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A Tour Up Stevens Pass

This grand tour will take us from Seattle to Ephrata by rail.



Our historic journey up the legendary Stevens Pass begins in King Street Station, downtown Seattle. (Image 1, Image 2, Image 3, Image 4, Image 5) Completed in 1906 by the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads, her 75 foot tall campanile is rivaled by many tall buildings surrounding it, but it must have risen like a beacon when it glowed on dark nights a hundred years ago. It would be another ten years before Smith Tower was built a few blocks to the north.

Before the Great Northern, Seattle had lost a battle with her arch rival Tacoma to become terminus for the Northern Pacific railway. It was an ego destroyer for arrogant, young Seattle. A branchline was created to the city where the Northern Pacific used extortionate prices to gauge their customers. The Great Northern's entrance into Seattle cost the GN nearly nothing in property expenses, as property owners gave it away for the promising new company, who they believed had come to save them from the wrath of the NP. Seattle finally had her title as terminus, and her growth was explosive.

Due north, the tracks head into a mile long tunnel located under the skyscrapers of the impregnable Seattle skyline. (Image 6) and exit at North Portal. (Image 7) The tracks then follow Alaskan and Elliot Avenues until a slight curve brings the steel rails into the Interbay classification yard. Interbay yard has an important locomotive servicing facility. (Image 8, Image 9, Image 10)

The tracks continue north and parallel with Commodore Way. Soon, the tracks rise over the road and onto Bridge 6.3, a bascule bridge built by the Great Northern railroad to carry traffic over the Salmon Bay. (Image 11, Image 12, Image 13)

After crossing into Ballard, the double tracked mainline soon parallels the Puget Sound and and follows her sinuous curves north into Edmonds, Mukilteo and Everett. (Image 14, Image 15, Image 16)

Passing Rucker Hill in Everett, the rails reach the old Everett Station. (Image 17) From there the main line makes a 180 degree turn through a partially covered cut through downtown Everett to the new Everett station. (Image 18) From the new station, the main line heads south, then southeast along the Snohomish river through the cities of Snohomish (Image 19) and Monroe. (Image 20)

Monroe, the last habitation that can claim the description "city" along our route was once the site of the Great Northern Railway's botanical gardens. Here, fresh flowers for their passenger trains were once grown. Each day these flowers would be loaded aboard the Western Star for distribution throughout the system so that each dining car passenger might have fresh flowers with their meal.

From Monroe, the line borders the friendly, tiny community of Sultan. (Image 21, Image 22)

A little more east, rests the community of Startup (Image 23)


The community of Goldbar is also near. From Goldbar, the fun begins, as well as the climb. (Image 24)

Just outside the small town, the line crosses over the Skykomish River (Image 25), wraps around a hill and finally crosses the river once more. The tracks reach the town of Index. Several bridges are located in this remote, isolated area, including the famed Sunset falls, images 30 and 32.(Image 26, Image 27, Image 28, Image 29, Image 30, Image 31,Image 32)

Outside of Index, the tracks reach the railroad siding of Baring. If you are stuck at Baring, chances are that you will witness a train. (Image 33, Image 34, Image 35, Image 36)

Also, just around the corner, is nearby Grotto. In this area, spectacular views are bountiful. (Image 37, Image 38, Image 39, Image 40)

From the siding at Grotto, the the steel ribbons finally reach the most famous small town on the Stevens Pass line. Skykomish.

Skykomish's tiny downtown, strung along Railroad Avenue beside the tracks, looks much the same as it did more than half a century ago.
Even the Whistling Post Tavern is still there, in what once was a saloon opened by Patrick McEvoy, the engineer on the first scheduled train to go through Skykomish in 1893. The first white settler, in 1889, was John Maloney, a guide for railroad surveyor John Stevens, who was plotting a new route across the Cascades for the Great Northern line from Seattle to Chicago. The town initially was known as Maloney's Siding but later was named after the Indian word for "inland people." (Image 41, Image 42, Image 43, Image 44)

Quaint, and sort of touristy as it may be, there is no mistaking it for anything but a railroad town. Skykomish became the point where trains switched from steam engines to electric engines for the trip over Stevens Pass. They switched engines again on the return trip. Great Northern also had a big roundhouse and fueling facility in the town.

Unfortunately, technology caught up with this booming train city. Railroading changed forever in Skykomish in 1956 when the Great Northern installed a ventilation system in the Cascade Tunnel, permitting diesel engines to replace the electrics. Tom Cleveland, the former mayor, was the fireman on the last electric engine to pull out of town on July 31, 1956. Skykomish had lost her importance. After mushrooming to a population of nearly 8,000 in the 1920s, Skykomish shrank. It had a population of 273 in 1990. Today the official population is 271.(Image 45, Image 46, Image 47, Image 48, Image 49)

Today, "Sky" , as she is affectionately known, serves as a maintenance base, and occasionally helpers are still stationed here, though with the advent of Distributed Power technology this has become less common. For the railfan, Skykomish has most of the things necessary for a successful day. It's the last town until Leavenworth on the east side of the mountain, and offers food and some great places to watch trains.

Outside of Skykomish, the stiff 2.2% climb to Stevens pass begins. Rounding a few curves, the rails reach the spectacular Foss river bridge, a great feat for its time. (Image 50, Image 51, Image 52, Image 53)

In this area, as well as the whole BNSF Scenic Subdivision, as this line is officially called, beautiful scenery surrounds the tracks. (Image 54, Image 55, Image 56, Image 57)

The tracks pass near Deception Creek. (Image 58, Image 59, Image 60)

And finally, 17 miles beyond Skykomish, at the rail siding of Scenic, is the west portal of the great Cascade Tunnel. Soon, the tracks will reach the summit of Stevens Pass. (Image 61, Image 62, Image 63, Image 64, Image 65, Image 66, Image 67, Image 68, Image 69, Image 70)

The History of Stevens Pass and the Cascade Tunnel

James J. Hill, President of the Great Northern Railroad Company, decided in 1890 to extend the railroad to the Pacific coast, and hired John F. Stevens with the task of locating the rail line through the Rocky and Cascade mountains to Puget Sound. Though Hill and his engineers -- including John F. Stevens -- for whom Stevens Pass was named, were a brilliant and visionary crew, they found a fierce opponent in the Cascade range. Stevens built the line up the Wenatchee River and Nason Creek towards the 4,059 foot summit of Stevens Pass. Miraculous engineering feats went into the railroad line, including the construction of several monumental 4% switchbacks to get over the hill. These would soon be replaced by the first Cascade tunnel.

The first 2.63 mile long Cascade Tunnel was completed in 1900 at a cost of 4 million dollars. (Image 71) The 1.7 percent grade through the tunnel didn't crest until it reached the east tunnel portal at Cascade Tunnel Station. Old Cascade tunnel took eight years to build, and after two men on an eastbound freight were asphyxiated from smoke build-up, was later electrified. (Image 72) But danger still loomed, mainly in the form of avalanches that were constantly cascading down the logged hillsides.

Photos and maps of the old line: (Image 73, Image 74, Image 75, Image 76)

Inside old Cascade Tunnel: Here

Map of switchbacks, old and new Cascade tunnels, and the Chumstick line revisions: Here

As said before, danger was looming. The worst was to come. On February 23, 1910, after a snow delay at the east Cascade Mountains town of Leavenworth, two Great Northern trains, the Spokane Local passenger train No. 25 and Fast Mail train No. 27, proceeded westbound towards Puget Sound. There were five or six steam and electric engines, 15 boxcars, passenger cars, and sleepers.

The trains had passed through the Cascade Tunnel from the east to the west side of the mountains, when snow and avalanches forced them to stop near Wellington, in King County. Wellington was a small town populated almost entirely with Great Northern railway employees.

The train stopped under the peak of Windy Mountain, above Tye Creek. Heavy snowfall and avalanches made it impossible for train crews to clear the tracks. For six days, the trains waited in blizzard and avalanche conditions. On February 26, the telegraph lines went down and communication with the outside was lost. On the last day of February, the weather turned to rain with thunder and lightening. Thunder shook the snow-laden Cascade Mountains alive with avalanches. Then it happened.

White Death

On March 1, some time after midnight, Charles Andrews, a Great Northern employee, was walking towards the warmth of one of the Wellington’s bunkhouses when he heard a rumble. He turned toward the sound. In 1960, he described what he witnessed:


"White Death moving down the mountainside above the trains. Relentlessly it advanced, exploding, roaring, rumbling, grinding, snapping -- a crescendo of sound that might have been the crashing of ten thousand freight trains. It descended to the ledge where the side tracks lay, picked up cars and equipment as though they were so many snow-draped toys, and swallowing them up, disappeared like a white, broad monster into the ravine below" (Roe, 88).
One of the 23 survivors interviewed three days after the Wellington train disaster stated:

"There was an electric storm raging at the time of the avalanche. Lighting flashes were vivid and a tearing wind was howling down the canyon. Suddenly there was a dull roar, and the sleeping men and women felt the passenger coaches lifted and borne along. When the coaches reached the steep declivity they were rolled nearly 1,000 feet and buried under 40 feet of snow" (Roe, 87).


A surviving train conductor sleeping in one of the mail train cars was thrown from the roof to the floor of the car several times as the train rolled down the slope before it disintegrated when the train slammed against a large tree.
Charles Andrews would not make it to the bunkhouse warmth for many hours. Along with other Wellington residents, Andrews rushed to the crushed trains that lay 150 feet below the railroad tracks. During the next few hours they dug out 23 survivors, many with injuries.

In the days that followed, news of the tragedy that reached the rest of the country was inaccurate. On March 1 there were reports of "30 feared dead." On March 2 there were "15 bodies ... recovered ... [and] 69 persons missing. One hundred and fifty men, mostly volunteers, are working to uncover the dead." On March 3 a headline stated, "VICTIMS NOW REACH 118."

The injured were sent to Wenatchee. The bodies of the dead were transported on toboggans down the west side of the Cascades to trains that carried them to Everett and Seattle. Ninety-six people died in the avalanche, including 35 passengers, 58 railroad employees sleeping on the trains, and three railroad employees sleeping in cabins enveloped by the avalanche.
(Image 77, Shot 78, Image 79, Shot 80, Image 81, Shot 82, Image 83)

Cause: Rain, Thunder, Fire, Clear Cutting

The immediate cause of the avalanche was the rain and thunder. But, conditions had been set by the clear cutting of timber and by forest fires caused by steam locomotive sparks, which opened up the slopes above the tracks and created an ideal environment for slides to occur.

It took the Great Northern three weeks to repair the tracks before trains started running again over Stevens Pass. Because the name Wellington became associated with the disaster, the little town was renamed Tye. By 1913, to protect the trains from snow slides, the Great Northern had constructed snow-sheds over the nine miles of tracks between Scenic and Tye.

In 1929, a new tunnel was built, making the old grade obsolete. This 1929 tunnel is still today (2003) used by the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad.

The old grade is now the Iron Goat Trail, a hiking trail through the forest and past various examples of railroad archeology. The name Iron Goat was taken from the Great Northern Railway corporate symbol -- a mountain goat standing on a rock. "Iron goat" was applied to Great Northern locomotives climbing mountainous rail line in the Rockies or Cascade mountains.

More information on the Wellington avalanche of 1910: Here

More Information on the Iron Goat Trail: Here

A New Tunnel, A New Stevens Pass

After the avalanche shook the Great Northern railroad to its core, it brought a shocking realization to the company and the world; the old line must be abandoned. So the railroad serveryed the area around Scenic and Berne, Washington for a suitable tunnel. Once the path was agreed upon, construction ensued in 1925. The second Cascade Tunnel, 7.79 miles long and having an extraordinary price tag of 26 million dollars, opened on On January 12, 1929 as the longest tunnel in the western hemisphere. The westbound Oriental Limited became the first train to operate through the brand new tunnel.

The fabled railroads Great Northern and Northern Pacific merged together along with several other lines to form the Burlington Northern railroad in 1970, to the dismay of many. The Burlington Northern would last an even shorter amount of time as a railroad. In 1996, BN merged with the Santa Fe Railroad to form the mega railroad we see today, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, or BNSF. Now we will get back to the Stevens Pass line:

After cresting Stevens Pass, the tracks emerge from the east portal of the Cascade Tunnel at Berne. This is where the tunnel's ventilation systems are located. It takes 30 minutes for a train to clear the tunnel on a good day, and 30 more to clear it of dangerous toxins, thus only 1 train per hour. So, as of now, only a maximum of 24-30 trains a day use Stevens Pass. Berne is easily reached as highway 2 hovers just above the portal of the tunnel. (Image 84, Image 85, Image 86, Image 87, Image 88, Image 89)

The tracks outside of Cascade tunnel immediately pass over Nason creek on a small bridge, and continue down towards leavenworth. After the siding at Berne ends the single track curves into Gaynor Tunnel and following the tunnel, is the majestic Gaynor trestle. (Image 90, Image 91, Image 92, Image 93)

Farther down the Wenatchee Valley, the rails reach Merritt, a railroad siding with pleasant scenery and sometimes, overpowering winter weather.(Image 94, Image 95, Image 96)

And a ways further we reach Winton. At Winton, the rails turn and head into Winton tunnel which then leads into the Chumstick Canyon. (Image 97, Image 98, Image 99, Image 100)


But this wasn't always like this. Before the line went through the Chumstick Canyon, the rails went through the much prettier but much more sinuous and dangerous Tumwater Canyon. While building the new Cascade Tunnel, this line was abandoned for the Chumstick line which is less steep and less curvy.

Passing through two more tunnels and down the Chumstick Canyon, the railroad passes by a former important location, Leavenworth. At one time, the tracks went down the middle of the city, where Highway 2 is today. Leavenworth was a major division yard and locomotive maintanance facility for the Great Northern's Cascade Division, and the short stretch of track between Leavenworth and Skykomish was the toughest section of track in all of the Great Northern's 10,000 some odd miles of trackage. This all changed with the line relocation. (Image 101)

Now passed Leavenworth, the climate and topography of the area changes drastically. No longer a mountainous moist, tree lush area, but a steppe semi-arid plateau, we enter "Apple Country". Indeed we are. Now quite a few miles away from Leavenworth, we enter our first apple city, Peshastin. A tiny community, the economy is fueled by agriculture. (Image 102, Image 103)

The tracks then cross over the Wenatchee river and into Dryden, another apple town. (Image 104)

The steel ribbons, now parallel with the Wenatchee river, enter the 3rd apple town, and the geographic center of Washington State, Cashmere. (Image 105, Image 106, Image 107, Image 108)

Our rails now enter the 4th apple raising town, Monitor. Monitor is a tiny, one siding whistle stop. (Image 109, Image 110 )

And finally, our steel ribbons reach Wenatchee, the true apple capital of the world! This city was just a tiny isolated town before the Great Northern transformed her into a great agricultural center. She has blossomed into a city of 30,000 people.

Wenatchee (Appleyard) was the ending point of the electrification system that stretched to Skykomish. The diesels put that system out of business in 1956. Appleyard was once a major yard on the GN's Cascade Division, with a large classification yard, engine services crew transfers, but her importance has, since then, been limited. (Image 111, Image 112)

Well, on we go past the Appleyard and we soon come into the siding of Malaga. (Image 113, Image 114)

The riverside because a little rough near this area, and the railroad tracks curve towards the marvelous Columbia River Bridge, built to, go figure, cross the Columbia river. This structure is unique, as it is two bridges, one built over the other. To allow heavier loads the original through truss bridge built in 1892 was strengthened in 1925 by adding another through truss around the original structure. Thus, what we see today. (Image 115, Image 116, Image 117)

After crossing the Columbia river into Rock Island, the tracks lead us into Voltage and the Rock Island Dam.

After passing the dam, the train reaches the siding of Columbia River where the scenery begins to overpower the surroundings. (Image 118)

After Columbia River, the rails begin to climb parallel to the mighty Columbia river. The scenery in the area is nothing short of incredible and mind blowing. It has to be seen to be able to fully appreciated. The mainline hugs to cliffs and rolling hills, the scenery truly dominates. (Image 119, Image 120)

Just east of the S-curves photographed above, is another one of those engineering marvels that grace the Scenic Subdivision, giving credit to her buildings, the Great Northern Railway. They sure did an amazing job constructing this line, proof of which is that it is still in use today!

When a railroad line has to gain a large amount of elevation in a short distance, the best option is to build a loop. Almost all railroads have done this: Western Pacific with Williams loop; The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe with Tehachapi loop, and the Great Northern with Trinidad loop.


This is an artist's rendering of the Trinidad Loop grade out of the Columbia River gorge east of Wenatchee Washington, one of the most unknown and yet interesting railroad grades in America. The BNSF mainline grade follows the river for several miles, bridges it, then after a few more miles it winds away from the water's edge to the brim of Lynch Coulee. There the tracks turn north for a few miles, loop around the spectacular, tight horse shoe curve and return south down the coulee. At the edge of a second coulee the main plunges eastward through tunnel 11.1 and emerges into an ancient volcanic cavity where once a great waterfall plunged from the Columbia plateau. The tracks cut through the basalt cliffs and top out the grade at Quincy a few miles later. (Image 121, Image 122, Image 123, Image 124)

The tracks after rising above the loop enter tunnel 1621.4. (Image 125)

The tracks finally level off towards Quincy, a small town of about 5,400 people. Agriculture is all that fuels the economy. (Image 126)

Leaving Quincy, the tracks which are straight and level, continue straight for some miles until a slight curve brings us to the end of our journey at Ephrata. (Image 127)

And the steel ribbons stretch onto Spokane, Sandpoint, Whitefish, Minot, and evetually to Chicago.


I hope you enjoyed my little tour of my favourite rail line. This is why I took this job here.
 

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Great stuff! The best part is that any of us can experience that route ourselves via Sounder (between Everett & Seattle, now with a 2nd daily run) & Amtrak's Empire Builder.

Save Amtrak, ride it!
 
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