The railroad in our backyard | History Files

By Tim Raetzloff | Aug 06, 2018

A lot of people know I’m interested in railroads and railroad history.

I have been given two railroad books in the last couple of weeks. “Great Northern Pictorial: Volume 3,” by John Strauss Jr., is full of vintage photos of the Great Northern Railway that ran along Puget Sound through Edmonds and Mukilteo.

It is an enjoyable book for railfans.

The second is “Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America,” by Richard White. A label affixed to the cover says it is a Pulitzer Prize finalist. This is heavier reading and less fun for railroad enthusiasts, but informative for the impact that railroads had on the immigration and profound change that destroyed the "Old West."

In “Dances With Wolves,” Kevin Costner attempted to bring sympathy to the ruin of the life of the Plains Indians. But the movie virtually ignores the affect of the railroad in hemming in the people of the Plains, and the "civilizing" of the continent.

The change came to the native people and to the early settlers of the West. Of course, we – the recipients of that change – generally like the "civilizing" effect that enables our daily lives.

“Railroaded” points out that railroads were not necessarily a means of connecting people, but rather a means of making a profit from a willing Congress. The Great Northern Railway that built its way along Puget Sound was privately financed.

The railroads that reached the Pacific Ocean before the Great Northern were financed by government bonds and gifts of massive tracts of real estate.

The checkerboard pattern of railroad ownership can still be seen in some places in the country. Every other section of land in a township would be rewarded to the railroads. A section is one mile square. A township is six miles square, and 36 sections are in a township.

The township concept is generally credited to Thomas Jefferson, and goes back to the Land ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest ordinance of 1787. Passed by the Continental Congress, both laws predate the U.S. Constitution.

All of our surveys in Washington are based on a marker in Willamette Stone State Park, a few miles west of downtown Portland. Most of Edmonds is in Township 27N, Range 3E, Willamette Meridian.

In Washington, one of the notable places where the checkerboard pattern is easily visible is the Muckleshoot Reservation along Highway 164, between Auburn and Enumclaw. The government could only give the Muckleshoot people land that it hadn't already given to the railroad. In some cases, according to White, land was given to native people, but taken back to give the appropriate railroad its checkerboard allotment.

Subsidized railroads never reached Edmonds and Mukilteo, but two of them ultimately reached Seattle. The Northern Pacific and Union Pacific ultimately made a terminus in Seattle. The Northern Pacific was first, after it had originally intended to go only as far as Tacoma, where it owned land and controlled the town.

Kurt E. Armbruster wrote in “Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle, 1853-1911” about the often tumultuous relationship of Seattle to the Northern Pacific. The Great Northern, which built through Everett, Mukilteo and Edmonds, arrived in Seattle 20 years after the Northern Pacific originally arrived in Tacoma.

The Union Pacific and Milwaukee road both built a terminus in Seattle. All four railroads had completed the process by 1911, just in time for the advent of automobiles and highways.

The scandals of railroad financing were mostly history by the time a railroad reached our towns on Puget Sound, but they had propped up and demolished many careers in business and government along the way, creating and destroying towns all over the West.

 

 

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