walked a few blocks from his house, watched as the Ravenna car picked up a passenger at Martin Street, ran beside like a dog chasing a wheel, then pool-dove under the rear wheels. Back in 1924, the newspapers weren’t so squeamish about details.

During the 20 years of municipal rail on Eastlake Avenue, automobiles collided with streetcars at Martin, Hamlin, Edgar, Louisa, Lynn, Blaine and Garfield killing at least one person. Another three persons were killed or seriously injured in the process of entering or leaving an Eastlake streetcar, struck by automobiles at Louisa, Roanoke and Harvard.   Skidding on wet rails was a frequent cause of additional Eastlake vehicle mayhem.

Accidents along the line weren’t the only negative news for the streetcars; ridership was declining as the automobile was ascending. By 1923, more automobiles crossed the University Bridge than passengers in streetcars. 

Declining Ridership

In the Spring of 1923, Seattle Municipal Railway cut fares in half in attempt to increase ridership. The experiment lasted three months. Ridership did not double. In fact, citywide ridership continued to decline, from 97.5 million passengers in 1922 to 68.8 million by 1928.

The University Bridge was a notorious mess of clogged traffic. Volumes in recent history are comparable to 1926 – about 28,000 vehicles per weekday. But in 1926, electric traffic signals did not exist, Roosevelt Avenue was two-way, the bridge approaches were narrower and cars less reliable. Plus the streetcars were slow. Hair-brained “solutions” flowed forth: In 1929, City Hall considered a streetcar deep ditch running up Lake Union along Fairview Avenue with a tunnel under Eastlake Avenue at Allison Street, crossing Portage Bay on a rail-only bridge. The City Engineer recommended filling in Lake Union and constructing a grand boulevard down the middle. Neither happened. Instead, after a decade of ten percent annual traffic growth, the University Bridge was renovated from four lanes to six in 1932-33.

Interior of a streetcar with passengers (Photo credit: University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections #UW 5498)

The End of Seattle and Eastlake’s Streetcar System

When the Aurora Bridge opened in 1932, the end was obvious. Eastlake Avenue had been Seattle’s primary North-South transit corridor since the 1919 opening of the University Bridge. That distinction passed to the Aurora Bridge — a bridge built without streetcar rails. Seattle’s municipal streetcar investment would linger another eight years.   

Between 1922 and 1938, Eastlake streetcar ridership had dropped 34 percent from 9.7 to 6.4 million riders. Buses were cheaper to operate, more flexible in route alignments, could pull to the curb for loading and were safer in traffic. Automobiles were faster, more fun and lifestyle efficient.

In the 1890s, streetcars had beaten the horse handily and then dominated Seattle transit for three decades. But the private automobile equally dominated the streetcar. Our municipal streetcar system was already becoming an obsolete relic when purchased.

On May 5, 1940 the Eastlake Streetcar Line was replaced by “trackless trolley” service – the bus – and that bus today, the #70, still serves us well.

Special thanks to the researcher for this article, Victoria Gibson.

A version of this article first appeared in the Eastlake News, Summer 2013.

Written by Jules James

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

GIPHY App Key not set. Please check settings

How a floating walkway saved open space

Former Eastlake Architect on the Cover of Seattle Magazine