Book Review:
Rails to Paradise a History of the Tacoma Eastern Railroad 1890-1919

  • Posted 4/06/2010
  • Essay 9389

By Russell H. Holter & Jessie Clark McAbee
Gorham Printing, Rochester Washington
Hardcover 538 pages
More than 400 photos, maps, line drawings and historical advertisements. Three appendixes; bibliography
ISBN+10: 0-9776176-0-2
ISBN+13: 978-09776176-0-9

The physical makeup and character of communities that exist in Washington state today are in large part determined by the railroad companies that first hacked into the raw landscape to establish permanent human settlement. Understanding the way in which these early railroads developed and operated is important within the context of the larger history of settlement in the Pacific Northwest. The story of the Tacoma Eastern Railroad is the story of Pierce County itself. No single business was so closely tied to the region’s growth in industry, commerce, tourism, and residential development. This comprehensive history of one of the more significant rail systems in the region is told by local historians Russell H. Holter and Jessie Clark McAbee.

The railroad was originally started in 1890 by brothers John F. and George E. Hart. The size of the tiny railway increased along with the scale of logging in the area, but a devastating mill fire in 1892 combined with the economic panic of 1893 almost doomed the Tacoma Eastern. The line lay in neglect during the bankruptcy proceedings, but its solid foundations as a profitable logging and passenger line was apparent to those who knew where to look. The court-appointed receiver for the Tacoma Eastern was a Milwaukee transplant lumberman and business owner named John Bagley. Several factors ensured the survival of the imperiled railway. Primarily, the influx of money and investment that came with the Yukon Gold Rush propped the railway financially at just the right time. The savvy leadership of Bagley also ensured longterm stability and expansion with the large amounts of investment dollars he was able to attract from larger railway companies, principally the Milwaukee Road Company. The Tacoma Eastern was also fortunate in that its location made it ideal for tourists and mountaineers headed for the new Mt. Rainier National Park.

This book traces the perils and expansion of the railway alongside the cast of characters who dedicated their working lives to keeping the logs rolling down the line off the foothills of Mount Rainier and into the mills that dotted the landscape. Their stories and the often dangerous and deadly nature of their business is extensively recorded. This volume records the history of the Tacoma Eastern Railway as it officially existed from 1890 until December 31, 1918, when it was absorbed into the Chicago, St. Paul and Milwaukee Railway, which had already exerted majority control of the line since 1909.        

The story of the Tacoma Eastern is also the story of the economic development of the entire region. Bagley and his partners owned the timber lands that the Tacoma Eastern ran through; they owned the mills that the line delivered to; and to top it off they owned the iron works that furnished the replacement parts and made repairs for the locomotives and the infrastructure of the railway itself. The wealth generated by the Tacoma Eastern nurtured the new communities in the nearby counties and the physical character of those places was influenced by the Tacoma Eastern in other ways also. Old and disused logging grades turned into farmland; abandoned and extra tracks of the Tacoma Eastern sometimes became country roads.

Tacoma Eastern Engineer Albert W. Bagley and his colleagues, in addition to constructing railroads, were avid tinkerers. The Tacoma Eastern Railroad was the perfect testing ground for a number of patented railroad devices. The most successful of these was the “Bagley grader,” a metal scoop used to grade level surfaces that was attached to the pulling cables of a steam powered logging engine known as a “steam donkey.” All of the various locomotive devices developed by employees of the Tacoma Eastern are faithfully recorded complete with original patent illustrations.  

This work is impressive for its staggering degree of thoroughness. Every known legal challenge, property dispute, and lawsuit is mentioned in detail as well as specific personnel and inventory changes throughout the railroad’s 19-year history. This book is not only satisfying for historical railway enthusiasts, but for those interested in business and economic labor history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The manner in which companies were run, wages dolled out and property managed is meticulously recounted. Readers curious about how commercial business and the logging industry operated during that time would be hard pressed to find a more complete example than Holter and McAbee’s Rails to Paradise.

The book itself is large and heavy, jammed with large, clear photographs, historical advertisements, and maps. The later chapters meticulously describe each mill, logging company, and community at each milepost of every single mile of track. It’s unlikely that a more complete history of the railway will ever be written, Rails to Paradise: a History of the Tacoma Eastern Railway 1880-1919 will be the definitive source for historians on the subject.       

By Alex Marris, April 6, 2010

Submitted: 4/06/2010

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