Vector Maps: A guide to researching Seattle’s transit history – Seattle Transit Blog
Believe it or not, Seattle has had a long and illustrious history of public transit and exotic forms of transportation, dating back to the beginning of American settlement in the region midway through the 19th century. While rail nerds on the East Coast have the luxury of picking between hundreds (if not thousands) of good books about their local railroad and transit history, we’re stuck with comparatively few options (but that is improving). I’m here to guide would-be transit scholars into the world of online (and in-person) research, based on my own experience writing about local transit history for Wikipedia.
Researching the past is very similar to piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, and reaching the end result can be highly rewarding — to the point of being addictive. And it’s not hard to get started with the help of online and old-school resources that can answer pretty much any question you’ve ever had about our transit systems. This guide is meant to help budding transit nerds find their way in the jumble of resources out there, but hopefully seasoned readers can also discover something new here. Note that some of this information was written in the pre-pandemic era, so some resources will not be available until things return to near normalcy.
Your first step should be to gather a few library cards from the region’s largest systems. The cards can be obtained through reciprocal agreements between your home system and other counties/cities, granting access to the same online resources and book borrowing that makes research a breeze. Some systems, including Seattle Public Library, are currently offering instant digital cards to access digital resources.
The Seattle Public Library card is arguably the highest return on your (fee-free) investment, thanks to its array of newspaper archives available through NewsBank. Their catalog includes the full Seattle Times from 1895 to today and regional databases with partial, post-1990 coverage from the Tacoma News Tribune and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. These archives can be used 24/7 from the comfort of your home computer, so long as you don’t forget your library log-in.
For the many local newspapers that haven’t be made available digitally, there is another option: microfilm at a physical library or archive. It can be a cumbersome process, as it requires physically loading reels into a digital scanner and sifting through pages of various issues, so come prepared before making that trip to the library. If you’re lucky, you might find an online or card index that helps pinpoint certain articles by subject and date. The best microfilm collections in the area are at the University of Washington Libraries, specifically the Allen Library, which has local newspapers from around the Pacific Northwest up to the present day.
Beyond looking at newspaper articles, you can also browse through fansites and even transit system websites that have been archived using the Internet Archive’s excellent Wayback Machine. For example, here’s Sound Transit’s website from 2001, showing the older plans for Link running under First Hill, around the west side of Capitol Hill, and even on International Boulevard in Tukwila. Fansites like the CPTDB Wiki, Chicago Railfan, and even Wikipedia can also point you in the right direction for starting your research. There are also useful archive record explainers and documents, such as this guide to building history research from the Seattle Public Library.
Another useful resource is old maps, particularly those from transit operators (which can be hard to find) and the state/federal governments. SDOT has uploaded a few streetcar maps to its Flickr account, while other users have added their own scans of old Metro maps and planning documents.
When the libraries and bookstores reopen for full browsing, you may want to use that handy card to check out a few of the books that have been written about local transit. A few that I have read and recommend are as follows:
- Better Than Promised: An Informal History of the Municipality of Metropolitan Seattle (1996) by Bob Lane: Written by a longtime Seattle Times transportation reporter and available digitally from the Metro Wastewater website.
- Routes: An Interpretive History of Public Transportation in Metropolitan Seattle (1993) by Walt Crowley: The renowned local historian and HistoryLink co-founder wrote this for Metro Transit’s 20th anniversary in 1993. It covers details from Seattle’s earlier transit systems, including the long reign of the streetcars. Also available online from Metro.
- Transit: The Story of Public Transportation in the Puget Sound Region (2019) by Jim Kershner: A newer entry that covers everything up to the present era, with wonderful pictures from every iteration of Seattle transit.
- Back on Track: Sound Transit’s Fight to Save Light Rail (2019) by Bob Wodnik: An inside look at the early days of Sound Transit, including their close brush with a funding collapse in 2001.
- Building Washington (1998) by Paul Dorpat and Genevieve McCoy: A general history of the state’s greatest infrastructure projects, with a good amount given to Seattle highways and transit.
In addition to these books, the libraries also hold collections of historic transit documents that may only be available for in-library use. The Seattle Room on the 10th floor of the Central Library has a few key documents, including the original Bogue Plan and Forward Thrust plans, that are worth reading for serious analysis.
As an example of how to use all of these resources, I’ll retrace some of the steps I took in writing the Wikipedia entry for the Seattle Center Monorail, mostly using digital archives.
To begin, I set up a basic timeline using information I could find from sources like HistoryLink, the historic landmark designation report, and the Alweg Archives fansite. Using the timeline as a backbone, I combed through the online archives of The Seattle Times, narrowing down results with extra keywords (such as “monorail route” or “monorail contract”) or limiting dates around which I knew certain events would happen.
From there, it was a matter of summarizing these newspaper articles and forming a cohesive narrative of the monorail’s history. This process almost always raises new questions along the way, requiring ever more-complicated searching and turning towards alternative sources, like The New York Times (available from most libraries through ProQuest). When I hit a dead end for other research projects, I often sent emails to local librarians, who are able to track down information more efficiently.
With a good amount of spare time, any number of stories from Seattle’s transit history can be uncovered. For example, did you know that the monorail’s columns were manufactured in Tacoma and trucked up the then-unfinished Interstate 5 overnight? Or that serious thought was put into demolishing the monorail only a few years after the 1962 World’s Fair due to financial issues from the fairgrounds operator? It’s all in the papers, locked away for researchers to find!