Lindsay Korst photo
Lindsay Korst photo
We day hikers often ask: Is there One Very Best Hike? For me the winner piles up points in a matchless variety of categories: Good scenery. Easy to get to. Rich historical setting. Embracing the best modern wilderness ethic of voluntarism, stewardship, and access for all. On top of all that, a great walk!
It’s the Iron Goat trail between Wellington and Scenic in the Tye Creek drainage. This trail is on the other side of the valley from U.S. Highway 2 climbing the last few miles from the west to Stevens Pass.
The Iron Goat trail, a work in progress for almost a quarter-century, has long been the singular passion of a singular woman, Ruth Ittner, who had a love for trails borne of decades as a climber and hiker. She was a stalwart 50-year member of the Mountaineers and a leading light of Volunteers for Outdoor Washington (VOW). Ruth’s spirit has long infused the Iron Goat trail. Sadly, though she planned to urge on her umpteenth work party on the trail in mid-July, she passed away in early June, a seemingly ageless 92 years old. Her place is now carved indelibly into the trail as history. I'll be up there with many others paying tribute to her this coming weekend. (See the VOW website for details.)
It was the grand-scale history presented by the trail that first drew Ruth’s attention — that and a belief that a true mountain trail in the Cascades should be barrier-free for the enjoyment of the broadest possible public. The trail was once a railroad. Steep for a railroad, but gentle enough to be a trail for everyone.
The Iron Goat trail recalls some big chapters, and not so very old, of our region’s history. So come along on a long trek with me into that grand saga. For those of you, also like me, fascinated by digging big tunnels, such as the one proposed for Seattle's waterfront, this is also a saga for you.
We begin with John F. Stevens and the Great Northern Railway. Stevens came a few decades later than and was no relation to early Washington territorial governor and Civil War general, Isaac Stevens, maker of the Indian treaties in the 1850s and then a Civil War casualty at the Battle of Chantilly in 1862. Our Stevens was the remarkable civil engineer who brought James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railway from the plains across the Continental Divide to inland Washington and then over the Cascade Range to Puget Sound country. It all happened just a few years before the beginning of the twentieth century.
That was just a piece of Stevens’ astonishing career working on railroad projects all around the world. He first came west in the mid-1880s as an assistant engineer for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He located its route across the Rockies at Kicking Horse Pass near Banff, a route now followed by the Trans-Canada Highway. Then, engaged by James J. Hill and the Great Northern, in killer cold in the virtual dead of winter in December 1889, with a single Indian guide, he reconnoitered, and perhaps can claim to be the European who discovered, Marais Pass for the Great Northern’s route across the Rockies. (Meriwether Lewis had looked for it on the Corps of Discovery’s way home in 1806, but never got there!)
View Iron Goat Trail in a larger map
Next, with the Great Northern tracks lined up to head west across Washington from Spokane, Stevens bushwhacked the Cascade Crest looking for the best route to the growing precincts of Puget Sound. In 1890 he found the way over the pass that now bears his name.
He then engineered the Great Northern crossing over the pass — up the narrow Tumwater Canyon after leaving Leavenworth, over the top on switchbacks, then a long descent including a sinuous detour far into the Martin Creek drainage to ease the grades on the elevation loss on the steep west side. Finally, from a depot at Scenic the alignment eventually met Tye Creek’s distributory, the Skykomish River, along which ran the rails to Monroe and from there to Everett and Puget Sound. The line over Stevens Pass brought its first trains to Puget Sound in early 1893.
The high mountain heart of that remarkable route west of the pass is now the Iron Goat trail.
Stevens would have been a giant among engineers just for those accomplishments on the Great Northern. But there was much more. Later, from 1905 to 1907, at the request of President Theodore Roosevelt, he served as the chief engineer for the construction of the Panama Canal, persuading the government to build a system of locks rather than a sea-level route and designing the rail system that supported the massive excavation of material from the vexing Culebra Cut.
In 1915, at the request of President Woodrow Wilson, Stevens went to Russia in mid-World War I to help the post-Imperial pre-Bolshevik provisional government manage the Russian wartime railroad system. He ended up in the Far East working on Siberian and Chinese railroads, finally coming home in 1923.
He still wasn't done. He consulted on the plan for the 7.8-mile Great Northern Tunnel under Stevens Pass, still the longest rail tunnel in the United States and still in service from Scenic to Berne today. That 1929 tunnel replaced the high alignment that is now the Iron Goat trail.
Where now the trail has been built for hikers on the old alignment, there is a view of one tunnel from the earliest route, punched several hundred feet through a ridge too precipitous for the track to skirt. That tunnel was blasted out almost foot-by-foot with dynamite packed into holes hammered by hand into the mountain rock with long steel crowbar-like drills.
Probably within the prior decade, far away in Alabama or Virginia, John Henry, hand driving his drill, beat the new steam drill, giving his life in the effort. In these high Cascades just a few years later, it was too rugged and remote for a new steam drill. So the work on that tunnel you see from the Iron Goat trail was done the old-fashioned way, drilling the dynamite holes into the vertical face of granite just as John Henry did: with muscle and 20-pound sledge hammers.
Once the road opened in 1893 with back-and-forth switchbacks over the very top of the pass, steam engines brought passengers and freight between Skykomish and the summit on track clinging to the steep mountain slopes and crossing deep ravines on creaking wooden trestles. The heart of the Iron Goat trail now lies on that roadbed. At mile 1712 from St. Paul, next to the trail, a railroad mile marker stands where once it stood beside the now-absent tracks. The stray iron spike once lost or tossed aside that might now be found near the stone masonry of an old under-track drainage culvert must be left where it lies, a protected archaeological relic.
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