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Echoes of Eastside rail history with Sound Transit preparing to get underway

Apr 19, 2024, 10:13 AM | Updated: 12:31 pm

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The old Kirkland Depot as it appeared on July 27, 1964; passenger rail service on the Eastside ended in July 1922. (Photo courtesy of Perry Brunson, photographer, Walt Ainsworth collection via Kirkland Heritage Society)

(Photo courtesy of Perry Brunson, photographer, Walt Ainsworth collection via Kirkland Heritage Society)

As Sound Transit gets ready to inaugurate commuter trains between Bellevue and Redmond beginning next weekend, the question arises about the last time regular passenger rail service was offered on the Eastside.

There’s some good-natured historical debate about the specific moment when the last passenger train rolled through what’s now an assortment of urban areas and dense suburbs, but a handful of local rail historians consulted by KIRO Newsradio agree it was sometime on or around July 19, 1922.

 

Rail service in those years came via a Northern Pacific steam train that went from King Street Station in Seattle to North Bend in the Cascade foothills. From downtown Seattle, the route went south to Black River Junction, or roughly where Interstate 405 (I-405) and Interstate 5 (I-5) now intersect. From there, the route went north on the east side of Lake Washington through Renton, Wilburton, Kirkland and Woodinville.

The stretch of tracks from Black River Junction to Woodinville was completed in 1905 and was called the Lake Washington Belt Line. The line was in use for freight until 2008, and the old “Spirit of Washington Dinner Train” traveled regularly from Renton to the winery in Woodinville between 1992 and 2007. Much of that route is now (or will eventually become part of) the bike and pedestrian path known as EasTrail.

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Eastside-based historians Kent Sullivan and Matthew McCauley have been researching the old Belt Line for years, and have published much of their writings on the website Kirkland History.

Sullivan told KIRO Newsradio that the passenger trains on the Belt Line consisted of a single steam locomotive with only a handful of passenger coaches, with perhaps a baggage or a combined baggage and mail car.

Sullivan said there were formal passenger depots where passenger trains would stop at Renton, at Wilburton – which would have been just north of the giant trestle across from what’s now downtown Bellevue – and at Kirkland and Woodinville.

“And then there’s a type of stop that they call a ‘flag stop,'” Sullivan said. “Meaning there might be a little platform or maybe not, but at least there’d be a little station sign, and you literally could wave [with your hands], or if you had a flag, you could wave a flag, and they would stop for you.”

“Things were very quaint in those days, you know,” Sullivan said.

Rail historian David Sprau went to work for the Northern Pacific in 1960. He’s retired and lives in Oregon now, but he remains one of the most knowledgeable Northwest rail historians who also happens to have decades of on-the-job Northwest railroad experience.

By looking at old Northern Pacific employee timetables, Sprau calculated that it took about one hour and 10 minutes to get from King Street Station to Woodinville. The ticket price, Sprau estimated, might have been as little as 25 cents when service ended in 1922.

Kent Sullivan said that the cancellation of the passenger service likely came about as a result of a number of societal and economic factors. One major factor is that by 1922, automobiles had become affordable for much of the middle class, and were becoming essential in rural and agricultural areas like much of the Eastside was in the early 20th century.

And in 1905, rail service from Seattle to North Bend had, essentially, penciled out business-wise for the Northern Pacific. But that had changed by 1922.

“I think it was a pretty good value early on, but then the equation kind of flipped,” Sullivan said.

Other factors include the prevalence of regular car ferry service across Lake Washington, and the fact that the Lake Washington Ship Canal and Ballard locks had connected freshwater Lake Washington to saltwater Puget Sound by 1917.

However, the main reason that it all ground to a halt in July 1922, according to David Sprau, was a strike by maintenance shop workers against the railroads that forced major cutbacks in staffing, which led to the suspension of several passenger routes.

“That put a dent in railroad operations all over the country,” Sprau told KIRO Newsradio. “And one of the things that, consequent to the strike, was [the strikers] didn’t shut the railroads down like they were trying to do, but they did make operations real difficult.”

“And the railroads both retaliated and, to some extent, had no choice except to cut back service because they just didn’t have the personnel to provide the kind of service that they had been providing before,” Sprau continued.

“There were just too many people not showing up for work because they were on strike,” Sprau said.

Kent Sullivan says that while July 1922 may have marked the end of regular passenger service on the Eastside, those tracks old Lake Washington Belt Line tracks did carry passenger trains on several isolated occasions in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

In 1947 and 1948, Sullivan stated special excursion trains ran between the old Kirkland depot and what’s now the Washington State Fair in Puyallup.

“Kirkland was the [only] open depot (on the Belt Line),” Sullivan said, so “people have memories of getting on and off the train there.” That depot was located east of the tracks at Kirkland Avenue where it intersects with Railroad Avenue.

“We’d love more info” about those fair trains, Sullivan said, particularly if people have memories or photos to share.

In the 1950s and 1960s, special excursion trains using vintage equipment such as steam locomotives and old passenger coaches, were often offered on Saturdays and Sundays from Seattle to North Bend via the Belt Line, Sullivan says. Those trains, often known generically as “Casey Jones” excursions, were no longer offered once Burlington Northern was created – and Northern Pacific went away – as part of a major corporate merger in 1970.

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On a much darker note, Loita Hawkinson of the Kirkland Heritage Society told KIRO Newsradio that the depot in Kirkland was used on a single occasion to embark passengers on May 20, 1942.

It was that day when Japanese-Americans living on the east side of Lake Washington were ordered by the U.S. government to report to the Kirkland depot to be forced onto passenger cars and taken to an “assembly center” called Pinedale, which is near Fresno, California. From there, these U.S. citizens were taken to incarceration camps located in inland areas throughout the West and held there throughout World War II.

“Most came from Bellevue, [but] Kirkland had one large family,” Hawkinson wrote in an email Thursday. “They left from Kirkland [and] there is a historic marker at the site of the Kirkland station” along what’s now the trail (known in Kirkland as the Cross Kirkland Corridor), Hawkinson wrote.

Frank Abe, one of the foremost historians of Japanese-American incarceration, shared a copy of a U.S. government document from May 15, 1942, which ordered Japanese-Americans to gather in Kirkland.

“Civilian Exclusion Order 80 that shows the assembly point for those on the Eastside was 122 Kirkland Avenue,” Abe wrote in an email. Japanese-Americans “from Western Washington outside Seattle were removed to Pinedale, California and then Tule Lake, California, before it was a segregation center,” Abe wrote.

Loita Hawkinson shared an old newspaper clipping from a Kirkland paper, apparently from not long after May 15, 1942, which noted that the depot in Kirkland hadn’t been used for passengers for nearly 20 years.

And back in 1922, David Sprau said that getting rid of passenger service between Woodinville and North Bend via Redmond, Issaquah and Snoqualmie, turned out to be a problem for a subset of Northern Pacific customers.

“People in the woods and logging trades at that time had no alternate means of getting to and from work sites,” Sprau wrote in an email. “Northern Pacific dealt with this by immediately issuing instructions that their daily local freight trains running between North Bend and Woodinville were permitted to carry ‘Adult Male Passengers.’ This was accomplished by either allowing seating in the caboose or when traffic was heavy, by assigning a coach to the train.”

“This arrangement continued until January 1928 when presumably enough jitney roads had been completed to permit automobile travel in this area,” Sprau continued.

Sprau also said that passenger service from Seattle did continue through Kenmore, Bothell and Woodinville for many years beyond 1922 by way of a train that traveled regularly between Seattle and Bellingham.

“Going north, it left Seattle in the morning, passed through Kenmore, stopped at Bothell and continued via Woodinville and Snohomish,” Sprau wrote. “Going south, it passed through Snohomish, made a stop at Bothell, and arrived at Seattle.”

“This service was not interrupted by the strike of ’22, and lasted longest of all Northern Pacific passenger trains in this area,” Sprau wrote. “Not being discontinued until summer of 1940.”

More on the Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive: Priceless archive keeps the history of Pacific Northwest trains running

When those Sound Transit trains start up on Saturday, April 27, they won’t be running on the old tracks of the Belt Line, but they will be riding the rails of more than a century of mostly-forgotten railroad history on the Eastside.

Special thanks for their enthusiastic and invaluable assistance to Frank Abe, Kurt Einar Armbruster, Gary Tarbox of the Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive, Loita Hawkinson, Matthew McCauley, David Sprau and Kent Sullivan.

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea or a question about Northwest history, please email Feliks. You can also follow Feliks on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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Echoes of Eastside rail history with Sound Transit preparing to get underway