(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.