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Rare BNSF railroad maps reveal unique Northwest history

The Northern Pacific and the Milwaukee Road are just a few of the famous railroads that once served the Puget Sound Country as far back as the 1870s. And while the old lines merged to ultimately become the BNSF Railway, the DNA of those original railroads, and part of Puget Sound history, live on in a priceless collection of maps now being stored in Texas.

For the most part, it was the waterways that first got settlers to the Northwest. These waterways served as the primary means of moving merchandise to market from the 1850s to the 1880s. But by the end of the 19th century, it was the railroads that had stitched together the United States, connecting the Pacific Northwest to the Intermountain West and beyond, and allowed people and goods to move back and forth with relative ease.

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But the railroad business changed drastically over the past 50 years, and most of the smaller and medium-sized regional lines were consolidated or merged out of existence.

Library of maps

And it turns out that in addition to real estate and all those thousands of miles of rails, BNSF Railway also consolidated the map and deed collections of around 200 smaller railroads. The documents are now all being stored in a 5,000-square foot archive in Fort Worth, Texas.

“The library contains over 100,000 real estate maps that document the railroad title and ownership,” said Jim Obermiller, director of compliance for BNSF. “Over 1,700 of those are from the State of Washington. And we’ve got over 400,000 deed documents and several hundred annual reports from the various historical railroads.”

The materials now in Fort Worth originated with dozens of different railroads. Obermiller says that the maps and deeds and other historic documents have been gradually finding their way to Texas from former railroad offices around the country for the past few decades.

“I’m not exactly sure where they were in the past,” Jim Obermiller said. “But speaking for the entire system since the merger [of Burlington Northern and Santa Fe] in 1995, we’ve done a big collection effort to get items to Fort Worth so that we can do exactly what we’re doing today.”

And what they’re doing, exactly, is conserving and preserving these priceless maps and documents, some of which are now more than 150 years old. BNSF is also creating digital files as backups, and to minimize the need to handle the original and sometimes very fragile pieces.

Preserving BNSF history

Most of the maps in the BNSF collection are one-of-a-kind, hand-drawn, custom creations that were most certainly not mass-produced; these aren’t the folding highway maps from the gas station or mini-market. However, they were used like maps from the gas station for decades by rough and tumble railroad people who folded them, wrote on them and stuffed them in their dusty briefcases. So now BNSF is working to conserve and preserve all of them.

“All of the maps were put through a process where a plant-based putty was run over the face of them to remove any surface dirt, and for some of these maps there was a whole lot of surface dirt,” said Ashley Jeffus, project manager for the BNSF archives. “Then we sometimes painstakingly removed all of the tape that had been put on the map to hold it together, since the historic tape can be very acidic and can continue to damage the map over time. And then we used acid-free tape as well as acid-free papers to repair any holes, sometimes putting maps that were in pieces back together.”

Jeffus says there were two main types of maps that railroads commissioned long ago. One was a “right-of-way” map, which showed the ownership of property where rail lines ran. The other was a “station map,” showing all the rails and sidings and listing all the names of business along the tracks.

Historic Washington

What railroad map gems originally from Washington are now calling Fort Worth home?

One of the maps in the BNSF collection, says Jeffus, is a Seattle “station map,“ made for the Milwaukee Road back in 1928.

“This particular map shows the area near the Lander Street Wharf,” Jeffus said, describing a large, oblong, black and white map that shows the major rail yards that once dominated the area now called SoDo.

“It shows grain and feed warehouses, they have a carpenter shop that’s linked to a furniture warehouse [and] flour mills,” Jeffus said. “And then, the expected fishing and packing houses … along the dock. We also have, farther away from the dock, Sears Roebuck, and even a small carriage building business.”

“These station maps really may be the only record that these businesses existed in that place at that time,” Jeffus said.

BNSF also has a right-of-way map for Seattle from 1921 made for the Great Northern Railway. It shows the rail lines from King Street, site of the current passenger train station; the underground route of the railroad tunnel that goes beneath downtown; and all the tracks that go to Interbay, which is still the location of a BNSF maintenance facility.

Since Ashley Jeffus has spent so much time with what are, essentially, works of art, does she ever recognize particular mapmakers by their drawing technique or dose she ever get some sense of who the mapmakers were?

“You kind of get a sense of the work especially in some of the early filing maps,” Jeffus said.

Filing maps, says Jeffus, were made by the Northern Pacific in the earliest years of the railroad around here, as far back as the 1870s.

“Most of them were the first survey, perhaps, done of that area,” Jeffus said. “So in addition to cities and towns, you would see the topography. So you would see these beautiful lakes drawn and filled out, colored in mountains, rivers, specific islands.”

Jeffus says that the oldest piece from Washington in the BNSF collection is a Northern Pacific Railroad map from 1873, which puts it square in the era of Washington Territory, pre-statehood. This map, which may be a form of “filing map,” shows one of the earliest rail lines in what’s now Washington state, from Kalama, on the Columbia River, all the way north along the Columbia and the Cowlitz. And it’s illustrated and hand-colored just as Jeffus described.

With all those old railroad guys using these maps a hundred years ago, does Jeffus ever find obvious cigar burns or tobacco juice stains or other evidence of the maps being in circulation in the old days?

“Lots of coffee stains, some questionable smells,” Jeffus said, laughing. “Mylar [which some of the old maps are stored in], when it breaks down, has the worst smell you’ve ever smelled. So, yeah, sometimes processing these maps was an olfactory adventure.”

Editor’s note: The BNSF map collection is not open to the public yet, but it is open to some scholars on a case-by-case basis.

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