Elmer Yates remembers the Toonerville Trolley in the Rainier Valley.

  • By Dave Wilma
  • Posted 3/12/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3085
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Elmer Yates (b. 1917) was raised in the Rainier Valley and graduated from Franklin High School in 1934. He went to sea and became a ship's captain. In about 1996, he wrote to the Rainier Valley Historical Society about his memories of public transit in the Rainier Valley.

Elmer Yates Remembers

"When I was growing up in Seattle in the 1920s and 1930s, the main means of transportation was streetcar rail systems. The Rainier Valley Railway was a privately owned business separate from the city owned transit system with passengers being allowed to transfer from one line to the other. The main tracks of the Rainier Valley originated in downtown Seattle at 4th Ave. and Stewart St. running south on 4th Avenue to Dearborn St., east on Dearborn St. to Rainier Ave. and then followed Rainier Ave. S, ending at the city limits, which in those days was just south of Rainier Beach

"In conjunction with the Rainier Valley Railway, there was a spur line, which we in the neighborhood referred to as the "Toonerville Trolley" being derived from the comic strip of the same name. This trolley had its own track running from the switching track at Rainier Ave. and Genesee St., east on Genesee St. to 50th Ave., thence south on 50th Ave. up the hill to the end of the line at the top of the grade. The trolley was only about one-third the size of the regular streetcar and during the morning rush hour, when people were going to work or in the evening when they were homeward bound, there were more people standing in the aisle than those lucky enough to find a seat.

"The Toonerville would leave the car barn in Columbia City about 5:30 a.m., travel down the main line tracks to its starting point at Genesee St., and switch tracks to its own private tracks for the 6 a.m. start. It would run back and forth on schedule until 10 p.m. when it would return to the car barn from whence it had started that morning. Most of the passengers were regular customers and often in the morning, if somebody was a little late, the conductor would wait until they got on-board to make certain they wouldn't be late to work. Passengers using the trolley were issued transfers which allowed them to board the main line streetcars, and, likewise, those passengers leaving the main line were given transfers which were honored by the trolley conductor.

"There were two conductors who specialized in running the trolley -- one was a short, round, pleasant man who seem to get along with everybody, while the other wasn't very congenial. The comic strip Andy Gump was very popular in those days and nobody looked more like the comic character that did the rather obnoxious conductor. His chin and adam's apple were sort of a combination job and he had a bushy mustache that tripped over his upper lip. He was tall and thin, increasing his similarity to Andy Gump. I never did know his real name and doubt if any of the other kids knew him other than by the name Andy Gump.

"The trolley itself had a dual control mechanism making it possible for the conductor to switch from one end to the other after arriving at the end of the line. The seats would be positioned each trip allowing the passengers to be facing forward for the trip. Also, the conductor in preparing for the return trip would change his token box, control lever, and lunch box to the opposite end of the trolley. Another important item that had to be taken into account was the changing of the trolley after each trip. In order to get electricity to the motors the trolley roller had to be in contact with the overhead electrical line. At the end of each trip, the conductor had to change the trolley. He had to disconnect and secure the trolley at one end of the car before he released a trolley arm at the other end to get electricity to the motor.

"I'm afraid I would be remiss if I fail to describe the typical trip on the Toonerville trolley that might be experienced by one of its passengers. A person boarding it at the Seward Park station at the end of the line they have to wait for the conductor to finish his lunch before starting trip or perhaps there might be some other reason for delay. From the station the trolley soon came to the downhill grade. The conductor had to stop at any block along the route where somebody might be waiting. The brakes being applied often cause the wheels to squeal on the rails before they brought the car to a complete stop. The steel tracks were anything but smooth and I dare say that no doubt some of the regular riders knew how many lengths of rail there were between their station and the end of the line. They would be able to count the clickity-clacks as the trolley passed over rail connections.

"During the winter you could see electric sparks flying from the overhead trolley wire long before seeing the trolley car. Also in the winter, sometimes ice would form on the rail making it impossible for the trolley to negotiate the hill on 50th Avenue until sand was applied to the tracks to give the wheels some traction. On occasion, some prankster would grease the tracks that would bring the transportation to a halt until the emergency sand truck arrived. Another dirty trick pulled by those inclined to do such things was to disconnect the trolley line when the conductor stopped to pick up a passenger. This was especially bad after dark because riders would have to sit in the dark until the motorman got out and went back to put the trolley back in place on the overhead wire.

"Earlier I mentioned how cantankerous the motorman Andy Comp seem to appear to all of us. Perhaps I, along with some of the other kids, caused this poor man to be so miserable. My older brother, Bob, and I would finish our morning paper route at 50th Avenue and Genesee approximately the same time that the trolley would make his first run in the morning. Rather than walk the 12 blocks home, we would hide when the motorman would slow down to make the broad sweeping curve onto Genesee Street, we would climb aboard the cow catcher, he on one side and I on the other. At 42nd Street there was a little jog in the tracks making it necessary for the car to slow down and we would climb off and go home.

"Most of the early morning passengers, including many of our paper customers, knew we were catching a free ride on the cow catcher but paid no attention. However, it really got under Andy Gump's skin when he was on duty and quite often he would stop the trolley and run back and try to grab us, always without success. Sometimes a passenger in the back would warn us if he saw Andy make a move and we would be gone.

"Often, when we went swimming or fishing in Lake Washington, our means of transportation to and from home would be the Toonerville Trolley cow catcher, sometimes with as many as four or five kids hanging on. I remember one time when my mother really took Bob and I to task for using the free transportation. She and my Aunt Josie were with a real estate dealer who was looking for a house for my aunt. They had to stop and wait for the trolley to pass by and so happened that Bob and I were on our favorite spot for a free ride.

"The real estate dealer, not knowing that it was my mother sitting in his presence, commenced speaking with a tone of disgust, "I see those kids riding on that bumper all the time." My mother didn't tell him those kids belonged to her. Bob and I were unaware that she had seen us, but when she arrived home, we soon found out how she felt about such a humiliating incident for her and Aunt Josie to think we would do such a thing after all her warnings and admonitions. It was still fun!

"In the late '30s, our Toonerville Trolley was discontinued, being replaced by bus service. The city purchased the Rainier Valley Railway and initiated a trackless trolley route covering the area. Shortly thereafter, the famous Toonerville Trolley, along with all the Rainier Valley Railway cars, steel rails and all other metal equipment was cut up as scrap metal and shipped to Japan. Regardless of the sad demise of the trolley, never will it be erased for my memory."



Elmer S. Yates, "Rainier Valley's Toonerville Trolley," typescript, undated, Rainier Valley Historical Society, Item 99.80.09, Seattle, Washington.

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