A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

January 2002

How Auburn Became a Railroading Town
Part I: Featuring the Northern Pacific's "Palmer Cutoff"

By David T. Sprau

Some railroad lines never change. The BNSF (Ex-Great Northern) line through my hometown, Monroe, WA, is a good example. It's basically the same as when built in 1893. Auburn's railroads, on the other hand, didn't just happen all at once - they slowly evolved, and many things changed.

Hopefully this short essay will cover most of the basic questions about this rather complicated evolution. Let's start with a "Pop Quiz." How many of the following questions can you answer? Brave souls might want to scrawl tentative responses to the following questions on a piece of paper. Answers may be gleaned by reading the text.

1. What year was the first transcontinental railroad to the Pacific Northwest completed?
2. What route did it follow to get here?
3. How many years elapsed after that, before Auburn was dependably served by rail?
4. Was the now-abandoned yard always a part of the early railroad, and when was it built?
5. What was the maximum number of railroad companies operating through Auburn at any one time?
6. Bonus question: Name the above companies, and the year their lines were built or disbanded.
Note: The first three questions are considered in this installment

Northern Pacific (NP) originally constructed its line from St Paul, Minnesota to Portland, Oregon via Fargo, North Dakota, Glendive, Livingston, Helena and Missoula, Montana, Spokane and Wallula Washington (near Pasco). The line from Wallula to Portland along the south bank of the Columbia River, completed in 1882, was jointly-built by the NP and the Oregon Railroad and Navigation (OR&N) Company. By November of that year, a railcar ferry between Kalama, Washington and Goble (near Rainier) Oregon provided an exclusive NP connection to Tacoma. The final segment of the northwest's first unbroken transcontinental rail link was a segment near Gold Creek, Montana, completed on September 8, 1883.

NP, however, not only needed faster service to Puget Sound, but wished also to be free of OR&N's interference, and therefore felt constrained to complete a new route to Portland via Tacoma, through Stampede Pass in Washington's Cascade mountains. The initial route utilized temporary switchbacks (reversing zigzags of track to gain elevation) instead of a tunnel to cross the crest of the Cascades. This line was completed and trains began operating in July 1887, leaving what later became the Union Pacific Railroad as sole user of the South Bank Columbia River route. UP retains ownership of the latter to this day.

Westward train on original NP line to Tacoma passing
over White River bridge between Enumclaw and Buckley.
Bridge was located about 300 feet upstream
from present bridge on US 410.
by Al Farrow, 1956  #3440

Stampede Tunnel, just less than two miles in length, opened May 27, 1888. Many incorrectly believe this was the "last gasp" of the switchback line. However, the switchback was temporarily restored in 1889 during a period when earth movement within Stampede tunnel was giving NP's engineering department fits. With trains again running "over the top", laborers were able to place concrete and brickwork up to 25 feet thick in places to prevent movement of unstable soil and shale rock inside the 

NP's original routes to the coast, however, came nowhere near Auburn. Some vestiges of the pioneer Stampede route can yet be seen today: A minor line change in 1958 enabled "Headworks Road," above Kanaskat, to utilize a portion of NP's old grade. Before Headworks Road westbound rises to meet the new BNSF grade, a non-used right-of-way can be seen veering off to the left, truncated where the present railroad grade crosses, but again visible west of that grade. It then continues a sharp left at this location (the old townsite of Green River, later renamed Palmer). It then parallels the Kanaskat-Cumberland road.

The original NP main line from Palmer to Tacoma wasn't too bad for the first ten miles, continuing south through Enumclaw and Buckley. But then it launched over a dizzying loop incorporating two high trestles, descending into South Prairie and onward through Orting to Meeker (just east of Puyallup), where it continued to Tacoma.

Doubleheaded westbound freight train just west of Covington
on cut off line. Taken from Berrydale overhead bridge.
By Al Farrow in 1940  #3499

Why was this difficult, circuitous route chosen for a main line? From any point east of Enumclaw, a better route to tidewater certainly could have been located. One simple word provides an answer. Depending upon one's point of view, that word is either "frugality," or "parsimony." In 1899, NP's Chief engineer, Mr. E.H. McHenry, offered the following excuse, paraphrased here:
"Our main line makes a very great detour to the south between Palmer and our terminals at Tacoma and Seattle. This was caused by a decision to utilize part of the (already existing) Cascade Branch to facilitate construction of the main line. This decision was no doubt influenced by the scarcity of funds, and desire to take advantage of mileage already completed."

The "mileage already completed" was a line built by the NP in 1877 from Tacoma to a point one mile east of the South Prairie (named Cascade Junction) line in order to serve the stone quarry and coal fields in and around Wilkeson. The existing BNSF Line between Meeker and Tacoma still utilizes this route.

Westward log train enroute to Tacoma, stops for water
  at South Prairie on t he original Tacoma main line.
by Al Farrow, 1956  #3470

E. H. McHenry continued: "By a forced location (awkwardly joining the Stampede Pass route to the existing Wilkeson-Tacoma line far to the south), involving a loop near South Prairie, with maximum grades of 1.7 percent, the construction of three high trestles on this loop, and also construction of a bridge seventy feet in height and about 2,000 feet in length crossing the White River, the unfortunate features of this route have been made obvious to us many times."

By 1899, this "unfortunate feature" demanded correction. The Wilkeson line, poorly located, had never been intended as a main line. In addition, coal-mining operations at Leary (later Ravensdale) had been pressuring Northern Pacific since 1891 for rail service. NP quoted a figure of $20,000 per mile to construct a spur, but eventually, it was recognized that if a new "main line" were established through this territory, not only would the coal operators benefit, but mainline service would be enhanced also.

The proposed new main line, referred to as the Palmer Cutoff, also addressed dissatisfaction with Northern Pacific's poor service to the City of Seattle, a grievance going back to the railroad's 1873 decision in favor of Tacoma as its Puget Sound terminus. Antagonistic articles and editorials in Tacoma and Seattle newspapers continually prodded NP regarding service -or the lack of it- to the more northerly city. Auburn, on the route between the two larger cities, suffered along with Seattle from a lack of dependable rail access.

In June of 1884, Northern Pacific's "paper subsidiary," the Puget Sound Shore Line, had lashed a locomotive and coach together and, armed with "operating rights" over the Columbia and Puget Sound Railroad north from Black River Junction, gained access to Seattle. Subsequent rejoicing over such flattering attention by Northern Pacific was short-lived. Two months later on August 21, the Puget Sound Shore Line, which had only half-heartedly entered Seattle and whose operators invested neither capital nor improvements (trains from Seattle had to back to Tacoma due to lack of turning facilities), discontinued operations. Notwithstanding acrimonious charges and vitriolic debate from both sides, Seattle (and Auburn) was, for all practical purposes, again orphaned from commerce via railroad until October of 1885, when at last service was dependably restored. Even so, any national rail service to Seattle (and Auburn) still had to come through Tacoma, via the awkward South Prairie loop.

Doubleheaded eastbound NP train 4 "The Alaskan" passes
over Green River bridge two miles east of Auburn
on Palmer Cutoff line, c 1940.
by Al Farrow  #506

So, in 1899, partially from dissatisfaction with the existing route, and partially in final realization that Seattle was growing, had revenue dollars to offer, was here to stay, and needed efficient, dependable rail service, NP started work on a cutoff between Palmer and Auburn. McHenry's facilitation report stated, "The new line will shorten the distance to Seattle 20.9 miles and to Tacoma 3.2 miles. It will obviate the necessity for operating South Prairie Loop where helper engines are at present required, and if through-operation between Buckley and Palmer is discontinued, it will avoid the expenditure of $200,000 otherwise necessary in providing a permanent bridge at the White River Crossing." NP started advertising far and wide for manpower to undertake this ambitious project. Newspaper advertisements were placed in village weekly papers:

Monroe (WA) Monitor
Monday August 21, 1899

"Wanted-Station Men, 
Subcontractors, laborers, teams, for work on
Palmer Cut-off railroad near Seattle.
 Wages: teams $4 a day; men $2;
station work 17 to 22 cents a yard.
H. C. HENRY & Co, Seattle Wash."

Shortage of workers, however, would plague the Palmer cutoff during its entire construction period. Several times, tersely-worded telegrams criticized field supervisors. Example: "The progress of track laying on the Palmer cut-off is extremely inadequate. Your present work force should be doubled to handle the work with anything like reasonable dispatch." This brought an angry retort: "Not much use to send men out if they won't stay on account of poor accommodations." [March 29, 1900]

White River Bridge along existing railroad line
near "K" Street in downtown Auburn, c 1908. #354

The new 21.7-mile cut-off began at Palmer and ended at Auburn, putting any train using it midway between Tacoma and Seattle. Five bridges, four miles of steep grade, and considerable degree of curvature would be eliminated. Coal mines at Leary and lumber mills at Covington would provide instantaneous revenue to the new line.

Next Issue: 
The scene has been set for Auburn to become a rail center.

David T. Sprau