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Everett was the first to bury its streetcars

LISTEN: Everett was the first to bury its streetcars

The City of Everett is preparing to mark its 125th anniversary or, let it roll off the tongue: the “quasquicentennial.”

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Everett was incorporated back on May 4, 1893. It was an auspicious year, which also included the global financial crisis known as the Panic of 1893.

It was also the year when the city’s first electric streetcar system debuted in Everett on the Fourth of July. Seattle, Tacoma, Bellingham, Spokane, Portland and other growing Northwest cities also saw the introduction of streetcars around this same time.

The streetcar systems of the 1890s were rudimentary, and they often were built and maintained by private operators, with permission to lay track granted through franchise agreements with local governments.

In Seattle, several independent streetcar lines were eventually consolidated and then converted to public ownership. By the late 1930s, most of the streetcar lines in Seattle had been replaced by buses, and the last remaining lines were shut down in 1940.

In Everett, it was a different story. The streetcars there remained in private hands – a company called the Puget Sound International Railway and Power Company, part of what would much later become Puget Sound Energy – but they only lasted until 1923 before being replaced by buses.

Why did Everett ditch its streetcars 17 years before Seattle – and even 15 years before Tacoma?

A “History of Snohomish County, Volume One,” published in the 1920s, says it was about making room for buses and cars:

“In 1923 Everett attracted national attention by dispensing with a half dozen of its street railway lines, the tracks being pulled up from the center of the downtown — streets, leaving only two lines in operation, those reaching the suburbs of Lowell and Delta, the latter being at the mouth of the Snohomish River, occupied by the great Weyerhaeuser Mills, B and C. The Puget Sound Power & Light Company, which had operated the lines for a score of years, put on automobile bus service instead, thus leaving all the business thoroughfares clear of the rigid tracks, serving the public with seventeen auto buses.”

Old newspaper clippings offer additional clues as to attitudes in Everett toward streetcars and their impact on “business thoroughfares.”

This is part of a story about Everett’s new buses, as it appeared in the Oakland Tribune on December 17, 1922:

“The condition which prompted this traction company to make the change from trolley system to trackless variety are the same as exist to a greater or less extent in every growing city — a traffic congestion that is not only making travel through the main streets slow, but adding danger for every person and vehicle on the streets … The installation of a bus system is expected to relieve the traffic congestion because the buses pull to the curb when stopping, leaving the street open for vehicular traffic, instead of holding up a whole line of automobiles as does a stopped street car.”

It’s probably worth noting that Oakland was the hometown of Fageol Motors, the company that was building the new buses that would replace the streetcars in Everett – and Everett was the first customer for a new model designed especially for this purpose.

Additional digging into old clippings and history books failed to turn up much of a backstory or “aha moment” as to why Everett was first to scrap its streetcars, so it remains something of a mystery.

It’s also a bit of mystery when it comes to finding remnants, artifacts and other tangible reminders of Everett’s streetcar past.

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In Seattle, many people know about the “counterbalance” – that huge rolling mass that was used as a counterweight to help streetcars ascend and descend Queen Anne Hill. That very heavy giant paperweight continues to slumber in a tunnel beneath the pavement at the bottom of Queen Anne Avenue and Roy Street.

Is there anything like this in Everett?

Lisa Labovitch is a history specialist at the Northwest Room at the Everett Public Library, where there are countless old photographs of Everett’s streetcars in its collections.

Out on the streets of Everett, Labovitch says, the most visible reminder of the city’s streetcar past is actually more associated with the Interurban, the rail service that connected cities along what’s now the I-5 corridor up until the late 1930s.

“There is a building on the corner of Colby and Pacific that used to be the Interurban railway station, and there used to be also sheds for the streetcars where the Everett lines would meet up with that,” Labovitch said by phone late last week. “It is technically the Interurban building, but it had an association with the streetcar lines.”

A visit to the old Interurban Building earlier this week shows that a third story was added to the building after its transit depot days. Also, it looks like the foundation of the old streetcar shed is still there, just north of the building, on the surface of the parking lot that’s now there, with what appear to be square holes left over from the footings for the posts that held up the old canopy.

Lisa Labovitch also says that the Everett Public Works Department has lately been coming across old streetcar ties and rails that are still lurking beneath the pavement.

One of the Public Works staff members who has found a lot of the old pieces of the streetcar system is Brian Doolan. He’s the Sewer and Drainage Maintenance Supervisor for Public Works, and he says it’s a thrill when his crews come across buried artifacts that clearly show many layers of Everett history.

“It’s fun especially when you get a good hole dug down so you can look at the side of it and see the different layers,” said Doolan. “It’s almost like the rings of a tree, you can see the different eras as you go up, you can the regular dirt and the different gravel, and you can see the tramlines or the old bricks [and] cobblestones in places.”

And Lisa Labovitch says that in addition to the old Interurban Building and what the Public Works people keep turning up, there’s at least one more hidden piece of Everett streetcar history waiting to be uncovered.

“There’s also supposedly a streetcar that is underground somewhere, along Hewitt, I believe,” Labovitch said. “It’s been kind of mythologized among the local historians. I don’t know the story about it . . . but I’m intrigued.”

Kathleen Baxter is the public information officer for Public Works for the City of Everett. She says that there is indeed something buried beneath a sidewalk in Everett, but it’s not a streetcar, exactly. Baxter says the location is Rockefeller Street just north of Hewitt Avenue.

Paying a visit to Rockefeller Street, one encounters a low metal fence surrounding an old staircase that leads down below street level. Down on the lower level is a narrow walkway, and there are what appear to be entrances to private spaces to the basement of the adjacent building. There’s also a bricked-in doorway leading under the street and a cyclone fence gate that’s locked, and that appears to also lead under the street.

It seems like exactly the kind of place where an old streetcar or other piece of mysterious equipment might be “buried.”

Kathleen Baxter of Public Works says that what’s there is actually a large industrial engine or motor or generator of some kind that was originally installed beneath the sidewalk perhaps as long as 100 years ago. She says it may be part of the old streetcar system, but that nobody is actually sure.

The mystery under Rockefeller Street isn’t a mystery because of any shenanigans, but because anyone who may have known about it has moved on or retired or passed away. Baxter hopes to learn more about whatever the object is in time for a quasquicentennial “underground tour” that will be taking place as part of a day of special Everett events on Saturday, June 2.

One thing that’s NOT a mystery is whether or not Everett will be building a new streetcar system anytime soon.

Unlike Seattle – where streetcars are already running between downtown and South Lake Union and between Pioneer Square and Capitol Hill, and where Mayor Jenny Durkan recently put the First Avenue Streetcar project on hold to review its financial feasibility – Everett chose a different path after reviewing the results of a study carried out for the city by a consulting firm called Nelson Nygaard in 2007.

“So we did this study, and we learned that it was feasible and it was incredibly expensive,” said Tom Hingson, Transportation Services and Transit Director for the City of Everett.

“So the mayor at the time, Ray Stephanson, took all this information, and we decided that we would not pursue a streetcar,” Hingson said.

But not to worry, says Tom Hingson, because the city hasn’t given up on providing transportation along the historic corridors that have helped make Everett a big city for more than a century.

“We are going to implement, probably in September 2019, a new route with all-electric buses that will operate at least from Everett Station to the waterfront, and it will follow pretty closely the streetcar design that the Nelson Nygaard study gave us back in 2007,” Hingson said.

Hingson says the route will be pretty simple, with east-west travel on Hewitt Avenue, and north-south travel on Marine View Drive.

“A good stretch of that is the original streetcar line,” Hingson said.

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