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The ultimate Cascades hike, along the ghost railroad

Up at Stevens Pass on the Iron Goat trail lie old-growth railroad history and one of the finest hiking trails you'll ever find. Among the many great stories are the sagas of John Stevens, heroic engineer of tunnels, and Ruth Ittner, who brought the rail-trail back to life.
The author paying tribute to Ruth Ittner in 2007.

The author paying tribute to Ruth Ittner in 2007. WSDOT

A slowly collapsing snowshed on the trail

A slowly collapsing snowshed on the trail Lindsay Korst photo

A hiker in one of the big abandoned snowsheds of the Iron Goat trail

A hiker in one of the big abandoned snowsheds of the Iron Goat trail 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.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Aug 19, 3:17 p.m. Inappropriate

We, the Waterfront tunnel opponents have forgotten none of the lessons of digging tunnels in glacial til, below sea level. And thus refuse to be swayed by the siren songs of those who would dig to gain personal and corporate wealth and not fix transportation.

Notice that the train tunnel is not below sea level! And it's designed to haul freight & passengers while the WFT only moves automobiles, an energy inefficient vehicle which reached it's apex of use in the late 1990s and will be relegated to the dust bin of transportation soon.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Aug 19, 11:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Interesting history, and the plug for the Highway 99 tunnel at the end took me entirely by surprise! Many tunnels have indeed been dug successfully in the past. But if it's that easy, why is there is now a very expensive machine stuck far below Lake Forest Park?

One other very minor factual quibble - the Great Northern RR route does not follow the Tumwater Canyon, it follows Chumstick Creek to the east.

Posted Fri, Aug 20, 6:19 p.m. Inappropriate

It was indeed an interesting article. I take no position on the proposed waterfront tunnel since I don't live in Seattle.

However I would like to make one small comment: The Great Northern alignment on the east side of the mountains was indeed along Tumwater Canyon. The realignment to Chumstick Canyon occurred in 1929. Highway 2 through Tumwater Canyon today is built on the old railroad grade. The small dam and reservoir that one encounters about halfway through Tumwater Canyon was built by the Great Northern Railway in the early 1900's. A penstock ran from the dam downstream a couple of miles to a power plant that the Great Northern used to generate the electricity that was required when they electrified the original Cascade Tunnel.

DennisE

Posted Fri, Aug 20, 8 p.m. Inappropriate

Great history; thanks. I've hiked this trail in early autumn, fabulous fall colors.

Posted Sat, Aug 21, 8:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Thank you for paying tribute to Ruth Ittner. It is people like her who save our cherished landscape and heritage for the future. Her ability to create momentum around this trail and bring together hundreds of people who contributed thousands of hours made an enormous difference.

We need people like Ruth and organizations like the Volunteers for Outdoor Washington to make sure that our grandkids have these sorts of outdoor opportunities.

I was just reading about some of what it took to pull together just one piece of this project – the Iron Goat Trail Interpretive Site. Wow. Ruth started working with The Trust for Public Land in 2004 and it was five years before, with additional help from The Mountaineers, Burlington Northern, the Forest Service, WSDOT and others they were finally able to secure the land. And then it was another seven years and many more players before the site was dedicated (to Ruth). Twelve years on the interpretive site alone.

She was clearly a “singular woman.” Let’s hope, for all our sakes, that there are many more like her in the future.

TomR

Posted Sat, Aug 21, 8:16 p.m. Inappropriate

I meant 1994, not 2004.

TomR

Posted Sun, Aug 22, 12:23 a.m. Inappropriate

Very nice history indeed. I have yet to hike the trail, but will have to do so soon — perhaps combined with huckleberry picking on Tonga Ridge.

Posted Sun, Aug 22, 12:26 a.m. Inappropriate

I stand corrected. Knew about the dam and powerhouse but not that the RR first went up the canyon. Must've been too many curves?

Another little known fact about the GN is that they had an informal policy of tolerating freight hopping riders who didn't damage anything, which even lasted some years beyond the (1971?) merger that turned it into BN. Supposedly one reason was to help farm laborer mobility. I took advantage of it many times during my youth in the 70's - I doubt I'd survive an unassisted passage of that tunnel nowadays. It was one godawfully dirty way to travel, but fun. Not that there are any empty boxcars, or friendly bulls, left anymore - just a bunch of forgettable container trains, even if they now are the train set Warren Buffett's father never bought him.

Posted Sun, Aug 22, 12:40 a.m. Inappropriate

One other item to note is that Ruth, though a wonderful, energetic woman, was of the era and mindset that all trails were good, and that there should be trails pretty much everywhere. She was an advocate of flagging out new routes, and more than once I heard her enthuse about how "pretty soon, you'd have a boot beaten trail..."

Or more precisely, a muddy rut, in a place which had been untouched. I dearly hope that the heirs of Ed Abbey (who loved "blank spots on the map,") and Harvey Manning, who renounced and denounced unfettered trailbuilding, manage to keep some parts of the Cascades untrailed, and mysterious.

Posted Sun, Aug 22, 3:19 p.m. Inappropriate

I worked with Ruth when I was with the King County Office of Cultural Resources (now 4Culture) in 2002, and she was a fabulous person to work with. She was so focused, articulate, passionate about the Iron Goat Trail, and always prepared. I miss her to this day! I hope others engaged in preservation will call upon her memory and legacy as inspiration to continue their course.

Posted Mon, Aug 23, 5:54 a.m. Inappropriate

It should be noted that unlike the "robber barons" that preceded him, James J. Hill did not rely on political pull or monopolist protection laws from the government to build his railroad. He and his investors paid for it themselves. He was the first and last truly capitalist railroad magnate.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Aug 23, 7:37 p.m. Inappropriate

During the 1960's my family enjoyed exploring the old Stevens Pass tunnel area on both ends. This article brings back memories.

Posted Sun, Oct 3, 4:21 p.m. Inappropriate

My Grandfather Earl James was a telegrapher for the Great Northern Railroad at Tonga Station Railhead during the tunnel #1 construction. His wife Jennie James (Klemp)was there also and did laundry and helped with meals for the crew members. Her brother Harry Klemp worked there too and both of my Uncles were born there. I'm extremely proud that my family was such an integral part of Washington Railroad history. I have pictures/photographs of them at Tonga and enjoy looking at them.

stepen

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