Railroad Development in the Seattle/Puget Sound Region, 1872-1906

  • By Heather M. MacIntosh and Walt Crowley
  • Posted 9/22/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1683

The history of railroading in Seattle closely parallels the city's development and early hopes for its future. Like communication networks today, railroading in the nineteenth century represented more than steel tracks and trade. The romantic and practical potential of the rails wooed communities, especially those in the West, much as Web commerce and Internet startups entrance and confound us today. Such was the story of early railroad development in Seattle, King County, and the Puget Sound region.

Before the Rails

Like most other would-be metropolises in the frontier West, Seattle looked to a transcontinental rail connection to secure its future prosperity. The village's founders may have felt this need even more keenly than those of neighboring towns for they had settled on the western shore of Elliott Bay in the spring of 1852 with the avowed aim not merely to exploit the area's abundant natural resources but to build a great and permanent city.

Travel between America's coasts then took months, whether overland by wagon or by sailing ship or steamer via Cape Horn. The idea of reducing this time to weeks or even days via a transcontinental railroad terminating at Puget Sound was first advanced in 1845 by Asa Whitney (1791-1874), a New York trader with extensive dealings in "the Orient." His proposal was doubly audacious, for America's handful of primitive railroads were not 15 years old and Puget Sound had only just been charted by U.S. Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) in 1841.

Whitney petitioned Congress to charter and finance a line between Lake Superior and Puget Sound. He promoted the route with evangelical zeal, for "Nature's God had made this for the grand highway to Civilize and Christianize all mankind." Congress was slow to see the light. It did adopt Whitney's idea of spurring private railroad investors by giving them generous "land grants" along both sides of the proposed rail bed. The land was free, after all, since it had been wrested by force or treaty from the original Native owners.

The federal government did not dispatch Army surveyors to explore possible routes to the Pacific Northwest until the early 1850s. One such expedition was led by Isaac Stevens (1818-1862), destined to become the first governor of Washington Territory in 1853. Congress finally chartered the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1864, as the Civil War neared its bloody climax, and awarded land grants totaling 60 million acres in checkerboard sections along a 40- to 80-mile-wide strip flanking the planned route from Minnesota to Puget Sound.

Development of a northern railroad took a back seat to political and economic pressures elsewhere, and the honor of completing the nation's first transcontinental railroad fell to the California-bound Union Pacific in 1869. The following year, financier Jay Cooke (1821-1905) pledged his fortune to building the Northern Pacific. Crews at opposite ends of the future road began laying track nearly simultaneously. One aimed west from Duluth and the other faced east from Kalama, Washington Territory, on the Columbia River.

The question of where on Puget Sound the line would ultimately end was intentionally left open, and the region's fledgling cities began competing furiously for the good fortune of a major railroad terminus.

Tacoma's Gain is Seattle's Pain

In 1870, as construction of the Northern Pacific began, Seattle numbered fewer than 1,200 souls. Washington Territory's largest city and capital, Olympia, seemed the leading candidate for the Northern Pacific's Puget Sound terminus. This did not prevent other towns from making their own bids. They knew that their youth -- and the promise of unencumbered access to cheap land and water -- evened the odds against older, more established cities.

In 1872, Seattle offered Northern Pacific 7,500 town lots, 3,000 acres, $50,000 in cash, $200,000 in bonds, and a 30-foot-wide strip along its waterfront. It was enough to move it to the finals, along with Mukilteo and Tacoma. Tacoma was then barely a village on the shore of Commencement Bay.

After wining and dining an inspection team of railroad commissioners, Seattle was certain that it would win their nod. Therefore, a large and expectant crowed gathered at Yesler's Mill on July 14, 1873, to hear Arthur A. Denny (1822-1899), leader of Seattle's original party of settlers, read the telegram announcing the railroad's decision. One can only imagine the sound of mass inhalation when Denny recited its terse message: "We have located the terminus on Commencement Bay."

It took Seattle a few days to regain its breath, and its confidence. It resolved to build its own transcontinental railroad, or at least one that crossed Snoqualmie Pass to link Seattle with the farmlands of Eastern Washington. Meanwhile, any gloating in the self-anointed "City of Destiny" to the south was cut short on September 18, 1873, when Jay Cooke's fortune evaporated in a national economic panic. The Northern Pacific literally stopped dead in its tracks (and direct transcontinental service would not commence for another decade).

Undaunted, Seattle's population reached into its wallets (and into those of some East Coast investors), rolled up its sleeves, and tapped what became know as the "Seattle Spirit." Much of the town turned out on May 1, 1874, to begin laying the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad's first tracks at Steele's Landing on the mouth of the Duwamish River. The work proved to be no picnic, but the line was slowly pushed south five miles to the new coal mines in Renton.

James M. Colman (1832-1906), of Colman Dock fame, then took charge and hired Chin Gee Hee and his crew of immigrant Chinese workers to extend the line to Newcastle. Although the Seattle & Walla Walla never got close to the city in its last name, the final 21-mile line earned quick profits hauling coal from the South King County mines to Elliott Bay piers and helped to establish Seattle as the economic center of Puget Sound.

Henry Villard (1835-1900), whose Oregon and Eastern Washington railroads and steamship lines were filling the void left by the Northern Pacific's paralysis, was quick to note Seattle's successes. He bought the Seattle & Walla Walla (and its generous waterfront franchise) in 1880, reorganized it as the Columbia & Puget Sound Railroad, and erected the town's first train depot, little more than a shed, not far from where Union Station would rise 20 years later.

Seattle rejoiced when Henry Villard quietly bought up Northern Pacific's languishing shares through his famous "Blind Trust" in 1881, and again when he pounded in the railroad's final spike at Gold Creek, Montana, on September 8, 1883. Villard visited Seattle six days later, aboard the Queen of the Pacific, and promised a jubilent throng that they would finally gain their long awaited transcontinental link.

True to his word, Villard built a spur northward from Tacoma that joined the existing Columbia & Puget Sound line at "Stuck Junction" in present-day Auburn. The name proved prophetic for Villard temporarily lost control of the Northern Pacific on January 4, 1884, and his successors vowed that "a locomotive would never turn a wheel into Seattle."

"The Seattle Spirit" Rides Again

For the second time in a decade, Seattle saw a transcontinental railroad connection snatched from its grasp, and for the second time, the town's leaders resolved to build their own. On April 15, 1885, Judge Thomas Burke (1849-1925) and financier Daniel Gilman (1845-1913) incorporated the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad to build a new line north from Seattle's harbor to Ballard.

The city granted them a 120-foot-wide right of way along the waterfront and west of the old Seattle & Walla Walla strip now owned by Northern Pacific. Piers were sunk and planks laid to create a second waterfront along "Railroad Avenue" (since filled in to create Alaskan Way). The railroad later laid track westward from Spokane and planned to push north from Seattle to link with the Canadian Pacific Railroad at Sumas, a move that Northern Pacific tried everything in its power to thwart.

Worries about competition from the little Seattle upstart railroad motivated Northern Pacific's decision in 1883 to build its "Cascade Branch," a diagonal shortcut from the Columbia to Tacoma via Stampede Pass. Much of the work was performed by immigrant Chinese workers, whose industry and diligence won initial praise. But when the economy soured in 1885, many white workers directed their anger at these strangers in their midst.

The Knights of Labor and early labor unions complained in vain about the low wages and poor working conditions that immigrants were willing to tolerate. Mobs attacked and expelled Chinese from several cities along the West Coast during the winter of 1885. Violence erupted in Seattle on February 7 and 8, 1886, and despite the intervention of Judge Burke and other civic leaders, most of the town's Chinese nationals were herded onto a ship bound for San Francisco. Despite harsh state and federal laws limiting the immigration of Chinese nationals and barring their ownership of property, the Chinese community slowly rebuilt itself over the next 20 years and developed a thriving commercial district within blocks of the city's new railroad stations.

A different kind of calamity struck Seattle on June 6, 1889, when a cabinet maker's glue pot boiled over and ignited a blaze that consumed most of the city's wood-frame downtown. Again the community rallied. New buildings -- built of brick and stone this time -- quickly rose from the ruins to create today's Pioneer Square district.

By the time of the Great Fire, Henry Villard had regained control of Northern Pacific, and he introduced direct transcontinental service to Seattle, no longer mandating a change of trains at Tacoma. At the time, the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern was scrambing for new capital, and Villard quietly bought up its stock and bonds from Eastern investors. In 1892, the Northern Pacific built the city a modest passenger station on Railroad Avenue between Madison and Columbia streets.

The Empire Builder Meets His Match

The Northern Pacific's acquisition of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern was motivated in large part by fear of two other entrants into the arena of Northwest railroading: the Union Pacific, with which Villard had tried to form a regional alliance, and the new St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba -- later known as the Great Northern Railway.

The latter was led by James Jerome Hill (1838-1916), a small man of prodigious intelligence and energy, who in 1887 began to push his new transcontinental line westward across Montana and Idaho. The audacious "Empire Builder" financed his railroad without benefit of federal land grants in part by promoting homesteading and real estate development along his line (with sometimes tragic results, as described in Jonathan Raban's Bad Land).

Hill kept his eye focused on Puget Sound and on the Pacific beyond. In 1889, he bought the short Fairhaven & Southern Railroad on Bellingham Bay. At the same time, he set off a new bidding war among Puget Sound cities to win the honor of serving as the Great Northern's ultimate terminal.

Fortunately for Seattle, in 1890 Hill hired Judge Burke as his local counsel. Burke lured Hill to the city with an unused portion of the old Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern's waterfront right of way on Railroad Avenue and other emoluments. Unfortunately, neither Hill nor Burke had foreseen an immovable obstacle in the Great Northern's path: Seattle City Engineer Reginald Heber Thomson (1856-1949).

Despite howls from the press and business community that he was betraying his city, Thomson resolutely opposed adding yet another railroad along the city's already congested waterfront. Hill temporarily made do with a terminal at Smith Cove, north of the harbor, where his first trains arrived on June 20, 1893. At that time, "The Empire Builder" met personally with Thomson, who told him that he should join forces with Northern Pacific and tunnel beneath the downtown and develop his main terminal south of Pioneer Square. Hill saw the wisdom of this scheme, but replied that his finances would not allow him to pursue it immediately.

It was just as well, for the bottom fell out of the national economy later that year. Hill survived, but the Northern Pacific and Union Pacific were bankrupted and Seattle plunged into a depression that did not ease until the onset of the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897.

As prosperity returned locally and nationally that year, E. H. Harriman (1848-1909) purchased the moribund Union Pacific. Four years later, James H. Hill took control of the Northern Pacific. The two titans fought a seesaw battle for dominance in the Northwest and Hill seemed to be gaining the upper hand until 1904, when his giant Northern Securities holding company was broken up by enforcement of the new Sherman Anti-Trust Act. He took it in stride and still managed to guide both the Great Northern and Northern Pacific by other means.

Meanwhile in 1903, Hill began digging the tunnel beneath downtown Seattle that R. H. Thomson had proposed a decade earlier. Workers joked that it was the world's longest because it ran from "Virginia to Washington" -- streets, that is, not states.

While agreeing to the tunnel, Hill initially balked at demands that he build Seattle a worthy railroad station. "It is more important to Seattle to have goods delivered to it cheaply," he replied, "than to have a fancy depot." He thought the old Northern Pacific shed on Railroad Avenue was quite adequate. Ultimately, Hill lost this argument too.

The tunnel was completed in 1906 and its southern portal opened onto the Great Northern and Northern Pacific's new "Union Depot" -- now King Street Station. Not to be outdone, the Union Pacific's subsidiary Oregon-Washington Railroad soon announced plans for its own grand terminal. Open in May 1911, it also began serving passengers traveling on the Milwaukee Road, the last major railroad to enter the Northwest, and became known as Union Station.

Thirty-eight years after Arthur Denny read that first discouraging telegram from Northern Pacific, Seattle could boast of four direct transcontinental railroads and two elegant passenger stations.


Carlos Schwantes, Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993), 50, 52-53, 132-136, 226; Clarence Bagley, History of King County Washington (Chicago-Seattle: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1929), 243, 245; Robert C. Nesbit, He Built Seattle: A Biography of Judge Thomas Burke (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1961), 35, 236; Reginald H. Thomson, That Man Thomson (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1950), 49-56.

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