In November 1896, a dog living on upper Main Street (now Capitol Way) in Olympia discovered that if he ran after streetcars that passed his house, he could derail them by catching the rope dangling from the back with his teeth and pulling. Like many people, this “terror to car-men”—as the Morning Olympian newspaper described the dog—was fascinated by the city’s new streetcar (or trolley) system.
In the late 19th century, streetcars were on the cutting edge of transportation technology. Olympia and Tumwater jealously eyed the electric trolley systems in Tacoma, Seattle, and Portland. They wanted one of their own.
That proved difficult to do. Finally, George Milton Savage’s Olympia Railway Company began operating horse-drawn streetcars in the winter of 1889-1890. Savage had purchased two trolleys from Seattle, which the city sold after electrifying its trolley system. The non-electric streetcars were not what many in the Capital City expected. In December 1891, the Olympia City Council even debated whether or not the Olympia Railway Company had violated its franchise by using horse rather than electric power.
These debates went nowhere, but the Olympia Railway Company struggled to be successful. In 1892, it was purchased by the Olympia Light & Power Company. Founded in 1890, the company generated power for Olympia and Tumwater from Tumwater Falls. With strong financial backing and their own source of power, the company would run the Olympia-Tumwater streetcar system until its closure.
On July 21, 1892, the Olympia Light and Power Company debuted its electric trolleys. With Superintendent Shock at the lever, a special group of passengers got the first ride. Among the riders was John Miller Murphy, colorful editor of the Washington Standard newspaper. Writing in his newspaper the following day, Murphy described the trip as a wonderfully smooth ride: “People appeared on the street and at doors and widows, all along the route, and waved hats and handkerchiefs, in greeting of this new and tangible evidence of progress.”
Charging a nickel fare, Olympia Light and Power had four electric cars, two open and two closed. A conductor and motorman operated each car. This system worked well until it rained. Murphy wrote on September 23 that “the open streetcars have been doing a ‘shocking’ business this week. When the interior woodworks became wet, the electric current played like the aurora borealis among the passengers, and converted the whole vehicles into immense Leyden jars, ready to discharge a current whenever a proper connection was made.” The cars were quickly taken out of service. “Olympia,” historian Gordon Newell observed in his book So Fair a Dwelling Place, “was learning that progress is not without its painful side.”
Olympia Light and Power Company survived a devastating 1898 fire that destroyed their whole fleet of streetcars at their car barn on Fourth Avenue and Chestnut Street. The company was able to replace these cars and adapt to changing situations. Over the years, the streetcar route shifted and expanded. Trolley service was extended to the Westside in 1911. This replaced the failed Westside Railway Company, which had operated in the 1890s before going bankrupt. The Olympia Light and Power Company’s line ended at Tumwater. The end station, a log cabin, was located at what is now the northeast corner of North Street and Cleveland Avenue across from the Masonic Cemetery. North Street was historically named Log Cabin Road, presumably after this station. A section of road about a mile away retains the name of Log Cabin Road.
The streetcar system remained a community institution, but was badly impacted by the growing popularity of automobiles in the early 20th century. In 1915, Olympia Light and Power Company purchased several autobuses (“jitneys”) that they ran to outlying areas. Soon after, the company purchased trolley cars that could be operated by only one worker. In mid-1920s, Puget Sound Power and Light Company (now Puget Sound Energy) bought out Olympia Light and Power Company and took over operation of the streetcar system.
However, ridership steadily decreased and the Great Depression sealed the fate of the trolleys in Thurston County. On December 1, 1933, Puget Sound Power and Light sold its streetcar system to Olympia Transit Company. Olympia Transit stopped running the streetcars on the same day. The men operating the cars on their last runs had worked for the system for 10 years or more, including one who had been an employee since 1916.
The rails for Olympia/Tumwater streetcars were taken out during repaving projects in the 1930s. City buses replaced the trolleys on the roads. Today a pole from the old streetcar system has been preserved on the grounds of the old Thurston County courthouse on Capitol Way. There is no sign or plaque explaining the story of the rusty pole that has sat on the site for decades. It is a tangible reminder of the lost era of streetcars.
More information about Olympia and Tumwater’s streetcar system can be found in the 2012 edition of James Hannum’s book Gone But Not Forgotten: Abandoned Railroads of Thurston County, Washington.