Great Northern Railway in Edmonds | History Files

Apr 13, 2018

Today, the BNSF Railroad runs a single track through downtown Edmonds. North of Main Street, there are two tracks and south of Dayton the railroad has a couple of service tracks, but between Main and Dayton streets is a single track.

It wasn't always so.

The predecessor railroad, Great Northern Railway, had more tracks. My search for photos for the 2019 calendar of the Edmonds Historic Preservation Commission has turned up interesting views of Edmonds as it once was.

For many years, Great Northern ran two mainline tracks through Edmonds. Then, there were also passing tracks and loading tracks for the mills that lined the waterfront. A spur split off north of Dayton and ran to the south into what is now Harbor Square.

It was an industrial waterfront: mills, creosote pilings and piers, steam engines running the trains, and steam boilers running the mills. It was an industrial area of major magnitude – noisy, dirty and a far cry from the genteel waterfront we now enjoy.

There were no view restaurants, marinas, walking trails or bird sanctuaries. In fact, the birds undoubtedly suffered severely, as their marsh was constantly drained and filled. Where my repair shop is now located was once part of a much bigger marsh than exists today.

The other animals have nearly disappeared. Bear and cougar are gone. A few deer continue to survive in southwest Edmonds and Woodway. Raccoon, possum and coyote still somehow survive in residential neighborhoods. The big trees are gone too, milled and shipped by railroad or schooner.

The railroad didn't make all of this change possible, but it greatly contributed to the change. The arrival of the Great Northern Railway was a momentous event for Edmonds and its survival.

Today we are often trying to restore habitat and mitigate damage done by previous generations. Complaints about the railroad are common, but when this was an industrial town the railroad was a key part of the economic well-being, and even survival, of Edmonds.

I am sure that previous generations of Edmonds residents wouldn't understand us now. They would want to bring back the rails that have been removed.

I have no desire to go back to the industrial town that once was Edmonds, but I have no desire to tear out what remains of the railroad. The railroad still contributes to the economic vitality of the region, and we are a part of that region. We no longer depend on mills and shipments of milled timber, but we do depend on the products and commerce that move through our city.

I have visited the ghost towns of the Cascades and the foothills. I am confident that nature could reclaim all of this in a century or so. I have seen that at Alpine, Wellington Bordeaux, and Franklin.

It is easy to walk those sites and be unaware that an industrial town once occupied the location. In Edmonds, we have the benefit that the industrial impact is mostly gone, but the heritage it gave us nurtured the town into a city.


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