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

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.

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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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'ꀙ 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'ꀙs route across the Rockies. (Meriwether Lewis had looked for it on the Corps of Discovery'ꀙs 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'ꀙs 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.

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.

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.

There was a big next step soon after 1893 for improving the line: the first Great Northern cross Cascade tunnel, 2.6 miles long at an elevation of 3,350 feet, shortcutting the crest of the pass and eliminating the costly, time-consuming switch-backing over the highest 700 feet of the pass'ꀙs elevation.

Though the Great Northern tunnel was longer, at higher elevation and in much rougher terrain, it was the second cross-Cascades railroad tunnel. The Northern Pacific'ꀙs 1.9-mile tunnel under Stampede Pass had been completed in 1888.

That tunnel, still in use today by the now-merged BNSF Railway, has its own rich history. That story begins with the recommendation of its location by another great engineer, Virgil G. Bogue. He much later became Seattle'ꀙs first city planner, famous for his Bogue Plan for Seattle. Had his visions not been defeated when put to the voters in 1912, Bogue would have purchased Mercer Island as a city park and — don't tell Frank Chopp about this idea for SR 520! — built a rail tunnel under Lake Washington to connect Kirkland with the streetcar system at Madison Park.

Anyway, the new air drills were introduced in mid-construction on the Stampede Pass project. Tunneling innovation immediately showed its worth over muscle-driven drilling by enabling an improvement in daily progress from four to six feet a day. The Milwaukee Road'ꀙs 2.25-mile tunnel under Snoqualmie Pass, the third cross-Cascade tunnel, was completed in 1915.

The Great Northern began its Cascade tunnel for the shortcut under the crest of Stevens Pass in 1897. Now, its crews too used air drills for placing the dynamite charges with which they blasted out the tunnel from both east and west toward the middle. First they mined virtually by hand on the west side through the first 500 feet of saturated earth and gravel interspersed with big boulders in an ancient slide zone.

The surveyors had calculated the estimated length of the tunnel to within 2 inches of the actual result, having made their calculations from survey lines thrown over two intervening summits.

The west portal of the old, abandoned Cascade tunnel is easy viewing today just yards from the Iron Goat Trail. But after decades of neglect of the tunnel'ꀙs thick concrete lining in the slide zone and a resulting cave-in and mud-flow into the tunnel, a visit inside is now off limits. Too bad, because the tunneling project'ꀙs most marvelous result, the accuracy with which the two mining drives met in mid-mountain, now cannot be appreciated at first hand by a trip into the tunnel itself.

Not that there would be much for the eye to see. When the muck (tunneling lingo then as now for the rock and anything else excavated from a tunnel) was cleared away after the last dynamite shot in September 1900, the surveyors had calculated the estimated length of the tunnel to within 2 inches of the actual result, having made their calculations from survey lines thrown over two intervening summits. And the alignment of the two meet-in-the-middle mining drives deviated from each other by only a quarter of an inch 'ꀜon line'ꀝ and a quarter of an inch 'ꀜon grade.'ꀝ

No lasers. No GPS. No computer-aided measurements.

With evident satisfaction, Stevens in his wonderful memoir, Recollections of an Engineer (1935), wrote: 'ꀜI know of no other case under similar conditions where this result has ever been equaled.'ꀝ What a distinguished landmark in the Northwest'ꀙs history of tunnel-making! A century later, in 1993, the American Society of Civil Engineers named Stevens Pass and its railroading achievements a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark.

And then the epic story or mountain railroading shifted from triumph to disaster. The depot and rail yard at the west portal of the 2.6-mile tunnel was named Wellington. A rude outpost of the railroad in the high Cascades, overnight on March 1, 1910, Wellington became famous around a horrified world.

Well before dawn that morning, in lightening and thunder and with rain pelting down on an unprecedented snowpack from a harsh winter, a calamitous avalanche roared down the timber-denuded slopes above the little enclave. It swept off the mountain two passenger trains that had been stranded on sidings for days in the high mountains by huge snowdrifts and slides across the rails.

Dying in the Wellington Avalanche were almost 100 men, women and children, many of them passengers trying to make routine trips to Everett, Seattle, and Olympia. An even larger share of the dead, perhaps swelling the ghastly tally beyond the number counted in the wreckage of cars, were railroad men and temporary laborers who had been marshaled to fight the drifts and slides westward on the line. Happening a century ago, the Wellington Avalanche was one of America'ꀙs worst railroading disasters.

Following the avalanche, Great Northern trains continued to run through the Cascade tunnel and wind their way along the mountainsides to Scenic. The railroad basically responded to the line'ꀙs exposure to snow danger with attempts to protect the line with massive snowsheds. For 19 years, fortification was the railroad'ꀙs answer.

Finally in 1929, after years of planning and construction, the first Great Northern train rumbled through the lower, longer new Cascade tunnel. Its western portal can be seen from Highway 2 at Milepost 59 at Scenic and the ventilation building on the other side of the pass at Berne.

Immediately the tortuous old alignment descending on the mountain slopes from Wellington to Scenic was taken out of service and its steel rails removed for salvage. Structures were abandoned and removed or allowed to decay. The roadbed soon was overgrown with alder and fir. The gigantic concrete snowsheds, now purposeless but virtually indestructible, can still be seen from the current Stevens Pass highway if you know just where to look on the opposite hillside west of the abandoned Wellington township.

Curious visitors continued to find their way to the old tunnel under the pass. It is said that during World War II the government used it for records storage. At one time there was talk of its use for a natural gas line. Boeing and the University of Washington set up offices and equipment for applied physics experiments deep in the tunnel in the 1960s.

Meanwhile, the mountainside roadbed and its appurtenances became a ghost railroad.

And thus the stage lay quiet for over 50 years waiting for the arrival of Ruth Ittner and her vision of creating the Iron Goat trail. Ruth would have been the first to say that it was not a project she did or even thought of alone. The idea that large sections of the roadbed could be retrieved from the overgrowth to be fashioned into a trail was moved forward by many.

Volunteers for Outdoor Washington, home base for Ruth, was instrumental. The railroad, evolving as the BNSF Railway, successor to the old Great Northern, has supported the project, though never without a lingering reticence about the Wellington avalanche. So has the Great Northern Railway Historical Society. An old Great Northern caboose, painted bright red and with the railroad'ꀙs mountain goat logo prominently on its side, greets visitors at one of the access trailheads. A legion of other corporate and non-profit sponsors stepped forward.

The United States Forest Service, with the trail location within the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, has been an instrumental partner at every step. Many tens of thousands of hours of labor by individual volunteers have gone into much of the physical work both to construct and to maintain the trail itself.

On a typical work day, the Forest Service brings the shovels, the pulaskis, the safety briefing, and a trail boss. You bring your own brush clippers, gloves, mosquito repellent, and sunscreen to support your day'ꀙs contribution of sweat equity in the trail. Word of the trail has spread far and wide. Helping to build a little bridge or cut away a thicket of brush, the volunteer next to you might be from Virginia or Connecticut.

Once I enjoyed a portion of the trail with a retired dentist from St. Paul who had built its entire replica on HO-scale, complete with surrounding landscape, in his basement.

But everyone has also known who has always held the crystal of the project'ꀙs energy source. That was Ruth Ittner, tireless and relentless and ageless. If there were something she thought you could contribute, you would get the call. Even if you had never met Ruth, she was calling you for a reason and 'ꀜNot possible'ꀝ would be an impossible answer.

Today on the Iron Goat trail there are many users and stories. Once I enjoyed a portion of the trail with a retired dentist from St. Paul who had built its entire replica on HO-scale, complete with surrounding landscape, in his basement. He relied on the original plans for his layout, which he had rescued them from landfilling when Great Northern engineering offices were being shut after a corporate merger. He was on the trail with a group when I met him, reciting from memory the precise linear dimension of an abutment for a nearby bridge.

In another aficionado'ꀙs garage in Renton repose hundreds of souvenirs from the line, from dining car silverware to old signal semaphores. Another railroad history addict finally exorcised the story'ꀙs grip by writing a self-published work of historical fiction about the avalanche, greatly intriguing my son, who works today as a switchman on the railroad.

And for myself? I best like standing in the massive damp of the old concrete snowshed built after the avalanche at the spot where the passenger trains had been swept off the then-unprotected tracks in 1910. Now trees grow from the showshed roof but it gets you out of the rain on a wet day. Abandoned today, it seems to be waiting to be etched by a latter-day Piranesi as a ruin displaced from ancient Rome.

Volunteers for Outdoor Washington are holding a trailhead celebration of Ruth Ittner'ꀙs life at Wellington on Saturday, August 21. When we honor and thank those amongst us who, like Ruth Ittner, enrich our lives by cementing the bonds of an experience like the Iron Goat Trail, we celebrate the very core of our community values both in and out of the wilderness and with our history.

And, I muse, what would John F. Stevens, who died in 1943, think if he were alive among us today? An interesting footnote to his career was a little project that he orchestrated in Seattle for James J. Hill and the Great Northern. The problem was how to solve the mess on the Seattle waterfront on Railroad Avenue (now Alaskan Way) connecting the railroad, coming to Seattle from Everett and the north through Ballard, to King Street Station and fast-industrializing south Seattle.The year was 1903.

Stevens favored a tunnel. From his memoir:

[T]he mile-long tunnel under the business district of Seattle . . . solved a problem that had been under discussion for several years. The situation was very complicated and several plans, mostly fantastical, had been suggested to relieve it.

The tunnel Stevens supported, 30 feet wide by 28 feet high, would be 5,141 feet long. He continued:

We secured the ordinance without much difficulty and the tunnel was built. . . It was key to the to the terminal situation of the Northern lines in Seattle.

Over a hundred years later, that tunnel is in daily service for BNSF Railway, Amtrak Cascade, and Sound Transit under most of the length of Fourth Avenue in Seattle. It still works fine, despite a repair in 1915 to correct areas that had settled a bit because the old construction methods had left some timbers to rot out above the finished concrete lining.

With his savvy and experience, I imagine that a ghostly Stevens might wander down from his ghost railroad and pose these questions: 'ꀜWhy is it so hard to take on the challenges of building a tunnel in Seattle? And what understanding have you in Seattle forgotten or mislaid about the long-term value of fundamental transportation infrastructure?'ꀝ  

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About the Authors & Contributors

Doug MacDonald

Douglas MacDonald

Doug MacDonald is a pedestrian activist who once served as the Secretary of Transportation for Washington state.