Three bridges south, three tracks east: A look at regional rail history

The main Tacoma Narrows Bridge span falling into the strait of Puget Sound on Nov. 7, 1940. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia)

This is not my usual photo essay about a particular journey. Rather, it’s a compendium from traveling down memory lane, or I should say down memory tracks, as it’s based on the several years I was a volunteer National Parks docent in that agency’s Rails and Trails Program.

Our local unit was sponsored by the under-recognized Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, located in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Interestingly, the companion to that museum is located at the other end of the Gold Rush pathway — in Skagway, Alaska. Seattle merchants likely made out much better financially than those who actually ventured to the Yukon, but that’s another story. The two train routes utilized in the local program were the Coast Starlight down to Los Angeles, and the Empire Builder east to Chicago.

This piece will focus on the latter, but I’ll mention briefly our one-day run south to Portland and back, with narration going southbound with regard to both natural and human history. Nature’s mention included, of course, majestic Mount Rainier, but also a peek at what remained of Mount St. Helens (both anointed by British exploration) and the mysterious Mina Mounds near Olympia.

Opening day of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge July 1, 1940. (Courtesy University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections)

Human history had many mentioned pioneer anecdotes and the last of those explained why we would be detraining in Portland, Oregon and not in Boston, Oregon. The highlight of the entire journey, however, was the scenic stretch running along the Tacoma Narrows. Docents would point out the visible double spans across the South Sound and then tell the tale of “Galloping Gertie,” the first bridge at that site, the remains of which remain submerged as a useful “reef” beneath the two existing spans. We would always urge passengers to view the YouTube videos showing how concrete and steel could twist like spaghetti in their resonance with high winds on the day it was torn apart (Nov. 7,1940 — having only been opened on July 1 of that year).

It is remarkable that only a dog left behind in a car was lost. It then took a decade for a replacement span to be built and in 2007 the newest span was completed. Unfortunately, in the interest of shaving time spent en route to Portland, this scenic bypass has been excerpted from the route,  tragically resulting in a derailment during the early transition runs on the new routing.

Our other run was on the Great Northern’s Empire Builder, and was a bigger commitment for volunteers, lasting through three days out and back. Interestingly, even though my wife and I hadn’t yet moved to Edmonds, most volunteers preferred to board and pick up the support trunk at the Edmonds station rather than get on at King Street Station in Seattle. The usual turnaround for the round trip was Havre, Montana, with the most spectacular narrated portion being from Whitefish, Montana over Marias Pass, going along the southern edge of Glacier National Park and the out onto the plains until Shelby, Montana.

The Cascade Tunnel in 2012. (Photo by Sturmovik at English Wikipedia)

This portion definitely would justify its own story. But this piece is more locally directed and will address only the initial evening’s narrated travel from Everett eastward to Stevens Pass and on through the Cascade Tunnel to Wenatchee. Over the summer season of the program, it would remain light until that narration, and then we’d join the passengers in trying to sleep. Usually, the joining up of the Portland portion of the Empire Builder in Spokane around 1 a.m. would disrupt those plans.

Few of us later arrivals to this area realize how important transcontinental rail service was to growth of the Seattle area, even more than the steamship access was during the Gold Rush. The Great Northern route over Stevens Pass was an attempt to bolster that growth, though looking back it wasn’t the wisest selection for routing. Nonetheless. two bold historical figures — the project engineer John Frank Stevens and the entrepreneur “Empire Builder” James J. Hill — made this route a reality.

As an aside, I should note that there was yet another railroad designed to expedite area growth. Remarkably, as per its name, the Milwaukee Road began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and was haphazardly routed to Hyak on Snoqualmie Pass. It even marketed the new access of midwesterners to the ski area that was built there. It opened in June 1909 and a few years later, a 2.3-mile tunnel shortened the transit distance. The route continued along the present route of I-90 to then follow Highway 18 to Maple Valley, and then had a final short connection to the main North-South corridor. Early in its existence, the Milwaukee line was electrified and became the longest electric line in the world. The line was never financially successful and the ski lodge was not replaced after a 1949 fire. The route itself lasted until 1980. The portion from Hyak through the tunnel and over the trestles to Rattlesnake Lake is now part of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail across Washington known as Iron Horse State Park. In days of yore, I had the pleasure of descending on that portion several times.

Well, let’s get back to Stevens Pass. Thanks to the grueling survey work in the years of 1890-91, an original route over the pass was chosen and opened. It involved a series of switchbacks and trestles, and even required trains to reverse and move to another track. Only a few snowsheds provided meager protection against avalanches. The defining statistic on this initial route is that it took 13 miles of track to connect two points only three miles apart. Clearly, improvement was needed, and the route was improved when a tunnel tunnel was completed in 1900. It was over 4km long, and at just over 3,000 feet of elevation, well below the highest point of the pass. It reduced the grade and markedly reduced transit distance. More than a dozen snow sheds were still necessary. One major draw back was lack of ventilation, and the tragic loss of a crew of a stalled train was narrowly averted in 1903. Overall, it seemed that this second route would serve well for a long time.

Great Northern Railway alignments in Stevens Pass. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, with editorial correction made by author)

The evening narration via the train intercom (we wouldn’t have an observation car until the Portland section hooked on in Spokane) was fairly short on history, but for nature, it highlighted a peek of Mt Rainier before Monroe, and many beautiful glimpses of the mountains (particularly, near Index) and several visible portions on the Skykomish River. When we came near to the flat watering site of the town of Skykomish, we would note that we were now approaching the Cascade Tunnel, the longest rail tunnel in the U.S. at a length of over eight miles. (A somewhat longer tunnel lies north in British Columbia and the longest in the world are in the European Alps). We could mention the earlier tunnel, but we were not allowed to explain what had prompted the construction of the new tunnel, even though we were traveling during the summer and well below the old tunnel route. This restraint on information to the extent of not mentioning what was the signature event in the history of crossing this pass, was of the same mentality that has led airlines to never make available movies involving airplane misadventures, even those of comic nature like “Airplane!” Still, what happened in 1910 has little connection to the current rail travel over the pass, other than as a notable piece of tragic history that merits attention.

Wellington in 1910 before the avalanche. (Photo courtesy Wikipedia)
Train wreckage from the Wellington avalanche. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

In February 1910, there had been an unusual accumulation of new snow near the railroad stop of Wellington, just under a mile upslope from the alpine town of Scenic. Two trains were blocked there at both ends — a westbound passenger train from Spokane and a mail train. They had been stuck for more than five days, trying to rely on the limited local resources, which was in part due to the railroad managers being unwilling to pay workers what they were demanding for digging the tracks free of snow. Then, on March 1,1910, at a bit past midnight, as a Great Northern employee has described, a “White Death” came coursing down the mountain and swept both trains downhill toward Scenic. (During the time of delay, some passengers had even trekked to the Scenic Hotel for meals).

In a matter of a minute or so, 96 passengers and crew lost their lives. Some pieces of wreckage remained exposed, and perhaps some air pockets, which amazingly resulted in 23 survivors. Now, approaching 113 years since this horrible event, it remains by far the greatest loss of life from an avalanche, since such natural disasters usually strike small groupings of climbers, skiers or snowmobilers. There is not sufficient space to cover this event and its aftermath here, but anyone interested can pursue more detailed accounts in Wikipedia or other sources, but if someone wants to read an almost “TMI” level of information, tracing the enfolding story through many affected individuals, I recommend reading The White Cascade by Gary Kris published in early 2008. Even though I wouldn’t be allowed to pass on what I might learn, I attended his book signing at the old Elliott Bay Bookstore location fittingly then in Seattle’s Pioneer Square.

The Stevens Pass area today. (Photo by Kevin O’Keeffe)

I did take a recent car trip to just past Skykomish in the quest for snow, but on that day there was none. The trip stirred up nostalgia about the countless similar car trips I had taken on that highway, annually to Wenatchee to get fresh red haven peaches, or just to Leavenworth to get a taste of “Bavaria.” Even before we took a Rick Steves trip to the real deal, I was never really fooled, but still enjoyed visiting or winter stayovers. I even thought back to biking on organized rides over the pass several times from Leavenworth and coasting down through the trees on a portion of the old Stevens highway enroute to Skykomish. We must have passed near the old town of Scenic.

Allow me one last aside: If one wants hours of reading a more contemporary version of this locale, I recommend the late Mary Daheim’s A to Z series of mysteries set in the fictional town of Alpine (perhaps Scenic?). Anyway, my nostalgia certainly steered me to the scores of times I had done this route by rail, not only for Amtrak, but for personal summer visits to Glacier National Park, and even in the dark of winter when my wife and I would overnight to Whitefish, Montana and be skiing right after an early arrival. (Remember, one hour later than Edmonds).

If any readers want to actualize this mind tour, they can note the faint signs of the old route when they drive over the pass and — in the autumn — the different vegetation on the vertical avalanche chutes on the opposing slopes. In addition to experiencing rail travel via Amtrak, one can go through the tunnel on one of the winter holiday trains to our “Little Bavaria.” Finally. in non-snow- piled times of the year, one can hike (or even wheelchair a portion) of the Iron Goat Trail, which honors the history of those who, only a century or so back, didn’t have such modern amenities or assurances of safe travel. Anyway, on this March 1, I hope you’ll ignore Amtrak’s censure of awareness and give this still relevant occurrence some brief passing thought.

— By Kevin O’Keeffe

Author Kevin O’Keeffe lives in Edmonds.

  1. With the publication of my article, I need to make a correction. The Stevens individual noted was not Isaac but the project engineer John Frank Stevens. Also there has been repeated validation over time of the dangerous nature of this section of the Cascades. Just recently 3 climbers were killed in the nearby Alpine Lakes area. In February 2010 , three experienced powder skiers were killed in the Tunnel Creek avalanche outside the bounds of the Stevens Pass Ski Area. Someone just linked me to the New York Times article on that disaster. Since that paper has much more resources than I , the article is an amazing account of that event, utilizing sophisticated graphics, and I encourage those interested to do a web search.

    1. Thanks for the interesting article. A good docent truly brings to life one’s surroundings and pulls the past into the present. That this program is on trains is a wonderful discovery today. One small correction—the man known as the Empire Builder was James J. Hill, not Sam Hill, who was J. J.’s son-in-law and coincidentally had the same last name.

      1. Wow, 2 for 2 on incorrect naming, I unraveled the one on Stevens, but should have remembered James J, who got mention all along the route. Aging is taking place. Thanks for your attentativeness. KOK

  2. Kevin, thank you for a most enjoyable story. It remonds me of car trips with my father when I was a boy and his stories of the fall of “Galloping Gertie” and the disaster at Wellington.

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