Nearly seven years in the making, the Iron Goat Trail officially opens to hikers on October 2, 1993, at the Martin Creek Trailhead, located in King County off U.S. 2 about six miles east of Skykomish. Built along the grade once used by the Great Northern Railway, the four-mile hiking trail completes the first phase of a joint project between Volunteers for Outdoor Washington, the U.S. Forest Service and the Washington State Department of Transportation.
Ruth Ittner’s Dream
Nature lover and Mountaineers member Ruth Ittner (1918-2010) attended the first National Trails Symposium in the early 1970s but it was the Washington state centennial set for a 1989 celebration that inspired her to create a centennial trail. Ittner approached Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest staff in 1987 with her idea and the Forest Service suggested building a public trail that would follow the route of the old Great Northern Railway, a segment of railroad that once ran between the towns of Scenic and Wellington. The old line had been abandoned in 1929. Interpretive markers and railroad ruins would share the history while visitors could, at the same time, experience one of Washington’s most scenic natural locations.
Ittner figured the project would be completed in time for the state centennial celebration but even finding the old rail line was difficult. Neglected for over 60 years, what remained of the railroad was buried in forest growth and first needed to be uncovered. Volunteers for Outdoor Washington (VOW -- a group that Ittner helped to form -- tackled the project and under supervision of the Forest Service and the Washington State Department of Transportation, volunteer workers began marking and clearing a walking path that allowed access for the next stage of trail building. It was slow going but in two years VOW had cleared a path and, with the help of the Washington Native Plant Society and the Seattle Audubon Society, had inventoried the plants and animals found along its way. By state centennial time the project at least had a good beginning but it would be the 100th anniversary of completion of the Great Northern line -- 1993 -- before the first four miles of the Iron Goat Trail were open for hiking.
Echoes of the Great Northern Railway
Ruth Ittner stated several times that while building the Iron Goat Trail she could almost hear train whistles sounding in the background. Here the history of the Great Northern Railway is still visibly present, along with the legacy of a man called the Empire Builder, James J. Hill (1838-1916).
Born in Canada, Hill came to St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1856 and after making a fortune in the steamboat business, he turned his attention to something he saw as the nation’s economic future -- railroads. Connecting the U.S. east to west would link the natural resources of the Pacific Northwest with East-Coast markets, link with water routes for international trade, and open the region for settlement. Hill purchased the bankrupt St. Paul and Pacific Railroad and in 1889 renamed it the Great Northern Railway. Heading west, Hill was in competition with the Northern Pacific, which chose a route into Tacoma.
The Great Northern Railway found its biggest challenge in crossing the Cascades. Hill rushed to build the most direct route across the mountains and relied on engineer John F. Stevens (1853-1943), who had been hired by the Great Northern. It was Stevens’ assistant C. F. B. Haskell who chose the location and named it after Stevens. The grade was steep and a tunnel would have taken considerable time and money to construct so Hill settled for a series of eight switchbacks. This arduous crossing was one of the nineteenth century’s greatest engineering accomplishments:
“Above Wellington, the engines strained to pull the train along grades as steep as four percent. The effort required by the locomotive was about 25 times what was required to pull a full load on the level. A typical Great Northern steam engine of the early 1900s had the pulling force of 48,600 pounds which enabled it to pull a train of eighteen freight cars, with a total train weight of over 500 tons up the 4% grade” (Iron Goat Trail guidebook).
This mountain-climbing ability led the Great Northern to adopt the mountain goat standing on a rock as its corporate symbol. Since trains were known as iron horses, the Great Northern Railway became known as the Iron Goat. The railroad reached Seattle in 1893 and that same year the Great Northern built its first snowshed. Three years later the first Cascade tunnel was built, replacing 12 miles of switchbacks. The project employed nearly 800 workers, mostly immigrants, including many Japanese.
Brutal winter snows in the Cascades often delayed trains in huge piles of snow, sometimes 25 feet high. And there were avalanches. Tragedy struck late in February 1910 when a passenger train and a mail train were stranded for 3 days above the town of Wellington. On March 1 an avalanche roared down the hillside, killing 96 people, the largest toll recorded in any North American avalanche. The Wellington Avalanche and continuing winter challenges led the Great Northern to abandon this upper line when the second Cascade Tunnel was completed at a lower level in 1929.
Building the Trail
When Ruth Ittner first proposed the project, she could not have known she would need the perseverance and tenacity of J. J. Hill to get the job done. Completing and maintaining the full trail of 10+ miles eventually would take more than 20 years and thousands of volunteer hours, but even the first phase took time. Five years of background work was necessary before trail building began and some of this time involved fundraising. Volunteers for Outdoor Washington worked closely with the Forest Service and the Washington State Department of Transportation and were then joined by the Great Northern Railway Society, the Washington Trails Association, the Mountaineers, the King County Historical Society and even linked with organizations offering volunteer vacation opportunities.
Cost of the trail’s first phase was $750,000: 40 percent from the Forest Service, 20 percent from the state, 10 percent from business and industry and 30 percent in volunteer hours. Burlington Northern Railroad, the state legislature and the Forest Service contributed money and in December of 1991 the Iron Goat Trail cleared its funding peak by receiving a $99,000 state trails grant.
Some of this cost went for an archaeological dig to clear avalanche debris. When the rail line was abandoned, the frugal Great Northern had salvaged usable rail materials and snowshed timbers, but artifacts remained such as rail spikes, rusted metal, dishes, plates, clothing, old tin cans and other items left by workers who built the rail line. And remnants of snowsheds and a collapsed tunnel. Each added to the story.
Actual trail construction began in 1992 and volunteers built a 2.4 mile Upper Grade trail and a 1.2 Lower Grade trail with a 2.2 percent grade, making it barrier-free and wheelchair accessible. Retaining walls, culverts, bridges, and waterbars were built, along with spur trails connecting upper and lower paths.
History and Scenic Beauty
The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad -- descendant of the GNR -- runs on the track below the Iron Goat Trail and hikers can view the lush forest and scenic vistas as well as snowshed and tunnel remains. There are trailheads at Martin Creek (milepost 55 six miles east of Skykomish); Scenic (milepost 58 and north on Old Cascade Highway) and Wellington (milepost 64.4, west of Stevens Pass and north on Old Cascade Highway). All are reached by U.S. Highway 2. Dedication plaques were placed at the Martin Creek Trailhead that read:
IRON GOAT TRAIL
NO 1074 OCTOBER 2, 1993
THOSE WHO TOILED 100 YEARS APART BUILDING A TRANSPORTATION
ROUTE THROUGH THIS PORTION OF THE MIGHTY CASCADE MOUNTAIN RANGE
IRON GOAT TRAIL PLANNED,
CONSTRUCTED & MAINTAINED
MT. BAKER-SNOQUALAMIE NATIONAL FOREST (USFS)
VOLUNTEERS FOR OUTDOOR WASHINGTON (VOW)
HUNDREDS OF VOLUNTEERS WORKING THOUSANDS OF HOURS
MULTITUDES OF OTHER
INDIVIDUALS & ORGANIZATIONS
Also at the Martin Creek Trailhead is a plaque from the American Society of Civil Engineers dedicating the area a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. It reads:
CIVIL ENGINEERING LANDMARK
GREAT NORTHERN RAILWAY
RAILROAD AND SWITCHBACKS 1893
TUNNELS 1900 AND 1929
Reflecting on the Effort
On July 14, 2006, groundbreaking began for an Iron Goat Trail interpretive site, six miles west of the Stevens Pass Summit. Initiating the project were Chris Munson, Owner-TriMaxx Construction; Maria Van Horn, Administrator, King County Road Services; Charlotte Macknerk, Mayor, Town of Skykomish; Ruth Ittner, Volunteers for Outdoor Washington; Tom Davis, USFS, Skykomish District Trails Specialist; Judy Lorenzo, WSDOT Policy Planning Manager; and Bob Romine, WSDOT Project.
Looking back on all the years of hard work, Ruth Ittner said she had been greatly rewarded since the Iron Goat Trail is accessible to practically everyone and people love it: "They call it the Cadillac of trails ... I'm always amazed at how much it’s appreciated" (Back to Life).