Railroad allowed towns on Puget Sound to prosper | Taking Stock

By Tim Raetzloff | Jul 12, 2017

My good friend Karla Bowman recently gave me a book by Brian Solomon called “North American Railroad Family Trees.” Between that new book and “Orphan Road” by Kurt Armbruster, which I have owned for many years, I have reviewed the railroad history of our region.

A railroad never made it to Mill Creek, but Edmonds and Mukilteo both had depots on the Great Northern Railway. The Great Northern, which reached Puget Sound via Stevens Pass, had built a railroad that connected the Sound with the rest of the country.

The importance of that connection cannot be overstated. Trees cut between Edmonds and Mukilteo were shipped to Chicago to build the Washington Pavilion at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Those logs went by railroad. Just a few years before that wouldn’t have been possible. If Washington had built a pavilion, those logs would have traveled by ship, at least as far as San Francisco Bay, and then by train from there. Or, maybe the logs would have been shipped around Cape Horn to the East Coast, and then sent to Chicago by train from there.

The coming of the railroad made travel to and from the rest of the country much easier. It also made it possible to ship products, in those days mostly logs and lumber, to the markets in the Midwest and East. It also made it possible for Eastern investors to come have a look at a region in which they were considering putting their money.

Until the coming of the railroad, Puget Sound was a long way from supplies and markets and capital. The railroad opened a more convenient trade route. That is not to say that the railroad was a panacea. When a community had only one railroad, the cost could be high, or really whatever the railroad demanded.

Fortunately for our communities, Seattle was nearby. Seattle eventually became the terminus for four transcontinental railroads. A shipment could be sent to Seattle and forwarded from there. Even after generations of railroad consolidation, Seattle is still the western terminus of two transcontinental railroads.

The Great Northern Railway no longer exists. Forty-seven years ago, it was merged into Burlington Northern and now, after a merger with Santa Fe, it’s the BNSF, a national railroad network headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. Today, railroads aren’t the be-all and end-all that they once were, as they now compete with highways and air travel.

Part of the success of the economy of South Snohomish County depended on the fortunate nearness of Seattle. As a booster of Snohomish County, I hate to say that; but, as a bit of an historian, I must acknowledge the truth of the situation.

Railroads today aren’t any community’s live-or-die opportunity. Now, we often complain about the inconvenience of a railroad on our waterfront, but there was a time when it was the railroads that enabled a community to survive. That’s certainly true for our towns around Puget Sound.

 

Tim Raetzloff operates Abarim Business Computers at Harbor Square in Edmonds. What he writes combines his sense of history and his sense of numbers. Neither he nor Abarim have an investment in any of the companies mentioned in this column.

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