A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

April 2004

Roundhouse Days
Northern Pacific Railway and Building the Auburn Yard, 1910-1913

by J. A. Phillips, III


This article first appeared in the Journal in October, 1995. The author would like to thank a long-time supporter of the Museum, the late Al Leslie. Ninety-nine percent of the information contained in this story is brought to life because of Alâs foresight in donating an incredible collection of Auburn newspapers to the WRVM.
     ÷J. A. Phillips, III

On touring the Palmer Cutoff at the turn of the century, the Northern Pacific (NP) Railwayâs Second Vice-President John W. Kendrick remarked to his chief engineer in far-off St. Paul, Minn., that the far from complete line contained a notable deficiency÷a shop and yard on its anchor end in Auburn. Scarcely a decade had passed since the completion of the line before the railway found itself having to dig into its coffers and correct this mistake.

It came at a time that paradoxically could not have been better and could not have been worse. The onslaught of WWI traffic was still a few scant years away, as well as the United States Railroad Administrationâs nationalization of American railroads. The Northern Pacific had the luxury of building its own yard in its own way, far removed from inflated prices and worker shortages. At the same time, between the years of 1909 and 1916, the railway engaged itself in a huge and costly upgrade of facilities in Washington. Against this backdrop of immense improvements, the Northern Pacific began a construction project that would change the face of Auburn for more than half a century.

Auburn 1910
Located at the center of the NPâs north-south main line between Seattle and Tacoma, Auburn in 1910 was little more than a small farming community. All around these towns lay some of the richest topsoil in the United States and for years the local railroads would haul hops, berries and lettuce to all parts of the nation. When the railway began construction in the1910s, Auburn was still a part of this heritage. The townâs population in 1910 was a mere 957, a figure easily dwarfed by the remote mining burg of Black Diamond, population 2,051. By the time the yard was done Auburnâs population had more than doubled to 1,928.

The railway expected to employ 600 workers, easily dominating the employment scene in Auburn. Within months of the yardâs establishment, some of the most prominent men in town were the railwayâs agents, yardmasters and foremen. In a few short years many members of Auburnâs PTA, school board, chamber of commerce, city council and mayors would come from the working ranks of the Northern Pacific Railway.

Mr. Kenrick's Yard
Rumors of the second coming of the Northern Pacific began to circulate in 1910, with the May 14 Auburn Argus reporting that the railway was buying up land in town. While the paper asserted that this meant hordes of railway workers would descend upon the town at any moment, it would actually take more than a year before the first engineer would step off a train from St. Paul. In the meantime however, unseen agents of the railway busied themselves in acquiring an initial one hundred acres for the shop and yards. It was more than a month after this the home office made its intentions known. Auburn was to be the new home of a yard, similar to that of the Minnesota Transfer in the Twin Cities. This meant Auburn would become the railwayâs western freight headquarters, home to a general freight distribution point, a series of classification yards, a roundhouse and machine shop and a RIP (Repair, Inspect, Paint) track for repairing freight cars. While the local papers relayed this news to the community, the citizens were still left to wonder when the great doings would commence. The editor of the Argus had a word for the wise on that, too. ãJim Hill isnât paying a thousand dollars an acre to watch the grass grow.ä

Most of those acres were still in pasture and orchard when George A. Kenrick, the companyâs project engineer arrived from St. Paul in June 1911. Ahead of him stretched more than two years of construction. The yard he had yet to build needed its own water works, power plant, fire department and police. Tracks would have to be laid everywhere: yard tracks, RIP tracks, approach tracks, lead tracks, caboose tracks, as well as tracks to the major and minor facilities around the yard. Structures to be built included a twenty-five-stall roundhouse, a machine shop and office, sanding, water and oil facilities, power house, store house, ice house, and freight transfer shed, bunk houses for the yardâs section crew, massive coal dock and a passenger transfer depot at East Auburn. Other buildings required moving. The First Street depot would become the yard office; the passenger station would be refurbished and pulled just a few blocks south to Main Street. From the small depot at East Auburn to its southern limit Auburn Yard would stretch three full miles and cost upwards of $750,000.

Construction and Contractors
Grading began in the late summer of 1911 and by the spring of 1912 the grounds were ready for structures. Thus, in May 1912, the contract for the transfer shed was let to Rounds-Hudson Co. They were to construct a wood frame shed a whopping 40 by 800-feet long, for $20,000. By the end of the month they would have 75 men working on the shed. That same month six bricklayers started work on the machine shop walls. April had already seen the completion of the roundhouseâs foundations. At the southern end of the yards one of the two overpasses being built was delayed, someone still had to move the telegraph and power lines. That month a 4.9-mile pipeline from Little Suise Creek (today known as Soos) to plumb the yard buildings was being built by Adam Spotts and a crew of twelve.

Like many railway construction projects, companies known to the home office in St. Paul were called in to build at far-flung locations. Auburn was to be no exception. In June the Healy Plumbing and Heating of St. Paul was contracted to install power and water lines at the yard. Another minor tradition of the railway was a proclivity for using European laborers for track work. The yard had 140 Greek and Austrian immigrants doing track work, by May the entire Greek force had been laid off and replaced by forty Bulgarians, as the railway continued in its quest for the cheapest labor available.

The summer of 1912 saw the railway getting ahead of itself÷declaring the yard would be opened by November 1, an underestimation of six months. June saw pile driving on the south end pedestrian viaduct and finishing touches being put on the transfer shed as well as the 500-ton coal dock. Brickwork was completed on the machine shop and roundhouse and the timbering of the roundhouse roof begun. Concrete work began on the oil house and cinder pit that month, but three small brick buildings still needed to be constructed to serve the storekeeperâs needs. Finally for June, an all-Greek crew was back, housed in bunk cars and charged with unloading 30,000 tons of coal from Roslyn, which had accumulated in the yard.

In late August the turntable arrived, albeit in three cars. Before it could be unpacked, assembled and installed, a two-foot fill was required around not only the turntable pit, but the roundhouse and outlying buildings as well. Arriving that August were also the materials to construct a 24 by 44-foot passenger transfer depot, to be put in at East Auburn, as well as a 20 by 80-foot wood frame building to serve the yard foreman, car repairers and to store tools. The yard was also being wired for electric lights.

Plat map of Auburn Yard
Plat map of northern section of the Auburn Yard, WRV Museum Library

click here for large image of plat map

During September the filling and paving of the roundhouse and shop was completed, Spottsâ Soos Creek pipeline put in place and distributor lines run out for fire hydrants. Brickwork continued, this time taking the form of a 125-foot smoke stack for the powerhouse. All this work was not done without a human price. September was particularly bad for railway workers. Harry Sullivan fell off a handcar and David Jones, a mere 18, had the misfortune of operating a gravel spreader alone. The control lever flew back and struck him in the face, flattening his nose.

As winter moved in the work continued. On November 29 the railwayâs deadline for the opening had been passed by nearly a month. Construction now focused on fuel storage. Concrete work for a storage tank of 50,000 gallons of fuel oil had to be completed, as well as cement foundations for the Main Street depot. New telegraph poles between Seattle and Auburn were distributed along the line and were ready to be set up. Adam Spotts was back on Soos Creek, this time setting up a dam and intake.

In the late winter of 1912, the railway continued to finish and finalize the yard. January 1913 saw the completion of several key components÷coal dock, turntable, roundhouse tracks and the concrete work of the fuel oil plant, although it was still waiting for its 50,000-gallon tank. The cinder pit was being finished and an 800-foot umbrella shed at East Auburn begun. The storehouse was still awaiting construction. February saw the opening of the East Auburn passenger transfer station and in March the railway announced the yard would finally open on April 10. Still, work remained. The company had to purchase four lots behind the Green River Hotel on which to move the Main Street depot. As that structure was being generally refurbished, Auburnâs passengers would have to make do with the First Street depot. The machine shop would not open until April 1, due to the late arrival of machinery and the un-readiness of the yardâs power plant.

Auburn Yard, 1913
With the arrival of spring the railway announced who would be running the yard. General Yardmaster was to be Ivar P. Iversen, from Pasco, Wash.; assistant yardmaster would be S. L. Graham, and a crew of three clerks. These five men were to be the first employees of the yard. Iversen had arrived early in April and his first job he felt, was to try and postpone the opening of the yard. On April 5, he announced that he intended to delay the opening by five days. He still did not have scales and his tracks were not ready. However, Puget Sound Division Superintendent John Joseph McCullough immediately overruled him.

Thus, sharply at midnight on April 10, 1913, the unfinished yard opened. A mere thirty hours and ten minutes later the first train arrived. It must have been quickly handled, as Superintendent McCullough, Division Roadmaster A. F. Olsen, Yardmaster Iversen and no less than ten clerks awaited it. This skeleton crew would shortly be augmented by an additional ten clerks and some fifty-five switchmen. The RIP tracks and machine shop were still idle however, all their equipment had yet to arrive.

By the time of the Auburn Merchantâs Protective Association banquet on April 21, railway officials were ready to roundly proclaim their success. In front of 110 area businessmen, agents of other local roads, as well as the companyâs own dignitaries and Auburn Mayor J. B. Waugh, Superintendent McCullough touted the Northern Pacificâs newest accomplishment÷the Auburn Yard.
McCullough stated the railwayâs figures for the new facilities. The yard had an expected monthly payroll of $75,000 for an annual total just shy of a million dollars. It would handle an expected forty-four trains a day; classifying 2,150 cars of freight each 24 hours; weighing 600 a day on two 150-ton scales. To keep up with the traffic Auburn would employ a general yardmaster, a night yardmaster, four assistant yardmasters, day and night chief clerks, twenty additional yard clerks and a force of special agents to patrol the grounds.

The sixty locomotives assigned to the roundhouse would require thirty-five freight conductors, 120 engineers and firemen, 105 brakemen and an additional thirty trainmen for relief. Eight to ten switch engines would be needed, each with five or six switching crews and twelve extra switchmen. Upkeep of these locomotives necessitated four more foremen, six hostlers, twenty-five machinists and helpers, ten boilermakers and at least fifteen other craftsmen. The shop force would also include inspectors, pipe fitters, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, boiler washers, fire builders, engine wipers, as well as nearly as many helpers for each of these crafts. The RIP track would require another four foremen, six hostlers, eight inspectors, four oilers, four blacksmiths, four air brake men, ten carpenters, and sixty carmen. The coal dock, sand house, ash pit and other buildings would require yet more foremen and some forty laborers, wipers and sweepers. The storehouse required a storekeeper, clerks and more laborers. This work force of roughly 567 almost equaled Auburnâs entire population when the yards were begun; they undoubtedly outnumbered the actual number of the townâs working men and women in 1910. The average take-home pay for a member of this new force was expected to be $100 a month ($1,858 in 2003 dollars).

Moving On
The Northern Pacific and a few miles of railroad track had just irrevocably changed the face of Auburn, throwing it squarely in the middle of the industrial age. But for all the Superintendentâs bluster, the yard was a bit slow to get under way. The first payday rolled around on May 17, Agent John W. McKeeâs disbursement was $30,000. No small sum to be sure, but not the reported $75,000. Another blow, more personal this time, was coming. The yardâs first death. 18-year-old Callboy Harry Von Ostrand, fell on May 29 while jumping off the Seattle to Portland Fast Mail. He was caught and crushed.

Still, the yardâs ranks were in the process of filling out, the number of its employees increasing. Even before the yard was finished it was being enlarged. Charles Banks, of the Northern Pacificâs new Bureau of Efficiency, announced plans for yet another storehouse, a 48 by 60-foot structure. The new building would store fire brick, blacksmith coal, gas pipe and iron stock, all of which were presently stored outside. It also would include a 12 by 24-foot platform for the storage of scrap. One of the last moves was completed that May, as the refurbished passenger depot was slid to its new location.

Throughout the summer and early fall engines now came in for servicing, as did cars, cabooses, steam shovels and Lidgerwoods. An 800-foot long hedge of roses was planted around the passenger depot. As the railwayâs rotary snowplows were readied for the winter season, St. Paul decided it was time to send the engineer who had overseen it all on to his next assignment. On October 3, George Kenrick received the order to move on to Olympia. 

En Masse
In the meanwhile, the time had come for the companyâs investment in Auburn to start paying off. The wreck of Extra 4014 West on November 16, allowed Auburnâs new craftsmen to demonstrate their prowess. On the Palmer Cutoff downgrade east of Wynaco, Washington, (near todayâs fish hatchery) Northern Pacific 4014, a Class Z-3 2-8-8-2 steam locomotive, left the track after running over a broken rail. The massive mountain Mallet plowed some 300 feet down an embankment and piled up twenty-four cars of grain on top of itself. The train crew escaped injury, but three transients were crushed in the ensuing pile up.

Following the wreck, the mangled cars were shoved aside, the line reopened and the 4014 dragged the last few miles into Auburn. There, Boiler Foreman Lou Burno and his men descended on the behemoth en masse, returning it to service in 24 hours flat. The shopâs workers, who had come from not only well-known points on the Northern Pacific such as Tacoma, Seattle, Ellensburg, Pasco, Wash., and Mandan, N.D., but from far-flung locations such as Ottumwa, Iowa and Georgia as well, were now welded together in their new town, and new yard, Auburn.

As the Northern Pacific marched steadily towards 1914, WWI and eventual nationalization, the numbers started to come in on the roadâs new freight terminal in the far west. The first report was the total number of cars handled system-wide. That July, just months after its hasty opening, Auburn had handled 38,982 cars, making it the third busiest point on the railway. In a one-day examination on August 11, the yardmasters and clerks at Auburn found they had handled 796 cars between 6 A.M. and 6 P.M. On November 21, the second report came in, this time on engine service system-wide. Again it showed that only two facilities, Duluth, Minnesota, and Tacoma, a mere two of the 26 total across the railway, had serviced more locomotives in a month than Auburn. The townâs record stood at 1,483 in a month with a cost per engine of $1.53, a figure sixth from lowest overall.

As much as the Northern Pacific and its workers had become vital part of the townâs life and economy, the town now found itself, and quickly began to view itself, as a vital part of the railway. Shortly before the yardâs completion in the fading summer of 1913, the editor of one of the local papers ventured out to see the thing that had so dramatically changed the life of his town. He quietly noted, ãThere are 150 switch lamps in use every night in the Auburn Yards·this makes a beautiful sight."

by J. A. Phillips, III