Seattle Now & Then: Monorail dreams, 1918

(click to enlarge photos)

THEN1: A Webster & Stevens photograph, looking north from the third floor of the 1913 Joshua Green Building includes futuristic features added by an unknown designer. Imagined monorails snugly hug both sides of 90-foot-wide Westlake Avenue. The track veering left past the Hotel Plaza heads up Fourth Avenue toward today’s Seattle Center. (MOHAI, Webster & Stevens)
NOW1: Today’s Westlake Park, popularly known as Seattle’s town square, replaced Westlake Avenue in 1960. Surviving structures include the 10-floor Seaboard Building (1909) at far right. The former American Hotel (1907), now Westlake Place, is to its immediate north. (Jean Sherrard)
THEN2: A second proposed route of the Universal Elevated Railway Co. runs south along Second Avenue from Stewart. The new logo on the foreground train’s side panel suggests a rechristened “Safety Railway.” (MOHAI)
NOW2: While much of Second Avenue is now composed of glass and steel towers, original structures remain. The remodeled Standard Furniture Company Building (1907) still looms at right. On the southwest corner of Second and Pine, the Doyle Building (1919) is a terra cotta-faced marvel. (Jean Sherrard)

Published in The Seattle Times online on Jan. 19, 2023
and in PacificNW Magazine of the printed Times on Jan. 22, 2023

Single-track minds imagine a Seattle monorail a century ago
By Jean Sherrard

In February 1962, a week after John Glenn orbited the earth and two months before the opening of the Century 21 Exposition (aka the Seattle World’s Fair), the Seattle-Post Intelligencer featured a mysterious photo in its Sunday magazine. Discovered in the archives of a “pioneer” photo studio, it depicted a familiar if antiquated Seattle cityscape but with futuristic alterations.

The article had it wrong. The adjusted photo was not from 1915 but 1918.

Skillfully added to the original photo, painted ribbons of monorail track snaked down Fourth Avenue and through Westlake, while cars atop the tracks bore a logo: “Universal Elevated Railway.”

Even keen-witted 93-year-old Joshua Green, from whose eponymous building the portrait had been taken, had no recollection of its provenance.

Challenged to solve the enigma, however, older readers soon supplied answers. A retired patent attorney recalled filing the original designs in 1918, and several early investors trotted out their now-worthless stock certificates.

Turns out the city’s nearly completed Alweg monorail, set to glide between Westlake and the World’s Fair, had been largely envisioned more than 40 years earlier by prescient inventors and entrepreneurs. Uncannily, one of their proposed routes even mirrored that of the Alweg.

This early monorail design was the brainchild of an unlikely crew, including noted physician Dr. Royal McClure, wealthy Sedro Wooley druggist Albert Holland, Capitol Hill garage manager David McClay and Seattle engineering professor Robert Rockwell. In May 1917, they incorporated as the Universal Elevated Railway Co. and declared their intension to make Seattle the world’s monorail capital.

By late 1918, after filing more than a dozen patents, the partners offered stock in the company, intending to fund a demonstration monorail downtown. Surely, the world would soon beat a single-track path to their door.

A bold-faced promotional flyer touted the advantages of elevated transit system: “SURFACE OBSTRUCTION such as floods, snow, railroad crossings, congestion … derailing and THIRD RAIL DANGER” largely would be eliminated by their innovative designs, intended to replace nearly 200 miles of perilous existing railway on Seattle streets.

Yet it was not to be. In the final year of World War I, the federal government imposed austerity measures across the nation, discouraging unnecessary capital investments. To boot, Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson was a decided skeptic. The gung-ho backers of the Universal Elevated Railway, though rich in imagination and ambition, could not raise enough out-of-pocket cash. In 1923, the struggling company closed its doors.

It would be another 40 years before a monorail car finally pulled into a station at Westlake.

WEB EXTRAS

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