The Last Transcontinental Line
The railway company popularly called the Milwaukee Road started in Wisconsin in 1847 as the Milwaukee & Waukesha Railroad. Within a short time it became an important regional carrier, but for more than 50 years it stretched no farther west than North Dakota. In 1905, hoping to capture a slice of the Pacific Northwest's burgeoning freight traffic, the company (then formally called the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul) decided to build out its system to reach Puget Sound. Tacoma was chosen as its western terminus because of its proximity to major logging operations, the fine harbor in Commencement Bay, and the reality that other railroads had already tied up much of Seattle's waterfront. The Milwaukee Road was the nation's last transcontinental line to be completed.
The CM&SP started expanding the line west in 1906, working in both directions from multiple locations, buying or leasing tracks from local railroad companies or laying new track of its own. The result was a 2,200-mile route (measured from Chicago) to Tacoma, with a branch to Seattle splitting off at Black River Junction. The rails crossed five mountain ranges -- the Saddles, Belts, Rockies, Bitter Roots, and Cascades -- and required 52 tunnels and a far greater number of bridges and trestles, including the Tacoma Trestle (later called the S-Turn Trestle), which carried the trains approximately 1,500 feet across the filled tideflats of Commencement Bay.
On May 19, 1909, the last spike of the Chicago-to-Tacoma run was driven in a low-key ceremony held just west of Garrison, Montana. Freight service began on July 4, 1909, and limited, short-run passenger service was established on certain sections of the route over the next two years. In 1910 the Milwaukee Road purchased the Tacoma Eastern Railroad's passenger depot at 25th Avenue and A Street in Tacoma in preparation for opening passenger service between Chicago and Puget Sound.
"Through the Golden West"
Seattleites could be excused in 1911 for believing that their city, rather than Tacoma, was to be the western terminus of the Milwaukee Road. An article in The Seattle Times on May 18 that year announced the beginning of the company's passenger service, reporting that "the new, all-steel train service between Seattle and Chicago will bear the words, 'Through the Golden West'" ("Milwaukee Road Has New Slogan"). Not once did the article mention Tacoma, which was in fact the railroad's western headquarters, the site of its largest freight facilities, and the location of its general offices, major mechanical shops, and other core support facilities. Instead, the article focused on the difficulty of creating a new slogan for the new service. "Through the Golden West" was the choice, and as the newspaper, quoting the railroad's passenger agent, George W. Hibbard, explained, it wasn't easy:
"Coining a new term with the requisite brevity and expressiveness is no easy job ... . Yet a good slogan is a vital necessity to any new line and especially to one which is undertaking to inaugurate the first through all passenger service between a North Pacific sea coast terminal and Chicago" ("Milwaukee Road Has New Slogan").
Brief it was and expressive it may have seemed, but "Through the Golden West" didn't catch on. The slogan disappeared from newspaper articles and advertisements within days, never to be seen again. During the month of May 1911, The Seattle Times mentioned the new passenger service on multiple occasions, but only twice did it note that the Milwaukee Road would also stop in Tacoma. Seattle was merely the first major depot for eastbound trains leaving Tacoma and the second-from-last stop for those westbound to Tacoma, but you would not have learned this from the Seattle press of the day.
Tacoma's existence was acknowledged in the newspaper's May 24, 1911, edition, but even this seemed a little grudging. While noting that the city to the south was planning festivities to mark the start of passenger service, The Times could not resist pointing out that the Tacoma celebration would not be "as extensive as that marking the new union passenger station [in Seattle] ..." ("Brass Band Heralds ...").
Even the railroad seemed to favor Seattle in advertisements run in that city's papers. On May 25, a large display ad in The Seattle Times informed the public that "This superb train will makes its initial trip to Chicago, leaving Seattle 9:00 a.m., Monday, May 29th" ("The Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Ry." (advertisement)). It failed to point out that the train would start its inaugural run in Tacoma an hour and a half earlier, then stop briefly in Seattle en route to Chicago. Two days later, a schedule printed in another Seattle Times advertisement noted that the two daily trains, called the Olympian and Columbian, would depart from that city and stop in Butte, Miles City, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Tacoma was not mentioned.
Meanwhile, in Tacoma
Tacoma also had a newspaper called The Times, started by E. W. Scripps (1854-1926) in 1903, and it would give that city its due. In the May 27, 1911, edition, The Tacoma Times described the public unveiling of the new passenger cars that would serve the Milwaukee Road's Tacoma-to-Chicago run:
"The people marched down to the depot at 2 o'clock this afternoon to see the big steel passenger train which is the finest ever brought to the Pacific coast ... . A brass band headed the way. At the depot, speeches are being made by D. I Cornell, Mayor Seymour, President Williams, Vice President A. M. Ingersoll and others, and the new line will be formally opened for business.
"The first train will leave the Tacoma depot for Chicago Monday morning. This will be the Olympia Express" ("Celebrate Milwaukee's Opening This Afternoon").
The "depot" to which the article referred was at 25th and A streets in Tacoma and was built by the Tacoma Eastern Railway, which was started in 1887 under another name as a narrow-gauge line serving a local sawmill. Subsequent owners eventually stretched its rails to Eatonville, Morton, and other communities in the foothills of the Cascade Range and started carrying passengers as well as freight.
In 1910 the Milwaukee Road, which was already leasing most of the Tacoma Eastern's facilities, bought the depot outright, and the next year would start using it for its Tacoma passengers. There is some evidence that the Milwaukee Road had effective control of the Tacoma Eastern "as far back as 1901" and that the small line's rapid growth early in the twentieth century was due to the larger railroad's influence and money ("A Brief History of the Tacoma Eastern Railroad Co."). Whatever the case, the railroad would use the old passenger depot until 1954, when it was replaced by a new building located on Milwaukee Way.
The Milwaukee Road bought several large advertisements in The Tacoma Times in the days leading up to the inaugural runs and was not at all economical with self-praise:
"Two modern, luxurious, completely electric-lighted trains -- the only all-steel trains between the Pacific Northwest and the East -- will leave Tacoma next Monday on the first through trip over the magnificent and picturesque 'new steel trail' for Minneapolis, St. Paul, Milwaukee and Chicago. These trains, 'The Olympian' and 'The Columbian,' represent the crowning achievement of the car-builders' art" ("The New Steel Trail to the East" (advertisement)).
A schedule was included with the advertisement showing that the Olympian would start its run in Tacoma at 7:30 a.m., leave Seattle at 9:00 a.m., pass through Ellensburg by early afternoon, then makes its way east with stops in Butte, Miles City, and other metropolitan areas before reaching Chicago approximately 72 hours later. The Columbian was the late train and would leave Tacoma at 5:45 p.m. and Seattle at 7:15 p.m. At the same time, other Olympians and Columbians, of which there were eight in all, started in Chicago and headed west, stopping in Seattle before reaching the end of the line in Tacoma.
Tacoma's newspaper reporters were as enthusiastic as the advertising copywriters. On the afternoon of the day of the Olympian's first morning departure, an article in The Tacoma Times positively glowed with pride:
"At 7:30 o'clock this morning the yellow streak of steel known as the Olympian Express pulled out of the Milwaukee depot and started its journey from Tacoma to Chicago. It bore a large number of Tacoma people who have the honor of making the first trip over this line in the finest train that ever came to the coast" ("Fine Milwaukee Train Leaves").
The Good and the Not So Good
On May 29, 1911, after leaving the depot at 25th and A streets at 7:30 a.m. and passing over the Tacoma Trestle and through the Tacoma and Black River junctions, the Olympian made its way to Seattle, picked up more passengers, and headed east. It arrived in Chicago, safely and on time, after traveling approximately 2,200 miles in about 72 hours.
The Columbian, which left Tacoma at 5:45 p.m. that day, was less fortunate. At 4:45 a.m. on May 30, it jumped the tracks on a sharp curve near Marengo in southeastern Washington, about 60 miles from the Idaho border. The engineer and fireman were killed, five porters seriously hurt, and a baggage handler and one passenger suffered minor injuries. As a newspaper report described it:
"The smoker and day coaches left the tracks but remained upright; the tourist sleeper was derailed. The diner and the first class sleepers remained on the track. The fact that the train was constructed entirely of steel is believed to have prevented a larger loss of life" ("Milwaukee's New Train Is Wrecked").
It would not be the last mishap for the Milwaukee Road, as derailments in those early days were rather commonplace for all railroads. Despite such events, the innovative company's route between Chicago and Puget Sound proved popular. Over a stretch of 16 years, the railroad would electrify nearly a quarter of its westward line, completing the last segment, to Seattle, in 1927. This gave it the longest stretch of electrified trackage in America. Among improvements the carrier later introduced or was early to adopt were air-conditioned passenger cars, refrigerated freight cars for perishables, high-speed passenger trains, and the use of containerized shipping.
In 1954 a new passenger depot was opened on Milwaukee Way in Tacoma. Despite a growing familiarity with bankruptcy court, which it would petition for relief on three separate occasions, the line would continue to carry passengers to Puget Sound until 1961. Freight service would stagger along until 1980, when the ragged remnants of the once-proud Milwaukee Road were taken over by the Soo Line.
In Tacoma, the Weyerhaeuser Company took over much of the Milwaukee Road's track near Commencement Bay, including the S-Turn Trestle. In the late 1990s the tracks were sold to Tacoma Public Works, which in turn entered into an agreement with Tacoma Rail for the latter's use and maintenance of the line. By 2003, Tacoma Rail was sharing the tracks and the trestle with Sound Transit's Sounder commuter trains. The trestle later was deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, but was neither nominated nor listed. It had far outlived its useful life and as of 2014 was scheduled for demolition sometime between 2015 and 2017, to be replaced by an entirely new structure made of concrete and steel and carrying two sets of tracks.