Friday, August 25, 2017

The Day Seattle Built a Railroad

The Transcontinental Railroad shaped the course of many a state’s history. The towns it passed through experienced building booms, population booms, business booms, at least in the short term. The towns it bypassed in some cases shriveled up and died. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Seattle reacted badly when its leaders learned that the Northern Pacific Railway had chosen Tacoma to the south as its terminus on Puget Sound. 

Arthur Denny read the telegram aloud from the city center to an eager crowd expecting good news. When they heard the decision was for Tacoma, cries echoed against the single-story buildings. The newspapers decried such an unfair decision. Seattle had the better harbor. Seattle had the Territorial University. How could the jewel of the Sound have been overlooked? Right then and there, the city fathers vowed they would not suffer silently.

They’d build their own railroad.

The plan was ambitious. They would lay trestle across the bay and out to the coal fields being developed on the other side of Lake Washington. From there, they would push the tracks up into the mountains, crossing what is now Snoqualmie Pass but what was then no more than sparsely traveled trail, to wend across the eastern half of the territory to Walla Walla. Think of it. The timber, salmon, and coal from Seattle heading to the burgeoning agricultural depot of the state, a major supply center for the gold mines in Idaho. Their fortunes were made.

It didn’t matter that they lacked any expertise in laying track or building the structures needed to span bays, rivers, and mountains. Within a week they had elected commissioners for the Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad and filed articles of incorporation. It didn’t matter that they lacked funding. They issued $10 million in stock. You could buy it for $100 a share, or you could pay in-kind—by working, lending tools, or splitting wood for railroad. They had vision, they had purpose. They had the will of the approximately 800 people who called Seattle home.
File:A.A. Denny, Seattle's first steam locomotive (5017555191).jpg

For nearly a year, the papers kept the story alive. On May 1, 1874, canons boomed and the Seattle band played while every man, woman, and child in Seattle marched out to a spot some 3 miles south of the city to begin felling trees and clearing the way for the track that was to be laid. Everyone, from Mayor Henry Yesler to the most common sawmill worker, helped for free. The men did the heavy work; the women brought food and drink for a massive picnic to keep their spirits and energy up. Together, they managed to clear and grade 1 mile that day, and 12 miles by the end of October, when weather made it more difficult to work.

The Seattle railroad never did make it over the mountain, but it did arrive at the coal mines, bringing tons of the black gold to ships waiting in the harbor. You might say it was a labor not of love but of justification.

And speaking of labor, Marissa and I will be off next week and the week after for Labor Day, but come back September 5 to celebrate a new release in the Frontier Bachelors series, in which the Seattle May Day picnic looms large, Mail-Order Marriage Promise.

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