Pacific Northwest | September 28, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineSeptember 28, 2003seattletimes.com home
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NOW & THEN
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY PAUL DORPAT Travel 2003

Thrown a Curve
Photo
COURTESY OF LAWTON GOWEY
The contemporary photograph was recorded from the middle of the street to show the curve that the Green Lake trolley failed to negotiate on its way downtown in 1920. The trolley came to rest wrapped around a telephone pole a few yards south of where the line on Woodland Park Avenue curved through its intersection with 39th Street.

 
 Photo
PAUL DORPAT
AFTER THE PRIVATE trolley system was made public in 1919, author Leslie Blanchard offers an account of the "wreck epidemic" that followed. In "The Street Railway Era in Seattle," Blanchard described the crash of Jan. 5, 1920, as its climax — "one of the most appalling accidents in the history of public transportation in Seattle."

Heading downtown early in the morning with a full load of workers and shoppers, car 721 jumped the track where Woodland Park Avenue still curves through its intersection with 39th Street. The speeding car fell from its tracks into a telephone pole (left of center) that opened the car roof like it was a can of cheap pop. More than 70 passengers were injured, and one died the next day.

The wreck was appalling because it was made practically inevitable when the system was sold. Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson bought the dilapidated line from the Seattle Electric Co. at such an inflated price that no money remained for repairs. At the time, Hanson was more interested in bold moves that might make him an attractive candidate for the U.S. presidency.

The Seattle Times' story on the wreck leads with an ironic listing of conflicting voices. Councilman Oliver Erickson described the brakes and rails of the system as in "rotten condition." Thomas Murphine, superintendent of public utilities, described them as "in perfect shape" but said the driver was inexperienced. For his part, motorman M.R. Fullerton claimed the brakes would not work though he used everything he had to try to stop the car. Fortunately for him, the bad-brakes excuse ultimately held sway.

Paul Dorpat's and Genevieve McCoy's award-winning illustrated Washington state history, "Building Washington," is available for $50 from Tartu Publications, P.O. Box 85208, Seattle, WA 98145; 206-547-7678.

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