Train In Vain

Today is the day the Seattle Monorail’s Green Line was supposed to open. I still have a free ride ticket/magnet on my fridge:

Before I moved to Seattle, I’d always lived in a city with some form of traffic-beating public transportation. Growing up in DC it was the Metro and later when I went to college in New York it was the subway. For the three post-college years I lived in New York I commuted to work every day on the subway. Upon moving to Seattle, it was a harsh adjustment for me to get used to the painful cross-520 car or bus commute. So I was a big advocate of the Seattle Monorail and I spent time volunteering for the project, handing out pamphlets and buttons to passersby at such esteemed local events as the Fremont Solstice Parade and the Wallingford Wurst Festival.

The appeal of the monorail was not just that it would be a first step in the direction of a non-road based public transportation, but that it would be such an incredibly cool thing for a city to have. It would be a slice of sci-fi fantasy come to life, but instead of a novelty like the 1962 World’s Fair monorail it would actually be a functional, practical service. After the popularity of the Monorail was reaffirmed in a November 2004 vote, with 64% voting against a recall of the long-planned project, it looked like the monorail was really going to happen. I started a photography project using my 4×5 camera to document the street corners and lots where the stations were to be built. At the time my plan was to photograph each of the 19 locations before, during, and after construction.

Then in June of 2005 the Seattle Monorail Project published its plan for financing construction: $2 billion to build and an additional $9 billion in interest. Public reaction was swift and negative, and in November of 2005, voters killed the project they had brought to life a few years earlier.

After the monorail was officially dead, I continued to take photos of the station locations. In some of the final photos I shot you can see the for sale signs on the properties. What began as a rephotography project turned into an alternate history project. What would this city look like if instead of a Denny’s on the corner of 65th and Market there was a monorail station? Would the stations in empty lots have sparked flourishing micro communities? Or would the monorail have ended up as an impractical behemoth, good only for tourists? I’m sad we’ll never know.

Here are the places the 19 stations would have been, going from north to south:

Northwest 85th Street and 15th Avenue NW.

15th Avenue NW at NW 65th Street.

15th Avenue NW at NW Market Street.

South of West Dravus Street.

Elliot Avenue.

Seattle Center.

5th and Broad.

5th Avenue and Bell Street.

5th Avenue and Stewart Street.

2nd Avenue and Pike Street.

2nd Avenue and Madison.

2nd Avenue and Yessler Way.

King Street.

Safeco Field.

1st Avenue at Lander.

Delridge Way.

35th Avenue SW.

California Avenue SW and SW Alaska Street.

California Avenue SW and SW Morgan Street.


  1. Aaron
    Posted December 16, 2007 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    We totally have that magnet on our fridge, too!
    I was thinking of going down to the old monorail and seeing if they’d honor it…

  2. Posted December 17, 2007 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    I love that idea. Definitely worth a try…

  3. Trotter
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Such a sad memory…..

  4. jonathan
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for publishing this. Those of us who worked so hard to try to build the Green Line appreciate the kind thoughts this weekend has brought from many folks.

    We made many mistakes. But, it would be nice if people had learned from our efforts that change can occur, that projects need not take decades to be built and that public transportation would benefit us all.

  5. YH
    Posted December 17, 2007 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I love these photos… very lovely. For some reason I’m very partial to b&w photos… maybe because it gives a very vintage feel to the photo. 🙂

  6. Posted December 17, 2007 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Nice post Eliza! Bittersweet for sure.

    Seattle traffic is still horrible as ever and Ballard still remains isolated from the rest of Seattle as ever.


  7. Posted December 17, 2007 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    This is beautiful! Thank you!

  8. Posted December 18, 2007 at 4:26 am | Permalink

    Very interesting journalistic tour of what might have been.

  9. Aaron
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    I didn’t know you were a Monorail volunteer…
    My first job in Seattle was for the ad agency that did those buttons.

  10. sar
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    thanks for the illustrative memorial.
    some jpegs to stain w/ tears of grief

  11. Chad
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    One small correction. The station at 5th and ‘Stewart’ was actually farther down 5th, 2-3 storefronts south of Virginia – the storefronts still sit vacant if you want to go take a shot of them.

    I concur with Jonathan’s comments, public transit can be built.

  12. Bunnie
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    Great photos I also grew up on East Coast and used trolleys and subways to get to high school, college and then later work.
    Monorail would have been a great edition to this town.
    Seattle has always been in denial that it is now a big city with huge traffic problems.
    Demise of Monorail project was very sad and strange….

  13. Posted December 18, 2007 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the heads-up, Chad. Guess I’ll need to haul out the big camera again for a re-shoot.

  14. Posted December 18, 2007 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Vivid is it all still in my head. Amazing how stuff stays with you. The Benaroya Open House… The Qwest Field Open House (incl. Hitachi models & reps!)… Rise Above it All mailings in West Seattle, KCTS Phone Calls…
    These were some really fast 5 years… all the while MY free ride magnet still remains with me, also. 🙂

  15. Amy
    Posted December 18, 2007 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for capturing those photos. Now unfortunately, many of the places that were chosen for the station development are instead, slated to become monstrous eyesores in the shape of condos, townhomes, or pay-n-park lots. From Ballard to West Seattle, the face of this city is quickly changing and padding the pockets of developers rather than providing the people of Seattle a navigable city. What a shame.

  16. Posted December 19, 2007 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    2007 December 15 Saturday:
    I had to go up to pill hill for an appointment. On my way back toward West Seattle I got off the bus downtown and walked over to the new South Lake Union Trolley. Ironically this was the fourth day of operation of these shiny new trams. Traffic was very light. It took about ten minutes for the SLUT to go the 2.6 miles from one end to the other. And about the same on the return trip. I wondered how long the trip would take on a rainy evening rush hour or when the Mercer corridor is backed up with Seattle Center event traffic. The ride quality was smoother than a bus, but not as smooth as some rail transit I’ve used. Nobody asked about my black “The Monorail Society” ball cap.

    After the round trip on the SLUT, I went up to the monorail station in Westlake Mall. The cashier handed me a round trip ticket stamped “12/15/07 11:53” which was almost the same size as the SMP “Free Ride Ticket” magnet in the pocket of my black shirt. This was the first time I’d been on either of the Alwegs since that moron operator almost put both trains down for good two years ago. I’d read that, since the repair, the trains would refuse to run if too many people got on board, and I was afraid they would be in miserable shape by now. The operator pulled out of Westlake gingerly, slowly making the curve at Stewart. Then she floored it. The Alwegs still rock! (And not in a bad way either.) The ride quality was only slightly bumpier than its brand new cousins down at surface level, even after 45 years of abuse of these trains that were originally only intended for a 6 month demonstration. It took the usual one and a half minutes to travel the length of the 1.1 mile track. That’s about three times as fast as the SLUT.

    The food at Center House was cheesy, of course. The performers on stage were too. But they *tried*, so I applauded politely. The Seattle Center monorail station still looks a lot like Alweg and their Californian architects intended. The cashier, not commenting on my tMs ball cap, tock my round trip ticket and carelessly ripped the bottom portion off. “No! Not my 12/15/07 11:52 stamp,” I thought. But the time stamp had survived her haste, although it no longer matched the size and shape of the free ride ticket like it should. It would go in the box buried in my attic with all the other Free Ride Tickets and assorted Monorail memorabilia after I got home.

    Back at Westlake, I proceeded to the next stop on my three pronged tour of Seattle transit progress; I should finally be able to walk from the basement of Westlake Mall into the bus tunnel again. I had yet to see the impacat of Light Rail modifications on the imported granite platforms and artwork. Nope. Not yet open on weekends. Maybe in 2009.

    Back up one level, I walked out onto Pine Street, turning up the collar of my black leather jacket against the weather and pulling on my black leather gloves, knowing the Alwegs continued to remind us of what still could be. The dream of monorail is not dead, just postponed. The future of rapid transit in Seattle is still up in the air.

  17. jasmincormier
    Posted May 6, 2008 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    4×5 photography… amazing.

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