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All Over The Map: Wilkeson Hand-Car Races are back on track

The eastern Pierce County town of Wilkeson has hosted railroad hand-car races almost every year since 1974. (Courtesy Wilkeson Booster Club)

After last year’s cancellation due to COVID, the peak event of the social season in the eastern Pierce County town of Wilkeson is back on track for Saturday, July 31, as the town’s famous hand-car races make their triumphant return.

The mostly annual railroad hand-car races have been a big deal in Wilkeson since the Wilkeson Booster Club first organized them back in 1974.

Wilkeson is an old mining and railroad town named for Civil War-era journalist – and, later, railroad executive – Samuel Wilkeson. It’s been known in recent decades mostly for its amazing collection of “beehives” – ornate old brick ovens where coal was “coked” (or refined) from the late 19th century until the 1920s.

The beehives are located in the town’s Coke Oven Park. Also in the park are several sets of bleachers and two parallel sets of about 400 feet of rusty old railroad track, all of which are pressed into service once a year for Wilkeson’s ambitiously named National Hand-Car Races.

A railroad hand car is a small, human-powered conveyance first used to travel via railroad tracks in the 1800s. Human power is transferred to the wheels by means of a two-ended lever that’s pumped up and down like a see-saw – by the riders using their arms and backs, and probably their legs – to make the car move along the tracks.

Adam Gallion is a KIRO Radio listener and a firefighter who grew up between Wilkeson and Buckley, and who still lives in the area. He’s been attending the annual races for decades.

He says the races are short – less than two minutes – which means it’s critical to get a fast start by overcoming the friction between the steel wheels and the rusty steel rails. Gallion says two-person or four-person teams typically propel each hand car, but those teams also have an additional member – called the “pusher” – who’s not actually on board the car.

“The pusher at the start [is] like a football guy right on the line, he’s in that football stance,” Gallion said. “And when that bell goes” to start the race, Gallion explained, “he basically helps them to get them started and pushes.”

And when the pusher is done?

“He just kind of falls onto a mattress,” Gallion said.

That is, a mattress is placed on the ground – on the ties between the rails – and when the pusher is done pushing the hand car, and the other team members are pumping the lever for dear life, the pusher lands on the ground, and their fall is cushioned by an old mattress.

Gallion also says that though there are those two sets of side-by-side tracks in Coke Oven Park, the races on Saturday will be run one car at a time – so it’s not hand car versus hand car – with each team trying to beat the clock. Hand-car rides will also be offered Saturday as well.

One thing that might appeal to impulsive spectators: Anyone who visits Wilkeson for Saturday’s event and gets particularly inspired may sign up, then and there, to actually race a hand car. Registration is $5; otherwise, admission to the Wilkeson National Hand-Car Races is free. A concession stand and beer garden are also located in Coke Oven Park.

Gallion, who’s quite the eastern Pierce County booster, also speaks highly of two more permanent places to eat in town: Carlson Block Pizzeria and Nomad Coffee.

Festivities in Wilkeson get underway Saturday, July 31, with a parade at 11 a.m. and a magic show at noon. Hand-car races begin at Coke Oven Park at 1 p.m.

And for those sports fans worried that a visit to Wilkeson might mean missing something on TV from Tokyo on Saturday afternoon, a quick check of the NBC website confirms that hand-car races are, in fact, not an Olympic event.

Yet.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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