Tacoma Eastern Railroad

Early History of the Tacoma Eastern

In its pre-incorporation phase, the Tacoma Eastern Railroad began life as a narrow gauge logging road, about two miles long, running from a shallow-water wharf at the head of Commencement Bay in Tacoma, Washington. The railroad left the wharf fronting Dock Street and continued southward through a steep chasm to a sawmill located near South 38th Street. The railroad, the wharf, and the sawmill were owned and operated by brothers John F. and George E. Hart. The brothers owned and operated a wide variety of companies including (what Dilgard considers) the first legitimate Opera house in Everett, Washington. The little narrow gauge road brought dimensional lumber materials from the Hart’s sawmill to their wharf; largely for export to the lumber-hungry markets of San Francisco.

The early operations of the railroad appear to have been successful, but the Hart Brothers must have been concerned about their limited ability to expand their market base and move their product due to the fact they were unable interchange cars with the standard gauge Northern Pacific Railroad. A reconstruction program was initiated to convert the railroad from narrow to standard gauge. The two mile road was apparently completed by May of 1890 and the line became known officially as the Tacoma Eastern Railroad for the first time.

Once incorporated, the Hart brothers set out to tap vast stands of virgin forests in the foothills of Mount Rainier by building southward through the gulch that now bears the name of that railroad. The Puyallup Indians used this route prior to pioneer settlement and referred to the gulch at the head of Commencement Bay as "Wad Shum Shum", which means “the trail to high ground.” During this important building phase the Hart brothers managed to extend the railroad through the steep gulch terminating about seven miles south of Tacoma near South 97th Street in a grove of virgin timber that is now the Midland neighborhood.

In 1892, the brothers fought valiantly to ward off the deleterious effects of a massive fire that destroyed their Tacoma sawmill. They attempted to salvage their commercial assets by leveraging their real estate holdings with ill-conceived bank notes. Although considered an accepted practice, the timing could not have been worse as the Economic Panic of 1893 spelled the eventual doom of the Hart Brothers and their far flung enterprises. During this period of decline and decay, the Tacoma Eastern Railroad languished until the economy rebounded with the free-spending days of the Yukon Gold Rush of 1899.

Independent Corporate Control

Under the direction of the court appointed bankruptcy receivers: Ladd and Tilton Bank of Portland, Oregon, new life was breathed into the railroad. To facilitate the rehabilitation of the railroad, the bank turned to Michigan entrepreneur John Bagley. Bagley had owned and operated logging companies, sawmills, railroads, and a hotel. In 1899, the year that Mount Rainier National Park was established, Bagley was made President of the Tacoma Eastern and ambitiously set out to push the railroad another 60 miles to Ashford, Washington, the western gateway to the Park. With construction financing covertly provided by the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railway, construction activities began in earnest. Unlike the stories of transcontinental railroad construction in America, the Tacoma Eastern Railroad was built with common labor provided mostly by Japanese, not Chinese immigrants. The last spike on the passenger line was driven at Ashford in the fall of 1904. However, the main freight line diverged away to the south and would not be completed until it pushed into Morton, Washington in 1910 another 15 miles away.

Despite the fact the Northern Pacific Railroad had lobbied Congress and conducted a land swap with the Secretary of the Interior to expedite the formation of Mount Rainier National Park, the Tacoma Eastern Railroad managed to provide the best access for park visitors. Though it arrived too late in the 1904 season to have much impact upon Mount Rainier National Park, the Tacoma Eastern Railroad enjoyed virtually exclusive rail access to the scenic wonders of the mountain. With the railroad’s arrival, Mount Rainier National Park would be profoundly changed. This was evident in the summer of 1905 when three of the Nation’s largest mountaineering clubs in America combined for a massive push to summit Mount Rainier. Until this point, access to the mountain was only achieved by horseback. The average tourist stay at the park was about a month. With rail passenger service from Tacoma taking about three hours, the scenic wonders of Mount Rainier National Park were now opened to a larger market of visitors including those who were inclined to stay only a week; or merely a day!

As the automobile encroached upon the American landscape, the railroad stepped up efforts to ensure that it held on to its stake in the tourist transportation market by offering rides in open-topped motorized hacks. These machines were the precursor to comfortable auto stages and the price of riding these contraptions was eventually included in the train fare. For many visitors to the area, this was their first thrilling opportunity to ride in an automobile; even if it was slow, prone to mechanical failure, and offered no protection from the elements.

Systematically, the auto-stages (and eventually the automobile) pushed aside the railroad as the primary means of passenger traffic. However, what the Tacoma Eastern Railroad became famous for was not moving passengers, but moving timber----big timber and lots of it too. Ninety percent of all freight hauled by the railroad was extricated from the forests beneath Mount Rainier. Forty- and fifty-car trains were loaded with logs, lumber, cedar bolts, shingles, cordwood, wood pulp and delicately crafted wood trim. Of these materials, the logs were the most prevalent and many of these train cars were loaded with one enormous log that measured eight-feet or more in diameter at the butt and could tip the scales at 40-tons. These massive logs were euphemistically referred to as “Tacoma Toothpicks”.

As the Tacoma Eastern Railroad’s secret benefactor, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway, was building their Pacific extension to Tacoma, the Tacoma Eastern was tasked with developing a new rail line between the communities of Frederickson and McKenna. Ultimately, through mergers and acquisitions, this line would become a vital link between Seattle and Portland. Eventually this line would serve an important role in shipping explosives, bombs and military equipment to and from Fort Lewis, Washington.

First person accounts of life on the Tacoma Eastern Railroad in those early days can be found in the riveting tales of the life of Harry French in a biography called “Railroadman”. Written by his son Chauncey Del French, Harry French was a two-fisted, hard-drinking, railroad boomer who by the age of 40 had accumulated over 25-years of service with various railroads. French’s accounts of his father’s life reads like pulp-fiction and indeed--Chauncey Del French made many pulp-fiction contributions to detective magazines under an assumed name. However, the accounts found in “Railroadman” have been researched and verified for accuracy.

Subsidiary Control

By July of 1909, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul had changed its name to the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific to better reflect the accomplishment of creating the shortest transcontinental route of any railroad between the Pacific coast and the Great Lakes. Upon arriving in Tacoma the veil of secrecy was lifted and the benefactor openly assumed control of the local railroad. Even though the Tacoma Eastern now had its headquarters in Chicago, it operated as an independent subsidiary of the parent road for nearly ten years.

The only President to have rode the rails of the Tacoma Eastern was William Howard Taft. In 1911, President Taft came to Tacoma specifically to visit Mount Rainier National Park. Taft arrived in early October but an early snow storm had preceded his arrival by a few days making the Presidential trip rather arduous. The train trip took two and half hours from Tacoma to Ashford. Upon his arrival, he was whisked away in a motor carriage followed by a rather long entourage of escorting dignitaries and one car loaded with mechanics to ensure that the cantankerous carriages kept running. Accompanying the President was a team of horses used to affect an extraction of the Presidential motor coach when it became stuck in the rutted and frozen muck. Wanting to see as much as possible, President Taft insisted that his driver take him from Longmire Springs where warm accommodations awaited, up to Paradise. Before arriving at Paradise, the Presidential car was so hopelessly stuck, that it was thought that the President may have to spend the night on the mountain. Taft took the discomfort in stride and managed to make his way to Paradise, if only for a moment, before having to turn back for his train. By now, the Presidential entourage was spread across the mountain side for miles. Taft arrived back at the train over an hour late but told the train crew to delay the departure for at least a half-hour more to give his entourage an opportunity to catch the last train back to Tacoma. Stragglers faced the daunting prospect of riding back to Tacoma in the freezing cold or spending the night at one of the hotels on the mountain until the train returned in the morning.

At the dawn of the First World War, most all American Railroads were federalized the day after Christmas 1917. President Woodrow Wilson felt he had no alternative but to seize control of the railroads despite heroic efforts on the part of railroad tycoons to standardize schedules and supply much needed freight cars for the war effort in Europe. Walker Hines was appointed the Director-General of the US Railroad Administration. Under his direction the USRA set construction standards, lifted bothersome tariffs, and consolidated passenger services all for the purposes of moving soldiers and machinery as efficiently as possible. Once the war was over and the USRA disbanded, federal control of the Tacoma Eastern Railroad was returned the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific. Immediately thereafter, on December 31, 1918, the Tacoma Eastern Railroad’s assets were consolidated and its identity absorbed by the parent railroad.

Recent History

The Tacoma Eastern became known as the National Park branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. Between 1919 and 1980, the National Park branch would consistently be ranked the second most economically viable branch in the entire 1700 mile Milwaukee Road system. However, on March 15, 1980, the Milwaukee Road became the single largest railroad failure in American history. The former Tacoma Eastern portion of the railroad was conveyed to the Weyerhaeuser Corporation who used the line to move logs from Thurston and Lewis counties to a trans-loading facility at the Port of Tacoma for international export.

Weyerhaeuser Corporation operated the line almost exclusively for twelve years. The only other railroad activities the Weyerhaeuser Corporation tolerated was the development of the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad. The Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad was the brainchild of L. T. “Tom” Murray Jr., President of the Murray Pacific Corporation. The Mount Rainier Scenic was, and is today, an excursion road that shuttles passengers about seven miles on former Tacoma Eastern tracks through the foothills of Mount Rainier using antique train equipment. The primary emphasis of the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad’s historic collection is logging railroad equipment. The Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad has grown since 1980 from being a one locomotive railroad to the world’s only rail heritage group with one of each type of logging locomotive in working order.

Geared locomotives were built for power, not for speed, and were popular with logging companies who had to move heavy trains up and down grades safely. Four types of logging locomotives were utilized in the early twentieth century: the common rod engine, the Shay, the Heisler, and the Climax locomotives. The rod configuration has steam pistons which actuate rods attached to the wheels which, in-turn, provide locomotion. The Shay configured geared-locomotive had two or more pistons that are mounted perpendicular to the boiler. Instead of actuating rods for locomotion, the pistons turned a crankshaft which ran the length of the engine on one side and engaged each of the wheels with a crown gear. The Heisler configured geared-locomotive always had two pistons cradling the boiler and is mounted to a central axel. This central axel was attached to the locomotive wheels much like a modern truck. The rarest of the logging locomotives is the Climax configured geared-locomotive. Climax locomotives have pistons that flank the boiler at a 45-degree angle. These pistons turn a flywheel which is connected to a central axel, thus providing locomotion. All of these geared locomotives are rare but there are only three Climax engines that can be seen today in working order.

Eventually economic development led to the need for further rail activity on the sparsely used Tacoma Eastern. The Boeing Company, with plants all along Puget Sound, finally submitted to political pressure at the Federal, State and Local levels to site a production facility in Pierce County. Frederickson, a station on the old Tacoma Eastern line, was chosen as the preferred location. Here the Boeing Company constructed a massive aircraft wing assembly plant. The Weyerhaeuser Corporation had no interest in restructuring its railroad for common carrier service, but did allow a subcontractor to operate on 12 miles of track from Tacoma Junction to Frederickson. Until 1998, rail operations by the contractor were commonly referred to as simply "the Boeing Train". Weyerhaeuser ceased all rail operations in the south Puget Sound basin by 1992 and began selling off segments of the former Tacoma Eastern Railroad to the City of Tacoma.

In November of 1998, with the purchase of the railroad complete, contracts with the private rail operators were cancelled. Now the responsibility for operating and marketing the line fell to the City of Tacoma’s railroad: the Tacoma Municipal Belt Line Railway. With the addition of the former Tacoma Eastern right-of-way, the City of Tacoma re-organized its railroad corporation and shortened its name to simply “Tacoma Rail”. Since 1998, many miles of track have been rehabilitated and the number of rail customers has increased. In corporate literature, such as press releases and time tables, the former Tacoma Eastern is referred to as “The Mountain Division”. Today, Tacoma Rail trains traverse the steep slopes of the Tacoma Eastern gulch bound for Fredrickson with car loads of lumber, aluminum, steel pipe, heavy machinery and grain. On alternate days, the train returns with aluminum briquettes, cedar fencing and siding.

Future Plans

In an effort to reduce our carbon footprint and alleviate traffic and parking congestion, plans are in the works to re-introduce passenger excursion service from Tacoma to Mount Rainier National Park. America’s most exclusive railroad the GrandLuxe, frequents the line during summer months taking lucky passengers to Eatonville where they can detrain for luxury coach tours of Mount Rainier or Northwest Trek.


*Anderson, Lawrence D. "In the Shadow of the Mountain". Self Published. (2007).
*Catton, Theodore. "Wonderland: Administrative History of Mt. Rainier National Park". National Park Service (1996).
*Cox, Thomas R. "Mills and Markets". University of Washington Press (1974).
*Dilgard, David. "Mill Town Footlights". Self Published (2001).
*Engle, Pearl and Jeannette Hlavin. "History of the Tacoma Eastern Area". Self Published (1954).
*Felt, Margaret E. "The Enterprising Mister Murray". Caxton Publishing (1978).
*French, Chauncey D. "Railroadman". MacMillan Company (1938).
*Friday, Chris. "Organizing Asian American Labor". Temple University Press (1994).
*Hines, Walker D. "War History of American Railroads". Yale University (1928).
*Holter, Russell and Jesse Clark McAbee. "Rails To Paradise: The History of the Tacoma Eastern Railroad 1890-1919". Rails To Paradise, Inc. (2005).
*Hunt, Herbert. "History of Tacoma Washington". S. J. Clarke Publishing (1916).
*Ott, John S. "The Story of the Tacoma Municipal Belt Line Railway". Tacoma Public Utilities (1996).
*Ranger, Dan. "Pacific Coast Shay". Golden West (1964).
*Reese, Gary F. "Origins of Pierce County Place Names". R&M Press (1989).
*Telewski, Frank W. and Scott D. Barrett. "Logging Railroads of Weyerhaeuser’s Vail-McDonald Operation". Oso Publishing (2005).
*Thompson, Dennis B., et al. "The Climax Locomotive". Oso Publishing (2002).
*Wood, Charles R. and Dorothy M. "Milwaukee Road West". Superior Publishing (1972).

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