Seattle Transit Works Reveals Capitol Hill Streetcar History

As crews began tearing up the concrete on the G line, they discovered a few remnants of Seattle’s original form of mass public transportation: streetcars.

SEATTLE — Street building in Seattle is commonplace, but one project has revealed elements of the city’s transit history.

The Seattle Department of Transportation and King County Metro have partnered to bring the RapidRide G line to Madison Street, which will improve access from downtown Seattle to First Hill and Madison Valley.

As crews began tearing up the concrete for the route, they discovered a few remnants of Seattle’s original form of mass public transportation: streetcars.

Local historian Felix Banel said it was fascinating to see our archaeological past hidden just meters below the roads we travel today.

“So much has happened here in the past 150 years that as new things come in, they cover it up!”

Banel said the railroad ties that were excavated are remnants of cable and streetcars that date back to the 1890s.

Madison Street has always been a major shore-to-shore thoroughfare, Banel explained.

“It connects the salt water of Elliott Bay to the fresh water of Lake Washington and there was a ferry at the Madison base that went to Kirkland,” he said.

Streetcars were used on Madison Street until the 1940s when automobiles and buses took over. It wasn’t until the 1970s that rail transportation returned to Seattle and continues to be developed and expanded today.

Newly discovered vintage railroad ties along Madison Street are a reminder of how the area’s transportation has grown as rapidly as the population. In 1910, Seattle had a population of just over 237,000, and the railroad tracks may well be quirky.

Banel speculated that the sleepers date from 1910 when they changed the line from a cable car system using underground pulleys to a system of overhead electric trolleys.

“So they were probably around 30 years old when they were covered in concrete and now they’re probably 120 years old,” he said.

Maria D. Ervin