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Friday, June 21, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Remembering When We Rode On Light Rail -- Video Traces History Of The Interurban

Seattle Times South Bureau

Interurban on tape

A videotape of "The Seattle-Tacoma Interurban Railway" is being sold for $24.95, in part to benefit the Tukwila Historical Society. For more information, call 448-7568.

It was the first rapid transit, its big green cars trundling along a track from Seattle to Tacoma, linking the rural communities with a web of steel.

Today, the rail system - regarded by historians as the most significant development of its time in the region - is the topic of a 45-minute documentary, "The Seattle-Tacoma Interurban Railway."

Funded by an $8,000 grant from the King County Landmarks and Heritage Commission, the film is the creation of Stephen Sadis and Dan Fields, who wrote and produced it for Perpetual Motion Pictures, and Tukwila Historical Society President Wendy Morgan, who coordinated the project. It will be presented at 2 p.m. tomorrow at Tukwila City Hall.

As the latest Regional Transit Authority proposal for light rail heads for the polls this fall, historians and transit planners alike have had a renewed interest in the Puget Sound Electric Railway, first called the Seattle-Tacoma Interurban when it opened in 1902.

Sadis said he was intrigued by the major role rapid transit had in the lives of the community just after the turn of the century, and the sophisticated light-rail system offered.

The argument that Northwesterners are too "independent-minded" for mass transit doesn't jibe with the region's history, he said.

For Warren Wing, author of "Tacoma By Trolley: The Puget Sound Electric Railway" (released this week by Pacific Fast Mail, Edmonds, $39.50) light rail brings back fond memories.

Wing, who is interviewed in the film, was a small boy when he took his first trip on the Interurban. Fishing poles in hand, he and his father took the train from the ticket office and waiting room at Occidental and Yesler to Riverton, a community along the Green River, for an afternoon of fishing.

He recalls perching at the edge of the train's rattan seats, listening to the hum of well-oiled motors, the hiss of air brakes and a conductor in dark blue calling out destinations.

There were 38 miles of track with stops to rural communities such as Argo, Georgetown, Meadows, Duwamish, Foster and Allentown - all between Seattle and Tukwila.

The train ran every 30 minutes most days for 26 years. It traveled through the then-White River Valley, stopping in Kent, where the railway headquarters and car barn were. It continued into Auburn and south to Pacific City (now just Pacific), through a tunnel and up a steep grade along what is now Jovita Boulevard, near Federal Way, then through Edgewood, Milton and into Tacoma.

It's hard to imagine what the coming of the Interurban railway meant to residents of the valley, Wing said. While there were steam railroads carrying freight on the Great Northern and Milwaukee tracks through the valley, there was no affordable and easily accessible railway to handle commuters or carry freight short distances.

One newspaper called the Interurban an "opium dream." It made it possible for workers in Kent to hold jobs in Seattle, for children in rural areas to attend school, for dairies to bring milk to the creamery in Kent, for farmers to bring produce into the city, for early businesses in Renton Junction to ship coal and bricks, and for newspapers in the city to send their product to the country.

Farmers' markets - the largest being the Pike Place Market - sprang up. Small communities turned into booming suburbs because Seattle was now only 30 minutes, and at the most, a 50-cent ticket away.

Electricity came to homes along the line, too, as communities tapped into the railway's electric system. The peak year was 1919, when 3 million people rode the Interurban - among them many soldiers returning from Fort Lewis at the end of World War I.

Despite the Interurban's popularity, the automobile was catching on. Between 1916 and the 1920s, dirt, gravel and brick roads were covered with asphalt, among them the East and West Valley roads, making driving smoother. And car prices, too, had dropped. A Ford sold for about $250.

Wing wonders whether Tacoma businessman Henry Busey and his associates, who built the railway, would have proceeded with the project had they known cars would shortly become a household staple.

In July 1928, Highway 99 opened, making it easier than ever to drive from Seattle to Tacoma. Facing decreased ridership and profits, the railway folded that December.

Now that light rail is again under consideration, its advocates hope for liberation - not from the isolation of farmlands, but from congested freeways. Wing is philosophical.

"If they have convenient service - you have to go where people want to go, and it has to be affordable - then that tells you people will ride," he said.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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