Book cover of Seattle's Streetcar Era

Mike Bergman

WSU Press: 2021 


Seats were made of wood or wicker, rides cost a nickel or dime, and Seattle’s population was booming. When cable cars and electric streetcars moved people around the city, the number of souls in Seattle nearly doubled in one decade (1890 to 1900), then tripled in the next (1900 to 1910).

Seattle’s population continued to grow into the 1930s. But by then, its streetcar era was beginning to decline. The story of Seattle’s streetcars is largely one of financial hardship⁠—employees of Seattle Municipal Street Railway were sometimes paid with promissory notes⁠—as well as political and other challenges, including derailments and the city’s tumultuous takeover of the streetcar network in 1919.

Seattle native Mike Bergman’s well-researched account covers the rise of the city’s streetcar industry⁠—13 companies provided streetcar service in Seattle in 1896⁠—as well as its controversies, eventual collapse, and conversion to rubber-tired buses during World War II. Along the way, he offers glimpses into the growth of the city, its leadership, the way people lived, and, of course, how they got around. It’s a story of resourcefulness, perseverance, and adversity.

Bergman grew up on Queen Anne, where an underground counterbalance once propelled street cars up and down the hill’s 18 percent grade. It’s one of his favorite highlights. So is the self-proclaimed “Center of the Universe” that is Fremont, home of the old Fremont Trolley Barn, which now houses the production facility for Theo Chocolate.

Fremont was once a “grand union,” or junction where two double-track lines cross at a grade. Sixteen railroad switches allowed streetcars coming from any direction to go in any of the other three directions, making the neighborhood quite a bustling hub. Asphalt now covers the lines, but their influence remains. Seattle grew from downtown and the Central District through annexations of the “streetcar suburbs” of Ballard, West Seattle, and more. Routes influenced the city’s expansion and neighborhood development.

Bergman’s large-format, hardbound book also helps readers peer into the past through more than a dozen maps and a treasure trove of more than 100 archival images of old Seattle. He retired in 2016 after about 36 years as a transit planner for King County Metro and Sound Transit. He serves as president of the Tacoma Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and volunteers at the Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive in Burien.


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