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Streetcar Mystery

Historical Photo Leaves All To Imagination. What were those well-dressed folks doing on that day so long ago?



As we enter the new millennium we marvel at the changes in our society in just the past 100 years. Oftentimes, looking at one aspect of life will shed light on how different our memories are from those of our grandparents. 


In the 1890 and early 1900s, leisure time was defined by a break from work, a Saturday or Sunday sabbatical rest, well deserved and enjoyed by families spending time together.

The photograph I am writing about this week is from the Rainier Valley Historical Society collection of the D.W. Brown family. It has intrigued local historians since first it was discovered.


There was no documentation along with the photo, so comments here can be considered educated speculation. Research of local events turned up many possible scenarios for this story.


The trolley stop is new construction, evidenced by the stacks of what appears to  be left over lumber. It is in an unpopulated, wooded area.


The street car tracks were lain starting in 1889, when J.K. Edmiston saw his dream of the Rainier Valley Electric Railway come into being. The tracks began at Washington Street, and by March of 1891 the line extended to Rainier Beach. No buildings are nearby, and the land is forested with evergreens and deciduous trees, which are in full leaf, indicating late spring or early summer.


Perhaps it is the summer of 1891 or 1892. Men and women in Sunday best are boarding or disembarking en mass, indicating a group event, which required the scheduling of two cars traveling in the same direction. Possible events include a church picnic, lodge outing, or a journey to a large gathering such as the Alaska-Yukon  Exhibition, in 1909, or a trip on the steamboat to Mercer Island or Kennydale. 


Let’s do a little detective work. The shadows show the time of day to be about mid-day, which makes sense for any of our speculations. The photo shows the name of the streetcar line as The Rainier Electric Railway, the first of many names for the line from downtown to Renton.


Because many people are gathered here they must be attending an organized event. As noted, the area has no buildings near the stop, indicating a less densely populated area. Maybe the party was looking at land? Lot sales were conducted in Columbia City in April of 1891, in which flatcars with benches on them were attached to the streetcars to pull prospective buyers out from Seattle. April is a little to early in the spring for this photograph, but perhaps other sales events tool place throughout the summer and in later years out south toward Rainier Beach. Would women be included in such a trip? Probably not. If they were included would they wear their best dresses? Probably not. Let’s look at some other possibilities.


Known history of the time in Rainier Valley notes at least three fraternal organizations in the Columbia City area, all of which had regular social events. The Masonic Lodge was on Rainier Avenue and still stands today. The Modern Woodmen of America, also were on the strip in Columbia, as were the Knights of Pythias, who meet at their hall between Ferdinand and Edmunds on the west side of Rainier ( later called Phalen Hall) at 4863 Rainier Avenue.


Local churches had summer picnics for fellowship and respite from the workweek. The Brown family belonged to the Columbia Congregational Church, one of the first houses of worship in the neighborhood.


A notice published by the railway gives further clues, inviting “Seattle to Rainier Beach, on Lake Washington, a pleasant ride of 8 miles. Come out and see the country.” The notice includes information regarding the schedule, with cars leaving every 45 minutes from Railroad Avenue and Washington Street during the day, extra cars being available for special occasions with special rates for parties of 50 or more.


Outside the city limits passengers could be let off only at established stations, about a quarter-mile apart. One of the reasons for this may have been the presence of cougars along the route. 

During those days steamships crossed Lake Washington between Rainier Beach and Kennydale, bringing passengers on their journey via the Railway to Seattle. Perhaps a social event of some magnitude drew folks from all over to this isolated little rail station. A news article may have read: “A distant romance between a lovely young lady from Brighton Beach and a handsome young businessman from Kennydale brings celebration to the entire community on the shores of Lake Washington. The groom and his family arrived aboard the steamship ‘Arrow’ early the morning of the ceremony.”


“The weather cooperated perfectly as friends and relations from as far as the Denny neighborhood arrived by streetcar, buggy and on foot. The popular bathing beach and picnic area at Atlantic City in Rainier Beach provided a backdrop of shining blue water and greenery, framing the bridal party. The newlyweds boarded the streetcar to Seattle where they will spend their honeymoon, afterward settling in their newly built cottage in Columbia City.” 


We may not be any closer to the truth about the nature of the gathering documented in this photo, but it has been fun speculating about the possibilities. If you enjoyed this exercise inprobing the past, more opportunities await you at the Rainier Valley Historical Society. Who knows, maybe you will be the next volunteer to uncover the truth about a mysterious picture! To volunteer, donate photographs, or to enlighten us about this photo, please call or stop by our office at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center.


Mary Ann Balch is a volunteer with the Rainier Valley Historical Society.


Days Gone By 

South District Journal 5/10/2000

By Mary Ann Balch

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