All Over The Map: History blooms at the Great Northern Railway’s Monroe greenhouses

Feb 11, 2022, 6:31 AM | Updated: Oct 25, 2022, 4:24 pm
Great Northern Railway's greenhouses in Monroe, Washington, circa 1926, as they appeared in a company publication. (Public domain via gngoat.org) Fresh cut flowers for dining cars and plantings for outside railroad stations were cultivated at the Monroe greenhouses from the mid 1920s to the early 1960s; this image look west from Lewis Street and is from circa 1940s and likely from a company publication. (Public domain via gngoat.org) Red circle identifies what is likely the Great Northern Railway greenhouses in Monroe, Washington on a 1953 topographic map. (USGS Archives) Looking northwest across the BNSF Railway tracks from the west side of Lewis Street in downtown Monroe toward the former site of the Great Northern Railway greenhouse, which is now a patch of mostly vacant land on the north side of the tracks. (Feliks Banel/KIRO Newsradio)

It’s the time of year when many people think of flowers and about getting ready for the impending gardening season. In Seattle, the Northwest Flower and Garden Show is underway through the weekend at the Washington State Convention Center, and Monday will be Valentine’s Day, one of the busiest times for the floral industry.

Flowers and plantings were once an important part of the travel industry, too – at least for the Great Northern Railway during its 20th century glory days. Fresh cut flowers and live plants were so important to the legendary railroad of the “Empire Builder” James J. Hill, the Great Northern even operated their own sprawling greenhouse complex in Monroe, Washington, for nearly four decades.

For a lot of people, the Great Northern is an especially beloved special railroad – for the life story of irrepressible founder J.J. Hill, for his refusal to accept land grants to subsidize the building of the line’s cross-country route, for its tunnel under downtown Seattle, and even for the particularly high quality of its graphic identity, its color schemes, and the care and upkeep of its stations and other property, and maybe even for Rocky, the railroad’s goat mascot. The Great Northern might also be the only American railroad that had its own greenhouses.

A growing operation managed by a sole Great Northern employee dates to the early 20th century at the Great Northern depot at Elk, Washington, northeast of Spokane and not far from the Idaho border. That employee was station agent George Dishmaker. Along with his assigned duties, Dishmaker cultivated flowers and other plantings, and generally beautified the grounds around the depot at Elk. Management got wind of what Dishmaker was up to, and eventually saw potential for having him do the same for the whole system, from Seattle to St. Paul.

The Great Northern expanded Dishmaker’s modest growing operation at Elk, and then commissioned construction of a new facility along the tracks not far from the Monroe depot in 1926. Dishmaker’s girlfriend was a schoolteacher there, so the story goes, thus he was more than happy to move from tiny Elk to still-fairly-tiny Monroe, and may have had a hand in personally suggesting the small community in Snohomish County.

The source for this anecdote is David Sprau. He’s a railroad historian who lives in St. Helens, Oregon. He also worked on the railroad for 40 years, beginning when he was a teenager in 1960 when he was hired by the Northern Pacific, until 1997 when he retired from what had become the BNSF Railway. Sprau also grew up in Monroe in the 1940s and 1950s, so he saw the Great Northern greenhouses in operation as a child and young man, and he knew the people who worked there.

Why, exactly, would the Great Northern Railway even need a big greenhouse?

“They supplied fresh flowers for the dining cars on all the passenger trains and they supplied planted flowers in planter boxes at all the depots on the system,” Sprau told KIRO Newsradio earlier this week. “Clear back into Minnesota and South Dakota, every Great Northern station had a little planter box in front of all of its windows, and usually geraniums.”

Some stations had even more elaborate plantings, too.

The whole system was supplied by train, of course, from the greenhouses in Monroe. Some Great Northern stations from Seattle all the way back to the Midwest — as well as railroad-owned places such as lodges at Glacier National Park — were like little botanical gardens. Even King Street Station in urban Seattle had an adjacent area of plantings, known as Station Park or Depot Park, along its south side. On all Great Northern trains, dining cars had fresh cut flowers year-round, and special flowers for holidays, such lilies at Easter.

“They would ship flowers out of there to Minneapolis to be distributed around the state of Minnesota, just for example, a whole baggage car full of them,” Sprau said. “And the Western Star passenger train would stop there, even though that wasn’t the usual stop, and they would back that train onto the house track behind the depot, and couple it to that baggage car full of flowers, and away they’d go for St. Paul.”

“Two days later,” Sprau continued, “the thing would be in Minneapolis, and some of their employees would be unloading this stuff back there and hauling it around all the depots and freshening up the planter boxes in the spring.”

The greenhouses at Monroe were expanded around the end of World War II to accommodate the boom of post-war travel. Sprau says the facility also became something of a destination for horticulture groups and others interested in learning about the cultivation of plants and flowers.

“They had a big sign that said, ‘Great Northern Nurseries,’” along the tracks, Sprau said. “That was for the people riding the passenger train, so they could see that and see all those pretty flowers” and know it was the Great Northern that had grown them.

Things started to change as the economics of passenger rail shifted in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and so the greenhouses at Monroe were shut down in early 1963 and then demolished that December. George Dishmaker had passed away in the 1930s, and a father and son named Arie DeRooy and Tony DeRooy had successively been in charge.

Trains still run through Monroe, including Amtrak’s version of the Empire Builder, connecting Seattle and Chicago, though they don’t stop there anymore. The patch of land where the greenhouses once stood is vacant; it can be seen just north of the tracks, and just west of Lewis Street, the road that connects downtown Monroe with Highway 2 and Stevens Pass. Still, though the plants are gone, it’s easy to close your eyes and get a whiff – not of the scent of flowers – but of the history that keeps blooming at places like this year-round.

Special thanks to Great Northern Railway historian Scott Tanner for research assistance with this story, and to John Chase, author of a 2014 “Reference Sheet” about the Monroe greenhouses for the Great Northern Railway Historical Society.

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.

Feliks Banel

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All Over The Map: History blooms at the Great Northern Railway’s Monroe greenhouses