History of Railroads in Washington

Discover your
family's story.

Enter a grandparent's name to get started.

choose a state:
Start Now

From the day the people of Washington learned that congress had appropriated money for a survey terminating on Puget Sound, their constant expectation was fixed upon a transcontinental railway. The territorial charter of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company was granted by the legislature Jan. 28, 1857, to 58 incorporators, the road to be commenced within three and completed within ten years after the passage of the act; the capital stock to be fifteen millions of dollars, which might be increased to double that amount.

It does not appear that the company took any immediate steps to raise the necessary capital. The legislature of 1857-8 passed a joint resolution to be forwarded to congress, giving reasons why the road should be built, and declaring the route surveyed by Gov. Stevens to be the shortest and cheapest.

The political questions involved in a Pacific railroad, and the struggle with secession, temporarily retarded the evolution of the grand project, although in the end its construction was hastened by the war. I find the Washington legislature of 1865-6 passing a resolution of congratulation upon the inauguration of the ‘masterly project,’ and declaring its purpose to aid by any and all means in its completion.

The next legislature, however, gave expression to its jealous fears lest favoritism should prejudice the interests of the territory, congress having granted a magnificent subsidy in lands and money to the central and southern roads, without having done as much for the northern by several millions. The memorial represented, first, that Washington by its poverty was entitled to the bounty of the government, while California possessed sufficient private capital to construct a transcontinental road without a subsidy; and, secondly, that from its geographical position the northern road would build up a national and international commerce of far greater extent and value than the central, from the nature of the soil along its whole extent, which guaranteed a rich and powerful agricultural population, in view of which facts congress was asked to grant the same privileges to the Northern Pacific that were granted to the Union Pacific Company. Meanwhile the other railroads were rapidly progressing, and the people of Oregon, who were alive to the benefits of a terminus, were desirous of a branch from the central road to Portland. Should this scheme be carried out it would delay, if not frustrate, the original design of a railroad from Lake Superior to Puget Sound. Hence congress was again memorialized that the adoption of the proposed branch from the Humboldt Valley to Portland would be a ruinous and calamitous mistake, detrimental alike to the nation and its interests on the Pacific coast.’ Thus we see with what anxiety this isolated community were clinging devotedly to the shores of their wonderful sea, and how they regarded the action of the government and the railroad companies. On the granting of the railroad subsidies in 1860, the Northern Pacific just failed of being chartered by congress, as it had been by the Washington legislature, with I. I. Stevens as one of the board of commissioners. Before the friends of this route could again obtain the favor of congress, Stevens bad died upon the battlefield. However, on the 2d of July 1864, the Northern Pacific Railroad Company received its charter, signed by President Lincoln.

The bill as passed withdrew the money subsidy and increased the land grant, thus giving the commissioners much more to do to raise the means for the construction of their road than had been required of the other transcontinental companies. When the two years allowed in the charter for beginning the road had expired, no money had been found to commence with, but by the help of Thaddeus Stevens another two years of grace was permitted to the company, which were wasted in an attempt to secure a government loan. Again congress extended the time for beginning operations to 1870, but limited the time for completion to 1877. The first firm step forward in financial affairs was in 1869, when congress authorized the company to issue mortgage bonds on its railroad and telegraph line. Another important change permitted the company to extend the Portland branch to Puget Sound in place of the main line, but required 25 miles of it to be built before July 1871. It was in the last months of the limit of grace that the banking house of Jay Cooke & Co. took up the matter and furnished the money. Contracts were let on both ends in 1870. The 25 miles required in western Washington were completed before July of the following year, extending northward from the Columbia via the Cowlitz Valley, and the work went on along the several divisions till 1873, when Cooke & Co. failed and construction was suspended, after barely completing the distance in Washington from Kalama, on the Columbia to Tacoma on the Sound. It was not resumed until 1875, after the company had gone through bankruptcy and been reorganized, after which time it proceeded with fewer drawbacks to its completion in Sept. 1883, via the Columbia River pass and Portland, the main line across the Cascade Mountains remaining unfinished until 1887.
A territory without the population to become a state, and having such serious obstacles to overcome could not be expected to own many miles of railroad built by private enterprise. The ambition of the people, however, always outran their means. The first charter granted by the legislature to a local railroad company was in Jan. 1859, to the Cascade Railroad Company, consisting of B. B. Bishop, William II. Fauntleroy, and George W. Murray, and their associates, to construct a freight and passenger railroad from the lower to the upper end of the portage at the cascades of the Columbia. Previous to this there had been a wooden track laid down for the use of the military department.

The charter required to be constructed a wooden railroad within three years, and in five years an iron track. This road, which about this time was a necessity, became the property of the O. S. N. Co. soon after its organization. Rival companies incorporated at different times, but without effect. In Jan. 1862 a, charter was granted to the Walla Walla Railroad Co. to operate a railroad from Walla Walla to the Columbia at Wallula, the road to be completed by Nov. 1865. The time was extended two years in 1864. This company seems to have been unable to accomplish its purposes, for in 1868 articles of incorporation of the Walla Walla and Columbia River Railroad Co. were adopted by a new organization. The survey was made in the spring of 1871, and work commenced in the following Nov. A wooden road was decided upon, owing to the cost of iron. In 1872 sufficient flat iron to strap down the curves, and locomotives weighing each seven tons, with ten flat cars, were purchased. But the wooden rails, not answering expectations, were discarded in 1875 and replaced by iron. In Oct. the road was completed, being a three-feet gauge, costing $10,300 per nine, the entire road having been built by private capital, except $25,000 donated by the citizens of the county of Walla Walla. The first shipment of wheat was made from Walla Walla to Wallula in this month. In 1881 the road wan sold to the O. R. & N. Co., when its bed was changed to the standard gauge. A branch was constructed to the Blue Mountains. In Jan. 1882 the Puget Sound and Gray Harbor Railroad Co. was organized, the object being to construct a line of road between Seattle and Cray Harbor, a distance of 58 miles.

An act was passed in Jan. 1862 incorporating the Puget Sound and Columbia River Railroad Co., which was empowered to operate a road from Steilacoom to Vancouver within ten years from the date of their charter, but which never availed itself of its privileges, the Northern Pacific railroad soon after promising to supply the needed communication with the Columbia. Its charter was, however, so amended in 1864 that the road might be extended to a point on the Columbia opposite Celilo, and the legislature of 1857-8 went through the form of memorializing congress for aid in constructing it, though it had no antecedent to justify a belief that its prayer would be granted.

In Jan. 1864 the Seattle and Squak Railroad Co. was incorporated, being authorized to locate, construct, and maintain a railroad with one or more tracks, commencing at or near the south end of Squak Lake, in King County, and running thence to a point in or near Seattle. It was required to begin work within two and complete the road within six years. The Oregon Railway and Navigation Co. was incorporated June 13, 1870. It was a consolidation of the interests of the Oregon and Cal. Railroad Co., the Oregon Steamship Co., and the Oregon Steam Navigation Co, all of which was brought about by negotiations between Henry Villard, of the Union Pacific, and J. C. Ainsworth, president of the O. S. N. Co. The O. R. & N. Co. built rapidly, and besides purchasing the Walla Walla and Columbia River railroad, extended its lines south of the Snake river from Walla Walla to Waitsburg, Dayton, Grange City, and Pomeroy, and to Pendleton in Oregon; and north of Snake River from the Northern Pacific at Connell to Moscow in Idaho, with branches north to Oakesdale, in Whitman County, and south to Genessee, Idaho, near tho Clearwater River. The Northern Pacific also built several branches in eastern Washington; opening up the wheat lands to market, and constructed the Puyallup branch in western Washington. An organization, known as the Oregon Transcontinental R. R., constructed in 1883 a railroad from Stuck River to Black river junction, 20 miles, which connected Seattle and Tacoma by rail, under the name of Puget Sound Shore R. R., which has recently been purchased by the N. P. R. R., which gives that company an entrance to Seattle. The Seattle, Lake Shore, and Eastern railway is completed from Seattle around the head of lakes Washington and Union, and south along the east shore of Lake Union to Gilman, whence it will be extended eastward via North Yakima and Spokane Falls. It has a branch to Earle and Snohomish, which is being pushed north to a connection with the Canadian Pacific. The Seattle and Northern railroad, incorporated Nov. 19, 1888, has for its object the construction of a road from Seattle northerly via Whatcom to a point on the northern boundary of Wash., at or near Blaine, 100 miles; also from where it crosses the Skagit up to the mouth of the Sank, and thence in an easterly course to Spokane Falls, 300 miles; also from the Skagit crossing westerly via Hidalgo Island and Deception pass to Admiralty Head, on Whidbey Island. Elijah Smith is president, and H. W. McNeil vice-president of the company. The Columbia and Puget Sound railroad, which is partially constructed, is intended to run to Walla Walla and the Columbia River. The Seattle and West Coast railroad runs only from Snohomish to Woodenville at present. Satsop railroad runs from Shelton in Mason County to Gray’s Harbor. The Puget Sound and Gray’s Harbor railroad is being built from Little Skookum to Gray’s Harbor. The Vancouver, Klickitat, and Yakima is in process of construction from Vancouver to North Yakima. The Oregon and Washington Territory railroad belongs to what is known as the Hunt system of roads in Oregon and Washington. It runs from Wallula Junction to Walla Walla by a circuitous route, nearly paralleling Snake River, but branching off at Eureka Junction and going down the other side of a triangle to Walla Walla, and thence to Pendleton and Athens in Oregon. In 1887 some businessmen of Pendleton organized the above corporation for the purpose of securing an independent road from Wallula, with a branch to Centerville, now Athens. They contracted with G. W. Hunt, an experienced railroad builder, then residing at Corvallis, Oregon, who began the work. He discovered when be hail graded 30 miles that the company bad not the money to carry it on, and purchased the concern to save his outlay. Going east he obtained the necessary aid from C. B. Wright of Philadelphia. From this time on he made and carried out his own plans, having only one subsidy of $100,000 from Walla Walla. He is building lines into all the rich farming districts, and competing successfully with the O. R. & N. Hunt was born near Mayville, Chautauqua County, New York, May 4, 1842, educated at Ellington Academy, went to Denver in 1859, his first interest in transportation being in the ownership of wagons and ox-teams which he earned in California. His first railroad contract was on the Oregon Short line, for 10 miles in Idaho; and subsequently on the O. R. & N.’s Blue Mountain line, and in Washington from Farmington to Colfax, and its Pomeroy branch; on the Oregon Pacific, and on the Cascade division of the N. P. on both sides of the Stampede tunnel, and 10 miles of the Seattle, L. S., & E. R. R. In 1860 he married Miss Leonora Gaylord of Boise City, and has a handsome residence in Walla Walla.

The Fairhaven and Southern railway company, Nelson Bennett, prest, with a capital stock of from one to six millions, is making arrangements to build from Vancouver, B. C., to Vancouver, Wash., via Fairhaven and Tacoma. The Manitoba R. R. is selecting a route through Washington to Puget Sound. Besides the unverified rumors of the intentions of transcontinental roads, there are in 1889 thirty-six different railways in progress of construction or about to be commenced in Wash. The total mileage of railroads in Wash. in Jan. 1888 was 1,0150 miles, to which has been added about 200 miles. The complaint against high fares and freights was considered by the legislature of 1887-8, and several bills were offered to correct the evil; but the boards of trade of Seattle and Vancouver remonstrated, saying that legislation at that time would drive away capital, and crush out the new local roads which they depended upon to compete with the great railroads. Instead of restrictive acts, the legislature at their suggestion changed the existing railroad assessment law from a tax on the gross receipts to a tax on all railroad property, in the same manner as on that of individuals, except in cases where otherwise provided. The state constitution lays down the same principle, but gives the legislature power to establish ‘reasonable maximum rates’ for transportation services.

Mention has been made of the rapid development of Washington in the years between 1880 and 1888. Some account of this change and the cause of it may be fairly considered essential to this history. It was necessary when the construction of the N. P. R. R. was decided upon to fix a point upon Puget Sound which should be its terminus, and where its freight might be transferred to foreign and coastwise vessels. The agents chosen by the company to make the selection were Judge R. D. Rice of Maine, vice-president, and Capt. J. C. Ainsworth of Portland, Oregon, the managing director for the Pacific coast, who reported after a careful examination in favor of Commencement bay and the town of Tacoma, meaning the village at that time containing about 200 inhabitants employed at the saw-mill. The report was accepted, and the R. R. Company sold the 3,000 acres constituting the site of the present city to the Tacoma land company, except enough land for shops, side-tracks, depot, and wharves. The land co. also purchased of the R. R. co. 13,000 acres, being the odd-numbered sections within 6 miles of the waterfront. This company was organized under the laws of Pennsylvania, and its corporators were large preferred stockholders of the R. R. co.; its capital stock was $1,000,000, divided into 20,000 shares at $50 per share, of which the N. P. R. R. owned a majority, and put brain and money into it, but as long as the railroad reached Tacoma only from the Columbia the growth of the town was slow. As soon as the direct line was established, the situation was changed, and the event was duly celebrated. Today in place of the straggling village of 1877, there is a beautiful city of 30,000 inhabitants, with miles of streets 80 feet wide, and avenues 100 feet wide, many handsome edifices and residences, the most inspiring views of Mount Tacoma and the Sound, with street railways, banks, public and private schools, and all the accessories of modern civilization. The coalfields tributary to Tacoma create a large amount of business. The lumber mills in the immediate vicinity cut 1,100,000 feet per day, removing the timber from 12 square miles annually. Many manufactures are suggested by the wealth of iron, coal, and timber in this region, which it is yet too soon to expect. According to the Seattle Journal, the name Tacoma first appeared in Theodore Winthrop’s book Canoe and Saddle, being applied to the mountain known to the English as Rainier.

The impetus given to the Sound country by the N. P. R. R. also affected Seattle, for so many years the chief city of the Sound. It increased rapidly in population, and achieved a population of 30,000, with real estate transfers of $12,000;000 in the year, which preceded its great catastrophe by fire in the summer of 1889, by which $10,000,000 of property was destroyed, and thousands of people rendered temporarily homeless. From this heavy misfortune will arise a certain amount of good, in an improved style of construction of business houses. The hope is entertained that the government will establish a navy yard on Lake Washington, connecting it by a canal with the Sound.



MLA Source Citation:

Bancroft, Hubert H. Bancroft Works, Volume 31, History Of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, 1845-1889. San Francisco: The History Company. 1890. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 18 December 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/washington/history-of-railroads-in-washington.htm - Last updated on Aug 16th, 2013


Categories:
Topics: ,

Contribute to the Conversation!

Our "rules" are simple. Keep the conversation on subject and mind your manners! If this is your first time posting, we do moderate comments before we let them appear... so give us a while to get to them. Once we get to know you here, we'll remove that requirement.

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Newsletter Signup

We currently provide two newsletters. Why not take both for a run?

Genealogy Update: We send out this newsletter whenever we feature a new, or significantly updated, collection or database on our website.

Circle of Nations: We send out this newsletter whenever we feature a new (or significantly updated) Native American collection or database on our website.

Once you've clicked on the Subscribe button above you'll receive an email from us requesting confirmation. You must confirm the email before you will be able to receive any newsletter.

Connect With Us!

Pin It on Pinterest

Shares
Share This

Share This

Share this post with your friends!