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Skagit River Journal

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Birth and death of the Interurban, 1912-30
Part 2 of 6-part series

('Sedro-Woolley depot)
      This George Vogel photo of the Sedro-Woolley depot on the south side of Ferry street was probably taken circa 1920. When Interurban service ended, the building housed Dr. Jones's original veterinary office and a fuel and transfer service that was later operated by the late Gene Mohler and mayor Puss Stendal.

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      In 1912, Sedro-Woolley was firmly connected to the western part of the county by the electrified Interurban trolley that ran on a track right-of-way that was nearly identical to what is now Highway 20 west from Burlington. The stretch inside Burlington city limits is today partially covered by a narrow park-like lawn. The line entered Sedro-Woolley on Woodworth street and continued east to the spot where an electric substation is now located just south of the North Cascade Ford parking lot on the south side of Ferry street. The depot was located on that parking lot, just east of the St. Charles Hotel, and that depot is now at the crossroads of Hwy 20 and the Cook road.
      Until 1912, settlers from Sterling through upriver were dependent on the west-to-east Seattle & Northern Railroad, canoes, steamboats or a stagecoach bumping along rough roads that made a trip to Mount Vernon an all-day affair. You can see more stories about the formation of the Interurban in the series of links at the end of this article. Briefly, we know from an article in the Weekly Blade of Whatcom (now part of Bellingham) on Oct. 14, 1903, that the first steps were taken towards an Interurban route were taken that month at an organizational meeting of the Whatcom-Skagit Interurban Co. which amassed $3 million in capital stock. The actual line was nearly a decade away and would await the leadership of the Stone & Webster Co., which began as a partnership in Boston in 1889 as one of the country's first electrical engineering consulting firms. In 1900 the company merged and managed eight small street railways in Seattle under the name of the Seattle Electric Co. They soon added street railway systems in Tacoma and Everett and in 1902 they bought the Fairhaven and New Whatcom railway, just before the city of Bellingham consolidated in 1903.
      The Bellingham and Skagit Interurban Railway [B&SI] was incorporated on May 18, 1910, and the company planned tracks to Mount Vernon, Sedro-Woolley and Anacortes and other points. So far, we have not found a connection with the 1903 group and B&SI. You can read about the construction of the route along Chuckanut drive in our pictorial feature listed below in the list of links to background stories. Warren Wing reports in his comprehensive book, To Seattle by Trolley, that three S&W investors from Portland, Maine, were the original B&SI incorporators. We have not yet connected this group with the original 1903 company.
      In 1912 the Interurban bridge was built over the Skagit river between the Pacific Highway (later Hwy 99) automobile bridge and the GN railway bridge just in time to beat the September construction deadline. That steel automobile bridge was dismantled in the spring of 2005 and replaced by a concrete structure. Just to the east of the new bridge you can see pilings on the north and south shore that are the only remnants of the Interurban bridge. The first electric-powered Interurban trains connected Bellingham with Mount Vernon and Sedro-Woolley on Aug. 31, 1912, with grand hoopla. S&W went on to play a key role in the construction of dams on the upper Skagit river. In another linked article, you can read about the Dollar Way, the first, short paved highway along the north of the Interurban that S&W built as part of their deal to obtain right-of-way between Burlington and Sedro-Woolley. The article below is one of a series in Issue 28 about the Interurban. This 1913 Mount Vernon Argus article recounts the first six months of the line.

Pacific Northwest Traction Co., Northern Division
Mount Vernon Argus magazine section, May 2, 1913
(Mount Vernon turnaround)
This Andy Loft photo of the Mount Vernon turnaround from the book, Skagit Settlers, is most interesting. The caption reads: "At the end of the interurban line in Mount Vernon the cars turned around on a curving trestle over the river where the Moose Hall now stands. This was outside the dike and when the river was very high, as in this picture, the muddy waters swirling underneath made the turn-around somewhat frightening." We hope that a reader will have other photos of the waterfront and the turnaround spot of this time that will show this are before the present revetment was built.

      Bellingham is responsible for the building of the Whatcom-Skagit Interurban. Had it not been for the faith, courage and insistence of the businessmen of Bellingham the Interurban would today be as far off as it was ten years ago, before it was dreamed of. To insure the materialization of this stupendous enterprise the people of Bellingham put up $400,000 for bonds and the balance of the money was raised by the S&W Corporation of Boston, who built the road and under whose supervision the road is now being operated. Leslie R. Coffin has complete management with main offices at Bellingham. The destiny of the Interurban is in his hands. The road has been in operation nearly a year and each month has shown steady gain in business.
      To give an account of the lines and equipment it is necessary to begin at Bellingham, the northern terminus. We board the car at Elk and Holly streets and ride five miles before we reach the southmost limits of the city. We then travel four miles alongside of Chuckanut Mountain on an average elevation of 200 feet above the sea level. We cross Hibridge, 700 feet long and 130 feet above the creek, one of the highest trestles in the west. This structure is built of 12x12 timbers. Then the car swings alongside of the Great Northern [Railroad] for four and a half miles from Clayton Bay to Blanchard on the Samish trestle, which contains over 5,000 cedar piles and 3 million feet of lumber. [Ed. note: You can see the remnants of those pilings today alongside the bridge just north of Blanchard. The Interurban track ran a few yards west of the Chuckanut drive route through north Skagit county to Burlington.]
      We are whirled over the Samish flats to Edison station at which point we plunge into the timber for a mile emerging into the Olympia Marsh country for a ride of six miles through a fine, cultivated district, and soon pull into Burlington. We continue south for a distance of four miles to Mount Vernon, the southern terminus. ON the way we cross the Skagit river over a new steel bridge, 800 feet long with a draw span of 240 feet. To complete the trip we retrace to Burlington and make the run to Sedro-Woolley of five miles through rapid developing territory. We have seen the entire line, enjoyed the scenery, noted the handsome stations and equipment and are impressed with the substantialness of the system.
      It is really a wonderful trip. A run from Mount Vernon to the Bay is, indeed, scenic and is worth coming far to take. The equipment consists of four combination express and passenger cars, equipped with 300-horsepower motors. The cars are light, clean and comfortable, seating 58 people, 57 feet long with a speed of fifty miles per hou; two locomotives, two express motors and 30 freight cars.
      There are 30 stopping points in the 34 miles of railway, including six stops in five miles on the Sedro-Woolley branch. The manager says that the conductors have no time for sleep during trips. The service is the best, six trains daily on the Mount Vernon-Bellingham line and ten daily between Mount Vernon and Sedro-Woolley. There is a daily freight service between all points, the principal commodities hauled being milk, wholesale groceries and lumber products.
      The power, which drives the whole system, is transmitted from Bellingham over Aluminum cable to substations at Clayton Bay and Burlington, where it is transformed into direct current and fed into copper cable and copper trolley. The trolley construction is known as the "Catenary," the safest and surest made.

The Interurban's demise
      Many people ask why the Interurban failed after only 16 years, and old-timers in their 80s and 90s still talk about the wonder of clickety-clacketing across the trestles out in the bay above Blanchard, even though the ride provoked so many white knuckles. The answers can be found in Daniel E. Turbeville III's book, The Electric Railway Era in Northwest Washington, 1890-1930.
      The success of the street railways led to the extension of electric lines into rural areas and ultimately to the connection of urban areas by larger and faster electric cars called interurbans. Between 1900 and 1914, Whatcom and Skagit counties were virtually hotbeds of interest in the construction of interurban lines. Farmers of the Nooksack Valley and Skagit Valley were especially interested in building interburans in order to get their farm produce to the nearest steam railroad and then to market. The construction of the Bellingham and Skagit Railway in 1911-12 represented an attempt by S&W to funnel the agricultural bounty of the Skagit Valley through Bellingham, the nearest seaport and major regional railroad center. Plans to build north from Bellingham to tap the rich Nooksack valley were shelved at the outbreak of World War I.
      S&W [initially] spared no expense in their construction of the Bellingham and Skagit, which was renamed Pacific Northwest Traction Company in early 1912. However, their failure to connect the Bellingham-Mount Vernon segment with the Seattle-Everett portion of the new line because of a war-caused lack of capital doomed the line from the beginning. Like most other Northwest industries, the interurban did well during the latter part of the war, but over the long run, it was financially unsuccessful. The Puget Sound Power and Light Company [now PSE], which administered S&W's Washington properties, continued to operate the line at a loss until 1930 when rail operations were ended. . . .
      The gradual transition of Pacific Northwest Traction from trains to buses did hit one snag, however. Following the February, 1927, addition of a local Bellingham to Burlington bus (to the through Bellingham to Seattle service) there was a minor uprising among some Skagit County residents. Most feared that, should interurban operations cease completely, their taxes would be raised to improve highways for buses. At a public meeting officials of Pacific Northwest Traction alleviated these fears and pointed out that bus service would ultimately be to everyone's advantage.
      Following the February introduction of through and local bus service, the operation of trains accounted for sixty per cent of the Northern Division's passenger revenue. By mid-summer, earnings on the trains had plunged to the point that vacant seats overwhelmingly outnumbered passengers [a graph in the book illustrates the figures]. In July, car No. 77 was transferred to the Southern Division and the train schedule was further reduced.
      Freight income remained low but stable during 1927. Reduced shipment of wood slabs and hog fuel from Bellingham were responsible, coupled with the demise of the Puget Sound and Cascade Railway at Clear Lake [after the Clear Lake mill went into receivership] and subsequent loss of the gasoline and oil contract with that company. One bright spot was the use of Pacific Northwest Traction flat cars to carry trucks and the company's buses over part of the Pacific highway. For several months in the spring, the replacement of the highway bridge at Inspiration Point at Bellingham's southern city limit necessitated loading trucks and buses on flat cars and ferrying them between Grandview and South Bellingham. Like the parlor observation buses, this innovation attracted nationwide attention and heralded modern "piggy-back" truck/train service.
      Following Pacific northwest Traction's new emphasis on bus service and the subsequent decline of railway passenger revenue, the interurban right of way began to deteriorate again. On July 3, 1928, car #78 derailed on the curve north of Inspiration Point, injuring several people but causing only minor damage to the car. In referring to the necessity of making badly needed improvement on the railway, the monthly report said "It [had been] proposed to carry this along during the balance of the year but due to the reaction of public sentiment on account of the derailment it was deemed advisable to rush this work at the present time."
      The public's confidence in Pacific Northwest Traction's railway operations was shaken even more on September 1, when car No. 75 derailed on the Samish Bay trestle at Rocky Point and plunged nose-first into the mud. Extensive repairs were required to both the interurban car as well as the trestle. Both of these accidents were given front-page treatment in local newspapers, causing further public skepticism about the safety of the interurban.
      A third event related to the poor condition of the Pacific Northwest Traction tracks proved to be the interurban's downfall. On October 10, 1928, the Skagit River bridge was condemned as unsafe and the interurban ceased all passenger operations. The local bus service between Bellingham and Burlington was simply extended to Mount Vernon, while the through buses operated as before.

Although some writers have claimed that S&W simply used the bridge condemnation as an excuse to shut down passenger service, that is not born out by the facts. Actually, the bridge over the Skagit was fixed on an accelerated emergency schedule and was re-opened for traffic in December 1929. But, in true "Perils of Pauline" fashion, this movie plot was interrupted by the stock market crash in October, which dried up capital. Turbeville sums up the final nail in the Interurban coffin: "At any rate, the rail line was officially abandoned on June 1, 1930. . . . The failure of S&W to construct the rail link between Everett and Mount Vernon was responsible for the demise of the Northern Division nine years sooner than the Southern. We hope that a reader will have more clippings about the Interurban and/or photos of the cars, both interior and exterior, and photos of the trestles over water and the drawbridge across the Skagit river.

Links, background reading and sources

Story posted on June 10, 2005, moved to this domain Oct. 29, 2011
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This article originally appeared in Issue 28 of our Subscribers-paid Journal online magazine

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