The Railroad Built the Pacific Northwest

Railroads touched the lives of all people.

Whether it was the food people ate, the products they bought for their home, or the mail they received – all of these things were at one time shipped by rail.

Railroads move people. Whether it was for settlement, leisure travel, or commuting to work – railroads made the movement of people faster and more efficient.

Long ago, everything shipped into or out of town would have come through the Snoqualmie Depot (circa 1900). Northwest Railway Museum

Tourists visit Cedar Falls, WA circa 1910. George Longworth Collection, Northwest Railway Museum


In the mid-1800s, the Pacific Northwest was covered with dense forests full of desirable timber, the kind not only perfect for building but also the kind perfect for ships spars. Captain George Vancouver’s expedition noted this on their voyage in the area in the 1790s:

“The land was everywhere covered with trees.” Thomas Manby

Before railroads, logging was limited by access to water, a river or lake where logs could be floated to a saw mill. Animals such as oxen were used to pull cut logs out of the woods but the animals were limited in what they could haul. Much of the trees were old growth timber – these were not small trees that were being cut down and hauled out of the woods!

When the steam engine was introduced to the industry, it revolutionized logging.  The steam donkey combined with the spar tree to allow hillside logging.  Steam locomotives and the railroad allowed logs to be hauled from mountain valleys to mills.  The industry of logging exploded, growing exponentially with steam power.

Oxen logging at Snoqualmie Mill slough, 1891. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection, PO-40-264

Log train with Mt Si in the background. Museum of History and Industry, 1983.10.6916.

Seemingly overnight, logging was big business in the Pacific Northwest. The industry remains an important part of the Washington State economy, although today the focus is on renewable and responsible forestry practices. But in the late 1880s, the  goal was measured in board feet – finding the biggest, best trees to send to the saw mill.

It was common to see log trains that seemed to stretch for miles behind the locomotive. Logging was as big in the Snoqualmie Valley as it was elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The Snoqualmie Falls Lumber Company (later Weyerhaeuser), located on the north side of the Snoqualmie River, was a settlement in its own right: there was housing, a hospital, post office, and a general store. Anything an employee could want was readily available to them within the settlement of Snoqualmie Falls (the name of the mill town). It wasn’t until 1958 that the company town was absorbed into the larger town of Snoqualmie.

“By 1937, 9 billion board feet of lumber was produced and shipped from the Northwest annually.” Rising Tides and Tailwinds

Loading a 9.5 ft diameter fir log, Darius Kinsey photo, 1899. (Note the man in the background for scale.) Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection, PO-178-91

Columbia River logging, Clark Kinsey photo, 1897. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection, PO-381-13



The Pacific Northwest has ideal farming land – the rich soil and sheer abundance of land was attractive to many of the first settlers who came West in the 1800s. These settlers may have been farmers elsewhere in the country or the world. Although population was beginning to shift to the cities, farming continued to dominate and immigration into the West was led in large part by farmers in search of land to call their own.

Not only were people growing food, they were growing crops such as hops, a key ingredient in beer. Washington hops, now mostly grown in Eastern Washington, are still a major crop for the state and are shipped all over the world. In the late 1800s, hops were grown in the Kent and Snoqualmie Valleys. The crop was labor intensive to harvest because each bud had to be individually picked off the vine so large numbers of harvesters or “hop-pickers” were needed – possibly the first example of migrant labor in the state. Selling this product relied on the railroad, which offered shipment into Seattle or Tacoma and beyond.

Before the railroad, a rural farmer grew only the crops he could consume himself, with a little extra to barter or sell to his neighbors. Large scale farming wasn’t practical until there was a swift way of getting crops to market.

Enter the railroad. A dairy farmer in Snoqualmie Valley could sell milk to communities well beyond Snoqualmie because the milk could be shipped all the way to Seattle – or the Carnation milk condenser in Monroe – in a number of hours. Seattleites could enjoy fresh milk from cows grazing on Meadowbrook Farm by the end of business day the same day the cow was milked.

Harvesting wheat, Snoqualmie Valley. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection, PO-766-41

Postcard: Montana grains, Great Northern Railway exhibition rooms. Northwest Railway Museum Collection

Railroads changed the foods that Americans ate. Before railroads, people primarily ate food that was available in their immediate communities. This meant fresh food that was in season and dry goods bought at a general store (if there was one). Once railroads arrived, especially transcontinental railroads, food could be shipped long distances and suddenly Americans were eating oranges from California in the middle of winter. We were no longer bound by season but were able to enjoy a variety of foods whenever the time of year.

“The refrigerator car formed a link between the farm and the marketplace.” John H. White

Northwest Railway Museum Collection

Goods & Coal

Manufactured Goods and the General Store

In any community, the general store played a vital role. General stores were the Fred Meyer, or box store, of their day – almost anything and everything was available: fresh food, dry goods, clothing, home goods, gardening implements, seeds, firearms, furniture, books, candy, nails and construction materials, tobacco, and alcohol.

How did the railroad help the general store? Besides quicker access to goods, the railroad allowed a greater variety, thereby expanding the merchandise available to the customer. This could only help the success of the business owner. Beyond that, customers could order specialty items out of catalogues and the items, no matter the size, would arrive at the local depot for pickup. So if you wanted to buy a new stove, you would order it by mail or telegram (either of which was available at the local depot) and it would be shipped by rail to the depot closest to your home where it would wait for you in the freight room for you to claim it.

Manufactured goods available in the Pacific Northwest in the late 1800s were shipped from factories in the east.

“Railroads helped create a new class of consumer items. Specialty goods and luxuries, once limited to small local markets, now could be moved almost  anywhere in the states, creating almost instant fads and trends.” The Story of Americas Railroads

Inside of Otto Reinig’s store, Snoqualmie. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection, PO-178-135

Great Northern postcard: Horseshoe Curve. Northwest Railway Museum Collection


In the late 19th Century, coal was king, and coal reserves represented the primary source of fuel for steam locomotives, steamships, home and business heating, and more.  Coal mines operated in Renton, Newcastle, Issaquah, Wilkeson, and Carbondale, but also at Roslyn, Ronald, and Cle Elum in eastern Washington. A seam of rather poor coal was mined in Snoqualmie beginning in the 1890s, but was processed into coke for use in steel production.

The first local railroad was the Seattle and Walla Walla (1873), incorporated to transport coal from the mines to the Seattle docks (for use in steamer ships, heating for home or business, and to ship to San Francisco).

1966.999.0168, Courtesy of the Renton History Museum, Renton, Washington


“More than anything else, colonization was the great railroad contribution to the far West.” George H. Douglas, All Aboard! The Railroad in American Life, 1996

During the late 1800s, hundreds of thousands of people moved west by way of train. Before railroads, people emigrated west over the Oregon Trail, a sometimes dangerous, always precarious journey of four to six months. An estimated 350,000 people moved west between the years of 1841 and 1866.

Once transcontinental railroads began operating, the journey could take a mere one to two weeks. In this way railroads were like time machines: compressing travel from months to weeks, from weeks to days, and from days to hours. A local example is the journey between Seattle and Snoqualmie. Once taking days to complete, a journey on the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway took a couple of hours.

William Mueller cabin, Snoqualmie Valley. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection, PO-332-19

Washington State historical population data:

Year Population Notes
1850 1,201
1860 11,594 1st transcontinental railroad completed in 1869.
1870 23,955
1880 75,116 Northern Pacific completed 1883 – northern transcontinental
1890 357,232 Great Northern Railway completed 1893
1900 518,103 Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound Railway [Milwaukee Road] completed in 1909

United States Census Bureau

“Where virgin timber had recently stood, the suburban town sites flourished with the advent of the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern [Railway].” Kurt Armbruster, Orphan Road: The Railway Comes to Seattle, 1853-1911, 1999

Across the United States, the railroad allowed people to live outside the densely populated urban centers but still work within those cities. In Seattle, some of the original suburbs included Fremont, Ballard, and Latona. The Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway offered passenger service along its line. Its “suburban district” route was: Fremont – Edgewater – Latona – Brooklyn (now University District) – Ravenna – Yestler Junction [end of the suburban district]. By the mid-1890s, electric trolleys had also reached many of Seattle’s suburbs and trolleys “drew off much of the steam [rail]road’s” business. (Armbruster)

“More than any other single agency, the railroad gave rise to what is now known as suburbia – both the place and the new way of life.” George H. Douglas, All Aboard! The Railroad in American Life, 1996

Whether trolley or train, the railroad allowed residents to commute to work in downtown Seattle. Beyond that, people could go shopping in town, enjoy a day of fun at The Meadows horse races in Georgetown, or any number of other activities all by way of rail and within a short amount of time. Leisure activities in and outside of the city became accessible to the average citizen thanks to the railroad.

Perhaps most importantly, people could travel in comfort. Before railroads people walked, traveled by horse & carriage (or cart), or by boat. Any of these three choices lacked the basic comforts we are now used to. Walking was time consuming and miserable in rainy weather before the construction of wooden or concrete sidewalks (mud!). Traveling by horse-drawn means provided a bouncy, bumpy, jostling ride that was also miserable in poor weather. Boating was wet as well as dangerous. In contrast, street cars and train cars provided a smooth, clean ride between point A and B. Travel would never be the same!

Northern Pacific luggage tag. Northwest Railway Museum Collection

Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive


Tourism benefitted greatly from the invention and arrival of the railroad. In some instances, vacation resorts were created by the railroad, utilizing naturally scenic areas along their routes. The Northern Pacific had Yellowstone National Park, the Great Northern had Glacier National Park, the Santa Fe had the Grand Canyon, and the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern had Snoqualmie Falls.

“[Railroads] made it possible for the ordinary American to take his rest at the seashore, at some cool lake, in the mountains – or at any place of some remove from the rapidly growing cities.” All Aboard

Snoqualmie Falls was a tourist destination promoted by the railroad. July 4, 1889 marked the first time a group of tourists arrived by train at the Falls. Sunday excursions to Snoqualmie Falls were a regular event and even at the “stiff fare of $2 a head, they became all the rage.” Armbruster

The town of Snoqualmie was originally platted as a railroad resort.  The original plan showed broad parks, a ferry and hotels.  The men in charge of the Snoqualmie Land Improvement Company were the same men building the railroad.

Photographers at Snoqualmie Falls, July 1899. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection.

University of Washington, Special Collections, UW35809

Elsewhere in the area, scenic rides around Seattle to Woodland Park boasted of “seeing Seattle by car,” in this case an electric railway car operated by the Seattle Electric Railway Co. Or passengers could be shuttled from downtown Seattle to horse races at The Meadows in Georgetown by way of railroad cattle cars.

Or passengers could be shuttled from downtown Seattle to horse races at The Meadows in Georgetown by way of railroad cattle cars.

Passengers rode in cattle cars to watch horse racing at The Meadows track in what is now Georgetown. Museum of History and Industry, SHS6955

The Meadows horse racing in Georgetown. Museum of History and Industry, SHS10632