King Street Station
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Click here for King Street Station's 100th birthday celebration.

Click here to climb up the inside of the King Street Station tower!

Click here to view the beautifully-restored (June 2013) depot interior!!!

History of King Street Station

Looking Back

Mention King Street Station to a Seattle resident and images of the clock tower come to mind. But things were not always so grand in the Emerald City. A traveler to Seattle in the 1800s would have arrived at a station resembling a giant woodshed. Seattle's train station has reflected both Seattle's place in the world and the importance of rail travel to society. In mid-1864, Congress chartered the Northern Pacific Railroad in order to establish service to the Pacific Northwest. This sparked competition by many communities seeking to become the railroad's western terminus. From a list that included Olympia, Steilacoom, Seattle, Tacoma, Mukilteo, Whatcom, Fairhaven, Port Townsend, and Anacortes, a railroad committee narrowed its selection of the western terminus to three finalists - Seattle, Mukilteo, and Tacoma. Tacoma was selected. 

Shunned by the Northern Pacific, Seattle was served by several small rail companies including the Seattle & Walla Walla as well as Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad. These smaller lines had no need for a grand facility. The situation began to change with the arrival of James J. Hill and his Great Northern Railroad. James J. Hill knew the railroad business. While selecting a western terminus for the Great Northern Railroad, Hill shrewdly received concessions from the city of Seattle by feigning indecision between Bellingham and Seattle. He gained railroad right of way to Seattle and with his local partner, Judge Thomas Burke, effectively shut out the Northern Pacific. 

Hill was not quick to abandon his hard driving tactics. Even while Seattle prospered as a rail terminus and grew significantly during the 1890s, passengers noticed the poor condition of their rail station facilities. Seattle resident Welford Beaton commented, "It was perhaps the worst excuse for a depot operated by any railway in the world in a city as large as Seattle - It had become a sore spot with the citizens, who had to apologize for it every time anyone landed at it." During the height of the 1890s depression, Hill had a pointed response to requests for better facilities. "It is more important to Seattle to have goods delivered to it cheaply than to have a fancy depot." 

Woodshed to Cathedral 

With the turn of the century and a stronger economy, Hill reconsidered. Soon plans were underway for a new station. In 1903, he hired the nationally renowned architecture firm of Reed and Stem. They were best known for designing the Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan. Their plans called for a 245-foot clock tower that was closely modeled after the campanile at the Piazza de San Marco in Venice, Italy. Crowned with a glass tiled cap, the campanile was to be lit at night and serve as a beacon for travelers and citizens. Inside, particular attention was paid to the design of public spaces. The large general waiting room, lavatories, and vestibule at the tower's base were all to have ceilings of ornamental plaster and fluted columns. Marble was to be used in the wainscoting along with glass and gilded mosaic. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer of November 15, 1903 described the new plans. "The proposed structure - will be finished and equipped with elegant appointments and all modern conveniences." King Street Station was built from 1904 to 1906. The construction also coincided with the golden age of rail travel. 

The War Years 

King Street Station saw its heaviest use during World War II, reflecting Seattle's importance to the war effort. During the war years, the station was crowded with military personnel shipping out to the Pacific and Puget Sound Naval bases. Civilians filled the station on their way to the shipyards and Boeing's strategic aircraft manufacturing plants. Ridership was also helped by the wartime rationing of gasoline and rubber. The Decline of the Railroad The end of the war also signaled the decline of railway transportation in America. Seattle was no exception. The seeds were sown earlier in the century. Henry Ford's Model T brought the automobile within reach of the average American family. Surface highway miles doubled from 1920 to 1930 and then doubled again by 1940. The success of the aircraft industry also helped move passengers away from the rails. By 1957, the airline industry surpassed railroads in terms of revenue passenger-miles. The trend continued, and by 1970, fewer than 400 daily intercity passenger trains were in service, down from a World War II high of approximately 20,000. 

From Riches to Rags 

The 1960s saw the station's modernization improvements. In 1963, a suspended ceiling was added to the waiting room. The beige tiles completely blocked the view of the soaring, ornate molded plaster ceiling. All open views from the balconies were similarly blocked by fill material. In 1965, marble wainscoting and drinking fountains were removed. Any decorative plaster molding left below the suspended ceiling was broken off and thrown away. The terrazzo and mosaic floor in the women's waiting room was covered with vinyl composition tile. The lavatories were stripped of their original furnishings. The final blow occurred in the early 1970s when all windows in the southern section of the main waiting area were removed and filled with a cement-like substance. 

Back to the Future 

As the Pacific Northwest begins to realize the important role rail will play in addressing the transportation needs of the 21st Century, King Street Station is looking to recapture its old glory. The suspended ceiling will be removed and placed on the ash heap of history. Windows throughout the structure will be uncovered and natural light will flood the waiting room. Replicas of historic lighting and wall fixtures, made from molds taken from original pieces contributed by private citizens, will grace the elegant interior. Finally, the glass pyramid at the top of the clock tower will be cleaned so that once again King Street Station can serve as a beacon for both travelers and citizens. 

The End.