Monday, January 22, 2018

Ride with Pleasure, Safety, Economy, and Reliability

Towards the end of the 19th Century, electric railway technology was introduced and it spread like lightning. Soon there was interest in establishing electric interurban railways in even far-flung places such as Tacoma and Seattle.  Specifically, enterprising individuals saw an opportunity to provide commuter service between Tacoma, Seattle and points in between, a distance of about 35 miles.  Support for such a service grew quickly and developed in part from feelings of antipathy towards the Northern Pacific Railway, a steam railroad with costly fares and unfavorable schedules.  Yet getting it built was still a significant undertaking filled with risk.

In October 1900 Fred E. Sander secured the first franchise to build an interurban line between Seattle and Tacoma.  Sander owned the narrow gauge Grant Street streetcar line that extended south to Georgetown, and envisioned the interurban as an extension of that line that would be simultaneously double tracked and rebuilt to a standard gauge of 56 ½ inches between the rails.  Construction began in February 1901 supported by more than $1 million in capital secured in eastern markets, but it was insufficient to complete the work.  Sander’s dream sold at foreclosure just six months later, on July 10, 1901.  It, along with the Grant Street streetcar, was eventually brought under the control of the Seattle Electric Company. 

Meanwhile, a second interurban company was formed in December 1900.  Headed by Northern Bank President Jacob Furth, it was also backed by Tacoma promoters Henry Bucey and John Collins.  There was some minor controversy as the interurban line’s precise route was decided, but during its early phase of construction the enterprise was purchased by Stoneand Webster, a Boston-based company that owned street cars, interurbans and electric utilities all across the country, and who the year prior created Seattle Electric Company with the merger of Seattle’s street railways.  A few months later, Stone and Webster also purchased the Snoqualmie Falls power station.

Shortly after service to Tacoma began, the Seattle Tacoma Interurban was renamed the Puget Sound Electric Railway.  Incorporated as a subsidiary of Puget Sound Power, Light and Traction, the entire operation was owned by Stone and Webster of Boston who had designs on an electric interurban network that would stretch from Portland, Oregon to Vancouver, British Columbia.

Completed in 1902, the PSER operated between Seattle and Tacoma on a 38-mile main line. Using the conventional overhead of municipal streetcar lines in the urban areas of Seattle and Tacoma, and third rail on its own track in the country, the PSER provided service between downtown Seattle and downtown Tacoma at speeds up to 60 miles per hour.

The PSER advertised a ride full of, “Pleasure, Safety, Economy and Reliability.”  The trains were electrically-powered so the trip was free of smoke and cinders, and was smooth and quiet.  The 75-minute "Limited" trip between Pioneer Square at the intersection of Occidental and Yesler in downtown Seattle and downtown Tacoma’s car barn at 7th and A streets featured just two stops.  However, all trains - including those that stopped at all 22 stations and took considerably longer than 75 minutes - featured the excitement of traveling at more than one mile per minute down the Kent Valley.

Initially, the PSER had 22 stops between Seattle and Tacoma.  Communities known today included Fife, Milton, and Kent, but also many no longer remembered included Orillia, Farrow and O’Brien.  The PSER enabled these communities to thrive by allowing residents to commute to work in Seattle or Tacoma.  Kent, for example, instantly became a commute to downtown Seattle comparable in duration to one from North Seattle.  Larger communities such as Auburn had a station building while smaller villages had just a platform.

Initially, trains operated with three cars.  Later, when cars such as the 523 were added, shorter trains of just two cars were able to handle as many passengers as the original three car trains, and also offer parlor car service.  By the teens, there were single car trains operating too.

As the PSER increased in popularity and ridership grew the company added branch lines.  For instance, a short branch between the mainline and Renton soon saw 33 trains per day.  Puyallup was connected to the mainline with a new 6-mile branch added in 1908.

Operation of the PSER was at the forefront of modern practice.  From the beginning, a dispatching office in Kent controlled trains using timetable and train order.  Instructions were issued by the dispatcher via telegraph and operators at each station wrote out the instruction on a form called a train order.  Train orders could be given to the motorman (train driver) in person or handed off with a train order hoop, which occurred while the train was moving.  The instructions on the train order were the authority to occupy the main track, and could allow the train to proceed, take a siding, or even hold the train for a period of time.  A typical station stop was just as long as it took for passengers to get on and off, not unlike a Sounder light rail train.

In August 1913 PSER announced it would spend more than $60,000 to purchase and install a new automatic block system.  This signal system was cutting-edge technology for the era and was designed to allow trains to safely and efficiently operate at high speed (60 miles per hour) with frequent departures.

Changes in ridership and revenue began appearing after WW I.  Construction of highway 99 combined with increasing rates of ownership of private automobiles resulted in a rapid decline in patronage.  By the late 1920s, revenues were no longer sufficient to pay the cost of capital, and this resulted in a default on bond payments.  Competition from highway buses and steam railroads proved insurmountable and parent company Puget Sound Power and Light refused to bail the railway out.  The last train operated on December 30, 1928; tracks were removed beginning in 1930.

Portions of the PSER right of way survive as the Interurban Trail, a 14-mile trail corridor developed and maintained by King County Parks, but they remain under ownership of successor company Puget Sound Energy.  Several substations have been adaptively reused and survive to this day.  And the sole remaining electric car - the 523 - has now been preserved at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie.  So the legacy of the Puget Sound Electric Railway will live on in a museum exhibit and in local recreational trails.

1 comment:

David said...

Spike, The interurban rail craze has always fascinated me. I'm originally from southern Michigan and there was a virtual web of electric interurban service in the early part of the 20th century. Take Care, Big Daddy Dave