The Bellingham and Skagit Interurban was an electric railway that operated on a picturesque 27-mile route between Bellingham in Whatcom County and Mount Vernon in Skagit County for 18 years between 1912 and 1930. The route included a four-mile overwater trestle just off the Samish Bay shoreline, which gave the interurban the nickname "The Trolley That Went to Sea." In addition to the Bellingham-Mount Vernon line, a five-mile spur line ran between Burlington and Sedro-Woolley. Built to help connect rural parts of Whatcom and Skagit counties to nearby cities, the interurban got off to a solid start before being eclipsed by the automobile and bus during the 1920s.
We Want the Interurban!
As the twentieth century dawned, most commuters and shippers in Western Washington relied on steamboats and railroads for transport. But these were more long-distance options. Something was needed for local transportation, but roads were primitive at best and the automobile was in its infancy. Electric streetcars had caught on in Seattle and Spokane during the 1890s, and by the early 1900s lines were extending into rural areas. Interurban service between Seattle and Tacoma began in 1902, and in 1910 service began between Seattle and Everett.
By 1910, residents in Skagit and Whatcom counties were clamoring for their own line. There had been some private efforts during the preceding decade to build an interurban in Whatcom County, but these had not been successful. Enter Stone and Webster, an electrical-engineering consulting firm that specialized in acquiring and developing urban utilities and transportation systems, not just in Western Washington but across the nation. On November 10, 1910, the company began construction of the Bellingham and Skagit Interurban Railway.
This was not an easy task, but Stone and Webster accomplished it with alacrity. From its Bellingham terminal at the Pike Block building on the corner of Elk (later State) and Holly streets, the line proceeded south into the Fairhaven district on 10th Street, swung east along Padden Creek, then turned south again between 23rd and 24th streets and ascended to the 700-foot long Chuckanut Creek Bridge (also called Hibridge, since it crossed a 130-foot-deep ravine) near what in 2014 is the southern end of Bellingham's city limits.
The next five miles were carved out of the side of Chuckanut Mountain. Interurban passengers had grand views of Chuckanut Bay and the San Juan Islands in the distance. The line gradually dropped from an elevation of 200 feet at the southern end of the Chuckanut Creek Bridge to sea level by the time it reached Clayton Bay. Here Stone and Webster's engineers ran into a challenge. The Great Northern Railway owned the only available right-of-way along the steep and rocky shoreline of Samish Bay between Clayton Bay and Blanchard. It was far cheaper to build a trestle over the water along the shore than trying to blast another route across the mountainside. The four-mile-long trestle over the tidewater of Samish Bay had 5,000 cedar piles and three million board feet of lumber and led to the interurban's nickname, "The Trolley That Went to Sea."
Unfortunately the trestle became a fast favorite of the teredo, a voracious wood-eating saltwater worm. Within two years the teredos had already damaged it, and Stone and Webster subsidiary Pacific Northwest Traction, which ran the interurban, had a running battle with the bivalves thereafter. That was just the beginning of the company's ongoing struggle with Mother Nature to keep the tracks safe.
At Blanchard the line came ashore and doglegged due south to Edison Station (near today's intersection of Bow Hill Road and Chuckanut Drive), then continued southeast across the Skagit Flats into Burlington, where a depot was located on the corner of Walnut and Victoria streets. Here travelers could opt to take a second line some five miles east to the Sedro-Woolley station on the corner of Rita and Woodworth streets, or get off at any of the four stops along the way. Or they could continue four miles south, crossing the 790-foot-long Skagit River Bridge en route to the Mount Vernon depot, located on Main Street between Pine and Kincaid streets. The main line from Bellingham to Mount Vernon was 27.5 miles long.
A Rainy Opening, a Sunny Occasion
The interurban was completed on time at a cost of nearly $2 million ($48 million in 2014 dollars), and it made its inaugural run on Saturday, August 31, 1912. Most civic achievements in the early twentieth century were heralded with huge celebrations that are hard to imagine today, and this was no exception. Thousands of people turned out just to see that first run, despite persistent, driving rain that lasted much of the day. They not only filled the cities but watched and cheered from country-road crossings and other spots along the route as the first train passed by.
The first run was made by a four-car "special train" carrying 300 dignitaries from Bellingham, Burlington, Sedro-Woolley, and Mount Vernon. It had been gaily decorated with banners, bunting, and flags that, thanks to the rain, soon "presented a somewhat bedraggled appearance" ("First Train ..."). But, a reporter enthused, the trip was "one continuous ovation notwithstanding" ("Huge Crowds…"). The special left Bellingham about 10:30 a.m. and proceeded to Burlington, Sedro-Woolley, and Mount Vernon over the course of the day, stopping for speeches and celebrations in each. Between the rain and the speeches the schedule quickly slipped, but no one cared. The return train arrived back in Bellingham about 5:45 p.m. (nearly two hours late), where the happy day ended with a reception and buffet.
Many believed the new interurban would usher in a new era in Whatcom and Skagit counties. It opened travel from rural areas serviced by the trolley and provided a speedy way for farmers, dairymen, lumber companies, and smaller businesses, such as fruit and berry growers and commercial oyster growers, to get their products to market. Regular trains stopped at fewer locations, and the same could be said for steamers. Many did not yet anticipate the competition that the automobile and bus would start to provide just a few years later.
A Popular Draw
Regular service on the interurban began on Sunday, September 1, 1912, managed by Pacific Northwest Traction, Northern Division. (The southern division managed the Seattle-to-Everett interurban.) Four passenger cars, each capable of seating 58 people, provided service on the line. Three cars operated between Bellingham and Mount Vernon, while the fourth car operated between Burlington and Sedro-Woolley. A fifth car, which handled freight, traveled the line in the night hours that the passenger cars were not in operation. The cars were painted olive green with black roofs, and had "Bellingham and Skagit Railway" in gold lettering on the sides. They could travel at speeds up to 50 m.p.h.
The interurban ran on a daily 90-minute schedule on both the Bellingham-Mount Vernon line and the Burlington-Sedro-Woolley line. The first car left Bellingham at 5:30 a.m., with the last car of the day arriving back in Bellingham at 1:45 a.m. the following morning. The Burlington-Sedro-Woolley line ran between 6:15 a.m. and 12:45 a.m. A typical one-way trip from Bellingham to Mount Vernon, with 22 stops in between (three more stops were added by 1924), lasted an hour and 15 minutes. An express car that ran directly between Bellingham and Mount Vernon was added a few months after the interurban began operation.
Initially the interurban was a popular draw. Passenger and freight revenues expanded in its first two years, but the August 1914 outbreak of World War I in Europe changed that. Though the United States didn't enter the war until 1917, Northwestern Washington felt its effects almost immediately. Further construction of electric rail lines -- including a long-planned line between Mount Vernon and Everett, which would have connected to the line to Seattle -- was delayed. (As it turned out, the line between Mount Vernon and Everett was never built.)
In 1915 the bus -- in those days called either a jitney or, more commonly, a stage -- made its first local appearance. Early buses were far smaller than interurban cars and only seated about 10 people, but buses were cheaper to ride than the interurban, and with road construction and improvements underway, buses would soon prove to be more mobile. Early buses didn't operate in winter months because most county roads were too primitive, but that would change in the 1920s. The interurban operated year-round but was not without its own winter-related problems, such as when the trolley wheel would hang up in ice on the overhead wire, requiring the conductor to climb up and beat it loose.
The coming change wasn't as obvious as it might have been in the second half of the 1910s, because America's entry into World War I in April 1917 retarded road development just as it did further development of interurban lines. Thus the interurban's ridership increased once the war ended in November 1918, and both passenger and freight revenue jumped between 1919 and 1922.
The improved revenues enabled Pacific Northwest Traction to make improvements to both tracks and trolleys. In 1919 the company built 10 new flatcars to carry freight, and in 1921 a fifth passenger car was added to the fleet. Additionally, the motors on all of the passenger cars were modified, allowing them to reach peak speeds exceeding 65 m.p.h. on the Skagit Flats and coming down the hill on the northern approach to the Samish Bay trestle at Clayton Bay. This led to hourly interurban service being established between Bellingham and Mount Vernon the next year. Both trolleys and buses left Bellingham from a new one-story brick depot half a block north on Elk (State) Street from the Pike Block.
The End Begins
Despite its success in the early 1920s, the interurban's fate was largely sealed by the end of 1922. By 1921 nearly all of the Pacific Highway (later Highway 99) between Bellingham and Everett was paved. Some of the more well-traveled city streets in the larger cities and towns in Northwestern Washington were also paved or were being paved. Families who had held on to their horses and buggies during the 1910s -- and in the rural areas this meant quite a few -- began buying their first cars in the early 1920s. Who needed a trolley when they had a car?
Another option became available in 1921 for those who didn't yet have a car. In June Stone and Webster formed the Interurban Motor Company to provide bus service between Everett and Mount Vernon. This was a bit of a bold step for Stone and Webster in 1921 -- the bus had not yet fully caught on, and road development still had a ways to go. But that would change within just a few years.
Late in 1923 ridership on the interurban slipped into a slump from which it never recovered. Improved roads, more cars, and better buses made alternative means of transportation more enticing and realistic. Further improvements on the line between 1923 and 1925, as well as spiffy new colors for the interurban's cars (a light green bottom, maroon belt, cream trim around the windows, and a gray roof) didn't help. By 1925 Stone and Webster had seen the obvious, and Pacific Northwest Traction began focusing on its bus operations while at the same time curtailing its rail operations.
In February 1925 interurban service between Burlington and Sedro-Woolley was eliminated, following 11 months of reduced operations between the two cities. This was followed in January 1927 by a reduction in service on the Bellingham-to-Mount Vernon line, with trolleys now leaving every two hours beginning at 8 a.m.; the last car of the day arrived back in Bellingham at 7:30 p.m. At the same time, Pacific Northwest Traction established through-bus service to Seattle, with buses leaving Bellingham every two hours starting at 7 a.m. No longer was it necessary for Seattle-bound passengers to ride the trolley to Mount Vernon, transfer to a bus to Everett, and then transfer back to another interurban for the last leg to Seattle.
Ridership on the interurban plummeted. By mid-1927 its passenger revenues were lower than they had been during its earliest days in 1912 and 1913. At first freight revenues held up better, but as bigger and more dependable trucks came on the scene in the second half of the 1920s, these too began to siphon business away from the interurban.
End of the Line
The end for passenger traffic on the interurban came in 1928. There had already been one scary accident on a snowy morning in December 1924 when one of the cars derailed in a washout just north of Wildcat Cove. Its passengers and crew barely escaped before the car slid into the washout. A more serious -- and dramatic -- accident came on the afternoon of July 3, 1928, when a northbound car derailed on a curve near Inspiration Point just inside Bellingham's city limits. The car plunged down a 30-foot embankment, flipping completely over in the process. Eighteen of its 20 passengers were injured, some seriously. Detailed coverage of the accident in the Bellingham Herald included descriptions of screaming passengers being thrown around inside the car as it tumbled down the slope.
Another accident followed in September when a southbound trolley hit a boulder that had fallen along the tracks at Rocky Point (also known as Pigeon Point) and plunged into the mudflats of Samish Bay. Ten of the car's twelve passengers were hurt, and former state representative and senator Russ Lambert (1867-1944) of Sumas was ignominiously thrown through a broken window and into the mud. Miraculously, he wasn't hurt.
Though the rogue rock had nothing to do with the condition of the tracks, they were continuing to deteriorate despite Pacific Northwest Traction's efforts to maintain them. Negative publicity from the July and September accidents only spotlighted the problem. Less than a month after the September accident, the company's engineer condemned an approach to the Skagit River Bridge, halting passenger traffic on the line. Cynics wondered if this was just a cover for the company to abandon the line and concentrate on its burgeoning bus operations. Whatever the reason, the result was the same. The Trolley That Went to Sea made its last passenger run on October 10, 1928.
Freight service continued along the shortened portion of the line north of the Skagit River Bridge, and resumed along the entire Bellingham-Mount Vernon route in December 1929 after Pacific Northwest Traction completed repairs on the bridge and its approaches. This turned out to be temporary. Passenger service never resumed, and freight service lasted only six more months before the line was officially abandoned on June 1, 1930.
A six-and-a-half-mile stretch of the interurban's route survives in 2014 as the Interurban Trail. This (mostly) easy trail stretches from Bellingham's Fairhaven District south to Larrabee State Park, and is a favorite with walkers and bikers.