A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

July 2005

Auburn's Other Railroad

by David Sprau

Lesser known than the Northern Pacific but present in Auburn until 1980, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul and Pacific, also known as the Milwaukee Road (Milwaukee) was Auburn's second railroad. Whereas the Northern Pacific (NP) reached the coast over a steep, curving route through Stampede Pass in 1887, the Milwaukee followed a much easier grade via a well-engineered route over Snoqualmie Pass and did not arrive in Auburn until 1909. Vestiges of their abandoned, superior line across the Cascade Mountains may clearly be seen from Interstate 90 today.

So what's the story behind the late arrival of Auburn's Other Railroad, the Milwaukee, and what happened to it?

The Milwaukee Road

Prior to 1909, Puget Sound was served from Minneapolis-St. Paul by only two railroads: the Great Northern (GN), which operated via Stevens Pass and terminated at Seattle, and the NP, which operated via Stampede Pass and terminated at both Tacoma and Seattle. Ostensibly competitors, they were actually closely related because GN's James J. Hill and his financier friend, J.P. Morgan, had controlled both since 1896. At the same time, the Milwaukee was a prosperous Midwest company. But neither Hill/Morgan railroads had lines into Chicago, and the Milwaukee had no line to the coast. So the Hill lines and the Milwaukee exchanged cars at the Twin Cities. Everyone was happy-for a time.

Ever looking to increase their holdings, by 1900 Hill and Morgan had obtained a third railroad, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy. They didn't need the Milwaukee anymore, because the Burlington gave them an acceptable substitute. Now, they had access to much of the freight revenue previously earned by the Milwaukee.

The perseverant Milwaukee was not dismayed. Opportunity was knocking as the Pacific Coast was in a building boom. Passengers and freight traveling west and eastbound lumber and mineral products seemed assured. So in 1905, in an attempt to recover this business, Milwaukee management decided to build a line of their own to the coast.

Telegraph operator, Leah Carrell
Telegraph operator, Leah Carrell hangs train orders in a delivery device
for a passing train to grab, 1959. She worked all over the Milwaukee Coast Division
starting in 1917. Leah retired in 1960 and lived in Auburn
until she passed away, (while mowing her lawn in 1998, ) she was 102.
Courtesy Dave Sprau

Edward J. Pearson, Chief Engineer of the NP, was hired away by Milwaukee management to do much of the engineering and locating (surveying) work for the new line. Pearson, remembering his frustrating days as Division Superintendent on NP's steep, crooked line through the Cascades and undulating trackage across North Dakota prairies, insisted on the very best engineering practices for "his" new railroad. Pearson called for direct routing, minimum curvature and easy grades. These high standards and insistence on quality work resulted in many expensive cuts through hillsides, fills across depressions, and high bridges over canyons along the route.

By comparison to competitors at the time, the result was a remarkably well-engineered line. However, Pearson's penchant for perfection fell short in a couple of places. In order to climb Pipestone Pass near Butte, grades reached 2%, admittedly less than NP's 2.2%, but greater than GN's 1.8% line through comparable Montana terrain. After reaching eastern Washington, Milwaukee found its "Achilles heel" in the form of the Saddle Mountains, a series of basalt hills rising sharply west of the Columbia River crossing south of the present town of Vantage. At this point, Milwaukee engineering personnel were forced to swallow their pride and lay out a route rising at a stiff 2.2% until reaching the summit at Boylston tunnel, 17 miles west. From there, Milwaukee descended on a more acceptable 1.6% grade into the Kittitas Valley, then paralleled the water-level NP from Ellensburg to Easton, where NP began sharply climbing at the rate of 2.2% in order to reach Stampede Pass. 2.2% was considered the upper threshold of Mountain Grade, requiring helper engines and extraordinary braking procedures, adding expense and complication on a daily basis.

The well-engineered Milwaukee remained on the relatively flat Yakima Valley floor, skirted the south shore of Lake Keechelus, tunneled through the Cascades at Hyak, emerged just above the Denney Creek Campground area of present-day I-90, then hugged the mountainside to the southwest of Snoqualmie Pass on a 1.7% grade until finally approaching sea level just west of Renton. From that point, Milwaukee operated in two directions. One route ran north to Seattle (utilizing other railroads for most of that trip), the other ran south through the White River Valley to Sumner and along the Puyallup River to its terminus at Tacoma.

Trains in a pushing contest, 1920
As a publicity stunt the Milwaukee coupled two locomotives, one steam, one electric,
in a pushing contest. In a cloud of smoke, the steam engine lost, Kent, 1920. WRVM #538

In 1919 the Milwaukee electrified their mainline route from Othello to Tacoma allowing for the use of a completely new technology. On March 6, 1920, the Milwaukee staged a publicity stunt at Kent-a pushing contest between a large steam locomotive and one of their new Electrics. The Seattle Times headline declared, "Mastodon Veterans of Rails Giving way to New King, History is Made in Strength Test." The story related, "The mightiest of Steam locomotives met in contest with one of the new electric locomotives just installed by the Milwaukee Railway, and went down to defeat." Photographs portray the competing locomotives coupled nose-to-nose near Smith Street, with steam and smoke pouring out of the defeated steam engine. Another photo portrayed engineers Cliff Past of the electric locomotive, and Albert Heap of the vanquished steam engine, arguing good-naturedly after the contest.

Milwaukee constructed an Auburn depot at West Main Street, assigning a station agent, night telegraphers, and clerks to assist with station work. Much of their business came from the military "H&R" (Hold and Reconsign) facility at the south end of town. A depot and office force also was established in Kent. Among the customers of both stations were Libby McNeil & Libby (food products), Palmer G. Lewis (lumber), Northwest Metals (new and scrap steel), Borden (dairy products), and White River Feed Company at Thomas.

Snoqualmie Pass summit
Snoqualmie Pass summit as seen from the Milwaukee's Laconia Station, with water tower
and their rotary snowplow during the winter of 1913-14. This line was only used
until the tunnel was completed in 1915. Courtesy Dave Sprau

While Milwaukee construction was in preliminary stages, other wheels were busy turning at the corporate headquarters of the Union Pacific (UP) which had been trying since at least 1901 to gain entry to Seattle. UP President Harriman, preferring to use the tracks of other companies in preference to building his own, had approached NP several times in an attempt to negotiate trackage rights from Portland to Seattle, but was rebuffed each time. Finally in 1906 Harriman began his own survey north from Vancouver Washington, including a tunnel from the general area of Tacoma's Nalley Valley through the hillside under Center Street, emerging above the present site of the State Historical Society and Federal Courthouse (Old Union Station). Portions of this 8500-foot tunnel actually were dug, and today present occasional problems for city engineering personnel. If all this activity was a ruse (as some historians think) to persuade NP management to grant trackage rights to his railroad, it worked. In 1909 an agreement was formalized-the UP would use NP tracks to Tacoma. As for getting from Tacoma to Seattle, that piece of the puzzle was a little easier to figure out. Albert J. Earling, President of the Milwaukee Railroad, was also a member of the UP Board of Directors. When UP applied to Milwaukee for joint usage of a portion of Milwaukee's line north of Tacoma, it was quickly granted. The UP would become a tenant of Milwaukee between Tacoma and Black River Junction, (near present Southcenter). From that point to Seattle the UP would build new tracks.

Click for larger map
Click for larger map

This meant that Milwaukee's facility at Auburn, although staffed with Milwaukee personnel, would forever be shared on an equal basis with the UP. And so, the UP and Milwaukee shared all of the passenger and freight business in the White River Valley. Although the two roads appeared to peacefully co-exist, the perils of such agreements were driven home forcefully in 1969 when Milwaukee, at considerable expense, constructed a modern automobile-unloading facility between Kent and Auburn.

Kent depot
Like its counterpart in Auburn, the Kent depot kept busy
shipping produce from the valley. Courtesy Dave Sprau

The automobile-unloading facility opened with considerable fanfare and celebration- effectively allowing the Milwaukee to take about 99% of the lucrative auto business. The revelry stopped abruptly about one week after opening when the UP surprised Milwaukee managers and embarrassed the celebrants with a reminder from their 1909 contract. It provided that, for a relatively small consideration, Milwaukee was required to allow UP to use new facilities and share business on an equal basis. This, of course, promptly reduced Milwaukee revenues at the new facility by at least half. This elementary business goof also provides possible insight behind the railroads' constant money problems-the specter of poor management at the top.

In 1909, significant cost overruns were rare. Nonetheless Milwaukee's construction cost for their Pacific extension far exceeded estimates. Electrification, though providing marvelous efficiency and subsequent cost savings, had also cost much more than expected. Unfortunately for the Milwaukee, the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal further weakened their financial situation. Business dropped precipitously. The Milwaukee endured two bankruptcies over the following years, enabling Wall Street to repeatedly manipulate the company's stock, resulting in very little operating cash for maintenance. Additionally, the Great Depression, and competition from other railroads and highways all conspired to erode profits. Both bankruptcies were discharged after WWII. With the cash situation tight, and an invitation to become part of the1970 Burlington Northern merger presenting a life raft, sadly Milwaukee management failed to grab hold.

Auburn depot
Conquering UP passes Milwaukee depot, closed, with the Auburn sign removed,
in 1978, just prior to demolition of the building. Courtesy Dave Sprau

In 1970, as a condition of the Burlington Northern merger, the Milwaukee was given direct entry into Bellingham, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and Billings, Montana for the first time, and successfully captured a large amount of new business. Train frequency and tonnage over Snoqualmie Pass increased by about three hundred percent. Foolishly, this embarrassment of riches was not met by the necessary expenditures to keep track in good condition. Derailments took place with increasing frequency beginning in about 1974. By 1977, the number of trains going into the ditch had reached alarming numbers, and in a futile attempt to stem the number of accidents, speeds were severely reduced by issuance of "slow orders". Freight business that had been gained earlier was lost as shippers, disappointed by horrendous schedule delays and frequent damage to their merchandise, looked elsewhere.

By December of 1977, the Milwaukee was bankrupt for a third time, this time never to recover. Courts appointed a Chicago Trustee whose cure for the ailment was amputation: by March 1980 Milwaukee was to cease operations west of Miles City, Montana. This ridiculous remedy deprived the company of rich revenue formerly generated on the West Coast. The railroad was then cut back to Ortonville, Minnesota. In 1985, the Soo Line purchased the truncated remains of the Milwaukee-which was eventually taken over by the Canadian Pacific. However, for employees and shippers at the west end of the Milwaukee, the show had been over long ago. Depots and terminal facilities had been demolished, rails sold for scrap, and rights-of way converted to hiking trails.

And the Milwaukee line through Auburn? It was, remember, shared by a tenant railroad, the UP. In 1979, cash-strapped Milwaukee management sold control of the valley line to their former tenant. For the short time during which the ailing Milwaukee continued operating, they became the tenant. In 1980, the UP became sole owner and operator of the tracks through Auburn, as it continues through today.

In recent years, burgeoning traffic at the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma have sorely taxed the ability of remaining railroads to handle available business. Tacoma Port Commissioner Jack Fabulich summed things up pretty well in a statement overheard at a railroaders' gathering several years ago: "Tacoma sure misses the Milwaukee Railroad."!

by David Sprau