Lester - In the Shadow of Stampede Pass

By J.A. Phillips, III,


At Stampede Pass
Three decades before the Northern Pacific began construction across Stampede Pass, engineers were in the field searching for it. An army appropriation bill allotted Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, $150,000 to conduct surveys for a railroad to the Pacific. George McClellan’s party then explored the Cascades and on July 18, 1852, McClellan sallied forth from Fort Vancouver and by September 6, the captain was at the outlet of Lake Kachess into the Yakima River-within throwing distance of Stampede Pass. McClellan continued on to what he thought was nearly the summit of Snoqualmie Pass-in actuality Yakima Pass. Discouraged by the rugged terrain, he explored no further, thus missing Snoqualmie and Stampede passes. September 12 found McClellan back at base camp, with barely a week’s exploration of an area where not one, but two transcontinental railroads were built.
The first of these, the Northern Pacific, was charted by an Act of Congress and signed July 2, 1864, by Abraham Lincoln. Groundbreaking took place in 1870 on the road following much of the route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. From the 1870s onward, the Northern Pacific looked for a way across the Cascades. Early in 1881, civil engineer Virgil Bogue received instructions to explore all possible passes leading out of the Green River.




The barrels on the roof are this 1890s depot’s “sprinkler system.”
Sadly, attempts to preserve this building and most others in Lester failed
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“Our first camp,” he later wrote, “was on a hill not far above Hot Springs. Our next camp was on a gravel bar in what we afterward called Sunday Creek, because we did a great deal of work near Lester along that creek on the Sabbath . . . . on the morning of March 16, we traveled on snow shoes, the men packing such provisions as we had. The snow was from seven to thirty or more feet deep . . . . On the morning of [March] 19th we broke camp at about 8:30 a.m. The weather was fine, not a cloud in the sky. We had finally concluded that we must stick to the ridge we were on, and we pushed forward, and had such good luck that at 10:10 a.m. we arrived at the pass, the aneroid barometer marking the elevation of 3,495 feet. Andy Drury, one of the men, remarked as we looked down upon the slopes of Sunday Creek and Green River, that it was the prettiest pass in the mountains.”
At the time Bogue discovered the pass, he named it in honor of James A. Garfield. William Bonney later described how that name was supplanted. Bogue sent an aggressive foreman to take charge of a trail cutting party camped near the summit.
“The foreman came and announced to the cook that the food was furnished to feed men that were working for the company,” Bonney said, “that these men had severed their connection with the company [having quit when the gruff foreman arrived], hence were not entitled to be fed. Then was when the real stampede began.” A large fir near the camp was then blazed with the words “Stampede Camp.”
Between 1881 and 1888, the line across Stampede from Pasco to Tacoma was completed, with the majority of the work undertaken between 1886 and 1888. This included thousands of feet of trestles and fill, several tunnels, and a tortuous temporary switchback to carry the main line across the pass while the two-mile Stampede Tunnel was bored below. Nelson Bennett, with a bid of $786,462.70, was awarded the big tunnel contract on January 21, 1886 and the tunnel opened for service on May 27, 1888. Bennett beat his contractual deadline by a scant seven days so to celebrate the achievement, Bennett is reputed to have thrown a bash consisting of 100 turkeys, 241 cases of oysters and 5,000 cigars. Men working on the tunnel for three months or more received a pass to anywhere on the railroad and a new suit of clothes for their journey.




For nearly fifty years the only access to Lester was by rail.
The Lester Hotel, seen in the center, had its twin in the town of Easton.
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The Rise of Lester
When the route over Stampede was completed, two helper stations-Easton and Weston-were established at each end of the 2.2 percent grade marking the last twenty miles across the summit. Extra engines based at these points pushed heavy trains over the barrier. Today, Easton is readily located on Interstate 90 east of Snoqualmie Pass. Weston, however, is no more than a wide spot on a forest road, located southeasterly of the confluence of the Green River and Friday Creek. Weston was shoehorned up against a hillside in a loop designed to maintain an even ascent to the summit. With minimal room for expansion, Weston and its loop proved to be poor long-term choices. The need for facilities to support heavier trains and larger equipment led to its relocation.
In 1891, the Northern Pacific’s annual report said the Construction Department was moving “Weston yard to a point four miles down the mountain at the foot of the maximum grade before the fall grain movement.” The following year it stated, “A new yard has been constructed at Lester . . . at the foot of the maximum grade, with brick roundhouse, turntable, suitable coal chute, and combination station.”
Lester Hansacker, a telegraph operator, lent his name to the future town. Traditionally, the town is thought to have first been named for Harvey Dean of Dean’s Lumber and Mercantile Co., with the name being changed to Lester after the expansion of the railway facilities. However, Dean, Isaac McCain and Elmer Morgan did not incorporate their company until two years after the Northern Pacific announced it was developing the new yard at Lester. To confuse matters, the telegraph call for the station was “DM,” lending credence to the Dean’s Mill story.
Between 1891 and 1915 railway facilities grew to include a two-story combination depot, a six-stall roundhouse and machine shop, a two-story section house for snow fighting crews, a roadmaster’s home and office, housing for the section foreman, signal maintainer and agent, water and oil tanks, and a massive coal dock. Around this nucleus came homes for railway crews, a school, a general store and post office, a small restaurant and grocery, an assistant ranger station, and at the eastern edge of town, the imposing home of Elmer Morgan, proprietor of the mill in nearby Nagrom.
The Lester Hotel was remodeled from the two-story section house by order of Superintendent William Albee in 1906. The hotel included a lobby, two parlors, a billiards room, living room, kitchen, bath and two bedrooms on the first floor, and sixteen bedrooms on the second floor. Operators of the hotel were often the wives of local railroaders-Gertrude Vetterling, Eleanor Folmer, and Constance Smyth all ran the hotel at one time or another in the 1920s. For many years, the hotel’s fire escapes for second floor rooms were rope ladders to be thrown out the windows and clambered down in case of fire. Auburn’s Road Foreman of Engines, A.E. Burrows, wrote, “The vertical ladder, about eight feet long, from the top of the kitchen to the top of the hotel roof, is unsafe, in fact it will fall over if anyone attempts to use it, account improperly fastened to the roof.”




At Lester’s first roundhouse we see the coal powered Mikado Engine #1610 approaching the turntable, which is powered by the Hostler, standing alongside

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According to Polk’s Directory, the town had a population of 250 circa 1907. Mrs. J.A. Smith kept a hotel, and Anderson & Nelson served as the local dairy. Morgan, not only running Morgan Lumber, was also involved in the general store and served as postmaster. Seven years later the population had risen to 300. In 1917, the population had dropped to a mere 100, the hotel was in the hands of 50-year-old Irish émigré Catherine Overton, Anderson & Ingalls were selling meats in town, with Morgan still working as postmaster and running his general store. By 1921, Polk’s listed the population as 400, but listed no businesses. Transitory populations following the railroad traffic and the available timber proved to be the rule, rather than the exception, to small towns along the Green River.
Epidemics played havoc with the town’s population. Smallpox, diphtheria, and the terrible outbreak of Spanish Influenza, which followed the close of World War I, all took their toll on Lester. Passed down through the family of Pete Schmidt, a railroad machinist at Lester up until the great shop strike of 1922 (and thereafter the proprietor of the local cafe), was a poem describing one of these upheavals.
“The smallpox has caught Lester-and quarantined us all. First it was only Saunders-then Richardson’s did fall. Next Arthur Thompson’s got it-they had to fall in line. Then Jackie Schmidt broke out with it-and now he’s doing time. His mother said, ‘I’ll not have it, to small pox I’m immune,’-she got it just the same. And Sis and Dad left home. Mrs. Pilgrim joined the ranks-but Mr. said not much. She left him-made him fumigate-now don’t that beat the Dutch? Not wanting to be slighted-Verona got sick too. How many more, the poor nurse cried-the next one may be you.”




Elmer Morgan cut timber along the Green River and lent his name to
another small town, Nagrom (Morgan backwards.) Ed Hocking ran this store.


The First Sea Change
At precisely 10:25 a.m. on April 13, 1944, the printer circuit chattered to life in Tacoma Union Station. “Mr. McCauley requests X-3 reports to be furnished for all movements made with engine 6001 regardless of class of train handled.” In far-off St. Paul, Patrick Henry McCauley, general superintendent of transportation, wanted dispatchers to report the time of departure, arrival, and any delays to locomotive 6001 as it began its service on the railway. Fifty-nine minutes later, Superintendent Carl H. Burgess reported that the dieselization of Stampede Pass had begun.
Four years earlier, the Northern Pacific-and most major roads-tested EMD 103-a diesel locomotive built by General Motors’ Electro-Motive Division. Its reliability, performance and operating cost turned out to be the death knell for steam locomotives in the U.S. in general, and Lester as a helper station in particular. In the spring of 1944, the Northern Pacific received its first copies of EMD 103-including the 6001. Legend has it that when the first diesel helper arrived in town, telegrapher Elmer O. Schweppe prophetically said, “If he makes it to the top it’s bye-bye Lester.”
“I was working as the first trick telegraph operator at Easton when 6001 made its first trip east,” recalls Dispatcher Jim Fredrickson. “It was loaded with brass hats, Carl Burgess and his business car 1909, the dynamometer car, and so forth. There was really no advance word of exactly what they could do and what a devastating effect they would have in such a short time.” After just eight months with a single set in helper service, General Manager Frederick R. Bartles wrote Assistant Chief Engineer Jim Derrig, “This is working out very successfully and we plan on continuing the Diesel in helper service indefinitely.”
Scarcely more than a decade later, steam was dead on the Northern Pacific. With steam engines went the need for dozens facilities and thousands of workers. Downsizing hit outlying posts like Lester and Easton first, then larger shops in cities like Auburn and Tacoma. Even miners in company towns like Roslyn saw their livelihoods disappear with dieselization. By the latter half of the 1950s, trains ran past the boarded-up Lester roundhouse. With helper locomotives running directly from Auburn to Yakima, many railroaders left Lester for Auburn.




Roundhouse is pictured with an engine approaching
the turntable. Lester was plagued with forest fires.

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In the face of adversity, Lesterites showed an incredible faith in the future by rebuilding the Lester School in 1954. Private contributions financed a brand-new $175,000 structure that could comfortably handle 100 students. It was the social center of isolated Lester-dances, movies, elections and even church services were held there. The quality of the tiny school was a point of pride throughout Lester’s history-its faculty included a noted Pacific Northwest historian (Joseph Hazard) and its graduates included a State Supreme Court Justice (Matthew Hill).
Dieselization heralded the beginning of the end of Lester as a railroad town. But it was only the first of two dramatic changes wrought upon the upper Green River valley. Just as Lesterites planned for a bright future by rebuilding the Lester School in the middle 1950s, forces were unleashed which brought about the demise of every small community in the upper valley-including Lester itself.

The final chapter of the Lester story will be featured in our next newsletter.