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History of Streetcar Line

RVHS Photo: 1993.001.0205

Rainier Valley has seen a lot of traffic revision these last few weeks.  We have many new traffic circles, sidewalks and curbs, thanks to the Seattle Engineering Department.

It’s only fitting since the valley is a natural place for a transportation system to be located. Back in the early days, streetcars ran along Rainier Avenue.

In 1889, J.K. Edmiston began laying tracks for the Rainier Avenue Electric Railway.  The steep grade of Washington Street required a counterbalance of heavily laden flat cars traveling in a tunnel on tracks beneath the street.  The cars pulled a cable that was gripped by streetcars ascending and descending the hill.  A pneumatic cylinder cushioned the cars at the bottom of the hill.  Tracks traveling down a private right-of-way on Rainier Avenue were laid on trestles and filled, due to the swampy ground.

Despite the challenging ground conditions, the railway quickly was built.  It began to serve the community in 1891 with a car leaving Railroad Avenue every 45 minutes.  The tracks ran to 14th Avenue, then traveled southwest along what is now Rainier Avenue South.  Service was initially provided to the edge of the Dunlap property and extended to Rainier Beach in 1891 or 1892.

Power for the line was purchased from Union Truck Lines, but the railway company also built its own generating plant, with supplemental power coming from Columbia Mill.  The building of the railway brought many folks out to explore the timberland that was Rainier Valley.

Lots for sale

Edmiston, also a principal landowner in the area, began to plan Columbia City in 1890 with Percy Rochester and a third man.  Forty acres were logged and cleared between 37th Avenue and 42nd Avenue on the east and west, and Hudson and Alaska Streets on the south and north.  The sale of lots in Columbia City began on April 4, 1891, just four months after the opening of the railway.  Lots sold for $300.  Payments were $10 down and $1 per week for 300 weeks.  The larger lots sold for $750 and required $1.50 per week.  There was no interest charged.  If a land-buyer died before completing his contract payments, his obligations were canceled.

The streetcars sported banners advertising the lots for sale, inviting folks to come out and take a look.  Passengers traveling to Columbia City on the railway paid 5 cents to ride from Seattle to Columbia City.  Those going all the way to Rainier Beach paid an additional 5 cents.


Residents of Columbia City and visitors from Seattle could connect at Rainier Beach, which joined the railway with the steamer City of Columbia to Bryn Mawr and Renton.  The steamer fare to Renton was 10 cents.  When they arrived at Renton, passengers had to walk 1 ½ miles from the boat landing to the town.

A person could pay 25 cents at First Avenue and Washington Street and enjoy a two-hour ride through Rainier Valley, with picturesque water and mountain views. Numerous outdoor opportunities existed along the line. One could stop for boating, fishing or camping at the lakeside, and picnic grounds with free water and wood were available at Rainier Beach. By 1906, the railway boasted of 23 passenger cars as well as freight cars and locomotives.

Different Owners

Over the years, different men held an interest in the railway company. Frank Osgood purchased it in 1895, paying$14,300 at an auction. He renamed it the Seattle & Rainier Beach Railway. He managed the company profitably for several years, raising its value to $90,000. He sold his interest in the railway to W.R. Crawford in 1907. The railway’s name was changed to Seattle, Renton & Southern Railway.

In 1934, a franchise was obtained from Seattle.  The line ran down Fourth Avenue in 1909 and, in 1910, added the first of its Moran steel cars, which could reach 50 miles per hour.

The following year was eventful for the company.  Crawford introduced zone fares and was met by passengers who refused to pay or to leave the cars.  He backed down, but the event caused such a stir that the state formed a Public Service Commission to look into the matter. 

In March 1911, Seattle voters were asked to approve an $800,000 bond issue allowing the city to purchase the railway.  Crawford raised the asking price to $1.2 million, and the city decided to build its own railway.

Crawford then refused to accept transfers from the Seattle Electric Co.  Passengers again had the upper hand and made him change his mind and keep accepting the transfers.

The company remained in business for many years, adding service down Genesee Street.  As late as 1930, the line allowed students from Mercer Island to ride a boat named Alice – names after the skipper’s wife – to Rainier Beach, where they caught the streetcar to Franklin High School.  The railway company applied to the city for another franchise in 1934, but citizens protested, claiming that the unpaved streetcar tracks that ran between the two lanes of Rainier Avenue were a “thoroughfare of death.”  Evidently, the city had protested the unpaved tracks for 20 years, even though our records only show one fatal accident.

On Feb. 10, 1937, the last car returned to the Hudson Street barns, ending 46 years of private streetcar service to Rainier Valley.  The firm was the valley’s largest employer.  Its closing, combined with the Great Depression, hurt nearly everyone in the district.  By summer of that year, however, citizens were celebrating the paving of the center of Rainier Avenue, where the tracks used to lie.  The residents of the valley pulled together and enjoyed a parade featuring Miss Seattle and the community princesses.

This article was written by Mary Ann Balch, a South Seattle resident, is a member of the Rainier Valley Historical Society.

Title for photo: Car #22  

Car #22 at the Kenyon Street turn-around about 1904. Prior to 1900 this car ran in Port Townsend until acquired by the SR&S Ry. Then Mr. Hipkins, their master mechanic and blacksmith, rebuilt it. The sign on the car reads: “Lots $65.00 in Southeast Seattle.”

Days Gone By 

South District Journal 10/23/1996

By Mary Ann Balch


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