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FROM RAILS TO RUBBER
60 YEARS OF ELECTRIC TROLLEY BUSES IN SEATTLE


"Seattle-The Heart of the Evergreen Playground" postcard
Courtesy of the Mike Voris collection.

The Trackless Trolley Company used two of these converted Oldsmobile 16 passenger buses in the first commercial trackless trolley operation in the United States. - Colorized postcard courtesy the Mike Voris Collection.
Development of a trackless, externally powered electric vehicle began in the late nineteenth century in Europe. Just after the start of the twentieth century a short demonstration line had appeared on the east coast of the United States. In 1910 the nation's first commercial application of the trackless trolley started operation to the "Bungalowtown" housing development in Los Angeles. That line continued operation for the next five years.

By the 1930's trackless trolley technology had developed and standardized with the rubber tired electric vehicles replacing streetcars at transit properties around the country. The new trolley buses were more versatile, able to load and unload passengers at the curb and negotiate through the ever-increasing automobile traffic. Trackless trolley, trolley coach and trolley bus were all used interchangeably to describe the vehicles. The term trackless
New Twin Coach operating on the new trolley overhead at 3rd Ave. & Dilling Wy. - Photo courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives
trolley became obsolete as the need to differentiate them from streetcars vanished. Electric trolley bus or ETB has become the accepted modern day terminology.

In 1937 a demonstrator trackless trolley was brought to Seattle to garner support for the Beeler Plan to replace the city's debt ridden streetcar and cable car system. A demonstration loop was set up downtown and also a segment up the Queen Anne Hill counterbalance. On March 6, 1937 The Seattle Times reported the results of a race staged between the trackless trolley and a streetcar on the counterbalance, "the modern trackless coach embarrassed the Queen Anne streetcar last night making the 2,150 foot hill in less than half the time required by the streetcar." Seattle voters, still reeling from the Depression, rejected the plan. The Seattle Municipal Street Railway's financial problems and crumbling infrastructure remained.

At one point the Seattle Municipal Railway had to resort to IOU's and even nickels and dimes from the farebox to pay its employees. Seattle Mayor Arthur P. Langley secured a $10.2 million federal loan from the Reconstruction Finance Corporation to retire the street railway debt in May of 1939. Management of the system was turned over to an independent commission and it was renamed the Seattle Transit System. The commission quickly ordered 235 new trackless trolleys, including 99 Brills to be built at Pacific Car and Foundry in Renton, and 102 new motorbuses.

Brand new Renton built Pacific Car and Foundry Brill trolleys lined up in front of the Jefferson Street Station. - Photo by Roy M. Peak. - Courtesy of the Joshua C. Shields Collection.
Seattle's conversion from rails to rubber was completed in short order. Motormen were trained to be trolley coach drivers at the Madison Street Cable Car Barn. The first trackless trolleys ran in revenue service on the 13 19th Avenue line on April 28, 1940. The Jefferson Street car barn, built in 1910, was converted to trackless trolleys and until the new Atlantic street barn was completed in early 1941 all the new trackless trolleys were parked at Jefferson and on the streets surrounding the barn. The city's last streetcar trundled back to the car barn off the 19 Eighth Avenue Northwest line in the early hours of April 13, 1941. The new trackless trolleys were a natural with their ability to quickly climb Seattle's hills using the area's cheap and abundant hydroelectric power.

Northbound trolley coach on Aurora Avenue at Howe Street, August 15, 1945. - Photo by K.S. Brown courtesy of the Mike Voris Collection.
Gas rationing and war production jobs brought on by WWII caused transit ridership to surge at the new system. The Office of Defense Transportation allotted additional trolley buses to the city to meet the wartime demands in both 1943 and 1944 bringing the trackless trolley fleet total to 307 buses. It was not unusual for all 307-trolley coaches to be on the road at one time. Wartime demands literally ran the wheels off of the buses when some had to be sidelined in 1943 as no tires were available due to the wartime rationing of rubber products. Ridership reached an all time high in 1944 of 130 million riders. King County Metro's current ridership is 96.6 million riders annually.

Continue with part 2


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