Ecologist, trails advocate, hiking legend, tireless volunteer, author, and University of Washington public policy administrator, Ruth Ittner is most remembered for her work with Volunteers for Outdoor Washington and for building the Iron Goat Trail, a hiking trail near Skykomish that follows the old Great Northern Railway line. The Iron Goat Trail would eventually take more than 20 years to complete and Ittner is credited with getting the job done. Her skills in organizing and connecting government agencies and volunteers made the easily accessible and popular trail a reality. The first segment of the trail opened in October 1993. Ruth Ittner died on June 3, 2010.
A Childhood on the Move and in the Woods
Ruth Ittner was born to adventurous parents Claude Vernon Ittner and Rosinah Amelia May Webster Ittner, near Birmingham, England, on January 12, 1918. Her brother Bruce was born 18 months later. Their parents met while hiking in Epping Forest. Claude was a descendant of King Robert the Bruce of Scotland and some family members objected to his marrying Rosinah, a woman they considered beneath his station. According to Ruth, Claude said he refused to live in a country that had such class attitudes, so in March of 1920 the Ittners boarded the ship Orion and moved to Tasmania, Australia, near a sister of Rosinah’s.
But Rosinah -- or May, as she was often called -- was a city person who loved arts and culture and living miles from her nearest neighbor, in a place where cows could jump six-foot fences, did not suit her. So the Ittners moved to Kaua’i, Hawaii. Claude worked as a bookkeeper for the Gay and Robertson Sugar Plantation and the family lived in company housing. Ruth recalls wild tomatoes and avocadoes that grew there as well as torrential rains that came down, as she says, like “cups and saucers” (Ittner).
Rosinah was afflicted with Bell’s Palsy and Claude, who had an interest in naturopathic medicine, heard about a nationally famous fasting clinic in Kitsap County, Washington, so the Ittners left Hawaii and set out for Kitsap. By this time -- September 1923 -- Ruth was only 5 but eager to learn so Rosinah took her to a one-room school in Frigaria that had a potbelly stove and an outhouse. One teacher instructed 30 students in seven grades. Ruth would attend six different schools in her first three grades. She says “I decided they were not going to have time to teach me, I had to take responsibility for learning” (Ittner, 90th birthday).
Claude was hired as an orderly at Seattle General Hospital and soon became a valued member of the health team, partially for his ability to converse with patients in several languages. The Ittners lived in two Seattle locations, then upon Ruth’s graduation from the eighth grade in 1930, they moved to Mercer Island.
The Ittners loved exploring the forests of Washington state and British Columbia, enjoying climbing, hiking, snowshoeing, skiing, and sailing. Their only vehicle was a motorcycle and side car that had traveled with them from England to Australia to Hawaii to Washington state. They even used this for transportation on the Cariboo Trail in British Columbia. The family did not purchase a car until Ruth and Bruce grew too tall to fit into the side car.
Ruth attended Union "S" High School in Bellevue, graduating as class Valedictorian in 1935. In 1939 she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. degree in Economics and Business and in 1941 an M.A. degree in Public Administration from the University of Washington.
Between January of 1950 and 1951, Ruth and her mother traveled to Australia, New Zealand, England, and Scotland and then returned to their Mercer Island home. In 1952 Ruth began a long and productive career at the University of Washington where she worked on the staff of the Washington State Planning Council, Bureau of Governmental Research and Services, Institute of Governmental Research, and Institute for Public Policy and Management. She was assigned to the Association of Washington Cities and in this position helped bureaucracies and the public to better understand government policies.
Ittner also served as secretary of Jim Ellis’s Metropolitan Problems Advisory Committee that planned and developed METRO and wrote the report “Government in the Metropolitan Seattle Area” that was used by legislators when they voted on enabling legislation. In addition she coordinated conferences on Open Space for Outdoor Recreation in1963; a Parks and Recreation Seminar in 1964; Quality Environment, A Shared Responsibility in 1968; Tomorrow’s Waterfront: a Public/Private Conference in 1971; Citizen Participation: Search for Criteria in 1975 and Recreation Impact on Wildlands in 1978. Ittner also helped to create Sno Park, Washington State Parks’ winter recreation program and authored several pamphlets and brochures including The Responsible Trail User and Recreational Impact on Wildlands.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was considerable interest in the state to develop and support its recreational resources and Ruth’s interest in hiking made her the perfect choice to attend the first National Trails Symposium held in Washington, D.C. in 1971. Ittner attended and came back inspired, particularly with Rail-to-Trail plans in progress in Illinois. (She later attended the 2nd, 3rd, 5th and 9th National Trails Symposiums.) The Washington Centennial plans scheduled for 1989 fired Ruth’s imagination to build a centennial trail, one that would allow hikers of all abilities to view some of the state’s scenic beauty and learn about its history. A “Rails West” project prepared for celebrating the region’s 1890s rail history, planned for completion by 1993, the 100th anniversary of the Great Northern Railway’s arrival into Everett and Seattle.
Building the Iron Goat Trail
If ever there was a calling for Ruth, it was creating the Iron Goat Trail that followed the old Great Northern Railway line near Skykomish. The project drew on Ittner’s love of nature, hiking and history and utilized her extraordinary planning and people skills. Ruth was an experienced trail builder by that time, having started making trails as a 10-year-old Girl Scout. Joining The Mountaineers in 1954, Ittner took an initial climbing course and joined members on summer outings but soon was organizing, as chair of the group’s Trails Planning and Advisory Committee.
In 1987 Ruth Ittner approached the Forest Service with the idea of building a centennial trail. The old Great Northern line was an appropriate choice. The trail would follow the route of the old Great Northern Railway, a segment of roadbed 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.
The site was rich in railroad history. The Great Northern Railway was the work of James Jerome Hill (1838-1916), who, after making a fortune in the steamboat business, got involved in what he considered the nation’s economic future -- railroads -- which would connect the U.S. from coast to coast, create a market for Pacific Northwest resources, link with water routes for international trade and open the West for development.
The Great Northern Railway’s biggest challenge moving west was crossing the Cascades. Heading west, Hill was in competition with the Northern Pacific, which chose a route into Tacoma. He 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 GNR. 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 is considered one of the nineteenth century’s greatest engineering accomplishments.
This tenacity and mountain-climbing ability led the Great Northern to adopt the mountain goat standing on a rock as its corporate symbol. Since locomotives were known as iron horses, the Great Northern Railway became known as the Iron Goat. The railroad reached Everett and Seattle in 1893. 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 snowsheds were built to protect the tracks. But there were also avalanches. Late in February 1910, a passenger train and a mail train were stranded for three days above the town of Wellington. On March 1 tragedy struck when an avalanche roared down the hillside, killing 96 people -- passengers and crew -- the largest toll recorded in any North American avalanche. The Wellington Disaster 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.
To tell the railroad story, Ittner brought in an expert, Bob Kelly, who became official historian on the Iron Goat Trail project, adding his considerable knowledge about rail history as well as the Wellington Disaster. Kelly and Ittner became friends, Kelly often serving as a sounding board for problems the group faced during what would become 20 years of trail building.
Ittner figured the project would be completed in time for the state centennial celebration but the complexities of the project were great -- 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 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.
Trail building continued a step at a time, volunteers dealing with not only the physical rigors of the job but with the necessity of protecting natural, archaeological and historic sites. In addition, public and private support had to be built and funds needed to be raised. Kelly gives Ittner primary credit: “The Iron Goat Trail would not have happened without Ruth. Her biggest contribution was to line up the government agencies to support the project” (Kelly).
Recognitions and Awards
Ruth Ittner holds special importance to those who have known and worked for her and over the years she has been officially honored many times. She proudly displays her plaques. A few of these honors include The Mountaineers’ Service Award in 1987; the American Hiking Society Jim Kearn Award in 1990; the Woman of Achievement Matrix Table award in 1999, and special recognition from the Washington State Department of Transportation given at the dedication of the Iron Goat Trail in 2006. She was also one of 12 Hiking Legends honored by the Washington Trails Association.
Ittner kept good administrative records of work done on the Iron Goat Trail and gave 45 boxes of materials -- records, newsletters, mailing lists, and public awards -- to Forest Ranger Bob Norton who had ties to the Great Northern Railway and was at one time Mayor of Skykomish. Upon his death, the Norton Estate willed these materials to the Skykomish Historical Society. A 4Culture grant was received in 2009 to organize and preserve them. The project is expected to take about five years to complete.
Ruth was honored on her 90th birthday with a celebration held at the Museum of History & Industry on January 12, 2008. Repeatedly speakers referred to Ruth’s persuasive abilities; she was the one person you couldn’t say “no” to. Those who attended were invited to join the “Wooden Shoe Club,” a reference to Ittner’s continual advocacy for her projects that usually began with “Wouldn’t you like to ...”
Ittner took the birthday occasion to speak from her heart about what she had gained from her years of both paid and volunteer service. Knowing and working with talented and caring people, being able to spend hours in wilderness areas, watching sunrises and sunsets in beautiful scenic places, were all gifts to her, as well as hearing the gratitude of those who continue to enjoy the trails she and other volunteers worked to build.
More than 50 years of her life was given to work with The Mountaineers as well as to Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle and her legacy continues with Volunteers for Outdoor Washington (VOW), an organization that is active building and maintaining new trails. In dire economic times -- when public and private funds are practically nonexistent -- the volunteer model that Ittner helped to establish may be one of her biggest legacies.