Sketched Jan. 23, 24 and Feb. 13
The Seattle Monorail never became what its creators intended 50 years ago. After the World’s Fair, it was meant to be either expanded or dismantled; the concrete columns were bolted to Fifth Avenue so they could be easily removed.
In a way, it was a failed project. But consider the lives touched by the 1.2 mile ride between downtown and Seattle Center. Think of the fun it brings to nearly 2 million tourists every year and to those who commute on it every day. And think of what it means to the people who work there.
For Abraham Abei, David Guet and Joseph Deng, all in their early 30s, the monorail has provided jobs and a path to education — tuition assistance is a perk of working for Seattle Monorail Services. These three are among the thousands of “Lost Boys of Sudan” who escaped the atrocities of their country’s civil war in the late ’80s. Their reactions to the monorail when they first saw it: “I thought it would fall off,” said Deng. And now: “It’s the best thing I ever had,” said Abei.
Jayme Gustilo, 61, a cashier and a 23-year monorail veteran, said: So what if a ride on the monorail doesn’t take you very far; “The journey is more important than the destination.”
Originally from Minnesota, Eno Yliniemi, 34, came to Seattle to do a Ph.D. in biomechanics, thinking she’d graduate to a job specializing in equipment to treat neck injuries. Instead, a temporary consulting job to help assess the monorail’s mechanical problems in the mid 2000s led to her current job as chief systems engineer for Seattle Monorail Services.
General Manager Thom Ditty credits her work supervising an overhaul of the trains in 2008 with saving the monorail when everyone thought it was doomed following a fire in 2004 and a crash in 2005. Yliniemi, however, takes the compliment in stride. She attributes the monorail’s longevity to flawless design by German builder Alweg. She said she has yet to find an error when she browses through copies of the original blueprints.
Bill Humphreys, 65, above and below, calls the monorail “a bus and a train combined.” It’s powered by electricity, but it runs on 64 tires. Sixteen tractor-trailer size “load tires” go on top of the rail and 24 run sideways on each side, guiding the trains along the track. Humphreys, a native of Texas, said he’s worked for the monorail for 12 years.
The magic of the monorail is hidden under its shiny bumpers. Technician Ryan Menor was doing routine maintenance of the brake system while I drew this sketch, where you can see one of the tires that runs perpendicular to the concrete beam.
I met Russell Noe inside a windowless office at the monorail’s Seattle Center station. To celebrate the monorail’s birthday, replicas of the original ALWEG signs have been created and now grace both trains. He held one for a few minutes so I could do my sketch.
Driver Abraham Abei, 31, enjoys meeting tourists from all over the world and when the kids run to sit across from him in the front of the monorail. “I’ll let them play the horn and they love it.”
After four years of daily monorail commute Char Bagley, 44, said the drivers and cashiers have become family. “They’re always smiling. They’re always fun. You don’t get that very often.”
David Guet, 31, worked at the Space Needle and at the airport before joining the Monorail full-time last year.
Like his colleagues Guet and Abei, Joseph Deng, 33, also came to Seattle as a “Lost Boy of Sudan,” he told me during one of his late shifts as a cashier at the Westlake Center station. He loves his job at the Monorail because “they treat their employees like their own kids.”
“It’s like a big family,” said Deng, who is studying international relations at South Seattle Community College.
Operations supervisor Milete Haile makes sure the monorail trains run on schedule and supervises the crew of drivers and cashiers. The monorail makes about 75 round trips every day.
“Have you ever thought of expanding it?” “How does it get to airport?”
The things tourists ask monorail employees like Gustilo may sound funny to locals who lived through five votes on the monorail’s future. But they speak of that potential that never materialized.
Gustilo said the monorail represents hopes, dreams and regrets. “It’s a reminder of our imagination, our ingenuity … of our own ability to create new ways of mass transportation.”
World’s Fair Anniversary
I plan to do occasional posts related to the World’s Fair 50th anniversary over the next six months. I invite you to send me your suggestions of places and people to sketch via e-mail, Facebook or Twitter.
More Seattle Times coverage of the 50th anniversary at seattletimes.com/worldsfair.