Thursday, April 2, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Hidden Past

The Eastside's Lifelines

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau

Like the highways of today, railroads were the journeys of commerce from the 1880s to the late 1940s. Less than 40 miles of the original 100-plus miles of Eastside rails remain in use.

Railroads opened the Eastside more than 100 years ago.

They carried coal out of mines in Issaquah and the Coal Creek Valley. They carried logs, shingles and lumber from mills stretching from Kirkland to North Bend.

They brought in supplies: the groceries, the hardware, even the workers.

When farming replaced mining and logging, the harvest was sent to market on the train.

Like the highways of today, from the 1880s to the late 1940s, railroads were the lifeblood of civilization, the freeways of commerce. Settlements barely existed without rail connections.

Roads were muddy, stump-filled trails. A trip from Seattle to Ellensburg took four to eight days by horse or foot. After the Milwaukee Road went through Snoqualmie Pass, it took five hours.

"What people don't know today is everything was hauled here by train," said Henry Dahl, a North Bend resident who was a telegraph operator on the Milwaukee line after World War II. "Groceries, newspapers, hardware, everything."

If people wanted to get anywhere rapidly and conveniently, they went by train. Homemakers would catch a morning train in North Bend to Seattle, shop and return home on an afternoon train.

Dennis Croston of Issaquah tells about growing up during the 1950s and visiting his grandparents on Lake Sammamish, several miles away.

"My cousins and I would hop a train and ride to our grandparents to swim in the lake," Croston said. "They were freight trains. The crews gave up yelling at us not to do it, and they'd slow down to let us get on and off."

On weekends, when they weren't hauling out coal and timber, the railroads offered Seattle residents excursion trips to Snoqualmie Falls.

When the Milwaukee Road went to Snoqualmie Pass, families used the train for outings. In the summers in the 1930s and '40s they picnicked and picked berries, and in winters ski trains brought skiers to the pass. In 1948, a round-trip train ticket from Seattle cost $1.77.

Snub spurred rail line

Initially the main line - the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railway - was cast in anger.

In 1873, after extensive lobbying by the small towns and villages that edged Puget Sound, the Northern Pacific Railroad picked Tacoma to be its West Coast terminal. Seattle didn't even make the railroad map. It was snubbed because the powers behind the Northern Pacific had purchased vast parcels of Tacoma land.

So Seattle businessmen, led by Thomas Burke and Daniel Gilman, challenged national railroad barons and tried to build their own transcontinental line.

On Thanksgiving Day 1887, the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern reached Bothell from Seattle. Rail laying continued on to Woodinville, Redmond and Issaquah, then east to Preston, Snoqualmie and North Bend.

Along the way, founders and investors reaped fortunes, founding mining and lumber companies that worked in the wilderness between Seattle and the Cascades.

In 1896, the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern became the Seattle and International Railway, and by 1908 it was part of the Northern Pacific conglomerate.

Today miles of original track have been torn up, but the route of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern is followed by walkers and cyclists along the Burke-Gilman Trail.

It was Gilman who, on a trip back East, convinced Englishman Peter Kirk that the iron deposits in the Cascades and the coal in Newcastle and Issaquah would make this a prime manufacturing area. The Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern enticed him with a railroad spur. Although Kirk's factory near Forbes Lake never produced an ounce of steel, the city of Kirkland was born with Kirk's investments.

Issaquah, briefly called Gilman, grew up around its depot as coal mining and logging in the area brought in settlers.

First line likely for coal

The first railroad on the Eastside was probably a narrow-gauge line that hauled coal from Coal Creek Valley mines to Lake Washington where it was barged to Seattle.

Around the turn of the century, the Northern Pacific began building the Lake Washington Beltline that would stretch from Renton to Woodinville. Today the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train uses that route.

One persistent legend has it that a train or locomotive fell into a lake and still lies there.

In January 1875, a barge carrying a coal train hit heavy winds and lost its cargo off the north end of Mercer Island. A salvage operator explored the site in 1994 and says 18 wooden coal cars, many of them still upright and full, sit on the bottom of Lake Washington.

Building railroads in the Eastside hills was difficult, with ravines blocking the way. The easiest solution was giant wooden trestles. The 984-foot-long Wilburton trestle in Bellevue, built in 1904 just east of Interstate 405, still stands nearly 100 feet above the ground.

Others were taller and longer, including one built near Newcastle in 1877 that stood 138 feet tall and spanned 1,200 feet.

Railroading wasn't only difficult - it was dangerous. Richard Anderson, curator of the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, said limbs and lives were lost by crew members. Each car had brakes that had to be individually turned; cars were coupled by hand.

In 1900, a wreck in the Preston-Fall City area killed an engineer, brakeman and fireman when a log fell off a log car and cracked the 100-foot-tall trestle over the Raging River. The engine and numerous cars fell into the riverbed.

Although it was years before the impact rippled into train schedules, the death knell for Eastside lines was struck in the 1920s. Lake Washington Boulevard was paved for north-south automobile traffic, and in 1928 the Sunset Highway was paved for east-west traffic.

Today less than 40 miles of the original 100-plus miles of Eastside rails remain in use, and railroad buff Bill Walker of North Bend wants to preserve the old stations, rail cars and locomotives that are left. He is documenting the old Upper Snoqualmie Valley lines in a video.

"Historic equipment is like gold," he said. "When these engines and cars and railroad depots are gone, they're gone for good."

Sherry Grindeland's phone message number is 206-515-5633. Her e-mail address is:

------------------------ The eastside's lifelines ------------------------

1867 - The first known rail line, a narrow-gauge line built in Coal Creek Valley, transports coal from Newcastle to Lake Washington barges.

1873 - The Northern Pacific names Tacoma as the terminus for a transcontinental route; the line reaches Tacoma 10 years later.

1887 - The Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railway begins construction; it reaches Bothell on Thanksgiving.

1890 - The Snoqualmie Depot is built in 60 days. It's now the oldest operating depot in Washington.

1904 - Northern Pacific completes the Lake Washington Beltline, 22 miles connecting Renton, Bellevue, Kirkland and Woodinville.

1909 - The Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific crosses Snoqualmie Pass.

1942 - The Midlakes Station in Bellevue, long used for shipping lettuce, strawberries and other crops, is the departure point for 300 Eastside Japanese Americans sent to internment camps.

1989 - Burlington Northern pulls out of the Upper Snoqualmie Valley.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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