Seattle Now & Then: Native American camp, late 1890s, and Benson Waterfront Streetcars, 2005

(click and click again to enlarge photos)

THEN1: Pictured just north of today’s Broad Street on the Seattle waterfront by Norwegian photographer Anders Wilse in the late 1890s, Native Americans prepare dugout canoes for their waterborne trek to hop fields in the White and Puyallup river valleys. Queen Anne Hill peeks out at upper left. (Courtesy Museum of History & Industry)
THEN2: One of five George Benson Waterfront Streetcars leaves the Broad Street Station in 2005, just prior to the line’s demise. The 1962 Space Needle anchors the scene at top. (Eric Bell)
NOW: Straddling the two “Then” vantages, our contemporary view shows West Seattle bicyclist and photographer Eric Bell on Pier 70, before the seawall that fronts Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park. To the right of the outsized human head of “Echo” by Jaume Plensa and below the vertical Pier 70 banner is the site of the former Broad Street station of the Benson streetcars. (Jean Sherrard)

(Published in the Seattle Times online on Sept. 3, 2020
and in PacificNW Magazine of the print Times on Sept. 6, 2020)

Waves of waterfront change: canoes to streetcars to sculpture
By Clay Eals

It’s natural to mourn the loss of things from younger days – old homes, favored stores – as if they had “always” been there. Self-centered sentiment can steal our sense that something else existed before we entered the arena.

Case in point: today’s pair of “Thens.”

If you lived here from 15 to 38 years ago, you may gravitate to the “Then” depicting the green-and-yellow glow of a George Benson Waterfront Streetcar leaving its Broad Street station and motoring south (right) to Pioneer Square and the Chinatown-International District.

The rickety streetcars – five total – were themselves nostalgia pieces, built in 1925-1930 in Australia and first operated there. Here, tourists loved them, and locals were proud, none more so than Benson, the pharmacist-turned-city councilman for whom they were named and who championed their transition to Seattle as an attraction for the masses. They were a direct nod to our city’s own streetcar heritage, which screeched to a halt by 1941, eventually overrun by petroleum-powered transit.

But what preceded the Benson streetcars? One answer lies in our earlier “Then,” from the late 1890s, angled more directly north and revealing a temporary Native American camp north of Broad (then Lake) Street, long before the city built a seawall there in the mid-1930s.

Pioneer journalist-historian Thomas Prosch labeled this a “common scene.” Via dugout canoes, Prosch said, Native Americans headed from Canada to the White and Puyallup river valleys, where up to 1,000 received low wages to pick hops, fueling a booming industry.

One century later, this waterfront stretch had evolved into pier-based offices and eateries and a breathtaking park named in 1976 for Myrtle Edwards, another city council member, fronting the northern terminus for the Benson streetcars and their maintenance barn when they commenced in 1982.

Having died in 2004, Benson didn’t witness the 2005 demise of his streetcars, whose barn was razed when Seattle Art Museum built its Olympic Sculpture Park, shown in our “Now.”

Some have strategized to revive the streetcars. But trackage and stations fell victim to the 2019 teardown of the nearby Alaskan Way Viaduct for its replacement by a tunnel. Today, a modern, light-rail connector to parallel the waterfront along First Avenue – which some would like to include two retrofitted Benson cars – is stalled by money woes.

Just as those who remembered the Native American canoes are gone, those of us who recall the Benson streetcars will vanish, and the collective memory of the area will default to Olympic Sculpture Park. For the attractive and lucrative waterfront, however, we surely can forecast relentless waves of change.


To see Jean Sherrard‘s 360-degree video of the “Now” prospect and compare it with the “Then” photo, and to hear this column read aloud by Clay Eals, check out our Seattle Now & Then 360 version of the column!

Below are eight clippings from The Seattle Times online archive (available via Seattle Public Library) and other online newspaper sources that were helpful in the preparation of this column.

Also, check out 18 additional photos, including 13 by West Seattle’s Eric Bell, that were helpful in the preparation of this column. Bell, who worked on the waterfront in 2005, says the failure to retain and incorporate the Benson streetcars was a huge missed opportunity for the city.

May 18, 1980, Seattle Times, page 124.
July 18, 1980, Seattle Times, page 16.
March 13, 1981, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 56.
April 4, 1981, The Oregonian, page 1.
June 16, 1981, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 1.
May 18, 1982, Seattle Times, page 67.
May 30, 1982, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, page 3.
June 24, 1982, Seattle Times, page 72.
Sanborn plate #62 from 1893, showing the location of our first “Then.” (Courtesy Ron Edge)
A 1935 aerial view of the waterfront from Laidlaw and the Museum of History & Industry. (Courtesy Ron Edge)
A 1935 view of the waterfront seawall under construction. (Courtesy Ron Edge)
Elliott Couden (left), further real-estate agent and civil-rights and heritage activist, stands in 1939 with George Benson, future Seattle City Council member, in front of their rooming house in the Green Lake neighborhood. (Elliott Couden collection)
An anachronistic George Benson Waterfront Streetcar crossing sign remains today along Alaskan Way. (Clay Eals)
A 2005 view of a northbound George Benson Waterfront Streetcar, W2-class car 512 leaving Vine Street. (Eric Bell)
A 2005 view of a southbound George Benson Waterfront Streetcar. “The writing is on the wall,” says Eric Bell. “The background beckons the end of the line for the streetcars.” (Eric Bell)
A 2005 view of a southbound George Benson Waterfront Streetcar and the maintenance barn. Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park now sits on this site. (Eric Bell)
A 2005 view of a northbound George Benson Waterfront Streetcar. Eric Bell says, “The timber and windows of car 482 complement the glazing of the former Seattle Trade Center.” (Eric Bell)
A 2005 view of the interior of a George Benson Waterfront Streetcar. “It’s a non-seasonal day,” says Eric Bell. “Gone are the lunch crowd and tourists.” (Eric Bell)
A 2005 view of a southbound George Benson Waterfront Streetcar, W2-class car 512 in Pioneer Square, with the Alaskan Way Viaduct in the background. “To this day,” says Eric Bell, “I can still feel the car rumble by me.” (Eric Bell)
A 2005 view of a George Benson Waterfront Streetcar at Jackson Street, the southern terminus in the Chinatown-International District. (Eric Bell)
A November 2005 view of two disengaged George Benson Waterfront Streetcars ready for transport. “The advertising,” says Eric Bell, “mocks instead of entices.” (Eric Bell)
A 2005 view of a George Benson Waterfront Streetcar, W2-class car 605, zooming along at 25 mph along the waterfront. (Eric Bell)
A 2005 view inside a George Benson Waterfront Streetcar, indicating that the W2-class cars, produced in 1927 in Australia, largely retained their decor until service ended. (Eric Bell)
A 2005 view of the car number of a George Benson Waterfront Streetcar. The cars retained their original numbers and 1920s headlight design. (Eric Bell)
A 2005 view of a George Benson Waterfront Streetcar logo, originally from the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board. (Eric Bell)

One thought on “Seattle Now & Then: Native American camp, late 1890s, and Benson Waterfront Streetcars, 2005”

  1. Read the Now and Then piece of yours today and was interested by the hop pickers. East End Londoners did a similar thing for many years by traveling to the hop fields in the county of Kent. In fact their school year was delayed by some weeks to accommodate this “migration”. The farmers provided long sheds for the pickers to stay in. I recall when maybe 8 years old we went for the day to see friends of my folks who were picking. Us kids just ran around playing etc. The hop vines were dragged down and the hops stripped off and thrown in a long sack bin assigned to a family or group.
    I presume this activity eventually disappeared when machines came along….
    Bob Bollen

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