Seattle Coal & Transportation Company begins operating Seattle's first railroad on March 22, 1872.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 10/10/2012
  • Essay 5412
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On March 22, 1872, the Seattle Coal & Transportation Company begins operating Seattle's first railroad. Established by founders of the Seattle Coal Company, it is used to carry coal from a dock on the south end of Lake Union to coal bunkers at the foot of Pike Street, on Elliott Bay. The coal arrives at the south Lake Union dock via a tortuous route from a mine in Newcastle, located near the south end of Lake Washington. Coal is transported from the Newcastle mine to the Lake Washington shore via tramway. It is then loaded into scows guided across Lake Washington by tugboats. Arriving at a strip of land called the Montlake Portage (later cut through by Montlake Cut), it is unloaded from the scows and loaded onto another tram, carted over Montlake Portage, reloaded onto barges at Lake Union, barged across Lake Union to the dock at south Lake Union, and from there, loaded onto the new railway, which carries it over Denny Hill (later flattened by regrades), roughly along the route of today’s Westlake Avenue. The railway turns at Pike Street and carries the coal to coal bunkers at the end of that street. This little railway will operate until 1878, when the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad will arrive at Newcastle and provide a more efficient  route around the south end of Lake Washington through Renton and through downtown Seattle to Elliott Bay.

Old King Coal in King County

Coal is heavy and it is bulky. Getting it to market from the mine can be as difficult and costly as mining it in the first place. Ever since the black rock was found in the Cascade foothills in central King County in the 1850s, mining outfits tried to find ways to transport it to Seattle's Elliott Bay. From Elliott Bay it could be shipped to outside markets

Natural resources -- especially coal, timber, and fish -- drove early Seattle's economy. Demand in rapidly growing local communities and in outside markets, particularly San Francisco, led to rapid construction of sawmills and fish-processing operations on Puget Sound's bays. But the lack of an adequate transportation network hindered development of the coal mines in the Cascade foothills because no roads or railroads connected the mines with Puget Sound, and the rivers draining Lake Washington were ill-suited for moving large loads of coal.

Early coal discoveries in King County included a bed uncovered at the farm of R. H. Bigelow on the Black River in 1853 and a seam found in 1859 at Squak (later Issaquah) by Lyman B. Andrews (1829-1913) and David Mowery. In 1862, Andrews went back, loaded up a sack of coal, and took it into town. He approached blacksmith William W. Perkins in Seattle to test the coal and determine what rank it was, which would indicate its quality and how much heat it would produce. The quality of the coal was high enough that Perkins agreed to go into business with Andrews.

A strong market for coal existed because it was used to power machinery, heat homes and businesses, and fuel the steamers that plied the waters of Puget Sound and elsewhere. The galloping growth of San Francisco after the 1849 California Gold Rush led to high demand and high prices for coal to fuel the steam engines of trains, ships, and machinery.

Still, Andrews and Perkins had to figure out how to get it to market in the absence of reliable river navigation, roads, or railroads in King County. In 1864, the San Francisco Bulletin reprinted a notice from the British Colonist extolling the quality of the coal found at Squak, but lamenting, "The chief drawback is the distance of the mines from the seaboard" ("Coal at Seattle").

Coal was bringing in $22 per ton in 1863, making it worthwhile to pay high costs for transport. Andrews and Perkins developed a system by which they loaded the coal into wagons, carried it to Lake Sammamish, rowed or poled the length of that lake on a scow, navigated the winding Squak Slough (now straightened and renamed the Sammamish River), rowed and poled across and down Lake Washington, then unloaded on the lake's western shore and hauled it into Seattle.

Before long, prices dropped to $12 per ton, likely due to competition from newly developed coal mines in the San Francisco Bay area. The low price did not compensate for the transportation costs of the coal. The mine lay idle until 1888, when the Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern Railway reached the Issaquah area.

Newcastle Coal

In 1863 Edwin Richardson, surveying near Cougar Mountain, found coal in the area that would become known as Coal Creek. He and a number of other area residents filed claims on the land that would become Newcastle, named after the famed coal-producing city in England.

In 1866 a group of the claimants, Daniel Bagley (1818-1905), P. H. Lewis, John Ross, Selucius Garfielde (1822-1881), and George F. Whitworth (1816-1907) formed the Lake Washington Coal Company to cooperate in their efforts to mine this coal. The company succeeded in getting coal to the bay and selling it to steamer operators on Puget Sound. It is not clear how they transported the coal, but a 1938 article about the development of the Northwest coal industry says they used a "road opened by the claim owners" (Melder, 154). It is possible that this was a wagon road around the southern tip of Lake Washington and then down the Duwamish River valley.

The topography of King County made it difficult to develop transportation infrastructure between Lake Washington and Elliott Bay. Large hills running north and south were bisected by river valleys, and, between Lake Union and Lake Washington, a cleft carved by glacial meltwater. Thick forests covered the hillsides and it took years before wagon roads, often following Indian trails, were cut through them. Even then, steep hills discouraged any idea of moving tons of coal over them. Limited local capital also stymied plans. Building a railroad required cash, and efforts to get outside investors interested in the projects fell flat.

In 1870, the Seattle Coal Company, incorporated and took over the Lake Washington Coal Company. The Seattle Coal Company planned to sell to California markets, but first had to get transport costs down. To that end, several of the owners formed the Seattle Coal & Transportation Company to  transport the coal. They built a tramway down to Lake Washington, where they loaded the cars onto barges, which were pulled across the lake by tugs, such as the Phantom, Fanny, Chehalis, Linnie C, Gray, and the James Mortie.

At the Montlake Portage they built another tramway that allowed them to carry the coal cars across the isthmus to Portage Bay on Lake Union. At first they used mules to pull the coal cars across the portage, a distance of about one-fourth of a mile. Soon they acquired a locomotive. On the Lake Union side, they loaded the cars back onto barges and towed them to the southern end of the lake. There, a railroad, Seattle's first, was built approximately along the present-day route of Westlake Avenue and Pike Street.

At a bunker -- a large bin-like structure built on pilings out over the water -- the coal cars were dumped down a slide that fed into the bunkers or directly into ships waiting to carry it to San Francisco.

Decidedly a Holiday

The railroad opened on March 22, 1872, and the line's superintendent, Samuel Dinsmore, planned a day of free rides and boat excursions to celebrate. According to The Intelligencer, "Friday last was decidedly a holiday in this city, owing to the opportunity afforded every one to indulge in the novelty of a free ride behind the first locomotive that every whistled and snorted and dashed through the dense forests surrounding the waters of Puget Sound" ("The Railroad Excursion").

The Puget Sound Dispatch also gushed with excitement: "it is the initial of mighty events ... the connection by railroad of ocean commerce with the inland seas, whereby an inexhaustible mine of wealth is opened to perpetual use" ("A Gala Day").

A Difficult Route

The portage route worked before better alternatives existed, but it was less than ideal. In order to move the coal cars between the different modes of transportation, they had to be handled 11 times, increasing costs significantly. The route was used until 1878, when the Seattle & Walla Walla reached Newcastle. This railroad connected the mine directly with the Seattle waterfront by traveling along Lake Washington to the southern end of downtown Seattle and to Elliott Bay. Coal cars only had to be handled twice. At this time the Seattle Coal & Transportation Company abandoned their route. 

But in that first decade of coal production, the company played a vital role in the development of Seattle's economy. The 790,629 tons of coal sent out of the wharves at Seattle between 1870 and 1880 brought much needed cash into the community and helped further improve the regional transportation network.


Kurt E. Armbruster, Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle, 1853-1911 (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1999), 49-59, 128; Clarence Bagley, History of Seattle from the Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1916); F. E. Melder, "History of the Discoveries and Physical Development of the Coal Industry in the State of Washington," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, April 1938, pp. 151-165; Caroline C. Tobin, "Lake Union and Ship Canal Historical Use Study," typescript dated June 1986, prepared for the City of Seattle Lake Union/Ship Canal/Shilshole Bay Water Quality Management Program, available at Coastal Zone Information Center, Charleston, South Carolina, and online (; U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Report of the Secretary of the Interior, 49 Cong., 1 sess., January 1, 1886, p. 1055; "Coal at Seattle," San Francisco Bulletin, August 26, 1864, p. 2; "A Gala Day," Puget Sound Dispatch, March 28, 1872, p. 3;

"Coal Mining," Clayton Historical Society and Museum website accessed October 24, 2012 (;

"The Railroad Excursion," The Weekly Intelligencer, March 25, 1872, p. 3.
Note: This essay replaces an earlier essay on the same subject.

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