The Seattle Spirit? Towns the railroad bypassed | History Files

By Tim Raetzloff | Sep 11, 2019

I grew up in Seattle.

Washington state history was in the curriculum one year; another year included U.S. history. One year in elementary school, we were taught Seattle history. But “indoctrinated” might be a better word.

I remember that we were taught Seattle grew to be the “Queen City of the Northwest” because of the “Seattle Spirit,” as exemplified by the fact that Seattle built a railroad when the Northern Pacific Railway bypassed Seattle and chose Tacoma as its western terminus.

I have a friend my age who grew up in Tacoma, where he was taught Tacoma history. He remembers being taught that Seattle exceeded Tacoma because of the perfidious railroad that extended to Seattle after it promised the western terminus to Tacoma.

The railroad is in both stories, but it is not quite the same story.

In truth, Seattle did build a railroad. Actually Seattle built two. Neither succeeded in reaching far enough to connect to a transcontinental railroad other than the Northern Pacific.

The Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad never got to Walla Walla. It did reach about three miles beyond Black Diamond, and survived under various owners and names for nearly 100 years. The Black Diamond Museum is located in a depot of that railroad.

The Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern Railroad got to a point about four miles east of North Bend. I remember seeing a train on its tracks as a child in about 1953 near the University of Washington.

It is best known now as the Burke-Gilman Trail. And a part of it survives in railroad service at the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie. The Snoqualmie depot survives, as does the Snoqualmie Falls depot, and the Issaquah depot.

I have been told that the Fremont depot survives, but I don’t know where to look for it. I tried for a couple of hours on my birthday, but failed to find it.

The Northern Pacific Railway wasn’t actually as perfidious as my friend was taught in Tacoma. True, they did make Tacoma their western terminus. True, they did ultimately extend its lines to Seattle. But the practical matter is that they were trying to make a profit.

If Seattle succeeded in connecting to a rival, traffic and money would flow that direction instead, and Seattle was a big enough market to generate revenues for the railroad.

I have written a bit about this story before, but I was reminded of it when I visited Bellingham recently. It turns out that the “Seattle Spirit” wasn’t unique to Seattle. Bellingham also built railroads when it was bypassed. One railroad went north to connect to the Canadian Pacific. One went southeast to connect to the Seattle Lake shore & Eastern, and ultimately to the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern Railway.

So Bellingham exercised the same enterprising spirit as Seattle, but the result was different – Seattle has about 10 times the population of Bellingham, and is a world leader in commerce.

Bellingham emulated Seattle in another way. It regraded its downtown area to make it business friendly. It wasn’t as extensive a regrade as in Seattle, but it did take place. So Bellingham, which is just about as old as Seattle, did all of the same things as Seattle, but didn’t get the same results.

As a business historian, this is an important fact. How can “success” be replicated? Can it be replicated? Is it simply a matter of chance?

In the case of Bellingham, it appears it was the matter of another railroad. The Great Northern Railway completed its transcontinental railroad in January 1893.The last spike was driven about a mile east of Alpine, Washington.

The Great Northern is the railroad that used to run through Edmonds and Mukilteo. Its successor, BNSF, still does. The Great Northern reached salt water at Everett. The commercial interests in Everett hoped it would be the western terminus, but the railroad was built south through Mukilteo, Edmonds, Richmond, and Ballard to Seattle.

Hopes in Everett were somewhat dashed, but hopes in Bellingham were completely destroyed. The railroad did build a spur north through Bellingham, but it was clear that Bellingham would never be the terminus.

Seattle was ultimately the terminus of four transcontinental railroads. That and a “ton of gold” certainly contributed to Seattle’s ascent among its rivals.

I don’t know that Bellingham ever had the resources to make up a local history curriculum like Seattle and Tacoma, but it would certainly have included a dirge about the loss of the railroad.

Some in Bellingham do make one claim about their local railroad, though. Taimi Dunn Gorman, in her book “Haunted Fairhaven,” says that on Dec. 21 each year you can hear the whistle of a doomed train that left Fairhaven southbound but never reached its destination because of a bridge that collapsed under it.

The train and its crew were lost. I have never been in Fairhaven on Dec. 21, and I have not heard the whistle, but it is a suitable story for the sad memories of the towns that were bypassed by the railroad.


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