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Skagit County's Andy Loft is Mr. Interurban
Part 3 of 6-part series

By Terry M. Sell, Skagit Argus, Dec. 14, 1882
(Burlington depot)
This Andy Loft photo of the Burlington Interurban depot circa 1920 shows how a depot worker keeps the tracks clear of water and debris during frequent flooding. We hope that a reader will have a photo of Andy

      This year marks the 70th anniversary of the opening of the Interurban. It also marks the 54th anniversary of the closure of the Interurban, Andy Loft's 84th year and his 405h in Mount Vernon.
      Not even a murmur was heard when the official 70th birthday, Aug. 31, passed, although the electric passenger train that hummed for 16 years from Mount Vernon to Bellingham and back still lives in Loft's memory. It also lives in the 60-minute slide show he shows to anyone with an hour to spare.
      Today, with gas prices high and memories of endless liens at gas stations still fresh, the idea that you could once take an electric train to Bellingham for a buck is a little maddening.
      Without Andy Loft, perhaps the only trace of the interurban's existence would be the assorted pilings strewn about Skagit and Whatcom counties, left over from the line's trestles and bridges. Some residents are old enough to remember having traveled on the line. Loft says some of those are around and they still remember him as a tall, young conductor with shiny brass buttons and a ticket punch.
      Andy Loft spent his first working career with the firm that eventually became Puget Power [now PSE], starting as a 12-year-old streetcar washer and ending as manager of Puget Power's Mount Vernon office. His second working career has been working for the elderly on projects such as Mount Vernon Manor and the senior center. He says the key to surviving old age is to have something to do.

Andy's childhood
      Andy Loft was born Oct. 14, 1898, in Clinton, Iowa. His family, at its peak, would number six boys and two girls, with Andy somewhere in the middle. The Loft family moved to Bellingham when he was an infant of undetermined age. His memory slips for a rare moment; he guesses 16 months. he says his wife will know.
      "Mommy," he calls.
      "How old was i when I moved to Bellingham?"
      "You don't know?" she says, somewhat incredulous. "You were 11 months old." Myrtle Loft is the younger of the two. She's 82.
      Andy Loft, a big Danish kid, was lucky enough to have a father who was foreman of the streetcar shop in Bellingham, at a time when streetcars were more than a novelty. Andy says he was lucky, anyway. He finished grade school, but with such a large family he had to go to work. To wash streetcars for as much as 16 hours a day, they paid him 50 cents.
      "It was a lot of work just to keep them running," he says. His father had worked his way up to foreman the old fashioned way.
      Don't ever ask for a raise in pay and don't watch the clock," he told Andy, who says he figured it was good advice and stuck with it. Loft had to leave home at 4 a.m. to get to work at 4:30 a.m. The "hog law" limited a day's work to 16 hours.
      "The only thing that bothered me was that I didn't like my mother having to get up and make my lunch," he says. He said so, but his mother was unflappable.

1912: the Interurban is launched

(Sedro-Woolley depot)
      This is a 1920-era post card that shows the Sedro-Woolley depot on the south side of Ferry street, now the parking lot for North Cascade Ford. The depot has been moved to the crossroads of Hwy 20 and Cook road.

      By Aug. 31, 1912, Messrs. Stone and Webster, two sharpies from Boston, owned all the electric rolling stock and track from Seattle to Bellingham. They flipped the switch, and the first of many, many hourly runs from Bellingham to Mount Vernon buzzed away. The line was officially known as the Pacific Northwest Traction, Bellingham and Skagit.
      The trains were more like trolleys, with an overhead hot wire supplying electricity, generated by dams in the Cascades, to four 300-horsepower motors. The train made 24 stops between here and Bellingham, Loft says, with a spur line to Sedro-Woolley.
      The railhead to Mount Vernon was met by a bus that sped to Everett, when another electric train would take you to Seattle. For $1 you could ride to Mount Vernon, or $1.40 round trip. Seattle was $3 one way from Bellingham, and $4.65 round trip. The trains toped out at 60 miles an hour, although one went as high as 62, Loft says.
      "That was a cheap trip," he says, a fact not lost on those who remember it. "The old-timers ask me, 'Well, Andy, when are you going to bring the Interurbans back?' "
      Andy, spotted as "the top guy" by a supervisor, went to work on the Interurban freight line at 18 and became a conductor at 21.
      What sent the Interurbans away were buses, automobiles and the natural obstacles the train had to face. The bridge over the Skagit river, the concrete pilings of which still remain, was condemned in 1928, and the train never ran again. An Interurban freight line continued for a few more years after the bridge was repaired.
      Economics kept the passenger line in the past tense, however. Using buses was at least as profitable, and a roadway is easier to maintain than a rail line. A four-and-a-half mile trestle had to be built from Blanchard north across the flats [actually Samish bay] and the bridge at Chuckanut was equally "iffy."
      But young Loft already was out of trains by then. A 1925 accident took him off the job, and the sharp-eyed supervisor put him to work selling electric appliances to soak up some of the power they were generating. [Ed. note: the same thing happened in Sedro-Woolley, where ex-city clerk Ted Alverson managed the interurban office and sold appliances there that were widely advertised in local newspapers.]
      Stone and Webster's rapidly growing company was selling electric appliances to soak up some of the power they were generating. Andy, naturally, worked his way up to sales manager. He even ran cooking schools to show homemakers how to use electric ranges.
      Puget sound Power and Light Co. eventually spun off its appliance business. They sent Andy to manage the Mount Vernon office, which he did until retiring in 1963. Along the way he became a prominent member of the Elks, Rotary and Kiwanis clubs, managed the Mount Vernon Milkmaids baseball team and was county Republican chairman for three years. He avoided running for public offices, despite invitations to do so, he says.
      The Lofts' only child, Jeanne, died at 16.
      "That kind of broke us up for a long time," he says. A hint of pain remains in the words, and Jeanne's prominently displayed picture shows a beautiful, happy young woman. The Lofts traveled in Europe and Asia after retirement, riding the trains whenever possible. He says he got a lot o mileage out of showing foreign conductors a picture of himself, in his conducting days.
      Andy Loft now serves on the Skagit Council on Aging and on the Northwest Washington regional council. He says he is proud of his work on the Mount Vernon Manor. It keeps him busy.
      "I enjoy doing this work with the old people here," he says. "It's been fun. Loft has fond words for Puget Power, where he serves on the 12-member retirees council. He is and probably will remain the company's only 50-year employee. He never went on strike in all his years and never joined a union after finishing his conducting career. He says an organizer once pressured him to join, which sold him on not joining.
      "I didn't like his attitude at all," he says. "I felt that they (Puget Power) paid you the best they were able," Andy says, adding he never did complain about his salary.
      A friend of Loft's from Bellingham [Galen Biery] was able to turn a collection of black and white photos into more than 100 old-fashioned glass slides, and a local camera store owner provided a rare, antique slide machine [lantern slide projector] to show them.
      Loft says he has presented the Interurban show more than 100 times, Puget power has filmed a 30-minute television version, which was shown recently on a Bellingham station. Along with keeping busy, Andy credits himself with getting along with people. He says he picked up the skill as a conductor.
      "There's no use in having a fighting attitude," he says. "That doesn't do any good. There's a way to deal with people and I've enjoyed that kind of work." Andy has arthritic knees but apparently few regrets. the handshake is still firm, the memory amazingly clear, the smile finely etched in the lines on his face.

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Story posted on June 12, 2005, moved to this domain Oct. 29, 2011
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