The Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway

Seattle’s First Railroad

In 1873, the Northern Pacific Railway (NP) chose Tacoma (Washington Territory) as the western terminus of its transcontinental railway. The decision followed many years of active campaigning by community leaders in Tacoma, Seattle, and Bellingham. All understood the potential economic boom that could occur at the west end of a transcontinental railroad.

On May 1, 1874, Seattle citizens turned out to start building the Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad, Seattle’s first railroad. Although its purpose was to haul coal from mines to steam ships, the company had grand aspirations of completing the line all the way to Walla Walla.

The line was originally five miles long and ran from Steele’s landing on the Duwamish River to Renton. James Colman, of Colman dock fame, hired workers to extend the line to Newcastle. It would eventually be twenty-one miles long and run between South King County mines and Elliot Bay piers. In the early 1880s the railroad was purchased and renamed the Columbia and Puget Sound Railway.

While the Seattle and Walla Walla had a positive impact on Seattle, it did not accomplish the goal of capturing the bounty of transcontinental commerce. Enter Burke and Gilman.

Some would dispute the proclamation that Seattle & Walla Walla was Seattle’s first railroad. Two years earlier, Seattle Coal and Transportation Company (SC&T) began hauling coal between a dock on Lake Union and coal bunkers on Elliot Bay. Without aspirations of eastern connections, and because it existed at the time the NP chose Tacoma over Seattle, the SC&T was never regarded as the means to punish or discredit the NP, or it’s choice of Tacoma.

Seattle’s first railroad depot, circa 1880, stood near where King Street Station is today. The tracks are those of the Columbia and Puget Sound Railroad. Photo courtesy of the Museum of History and Industry, 1983.10.6284.

Friends in Business

Sharing like-minded business ideas and an interest in community development, Seattleites Thomas Burke and Daniel Gilman set upon a scheme to mine coal and transport it by barge to Puget Sound. While the plan never came to fruition, the idea evolved into a dream that would occupy their lives for years to come: a railroad to put Seattle on the map.

Thomas Burke was a lawyer who moved to Seattle from Michigan in 1874. He was twenty-five years old. Within a few years he had become a probate judge, and by the late 1870s had the reputation of a man determined to make Seattle succeed. Photo courtesy of Museum of History and Industry, SHS12455.

Daniel H. Gilman was a lawyer, and civil war veteran, who moved to Seattle from Maine by way of New York in 1883. Gilman was thirty-eight years old at the time of his arrival in the Pacific Northwest. While he had no real capital of his own, he had “valuable eastern connections” including an acquaintance at the Wall Street Investment house of Jameson, Smith and Cotting. Utilizing these connections would be Gilman’s greatest role in his railroad venture. Photo courtesy of Museum of History and Industry.

Navigable waterways were key to moving both people and product in the early days of Washington Territory. There simply was no way to ship something out of the region if you could not get it to a seaport. As such, Elliot Bay was a bustling place in the 1800s.

Early image of Elliot Bay circa 1895. Note the rail cars mid-photo heading towards the ship. Photo courtesy of Museum of History and Industry, 2002.3.277.

Birth of a Railroad

The Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway Company (SLS and E) was incorporated on April 25, 1885. On that date a group of Seattle citizens ~ a “who’s who” of the city’s founding elite ~ came together to build a railroad. The company’s purposes were,

“To lay out, construct, furnish, and equip a railroad and telegraph line from the City of Seattle . . . by the most practicable and convenient route, in a general Easterly direction, through the Snoqualmie or other available pass in the Cascade range of mountains, to the most convenient and feasible crossing of the Columbia River, and thence by a practicable route to Walla Walla.”

Beyond construction of the railroad main line, the ambitious Articles of Incorporation include branch lines, acquisition of other railroads, steamships and steamboats, bridges and ferries, and adjacent land, and the construction or purchase of “docks, piers, coal bunkers, depots, warehouses, canals, locks, flumes and stages connected with or adjacent to the railroads, steamships and steamboats of this corporation.”

A railroad had the greatest opportunity for success if it also controlled waterways, access to fuel (coal), and operated across its own land and its own piers and end points.

Resources the railroad was hoping to cash in on: coal and gypsum near Squak Lake; coal, iron, and precious metals from Snoqualmie Pass; hops in Snoqualmie Valley; and timber, grazing, and wheat on both sides of the Cascades. In addition to Burke and Gilman, the following associates incorporated the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway Company:

J.R. McDonald, Frank H. Osgood, Thomas T. Minor, John Leary, H. L. Yesler, David Denny, George Kinnear, George M. Haller, Griffith Davies, William Cochrane, and J.W. Currie. The Articles designated McDonald, Burke, Osgood, Minor, and Currie as the first five trustees.

A group of men pose for a photo on a railway flatcar pulled by a SLSandE locomotive. The group includes John Leary, Frank Osgood, and Thomas Minor (compare to list above). Thomas Burke is sixth from the left with crossed arms and the #7 on his leg. Photo courtesy Washington State Historical Society, 1959.85.7.

First Things First: Money

The first step in building a railroad, or any large construction project, is securing capital. This was where the SLSandE would rely on Gilman’s eastern business connections. In late 1885, Gilman went east and spent the next year “in the back alleys of Wall Street” attempting to woo investors.

The next step in building a railroad was choosing a route. Several routes were considered, but the company chose to

“Follow the north shores of Lake Union, Union Bay, and Lake Washington, and the east shore of Squak Lake (Lake Sammamish). It would traverse Snoqualmie Pass, cross the Columbia at Priest Rapids, then proceed south to Wallula Gap before turning east into the Palouse wheat country.” (Armbruster, 123)

Where did the capital come from? The SLSandE sold common stock and gold bonds to finance construction.

An SLSandE construction camp, perhaps Fall City, circa 1889. Photo courtesy of Museum of History and Industry, SHS2582.

Railroad tracks at Snoqualmie Falls, 1889. The Falls are the white patch, seen through trees, towards the lower left corner. The tracks are on the south side of the river, where the PSE power plant is today, opposite the public viewing platform and the Salish Lodge. Photo courtesy of Museum of History and Industry, SHS14055.

Mainline Construction

With initial financing, construction began April 1887. In June the first locomotive arrived from Rhode Island Locomotive Works, and in August 1,000 tons of rail arrived from England’s Moss Bay Steel. By October the first revenue train – a mix of passenger and freight – departed Columbia Street for Union Bay. The railroad was now a reality.

By spring 1888, trains operated daily, and “lumber traffic in particular was brisk.” Operations were based out of the company’s depot, opened in March 1888, at Railroad Ave and Columbia St. Suburban service running to “Gilman’s Addition” was frequent by August of 1888. Despite the so-called brisk business, the railroad was already in financial trouble.

Construction costs were higher than anticipated and operating costs exceeded revenue. Company stocks were not selling well, either. There was demand to expand operations and increase traffic, but the company did not have the equipment. Would-be competitors were a distraction, forcing the SLS&E to devote time and energy to monitoring the activities of other rail companies. By July 1888 Smith, Cotting and Crawford “withdrew from active support;” by August 1888 construction was at a standstill.

Despite all this, suburban traffic increased as did traffic to Snohomish (northern division). Renewed interest by the remaining investors in spring 1889 meant construction resumed. Track reached Snoqualmie Falls by June and the first of many Sunday excursion trains was July 4, 1889. Northern division construction resumed that September.

SLSandE Railway depot, circa 1888. The station was used “for many years afterward” by the Northern Pacific. Photo courtesy of Museum of History and Industry, SHS11262.

Connections: North & East

The SLSandE accepted that a connection with a transcontinental railroad was necessary for success. While originally the goal was to be a transcontinental, with growing financial concerns, the next best thing was connection.

Eastern division construction began in 1887, building west from Spokane Falls towards Seattle. By April 1888 the line had reached Davenport, forty miles from Spokane. This is as far west as the eastern division would ever reach.

SLSandE Railway trestle construction across the Spokane River on the eastern division, mid-1880s. Northwest Railway Museum collection.

SLSandE Railway trestle construction across the Spokane River on the eastern division, mid-1880s. Northwest Railway Museum collection.

SLSandE Spokane Division timetable circa 1892. Northwest Railway Museum collection.

The northern division route diverged from the main line at Woodinville Junction, where it proceeded north to Snohomish. The line had reached Arlington by June 1890, Sedro by November, and Sumas at the Canadian border by April 1891. The line connected to the Canadian Pacific Railway in Sumas and the goal of becoming or connecting to a transcontinental was achieved!

The new success was soon perceived as a threat to the Northern Pacific’s regional dominance, prompting the NP to hatch a plan that would secure control of the SLSandE.

Death, Reorganization, and Absorption

By May 1892, the Northern Pacific Railroad had acquired control of the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern, which ironically was the railroad built to oppose NP’s interests. However, it was quickly apparent that the SLS and E had been looted by its promoters, and was built to such poor standards a massive investment was required to make it viable.

Unfortunately, fraud and mismanagement ~ coupled with the economic depression that hit in 1893 ~ drove the SLS and E into receivership. On May 16, 1896, the company was sold in foreclosure and reorganized as the Seattle and international Railroad. The SLSandE was legally dead. Within five years, the line would again be part of the NP.

The eastern division (Spokane to Davenport) was “granted independent existence as the Spokane & Seattle Railway.”

The Klondike gold rush helped to build business on the Seattle and International as the “panic of 1893” faded and the economy rebounded. Business was improving but nonetheless, on April 1, 1901, the railroad became the Seattle Division of the Northern Pacific. “The exuberant years of home-grown Seattle railroading were over.” (Armbruster)

Though what began as the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern would in fact become part of the large Northern Pacific Railway, the SLSandE did accomplish the goal of putting Seattle on the map. In the end, the little railroad was pursued and eventually absorbed into the NP, the very railroad that had picked Tacoma over Seattle. The winner in all of this was the city of Seattle ~ it got not one but several transcontinental lines ~ and the city would be a center for economic activity in both the region and beyond.

Handbill announcing rail excursion to Snoqualmie Falls, circa 1903. Photo courtesy Washington State Historical Society, 1903.1.33.

The Snoqualmie Depot

You are standing in the men’s waiting room of the Snoqualmie Depot. Built in 1890 by the SLSandE, the Snoqualmie Depot was the finest station on the line and cost $4,200 to build. The building’s extravagance was deliberate ~ the company foresaw Snoqualmie becoming a popular tourist destination.

Snoqualmie Depot, mid-1890s. Northwest Railway Museum collection.

The depot was built in the Queen Anne style of architecture, which featured decorative elements and asymmetry. The most outstanding architectural feature is the semicircular north end, where the men’s waiting room was located (and where you are standing today). The women’s waiting room is on the opposite side of the ticket office, where families and single women waited for the train. Victorian values dictated that single men and single women should not spend time together in uncontrolled, unchaperoned situations.

The interior of all rooms except the freight room were walled with stained, clear, fir 1” x 3” tongue-and-groove. The floors are also fir. Upper sashes in the waiting rooms have stained glass. Two small rooms adjacent to the women’s waiting room were for baggage and storage. The freight room handled merchandise and less-than-carload shipments. A wide loading platform on the eastern half of the depot facilitated transfer of freight to and from the depot into both rail cars and wagons.

A bay window facing the tracks marks the ticket office. It extends up through the roof and forms an octagonal cupola two stories in height. Two sash windows with semicircular upper sashes appear on the five faces of the cupola. The cupola roof is decorated with fancy butt shingles and capped with a finial.

The depot is the oldest continuously operating train station in Washington State, and was used by the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway, Seattle and International Railway, Northern Pacific Railway, and Burlington Northern Railroad until the 1970s. In 1977, the Burlington Northern donated the depot and 3.5 miles of track to the Northwest Railway Museum.

Snoqualmie Depot looking east, mid-1890s. Northwest Railway Museum collection.

Snoqualmie Depot with steam locomotive, mid-1970s. Note that the cupola has been removed. The cupola was replaced during the Depot restoration project in 1979. Northwest Railway Museum collection.