The Rejection of Capitol Hill's First Subway System

October 27, 2019

 

A little over 108 years ago, on August 24, 1911, civil engineer Virgil G. Bogue submitted his Plan of Seattle to the Municipal Plans Commission (MPC). The Bogue Plan, as it became to be known, outlined an ambitious design that would have connected Capitol Hill to Downtown and West Seattle through under and above-ground transit in addition to building an elaborate civic center across from Denny Way, near present-day Seattle Center. Following submission to the Municipal Plans Commission, the MPC presented the report to then Seattle mayor George W. Dilling and the City Council on September 7, 1911.

 

Thanks to the amazing online archives that exist today, a full digitized of the original Bogue Plan can be accessed here on the Internet Archive. 

 

 

 

Who was Virgil Bogue?  

Virgil Bogue had built himself quite the reputation in city planning before tackling the difficult landscape of Seattle. His resume included the Oroyo, North Pacific, Union Pacific, and Western Pacific railways, as well as the discovery of Stampede Pass in the Cascades. Bogue was an accomplished engineer that never let nature get in his way. This determination continued in his final years when he took on the challenge of shaping Seattle's design and commerce, five years before his death in 1916.

 

In spite of his great accomplishments and persistence, Bogue’s vision for Seattle was not that different from other famous visionaries who had contributed to Seattle's design – these visions are now tales as old in time. In 1908, architect Warren Gould had proposed a civic center to be built east of Downtown and chief engineer of the Denny Regrade, Reginald H. Thomson, noted in 1909 upon moving to Capitol Hill: "The ever-increasing traffic around the north end of First Hill over Pike and Pine Streets clearly points to a time when travel will be seriously congested, and this, with no opportunity for opening up additional streets with as favorable grades, justifies the belief that a tunnel route for teams will become an economic necessity in the comparatively near future." Clearly Bogue had important visions to fulfill when it came to bringing the potential of Seattle's infrastructure to life, and he was looking forward to the challenge even at the ripe age of 65. The Seattle Times in September 1910 introduced him and his ambitions as follows:

 

"Virgil G. Bogue, who is not unknown locally, will draw the substantial salary of $1,500 a month, and be rent-free when he undertakes the agreeable task of beautifying Seattle, under the auspices of the Civic Plans Commission. Seattle, with its $2,000,000 to be expended in parks and boulevards, with its wonderful settings of wooded slopes, mountains, sea and lakes, with its engineer of National fame, is on the way to become celebrated as one of the most picturesque and beautiful cities in all the world." 

 

Re-engineering Capitol Hill

Just like the rest of Seattle, Capitol Hill is certainly (and perhaps unfortunately) not new to landscape and infrastructure changes. In 1884, the Seattle Railway Company introduced two horse-powered streetcar lines (basically metal tracks laid in mud) with one running east along Pike Street and north to Lake Union. This was quite a success considering that the first horse-drawn carriage line, originally proposed for First Avenue, fell through in 1879 due to fears about the horses scaring away shoppers. Even though these fears might have eased as walking in the mud was no longer the only option, the challenges of horsepower became quite apparent – feeding the horses (“hay-burners”), manure on the streets, untimeliness, not to mention the rigor of climbing Seattle’s hills. Citizens were now looking forward to the next innovation in transportation. This novelty was introduced a few years later in 1888, when streetcars were converted to electric thanks to a newly constructed power plant on Pike Street. In 1889, riders only had to pay a nickel ($1.35 in today’s currency, imagine that) to take a timelier and smoother ride. Celebrating this innovation was initially off to a rocky start when the very first run of the streetcar stalled and a passenger had to push the vehicle, but with that, Seattle became the first West coast city in the country to offer an electric streetcar system.

 

These early streetcar lines bloomed into a more coherent system in the following years, and the 1890s saw 48 miles of streetcar track and 22 miles of cable railways. Seattle Electric Railway, a company then owned by Boston utilities conglomerate Stone & Webster, bought up the streetcar lines in 1900. By this time, there were multiple private streetcar companies serving Seattle aside from Stone & Webster and Capitol Hill was lucky to be a benefactor of this growth. The Front Street Cable Railway started a northbound line from Front Street (First Avenue) stretching to Pike before ending on Denny Way and Second Avenue. The Union Trunk Line also started from First Avenue, intersected with James Street in Pioneer Square, and ran up to Broadway and James before branching out over Broadway.

 

The early 1900s also saw the growth of the Seattle automobile industry, with 31 auto dealers flourishing in Capitol Hill, particularly on Pike/Pine and Broadway. In 1911, the year Bogue presented his plan for Seattle, The Seattle Times termed this area “Auto Row” and the name stuck as America’s love for automobiles intensified in the 1910s-1920s up until the Great Depression. The electric streetcars provided easy access to Auto Row, and this cluster of dealers, auto shops, and mechanics made it extremely convenient for customers and auto owners alike to pursue driving as a part of their everyday lifestyle. Transportation was finally alive and well, a rare and short-lived compliment for Seattle.

 

We can see that the Bogue Plan was introduced at a time when residents already had different options to traverse the hills of Seattle, mitigating the immediate need for alternate methods of transportation. Other questions and doubts also arose about the plan – Bogue called into question existing regrades by suggesting that Denny Hill had to be partially filled in again to literally elevate the civic center for all to see. The high cost and sacrifice of the Denny Regrade may have still lingered like a bad taste in Seattleites’ mouths, and this irony of filling the hill back in definitely would have made that taste even more bitter.

 

With this iffy attitude towards grandiose plans of construction and city planning in general, the outcome was not looking great for Bogue. This was certainly not helped by the fact that all aspects of the plan, if passed, would all go into motion; under the charter amendment that supported the development of the plan, the city and its voters could not choose which elements to act on and which to abandon. As one can imagine, this limits its appeal on the voting stage, but does allow us to daydream about a Seattle that could have existed. After all, if voters were given the option to pick and choose, Bogue did suggest the following underground routes that would service Capitol Hill, giving us a moment to dream of a neighborhood with timely and adequate transportation:

 

"Route No. 9

From the intersection of Third Avenue and Pine Street this route will be in subway on Pine Street to the intersection of Highway No. 19...This line will serve to gather the traffic from the Broadway Capitol Hill Rapid Transit loop...and such traffic may be gathered from the ferry service on Lake Washington. The grades necessary will not exceed 5%.

 

Route No. 10

This route consists of a loop, all in subway, beginning at the intersection of East Pike Street and Broadway, with a station connection with route number nine...This line will serve to gather the traffic from the Broadway and Capitol Hill districts...The grades will not exceed 5%.

 

Route No. 12

This line serves through north and south traffic that does not pass through the business center and also, by means of transfer to the Dearborn Street and East Pike Street lines, gives access to the business center. The grades may all be kept within 3%."

 

These slight regrades would have allowed for a comprehensive underground transit network to be built within the perimeters of Capitol Hill, with the aforementioned routes being laid out as such:

 

 

What Could Have Been

Even the newest transplant to Seattle can see that the comprehensive subway system Virgil Bogue envisioned did not come to life. In March 1912, the Bogue Plan came to a vote and resulted in 14,506 for and 24,966 against. This loss could have been forewarned by the demise of the Municipal Planning Committee, which was not granted authority or funding to continue after September 30, 1911. In spite of this red flag, there is no singular reason for the defeat as a few concerns were on the forefront of citizens' minds when they decided on their vote, and city politics were also at play.

 

Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder

The Municipal League News noted in a November 1911 article that “the civic center…”tinged too much with sentiment and the desire for an artistic show and not enough with economic reasoning." This is an interesting critique to keep in mind, as Bogue was deeply inspired by the City Beautiful Movement when drafting his plans for Seattle. The Rainier Vista on the University of Washington campus is a great example of this urban planning movement – designed by John C. Olmsted for the 1909 Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, beautification of urban areas like the school campus and emphasis on the aesthetics were intended to instill social order and increase quality of life. The vista is a popular focal point on the campus today, and even though the temporary buildings for the exposition were demolished shortly after the fair ended on October 16, 1909, the vision of City Beautiful was likely still a fresh memory for many Seattleites and visitors. These beautiful memories actually helped bring Bogue to Seattle; in The Lost Dream, Mansel Blackford notes that the creation of the Municipal Plans Commission (which presented the Bogue Plan to the city) won by a landslide at the polls in 1909 for the following reason:

“At that time, nearly all Seattleites could agree that city planning could be beneficial. Inspired by the development of their parks and boulevards and by what they had recently seen at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, they hoped to create an improved urban environment.”

 

 

 

However, while Virgil Bogue and enchanted Seattleites may have agreed that city planning could be useful, they certainly didn’t agree on how city planning could be useful. As our Vice President Rob Ketcherside has discussed in his blog, the Bogue Plan was not centered on practicality and transitioning Seattle into the “horseless age” – to Bogue, the absence of pristine roads and grand buildings were crucial problems that had to be solved, and residents found it hard to agree when they were faced with congested streets and traffic every day. Even though the City Beautiful Movement had flourished in large cities outside of the Pacific Northwest (Chicago, Washington D.C., Denver, to name a few), plans to beautify urban areas of the PNW had fallen flat, such as the Olmsted Portland Park Plan. This surely did not bode well for the outcome of Virgil Bogue’s singular vision.

 

Naturally, the Bogue Plan also tugged at financial worries for voters - after all, it was their tax dollars that would fund most of the project. A partial cost estimate of the Bogue Plan in 1912 by the Civic Plans Investigation Committee (CPIC) returned a daunting total cost of $23,604,734 (a whopping $624,360,317.73 in 2019 dollars), and this figure was only for applying the Bogue Plan to one-sixth of Seattle's area, not including other external costs such as property damage and new buildings. This number could not have been easy to swallow when considering the outcomes of the plan, which likely felt far on the horizon.

 

Politics at Play

However, it should be noted that this estimate by the Civic Plans Investigation Committee had its own narrative. While sounding like an official body, the committee was composed of downtown business owners that did not want anything in the way of economic growth, quickly launching a plan to deem the Bogue Plan “as too expensive, impractical, and inflexible.” Their critique, over thirty pages long, did not hold back on attacking the plan (especially regarding the civic center) and instead they directed voters’ attention towards bonds for the new Port of Seattle. As discussed by William H. Wilson on page 229 in his work The City Beautiful Movement, “in contrast to [the Port Commission’s] carefully defined power, the Bogue Plan obligated taxpayers to spend huge, if uncalculated, amounts on a myriad of improvements. The CPIC pamphlet made these points when it declared the Bogue Plan ‘unnecessary.’” The new Port of Seattle was guaranteed to bring in revenue and increased business to Seattle while the Bogue Plan seemingly only amounted to exorbitant costs and construction for years to come, turning away business; it was thus a no-brainer for the Civic Plans Investigation Committee to join together and heavily critique the plan.

 

Nothing was safe from the influence of politics. The Municipal League mentioned above was also partial to city politics. Born out of the Teddy Roosevelt era, the Municipal League was a coalition of middle-class professionals that sought to restore progressivism in urban governments. They supported the Bogue Plan and its vision for the future of Seattle, highlighting the importance of benefits like “economy of transportation”, “prevention of high rents”, “prevention of congestion”, and “making a city beautiful as well as useful” in a widely distributed flyer. This dedicated support resulted in a war between the Municipal League and business owners, placing the Bogue Plan in the center limelight of local media attention and everyday conversation. The Municipal League News article discussed in the previous section that attacked Bogue’s civic center is a prime example of this back and forth in the press – the negative article was actually written by Paul B. Phillips, who wrote on behalf of the downtown property owners. Undoubtedly it seems that unawareness of the Bogue Plan was not a driver behind its downfall; Wilson, author of The City Beautiful Movement, humorously notes on page 227, “only a comatose or supremely indifferent citizen of Seattle would have been unaware of the Bogue Plan.”

 

Misinformation campaigns are not exclusive to the current age of politics, and if there’s anything we can takeaway here, it’s that we should continue to view all levels of politics – even down to the municipal and city level – with a keen eye. Clearly voters were informed, possibly annoyed, by all this coverage about the Bogue Plan and this could have also been a reason for its downfall on the ballot – perhaps voters were too frustrated by the ongoing argument to evaluate the plan’s true costs and benefits, and could only vote in disapproval on the ballot to voice that uncertainty. Moreover, the plan also prohibited the ability to pick and choose which designs and innovations to implement, greatly restricting its feasibility and appeal on the ballot. According to Wilson, the city knew the mandatory inclusive “bundle” of Bogue’s designs was bound to “displease some individuals or groups” – after all, politics are always bound to upset someone – but this realization does little to truly understand voters’ sentiment towards the Bogue Plan, and demonstrates the city’s futile attempt at trying to understand their voters.

 

Imagining the Present

Had Virgil Bogue’s subway system been implemented and continued until today, the route 10 would have been a short and easy ride to explore all the bars and eateries along Broadway and the Pike/Pine Corridor, and simply hopping on the 9 would have brought you down to Westlake and Pike Place to continue exploring. Without a doubt, tourists and locals alike would have enjoyed this network and convenience.

 

But, as they always say, we can't spend our time looking back and must look forward, and as any Seattleite would know, we have been looking forward for an awfully long time. With West Seattle Light Rail and Seattle Streetcar expansions currently in the works, we should remain inspired by the 1912 voters to speak with our ballots and of course, digital networks, to collectively create the Seattle that should exist, before letting our chapter of history being swept into the wistful dust of what could have been.