George Benson (1919-2004), Father of the Seattle Waterfront Streetcar
By Alyssa Burrows, for HistoryLink.org
George Benson was a popular Capitol Hill druggist, brass band musician, and five-term member of the Seattle City Council from 1974 to 1994. A native of Minnesota, Benson moved to Seattle in 1938 and ultimately earned a degree in pharmacy at the University of Washington. He served in the United States Navy during World War II and returned to Seattle to run the Mission Street Pharmacy with his wife Evelyn. Best known for spearheading the creation of the Seattle Waterfront Streetcar, Benson was a leader for mass transit, community crime programs, utility improvements, and gun control. He died at the age of 85 on October 25, 2004.
George Benson was born January 10, 1919, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to a Swedish immigrant family. George Benson's grandfather opened a music store in Minneapolis in 1891. In the Benson family, legend has it that Grandpa Benson had caused some embarrassment to his father, a senator in Sweden, and been asked to leave. He came straight to Minnesota and worked as a cook on a track gang building the Great Northern Railroad. He also played in a guitar band that toured the rural Free Churches. (The Free Church came out of the Lutheran Church in Sweden, at a time of a strong religious awakening in Sweden.)
George's grandfather had brought his strong faith to America with him, and the music store came out of his craftsman's ability to fashion guitars. George's mother and father followed in the church, and he was raised in a very religious home. No card-playing, drinking or dancing. While still very young, George's life revolved around the church with Sunday events taking up the whole morning and through the evening beginning again at five p.m.
George Benson's lifelong love-affair with trolleys and streetcars began at a very early age. Between the ages of 5 and 11, George lived on 15th Avenue South in Minneapolis, close to Twin City Rapid Transit's Bloomington line. He used the streetcars to attend church, and remembered that he could get there and back without a transfer.
First Visit to Seattle
The Eckberg's, Benson's mother's family, lived in Spokane with her sister, Mabel. George took the train to Spokane and stayed with them for the summer when he was nine. While there, he rode and learned all of Spokane's streetcar lines. Polly, his mother's sister, lived in Seattle, and she came out to Spokane to meet George and bring him to visit with her and her husband, Jerry. It was George's first visit to Seattle. While leaving on the train, he recalled looking out over the Sound and the twinkling lights reflected on the water. He vowed that one day he would live in Seattle.
Back in Minneapolis, Benson attended school and began learning the French horn. He played regularly, in and out of school and for the church. At age 10, he bought a coronet, wholesale, from his grandfather's store. Working continuously from that age on, Benson held jobs in the school lunchroom, Hawkinson's Meat Market, and later in his grandfather's music store doing janitorial work. He became a paperboy in 1933, and was lucky enough to find work at a drugstore -- Tib's Pharmacy -- right in the middle of the Depression in 1934. That fall he began high school, and took up the baritone horn because the school's band was in need of players for that instrument.
Benson's allergies, which had afflicted him since the age of three, became acute in the spring of 1935. His parents suggested he move to Seattle to see if the change in climate would help him. He began work at another pharmacy to earn his train fare, and by the end of August, he had saved the $70 he needed. He tearfully left his mother, father, his two younger siblings, Joan and Jimmy, and his girlfriend, Delores Peterson.
In Seattle he lived with the Eckbergs on Nob Hill and registered at Queen Anne High School. He blossomed at school, and got another pharmacy job at Koerner's drug store, but tragedy struck in late November -- Aunt Mabel died after receiving anesthesia at a dentist, and Anna, his grandmother, died eight days later from severe exhaustion. Grandpa Eckberg was suffering from a degenerative disease, and George's mother came out to help with the household for a time, eventually bringing George back to Minneapolis.
Back in Minneapolis in January 1937, George began visiting with Jeff Alexander, the vice-president of Twin City Rapid Transit. Alexander offered him a job that August, on the condition that he pass a physical. Because August was the height of Benson's hay-fever, he did not pass the physical, and to his great disappointment, he did not get the job. After August, for the first time in his life, George's hay fever did not lessen. Due to his ill-health, he made the decision to move to Seattle for good. This time he would make it on his own. He arrived on January 1, 1938.
Seattle's Great Depression
George got a job at a drug store near Snoqualmie by a mill. When the Depression shut down the mill in May, he moved to Seattle, but times were tough there too. He lived in a rooming house on Capitol Hill, eventually finding a job at G.O. Guy store on 40th Street and Roosevelt Way in the University District. He was paid so little ($9.40 a week for a 48 hour week) that he didn't have enough money for food, and had to walk from Capitol Hill and back every night. When he asked for a five-cent an hour raise to be able to afford to wash his clothes, he was told to look for another job. Luckily he found another pharmacy job on Aurora Avenue and 77th Street, and although it didn't pay much more, there were more work hours to be had. With this job in hand, George registered at the University of Washington's Pharmacy School on June 1, 1938, and began classes in the fall. Still having the music bug, he joined the marching and concert bands at UW, this time, picking up the sousaphone.
Unfortunately, his hours were soon reduced. George found a closer job at Lincoln Pharmacy in the University District, but it didn't pay any more. He was at the end of his rope, having spent all of his savings just to survive. In the spring of 1939 he received a letter from home with a $700 check in it from Aunt Mabel's will. That same day, the night fountain man at Lincoln Pharmacy quit, and George got his hours. Up to this point, he said, this was the greatest day in his life. Although his work hours cut into his study time at school (he was on and off probation for the entire four years), understanding professors helped him make it through.
George's plan was to send for Delores Peterson once he was settled, but she surprised him and told him she and a friend were coming to Seattle to visit. George did not know that Delores had become engaged to his good friend back in Minneapolis. "I was crushed and it took until the end of World War II to get over it," he said. George enlisted in the Navy on March 13, 1942.
Benson: the War Years
With his pharmacy training, George was made Hospital Apprentice First Class upon enlisting. After his recruit training, he took a test for placement and was put in a records office in San Diego because of his typing skills. He was there for about a year, playing string bass in the Navy stage band. He received orders to report to the U.S.S. Halford on November 3, 1943.
The Halford escorted the troop carrier Lureline to Guadalcanal and spent six months around the Solomon Islands, New Zealand, and New Britain. The Halford patrolled, escorted supply ships, and made anti-shipping sweeps. It supported the beachhead at Bourgainville, and the landing and occupation of Green Island. The Halford was one of three destroyers that took out strategic Japanese facilities on Choiscul Island in January 1944, and helped to destroy two beached patrol vessels and sink an enemy merchant vessel at Steffin Straight on February 24, 1944, thereby helping to secure the Solomon Islands for the Allies.
George had sent in an application to go to midshipman school to become an officer, and received his acceptance that spring while on an eight-day leave in Sydney, Australia. He began Midshipman School at Columbia in New York on July 5, 1944, and on graduated October 26. Ensign Benson's first posting was to the U.S.S. Funston (APA-89), on which he served for the next 15 months.
The Funston prepared for the landings at Lingayen Gulf on Luzon in New Britain. After the landings, the Funston sailed to Ulithi Lagoon, the staging area for Iwo Jima -- 110,000 Marines in 880 ships. She left to pick up more troops and came back, but held her troops in reserve and was stationed off Iwo Jima to patrol as the other ships hit the beach. From the deck of the Funston, George watched the marines raise the flag on Mt. Suribachi on February 23, 1945, not realizing he was witnessing the most historic moment of the Pacific War.
The fighting was still heavy, and the Funston put her troops ashore on February 27. The captain of the Funston, C. C. Anderson, lost his son in the fighting on the beach that day. He was brought back to the ship and died in his father's arms. The Funston was redeployed to Noumea, New Caledonia, to pick up the remnants of the Army's 80th Division. The Funston transported supplies, troops and casualties after which the ship was ordered to return to San Francisco for an overhaul. This was none too soon, as the Funston broke down two days out, and limped back into San Francisco at eight knots. During the ship's two months in the shipyard, the German and Japanese forces surrendered. With the war over, the Navy was charged with bringing the troops home. It was called the "Magic Carpet" operation. After two trips -- one to Manus and one to Manila -- George was released to inactive duty on February 15, 1946.
In a 1976 Seattle Sun article, George said his war experience gave him the "ability to adjust. I guess when you're thrown into a situation of life and death like that, there's a certain amount of maturing you do very fast."
After the War
George Benson came back to Seattle and immediately went to Lincoln Pharmacy. He resumed his old position and met a fellow employee named Evelyn Leymen. He found she was taking pharmacy classes and was working her way through school like himself. From George's perspective, it was love at first sight, though he was a bit worried that their nine-year age difference would be a problem. He discussed his trepidation with a good friend, Ray Stroble, who asked George if he loved her. This solved George's dilemma and he asked Evelyn to marry him, planning on postponing the wedding until he finished pharmacy school in 1947. Evelyn asked him, "What are we waiting for?" and they married June 29, 1946. Because his friend, Emery Gustafson, was late in picking him up, he was half an hour late for the wedding.
George changed jobs and began working at the J & J Pharmacy in Magnolia, owned by Thorman Jacobsen. George graduated from the UW pharmacy school in June 1947. Mr. Jacobsen asked George and Evelyn to begin looking for drug stores that would be suitable for him to buy and for them to work in. They found the Mission Pharmacy on Capitol Hill. Mr. Jacobsen agreed, and their deal was that he paid the outstanding bills, and the Bensons would assume the mortgage.
For the Benson's, it was a labor of love, and something to call their own. Business thrived, Evelyn graduated from pharmacy school, and soon after, she became pregnant. George III was born on April 1, 1952. By January 1953, the mortgage on the store was paid off, and Mr. Jacobsen asked them to buy him out. They paid him in full by 1957, and then set about looking for a larger home, as Evelyn was pregnant again. Amy was born December 13, 1957.
George and Evelyn were involved with the Washington State Pharmacists Association (WSPA) and the National Association of Retail Druggists (NARD), and were regular attendees of both associations' conventions and annual meetings. George held many offices for his association work, including president of the Seattle King County Pharmaceutical Association in 1955, and in 1957, he was named Pharmacist of the Year by the Puget Sound Branch of the American Pharmaceutical Association.
George presided over the WSPA in 1960, and was named 5th Vice President of NARD in 1964. He became involved in the Capitol Hill Community Club due to robberies and violence in the neighborhood in 1968, the same year the Council was formed, and he served as president of the Community Council in for 1969-1970. While on this council, George found himself spending a lot of time in City Hall, and to his surprise, he liked it.
City Council Years
He ran for Seattle City Council against incumbent Tim Hill in 1971. He survived the primary, but lost to Hill by 5,000 votes. George was named President Elect of NARD that year, and became NARD President for 1972-1973. He estimated he traveled 100,000 miles fulfilling his duties as president. He ran for City Council again in 1973 for the seat vacated by Liem Tuai, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor. This time, George won by a 60 percent majority. His term as NARD President ended October 1973, and he went straight into his job as Council Member on December 10, 1973, finishing Tuai's term. On a musical note, this was also the year he began playing in the Husky Marching Band Alumni Association.
George ran again to hold his seat in 1977 and 1981. In 1977, he garnered 75 percent of the vote, and in 1981, he got 78 percent.
In his early days as council member, Mayor Wes Uhlman appointed him chair of the Seattle Police Pension Board. He held this post until his appointment as President of the City Council in 1992. He also served as chair of the City Council's Transportation Committee for eight years, chair of the Utilities Committee for four years, and finally as chair of the Parks Committee until his election as Council President.
Benson's "Folly": The Waterfront Streetcar
George had begun advocating for a Seattle trolley system back in 1974. His idea was nicknamed "Benson's Folly," but by 1977 he had the go-ahead, and in 1981 he was able to recruit business and property owners on the waterfront to tax themselves $1.2 million in support of the line. Paying their own way, George and Evelyn traveled to Melbourne, Australia, in 1978 to pick out five 1920s wooden streetcars to use as Seattle's waterfront trolleys, along with enough spare parts to keep them running for years. After their arrival in Seattle, George spent his weekends painting the trolleys at the Coast Guard pier where they were being stored.
With help from U.S. Senators Warren G. Magnuson and Henry M. Jackson, George was able to convince the Burlington Northern to allow the streetcar to use its tracks along the Waterfront. Burlington Northern's regional vice-president, Richard A. Buelke, became George's ally in resolving necessary regulations in order to get the line going and to resolve labor issues between railroad and transit employees.
George's dream for a streetcar line for Seattle was realized on May 29, 1982, when the 1.6-mile line that runs from Broad Street to Main Street opened. The City of Seattle sold the system to Metro Transit in 1985. In June 1990, it was expanded to extend to Pioneer Square and the International District to link up with the almost completed Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel.
Accomplishments in City Hall
George was a tireless public servant during his five terms and 20 years as a Council Member.
- In 1979, he was given an Outdoor Recreation Achievement Award for his council work involving the waterfront, the freeways, Gas Works Park and Discovery Park, his sponsorship of the all-day weekend bus fares on Metro, and his work as chairman of the Urban Recreation Work Group of the National League of Cities.
- After enduring 25 robberies at his Mission Pharmacy, George proposed a gun control law in 1982. George was successful in 1985, and Seattle bar and tavern patrons must now check their firearms at the door.
- In 1989, George insisted that plans for the new Westlake Mall include a station for the 1962 World's Fair Monorail, and when engineers complained of not being able to provide access to both tracks, George sketched out the retractable ramps that are in use today.
- George rebelled against Mayor Charles Royer's plan to build a waste incinerator for Seattle's garbage, and instead worked out a deal for our garbage to be shipped to Arlington, Oregon. The contract won't expire till 2042.
- George also spearheaded the development of the current transportation hub at King Street Station.
During his years as Council Member, George was always pounding the pavement, meeting citizen and small business owners and listening to their concerns, especially during the construction of the Downtown Transit Tunnel. George expressed interest in becoming Seattle City Council President in November of 1991. His appointment was so assured that George decided the new committee chair positions before the council vote of 9-0 in favor.
George retired from the City Council at the end of 1993, but not before being sent off with a huge civic salute party at the Union Station on December 14. Still working at the Mission Pharmacy, George delivered a prescription to one of his customers later that same evening.
George and Evelyn closed the Mission Pharmacy after 45 years on July 15, 1994. In their later years together, George became an avid gardener, with his back yard bursting with raspberries. George was inducted into the American Public Transit Association Hall of Fame in 1997. Evelyn died on April 28, 2002, after a long struggle with kidney disease. Seattle honored George a month later by naming the Waterfront trolley line the "George Benson Waterfront Streetcar Line" on June 1, 2002, a few days after the line's 20th year anniversary.
George died in an assisted living home in Edmonds on October 22, 2004. His memorial Service was held on October 30 at the First Covenant Church on Capitol Hill. Dr. Douglas Mendenhall, vice-president of Merck, and one of George's pharmacists at Mission Pharmacy, spoke, as did Herb Pfiffner, Executive Director of the Union Gospel Mission, to which George had volunteered his time. Mayor Greg Nickels (b. 1955) and former mayor Norm Rice attended.
Nickels, a council aide when George was serving as a Council member, said of him: "Most of the Council saw themselves as policy-makers, and he saw himself as a problem-solver. He was one of those people who had a passion and was able to combine it with his career. He was one of the nicest men you'd ever meet" (Gilmore). Nickels ordered the city's flags to be lowered to half-staff for a week in his honor.
George is survived by his son George, his daughter Amy, three granddaughters and two great grandsons.
This article was written by Alyssa Burrows and is available on HistoryLink.org. Other sources for this article include: George Benson, To My Progeny (Seattle: History Ink/HistoryLink, 2003), in the possession of HistoryLink; Susan Gilmore, "George Benson, 85, Championed Seattle's Waterfront Trolley," The Seattle Times, October 27, 2004, p. A-1; "Ex-Councilman Benson dead at 85," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 26, 2004; Brandt Morgan, "It Hasn't Been that Easy, The Seattle Sun, December 29, 1976, p. 1.