Train depots were king back in the day | History Files

UPS, USPS, FedEx, an airline, interstate highway, Amazon, and Costco rolled into one


Last updated 7/20/2022 at 11:15am

Photo courtesy of Dan Plouse

Tim Raetzloff stands on the old Milwaukee Road arched trestle over Cabin Creek near Easton.

The history of railroads in Snohomish County is really rather boring. Great Northern Railway reached Edmonds in 1891.

The most unusual aspect of this arrival was that Great Northern used the name of a subsidiary railroad, Seattle and Montana. The connection to the Great Northern wasn't complete until 1893.

Great Northern was Edmonds' only railroad until it merged into the Burlington Northern in 1970. In 1996, Burlington Northern merged with the Santa Fe Railroad and became the BNSF.

The net effect is that Edmonds has had only one railroad throughout its history, known by various names, but always the same railroad. Little Alpine in the Cascade Mountains, now a ghost town, can make the same claim.

Many western Washington towns have much more interesting railroad history. Seattle has had at least six major railroads, and some small ones. I may have forgotten one or two, and there may be even more.

Northern Pacific was the first transcontinental railroad in the Northwest. It chose Tacoma as its terminus, bypassing Seattle. But Seattle decided to retaliate and build its own trans-continental connection.

The Seattle & Walla Walla was created with much fanfare, and the entire town turned out to help build it. Enthusiasm quickly waned when sore hands and sore backs brought the reality of the difficulty in building a railroad.

The Seattle & Walla Walla went through a few name changes and ownership changes, but it never extended farther than Newcastle and Black Diamond.

The threat was enough to bring the Northern Pacific to Seattle, eventually.

In between, Seattle tried another local railroad, the Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern. SLS&E didn't get much further than the Seattle & Walla Walla, and was eventually bought out by rival Northern Pacific.

SLS&E has left a legacy to the present day. Three of the SLS&E depots are now museums. The route through Snoqualmie and North Bend is still used by the trains of the Northwest Railway Museum.

The Burke-Gilman Trail uses the old SLS&E right-of-way, as does the Sammamish Valley Trail.

Eventually, Seattle also welcomed the Union Pacific Railroad and the Chicago Milwaukee St. Paul & Pacific, more commonly know as the Milwaukee Road, and the Great Northern that arrived via Edmonds.

The Union Pacific still exists. Northern Pacific was merged with Great Northern into the Burlington Northern. The Milwaukee Road ceased operation over 40 years ago, but its mainline is now the Palouse to Cascade Trail of the Washington State Park system.

Third Anniversary

I have walked parts of that trail, most recently near Easton, where I had my picture taken on an old, Roman-style, arched trestle over Cabin Creek.

Four major railroads for a major city was not a huge number. Chicago, St. Paul, and St. Louis would scoff at that number, but it was the biggest in the Northwest.

A number of smaller cities and towns could make claims to at least three major railroads. Spokane ultimately had four; Tacoma and Everett had three. And Bellingham built two railroads of its own – Bellingham Bay & BC, and Fairhaven & Southern – and eventually had three major railroads and access to the Canadian transcontinentals.

Even little Snohomish could claim three major railroads: Great Northern, Northern Pacific, and Milwaukee Road all had depots in the city.

North Bend, never a very big place, had two major railroads – the Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee Road. The same claim might be made for Snoqualmie, but it would be marked with an asterisk.

Northern Pacific had a depot in Snoqualmie after it acquired the Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern. The Milwaukee Road had a depot in the town of Snoqualmie Falls. Those are the same place now, but they weren't back in the day.

The Milwaukee Road missed Meadowbrook by about 500 feet and never built a depot there. Meadowbrook is now also a part of Snoqualmie, and nearly forgotten.

Little Easton, which is mostly an afterthought to travelers on I-90, had two major railroads, as did Cle Elum and Ellensburg.

Any town that claimed to be anything had a railroad depot.

Waterville built its own railroad to connect when the Great Northern passed it by. Towns that had two or three or four railroads could boast and give their chamber of commerce a selling point to bring in new residents and businesses.

Any town that lost the depot to a neighboring town was just about finished.

The railroad was the big business of the day. It was the internet, UPS, USPS, FedEx, an airline, interstate highway, Amazon, and Costco all rolled into one.

It turned out that Edmonds and Mukilteo only needed one railroad. Many places weren't so fortunate.


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