The Spirit of Washington Dinner Train brought the romance of the rails to King County's Eastside for 15 years from 1992 to 2007. For a price guests enjoyed an excursion through the communities east of Lake Washington from Renton to Woodinville and back, with a dose of history and a good meal along the route. In the end, the popular attraction lost out to changing transportation systems, including rail abandonment, bridge replacement, and freeway construction.
The Coming of the Dinner Train
Our story begins at the Ellensburg Rodeo during Labor Day weekend 1988. The Temple family -- father Nick and brothers Eric (b. 1966) and Brig -- had recently purchased a short-line freight railway they called the Washington Central Railroad. Entrepreneurial sorts, they decided to try an experiment in rail excursions. They leased a set of old dining cars from the Canadian Railroad Historical Association and offered a dinner excursion along the Yakima River Canyon south of Ellensburg for the duration of the rodeo. The trip proved so popular that the Temples continued the enterprise the following spring, even adding a second route from Kennewick to the Hogue Cellars winery in Prosser. With the 1989 centennial of Washington's statehood in mind, the family christened the train Spirit of Washington.
May 1992 found the Temple family moving the dinner-train operation to Puget Sound with hopes of benefitting from a larger market and a year-round temperate climate. Eric Temple, with a degree in business administration from the University of Washington, was put in charge of the operation. The little-used Woodinville Subdivision of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) line offered an excellent route between the burgeoning city of Renton at the south end of Lake Washington and the popular wineries of the Sammamish Valley near the lake's north end. The Temples brought their collection of vintage engines and passenger cars across the Cascades and set up shop at the Renton Depot, contracting with BNSF for use of the line and retrofitting the dormant passenger station to serve as a welcome center.
The tracks from Renton to Woodinville and points north, once dubbed the Lake Washington Belt Line, were completed in 1904 by Northern Pacific Railway as a freight corridor, with some passenger service. All passenger travel along the route had ceased entirely decades before the coming of the Dinner Train.
A Trip Through History
The Dinner Train experience offered a three-and-a-half-hour excursion six days a week from Renton to Woodinville and back, approximately 24 miles each way. Guests were served dinner on the way up and coffee and dessert on the way back. Soon a weekend brunch train was added. The initial destination in Woodinville was the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery. After a year or two, when the active event schedule at that winery became an obstacle, the Dinner Train moved on to the Columbia Winery, where guests had a break of about 45 minutes to stretch their legs, perhaps taste some wine, and browse in the winery gift shop.
Views along the journey ranged from the gritty and industrial (Boeing, PACCAR) to the scenic (Lake Washington, Mercer Island). Riders experienced the somewhat harrowing trip along the 102-foot-tall Wilburton Trestle across the Mercer Slough in Bellevue. The train traveled under both Interstate 90 and State Route 520, took in the ever-changing skyline of downtown Bellevue, chugged through the tony residential neighborhoods of Kirkland, and fetched up in winey Sammamish Valley.
The Spirit of Washington was powered by F9 diesel electric engines built by General Motors in the 1950s -- one at each end. F9 number 84, painted red and with the Spirit of Washington logo on its nose, pulled several passenger cars and two domed cars; the latter offered better views for a premium price. Train cars bore iconic names: "Olympic," "Mt. Rainier," "Columbia Winery," "City of Renton," "Cascade," "City of Seattle," and "Chateau Ste. Michelle."
Gretchen's of Course, the well-known caterer, provided the meals in the early days. Once the business was established, Eric Temple built a catering kitchen adjacent to the Renton depot and took meal preparation in-house. Washington wines (and some others) were available, of course, for an additional cost.
The full train had an advertised capacity of 370 passengers, with a crew of 43. Promotional literature dubbed it "the biggest dinner train in the country!" (brochure).
Wait staff provided running commentary on the passing sights, expounding on the abrupt drop in the lake's shoreline occasioned by the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1916; the building in 1904 by the Northern Pacific Railway of the Wilburton Trestle, at 975 feet the longest wooden trestle in the Pacific Northwest; the industrial roots of Kirkland; and the growing wine industry of the bucolic Sammamish Valley.
Some riders quibbled about the bumpiness of the ride, the quality of the food, the shared tables, and the sometimes less-than-pristine views. (While many onlookers waved and smiled at passengers, more than one wag "mooned" the train.) In addition, the train ran into the safety problems inherent to operating a railway in a densely-populated area; there were at least nine accidents on the track during the train's run, two of them fatalities (one a suicide). Although it traveled at very slow speeds, the Dinner Train had to navigate 45 crossings in each direction, 27 public and 18 private, and chronically overgrown vegetation affected visibility for both train engineer and car drivers. In 2002 a BNSF freight train, the only other train still active on the southern portion of the route, crashed into the stationary and unoccupied Dinner Train at the Renton Depot, damaging the engine.
A Major Draw
As heritage tourism, however, the Dinner Train was an unqualified success. According to figures supplied by the business itself, the train drew approximately 100,000 riders per year for a grand total of 1.4 million over the course of its stay on Lake Washington. At the same time, it pumped millions of dollars into the local economy.
Alex Pietsch, Renton's Director of Economic Development from 2001 to 2012, remembered the Spirit of Washington as much-beloved by local folk and a major draw for Renton:
"The Dinner Train was THE reason people from around Puget Sound came to Renton in those days. Alongside the Pacific Science Center and the Space Needle, it was what you did when grandma came to town" (Pietsch interview).
Pietsch recounted a lively trip on the train with a group of Renton city officials and a delegation from the People's Republic of China during which a bottle of Chinese plum brandy made the rounds surreptitiously. Former city councilmember Marcie Palmer remembered a trip arranged by the Renton Chamber of Commerce for representatives of Nishiwaki, Renton's sister city in Japan, noting that the Dinner Train was the go-to activity for impressing out-of-town guests:
"It was so beautiful -- especially in the domed cars. It was just so pleasant. It didn't matter what the weather was; it looked so bright inside. The food was actually good. You didn't think it was going to be. That's not why you went" (Palmer interview).
Celebrities spotted riding the rails included actors John Travolta, Tom Skerritt, and James ("Scotty") Doohan; Guns N' Roses lead guitarist Slash; plenty of Seahawks and Mariners; and, of course, Bill Gates.
Many a car was reserved for group events; the train's Murder Mystery Parties, staged by the It's a Mystery acting troupe, were especially popular. Birthdays and anniversaries were celebrated. At least one couple was married aboard the train.
Over the train's run, The Spirit of Washington strove to be a good neighbor, providing charitable gifts worth more than a million dollars to the community, both cash and ticket donations.
Stopped in Its Tracks
With business booming, in 2005 Eric Temple expanded his Renton operation to include management of the city's new conference center. Temple signed a 10-year lease to operate the Pavilion, a former auto dealership building in the heart of Renton's downtown revitalization effort. The Spirit of Washington Conference Center provided catered events, with food prepared in the kitchen adjacent to the train depot, a mere two blocks away.
Change, however, was already in the air. As the century turned, BNSF looked to reduce its responsibilities by abandoning the Woodinville Subdivision. Things came to a head when the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) announced plans to demolish the Wilburton Tunnel over I-405 in 2008 in order to widen the freeway. The tunnel, actually a lid over I-405, had been built in 1972 to convey the BNSF tracks over the freeway. Removal of the lid would by necessity break the rail line. Any re-routing of the track would take some time and effort, something neither WSDOT nor BNSF was interested in doing.
Abandonment is a legal term for the process under which, in 2008, the railroad sought and received permission from the United States Surface Transportation Board to cease operation and maintenance of 42 miles of the rail corridor and to sell the right of way. (Five miles of the 47-mile long line, from the old Black River Junction to Gene Coulon Park in Renton, remained in BNSF hands, largely to serve Boeing's Renton plant.)
With the rail corridor now up for grabs, King County emerged as a key interested party, as did the Port of Seattle. In complicated, fretful, and lengthy negotiations, King County Parks, the Port, and a number of local jurisdictions and utilities agreed to divvy up the spoils. The Port purchased the entire rail right of way for $81.4 million, some 42 miles from Renton to Snohomish, with a spur line to Redmond, at the tail end of 2009, and then set out to re-sell portions of the corridor. The stated goal was to preserve the entire length of rail line in public hands, but whether for purely recreational purposes or some combination of rail and trail remained a question of much dispute.
While negotiations dragged out, rail enthusiasts rallied to save a corridor they believed might still be used for commuter rail. Eastside Rail Now! and All Aboard Washington advocated hard to keep the line intact. With construction of light rail well underway in Seattle, All Aboard Washington made an abortive effort to purchase the line from BNSF in 2007. Spokesman Al Runte (a Seattle mayoral candidate in 2005) claimed that the line could easily be configured for commuter rail:
"For $30 million, we could have equipment, tracks upgraded and operational. We could do it in 60 days. We could have commuter rail on this track in 60 days" (Ervin, "BNSF Rebuffs ...").
Renton had invested money and energy in promoting the Dinner Train as part of its "Renton: Ahead of the Curve" marketing campaign. Naturally, the city was not happy about the demise of its premier tourist attraction. Marcie Palmer, at that time chair of the city's transportation committee, recalled a decade later that City Attorney Larry Warren filed an appeal with the Surface Transportation Board, arguing that the abandonment of the line would deprive Renton of a major source of income.
"We were left with nothing. When Larry Warren filed papers in Washington, D.C., that was when Burlington Northern literally came to the table. A vice president named Mr. [Jerome] Johnson came with his entourage of attorneys, and WashDOT came, and the city council transportation committee, and Mayor Kathy Keolker. I can still visualize sitting across from them at City Hall. The end result was that Burlington Northern offered to rebuild three railroad bridges that the City had known for years were not up to code. It saved the City millions" (Palmer interview).
The outcome of the negotiations worked out nicely for Boeing. Previously, in order to avoid the too-narrow and outdated Cedar River railroad bridge on the rail line accessing Renton from the west, the company had been using the tracks south of Snohomish along the Eastside to ship its 737-900 stretch fuselages into its Renton plant. The replacement Cedar River bridge allowed Boeing to ship all its Kansas-manufactured fuselages southward through Seattle and then up through downtown Renton.
End of the Line
Resolution of Renton's beef with BNSF was cold comfort to fans of the Dinner Train, which was now a lost cause. With the handwriting on the wall, Eric Temple had been actively exploring his options, including the possibility of moving the headquarters of the Dinner Train to Bellevue, Redmond, or Woodinville, with a run heading up into Snohomish County. Ultimately, he accepted an offer to move the entire operation to Pierce County.
On July 31, 2007, the Spirit of Washington made its last run out of Renton with many bystanders waving a farewell. Three days later, on August 3, the train began a new excursion route between Tacoma's Freighthouse Square station and Lake Kapowsin. Hopes were high that the new route might eventually be extended as far as Mount Rainier. However, after 10 months, the enterprise was scrapped as unprofitable.
Rails to Trails?
Proponents of biking and walking trails eagerly looked to the day when the Eastside of Lake Washington would have a continuous recreational trail from the Snohomish County line down to Renton. Some urged a compromise position allowing the rails to stay with trails built parallel to them, perhaps separated by a wire fence.
By 2013, the Port of Seattle had sold off pieces of what was now called the Eastside Rail Corridor (ERC) to the City of Kirkland, the City of Redmond, and Puget Sound Energy. A short section through Bellevue was purchased by Sound Transit for use in planned light rail. The following year, King County finalized its purchase of approximately 16 miles of track, and, in 2016, Snohomish County purchased the right-of-way for the portion of track in that county. Later the City of Woodinville purchased the last section of rail owned by the Port. All owners, as well as other adjacent jurisdictions and the Eastside Greenway Alliance, agreed to work together as the Eastside Rail Corridor Regional Advisory Council (RAC), with a stated goal "to achieve connectivity and multiple uses, maximizing public benefit and enjoyment throughout the corridor both directly and indirectly" ("About ...").
Gone, but Not Forgotten
In October 2017 King County Parks held a spike-pulling ceremony at Gene Coulon Park in Renton, the symbolic start of efforts to transform the old Belt Line into a recreational trail.
As of September 2018 King County had completed two sections of trail, and the City of Kirkland had opened a third. A dwindling freight service still ran on the northernmost portion of the track, between Woodinville and Snohomish, courtesy of Eastside Freight Railroad. The Wilburton Trestle was fenced off for safety, while the City of Bellevue evaluated its use as a high-flying part of a trail system. Additional stretches of train track remained the subject of continuing planning, surveying, historic-resource inventorying, funding, and controversy. Meanwhile a further widening of I-405 loomed.
The old depot in Renton was converted to a tourist information bureau run by the city's Chamber of Commerce. Rain City Catering took on operation of the Renton Pavilion using the commercial kitchen constructed by Eric Temple adjacent to the train depot. As of 2018 Boeing shipped all plane fuselages into its Renton plant from the west, using the five miles of track still in the possession of BNSF, since the Eastside corridor was no longer available as an alternate north-south route.
The cars of the Dinner Train have been scattered to the winds. In 2018 several could still be seen at the old U & I (Utah-Idaho) sugar plant in Wheeler, near Moses Lake in Grant County.
Eric Temple, meanwhile, took the throttle of the Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad, operating two short-haul rail lines in Southwest Washington. In a 2018 interview he expressed regret that the Spirit of Washington did not survive:
"I always had this vision that the dinner train would last forever -- that my grandkids would ride it someday. So, it was very sad when 405 needed to be widened and it put me out of business" (Temple interview).
Many folks in the Puget Sound region remember the Dinner Train fondly. Occasionally voices are heard suggesting that a new dinner train might be established -- perhaps in Snohomish County, perhaps near Redmond. Meanwhile the question of whether rails and trails can co-exist continues to be argued as plans for the Eastside Rail Corridor take shape.