A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

April 2002

Auburn and Its Railroads
Part II: Featuring the Northern Pacific's "Palmer Cutoff"

By David T. Sprau

Last issue's article told of early railroad development in our area, culminating in arrival, from Stampede Pass via Tacoma, of the Northern Pacific Railroad in Auburn. This issue's installment tells of construction of a "new" shortened rail line which brought, for the first time, trains directly into Auburn from the east utilizing a junction point with the old line at Palmer, 21.7 miles east.

Auburn Yard locomotive facilities, 1946.
Auburn Yard locomotive facilities, 1946.
Original 1913 Roundhouse at left with 1945 Diesel Shop at right. Tracks in foreground lead southerly to yard office buildings, car icing facilities and section gang headquarters.  WRVM #86

Construction of the new line, popularly known as the Palmer Cutoff, began in 1899 and continued through 1900. The project was not without difficulties. Severe flooding in January of 1900 delayed the work. High water carried away piling and damaged permanent construction work at the planned Green River bridge site just north of the Neely Mansion two miles east of Auburn. Two forks of the White River, at that time, flowed through downtown Auburn, necessitating bridgework approximately between the present locations of Auburn Way and "F" Street. Before the new roadbed at this site could properly settle in place, the river scoured the embankment, requiring 1,000 yards of heavy rock rip-rap. (The White River was rerouted from downtown in 1910.)

Steel bridges for two crossings of the Green and one crossing of the White River were to be delivered May 1, 1900, but unpleasantly surprised everyone by arriving over a month ahead of schedule. Bridge engineers and foremen scrambled to install the unwanted structures. The result was one bridge gang living in tents at chilly Palmer, and another boarding at the Green River Hotel in Auburn, then repairing to tents in order to facilitate the bridge two miles east of town.

NP's Premiere passenger train, the North Coast Limited, made its first trip to the coast on April 29, 1900. The showpiece was forced to use the old line through Orting for its initial trips, and NP officials quickly grew impatient. (For a description of the line, refer to Part I, presented in the January 2002 newsletter.) By then the new cut-off was operable in haphazard fashion for work trains and a few trains hauling coal for the mines at Learys. Knowing this, NP's Division Engineer, Charles Bihler notified St. Paul General offices that the Palmer Cut-off would also accommodate the new passenger train.

East Auburn, 1952.
Eastbound North Coast Limited streamliner on main track with steam-powered Tacoma "Stub" transfer train on transfer track. By 1954, stub trains were replaced with buses. With the 1971 inception of Amtrak, the Northern Coast Limited was no more.  WRVM #94

Assistant Engineer George Kyle, supervising construction work on the ground at the site, was aghast at such a statement and wired Bihler thusly: "My judgement is that it is absolutely unsafe to runs trains No. 1 and 2 over the cut-off." He expounded at some length, citing various tight rock cuts, soft fills, and temporary bridges. Came the response on June 29: "If it is not safe to run Nos.1 and 2, you will have to make it so. You have a large force of men and should be able to get track in reasonably good shape in a very few days." Kyle, understandably, bristled upon learning the target date for operation of the Limited via the new route would be July 1!

Fortunately cooler heads prevailed. Vice President J.W. Kendrick calmed the quarreling factions by ruling that running passenger trains over track "not in good shape" would not be wise; the showcase train would continue running via the old line, through Buckley, until the cut-off was in proper shape to receive it.

As summer of 1900 entered the "dog days" of August, last-minute details along the new line were taken care of; the new railway embankment dried out and solidified. Yet Kendrick, during inspections, took exception to numerous conditions found along the right of way:

1. Station building at Kanaskat not completed.
2. Section houses framed but not ready for occupancy.
3. Earth slides at various locations where clear track should already be in service.
4. Adjustable leveling rods in steel bridges not installed, particularly west of Covington. Of this latter condition he complained, "probably safe, though does not impress one favorably."
5. Right of way fence to keep livestock off track not completed.
6. No foot guards on track switches along the route. This was contrary to state law, eliciting sharp criticism from Kendrick.
7. Soos Creek culvert not completed.
8. Track not ballasted with gravel to hold ties firmly in place, forcing trains to run on uneven, insecure rail, with consequent damage to new rail and ties.

Items 3, 4, 7, and 8 resulted in "slow orders," holding trains to approximately 10 MPH, which brought about a two-hour trip over the new route. Such depredations against NP's schedules may be more readily appreciated when contrasted with later running times of 25-30 minutes over the completed line.

The Pacific Coast Railroad coal train passes over the NP main track
on Palmer Cutoff one mile west of Ravensdale. SR 169 bridge of NPRy
is out of view behind PCRR Bridge. This spot in the year 2002
is covered with dense growth of fir trees,
and PCRR tracks and bridge are gone.   WRVM#3458

Finally, came the long-awaited day: Sunday, August 19, 1900, when the Palmer Cutoff began regular operation. The White River Journal of Saturday, August 26, 1900 reported the event:

"The new Palmer cut-off was put in operation last Sunday by the Northern Pacific and will be used by all freight and special trains destined for Seattle from the east, together with the "North Coast Limited."

"The latter train comes direct from St Paul and makes Seattle the terminal instead of Tacoma. The new track leaves the old one at Palmer and rejoins it at Auburn, thus cutting off twenty-six miles between St. Paul and Seattle."

What the article did NOT say, however, was that Northern Pacific hadn't quite given up the old route. While it is true that the North Coast Limited in both directions operated thereafter via the Cutoff and headed directly to Seattle, most of the other freight and all of the other passenger trains, which constituted the bulk of NP's business, continued on the old route through Buckley, from or to the main yard facility at Tacoma, which had the largest freight yard and most complete crew facilities at that time. By 1908, gradual changes caused NP to refine this arrangement somewhat; there being no freight yard at Auburn, a greater share of eastbound schedules originated at Tacoma and operated to Palmer Junction over the old route, while westbound traffic used the new route to Auburn and then went to either Tacoma or Seattle as desired. This gave NP the equivalent of double track operation west of Palmer Jct.

The east end of the Palmer Cutoff underwent major changes in 1958-59
when construction of Howard Hanson Dam forced NP to make
an extensive line change. Seen here is the "new" yard and depot
at Kanaskat under construction approximately 400 feet north
and 75 feet above the old grade through the same area. Original grade
is not visible in this photo and joins the new grade approximately
one half-mile west of the tracks disappearing from view
at the distant end of the photo. Trackage at right is "new" wye
at Kanaskat which connects with the shared NP-Milwaukee branch line
at Kanaskat Junction, about one mile east.  WRVM #3410

This all changed on April 10, 1913, when after two years of work NP's new twenty-track classification yard at Auburn was completed, including a 24-stall roundhouse, car repair shops, and yard office. Ultimately this new facility employed 600 people. Trains from the east originated and terminated at Auburn, and the old line through South Prairie was finally relegated to true "branch" status.

During the period all of the foregoing was taking place, other railroads were busily engaged in Auburn. The 60 mile-per-hour Seattle-Tacoma Interurban (Puget Sound Electric) Railway began service on September 25, 1902 and at its peak provided three dozen daily round trips between its namesake points with numerous stops at towns in the Valley. The Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound (Milwaukee) Road opened its new line between Tacoma, Seattle and Chicago on July 13, 1909, featuring one passenger train each way daily through Auburn. Jim Hill's Great Northern Railway negotiated trackage rights over Northern Pacific through Auburn beginning December 14, 1908. Not to be outdone, Edward Harriman's Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company (later Union Pacific) negotiated joint trackage rights over the Milwaukee's line and offered train service to Auburnites beginning January 1, 1910.

Auburn Yard remained a major hub for NP and its successor, Burlington Northern, until 1983, at which time most of the local facility was closed and work transferred to Tacoma and Seattle. In 1987, demolition of the brick diesel shop and most of the original outbuildings was underway and Auburn Yard was closed completely. The passenger depot on West Main Street, present location of the new "Sounder" facility was closed in 1978 and demolished in 1979.

Seattle to Hoquiam train 423 stops at Auburn for passengers, c1954.
NP used gas-electric car B-23 and similar cars on light-traffic branch lines
in lieu of steam equipment.   WRVM #3410

Between Enumclaw and Buckley, the "original" line from Stampede Pass was severed in 1972 when the White River Bridge was removed. Several years later, trackage on this route was torn up between Enumclaw and Orting, inclusive.

The Palmer Cutoff has fared better. NP and its successor, Burlington Northern (later BNSF) have operated it since 1900, although from 1983 until 1996 it was relegated to branch line status while the mountain crossing over Stampede Pass was disused and very nearly abandoned. However, in December 1996, after re-purchase of eastern portions from a short line operator, plus reconditioning expenditures totaling approximately 150 million dollars, this route was re-opened and has remained in daily use.

The other lines through the Valley have consolidated or been discontinued. The last "Interurban" (PSE) train operated December 29, 1928. Milwaukee's last passenger train operated May 26, 1961, with freight operation remaining until March 15, 1980 at which time the bankrupt line folded operations. Northern Pacific and Great Northern became Burlington Northern on March 3, 1970 and continues operating the line through downtown Auburn. Union Pacific gained control of former Milwaukee trackage on the farther west route through the valley, and also continues operation.

David T. Sprau