A Brief History of the Tacoma Eastern Railroad Co.

By Allen Miller

(Reprinted with permission from Tall Timber-Short Lines  Jan/Feb/Mar 1995)
(Copyright (C) 1995, 2003 OSO Publishing Co.)

    Preliminary operations on what would become the Tacoma Eastern Railroad began in 1887 when the Hart brothers, who operated a sawmill at the present location of E. 46th St., built about three miles of narrow gauge railroad down the present T&E gulch to get their lumber to tidewater.

    Operations were sporadic and had ceased altogether by 1890 when new owners took over the property and incorporated under the name of Tacoma Eastern Railroad company on July 14th of that year.  The new company rebuilt, standard gauged and lengthened the line to six miles, only to have the financial panic of 1893 force abandonment of the railroad.  Over the next few years the roadbed became considerably overgrown with brush and covered with debris.

    In 1900 the road was purchased by a group of men headed by John Bagley, a Wisconsin lumberman who had moved to Tacoma in 1896. Bagley and his partners, Edward Cookingham and Portland, Oregon bankers William Ladd and a Mr. Tilton owned extensive coal deposits in the Succotash Valley east of Elbe, known locally as the Nisqually Coal Fields.

    Railroad transportation was vital to development of these coal deposits and John Bagley also saw great potential for the railroad in hauling logs and forest products for the area.  The original six miles of abandoned road were completely rebuilt and new trackage reached Clover Creek (near Frederickson) during the first year.

    The track reached Kapowsin the following year and was extended another five miles to Clay City by 1902.  Grading was extended beyond LaGrande in mid 1903 and on July 4th the first train to Eatonville arrived.  The year 1903 also saw the first Howe Truss bridges on the Tacoma Eastern, two 68-foot spans near Eatonville.  A deck truss over Lynch creek and a thru-truss over the Big Mashell river gave the T&E bridge builders some practice for the big 120-foot thru-truss over the Nisqually river two years later near Park Junction.

    Exactly one year to the day after the first train to Eatonville, the first train arrived in Elbe, and by the end of 1904, the rails had reached Ashford, and a two mile branch from Kapowsin Junction to Electron had also been completed.

    A 4.1 mile extension from Park Junction to Mineral was built in 1905.  The following year, the line was extended 6.5 miles to Tilton.  Also a three mile branch from East Creek Junction (Mineral) to coal mining operations at Ladd was completed in 1906.

    The year 1907 was the line extended 2.7 miles from Tilton to Glenavon and a 15 mile branch from Salsich Junction (at Frederickson) completed to McKenna.  The destination of this branch was named for E.W. McKenna, Vice President of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway in Chicago, Illinois.  This was a clear indication of who was the real driving force behind the steady growth of the Tacoma Eastern System.

    The "script money" panic of 1907, coupled with the fact that most of the Milwaukee's capital was tied up in the construction of its extension to the coast, halted any further construction work throughout 1908.  By 1909, the Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound had completed its line to Puget Sound, and had made arrangements to lease the Tacoma Eastern.

    It is believed that the Milwaukee had control of the Tacoma Eastern as far back as 1901, through ownership of outstanding stock.  In the spring of that year John Bagley made a trip back to Wisconsin to visit old friends and find investors for his railroad project.  He returned with $90,000 worth of steel rails, spikes, twenty-five flat cars, baggage and passenger cars and a seventy-five ton locomotive (T.E.R.R. #3, an 1893 Cooke 4-6-0).

    During his visit, he paid a call on the offices of CM&StP President, Albert J. Earling.  coincidentally, the "St. Paul" was just beginning to consider the prospect of extending their lines to the Pacific coast.  The following year, chairman of the board, Roswell Miller sent an engineer to Puget Sound to determine what it would cost to duplicate the Northern Pacific's line.  Was it only coincidence, or did John Bagley help to influence the Milwaukee's decision to choose Puget Sound as its destination and Tacoma, as the western terminal?

    Under the Milwaukee lease, the Tacoma Easter built the "Cowlitz Valley Extension" eight miles into Morton in 1910 while abandoning 3.2 miles of old line from Cowlitz Junction to Glenavon, built in 1907, due to a line change.

    A final bit of construction under the Tacoma Easten name was a 2.09 mile branch from Tanwax Junctions to Western Junction, completed in 1912 to connect with the Tidewater Lumber Company.  A further extension of the line from Morton to Randle, proposed in 1910, was never built.  Some of the route southeast of Morton was used by Kosmos Timber Company in 1930.

    On December 31, 1918, while under the control of the United States Railroad Administration, the Milwaukee Road absorbed all of its subsidiary roads, including the Tacoma Eastern, into the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul system.  Officially, the Tacoma Eastern Railroad, the "Paradise Valley Route" ceased to exist after 28 years.  Hundreds of logging flat cars, leased to dozens of independent logging lines, would continue to carry the Tacoma Eastern name for years to come, however.

    Under lease, the Milwaukee made many improvements to the Tacoma Eastern lines.  A new depot was built at Kapowsin in 1910.  Yard facilities and a change of alignment at Salsich Junctions was undertaken in 1912 to better handle Milwaukee Road's "Grays Harbor Line" trains over the McKenna branch.  A line change to reduce curvature between LaGrande and Alder and a change of alignment at the south end of Nisqually Canyon was also completed in 1912.  That same year the two Howe Truss bridges near Eatonville were replaced with pile trestles.

    The Tacoma Eastern's main shops and storehouse were located at Bismarck (renamed "Hillsdale" in 1918), however the Milwaukee Road closed these facilities in 1910 and transferred the equipment and employees to its Tide Flats roundhouse and shops.  The Tacoma Eastern passenger station at 26th and A Street was sold  to the Milwaukee in 1910, and thereafter, the Tacoma Eastern paid the Milwaukee a yearly rental fee for its trains using the station.  The Milwaukee Road train dispatchers and general offices were located upstairs in the old Tacoma Eastern depot until moved to the freight house building at 25th & D Street in the early 1940's.  The Tacoma Eastern structure continued to server as the passenger station and continued a lunchroom until it was replaced by a new brick passenger station located near Tide flats yard in 1954.  The old station building remained mostly vacant and abandoned until it burned around 1970.

    The Milwaukee acquired thirteen steam locomotives with the purchase of the Tacoma Eastern.  Several of the older ones were scrapped or sold by the mid-1920's.  The rest were renumbered in the Milwaukee system and assigned to other parts of the Milwaukee system.  The last of these were scrapped in 1935.

    Ironically, the first portions of the Tacoma Eastern's lines to be abandoned was also the last one built, the 2.08 mile branch from Tanwax Junction to Tidewater in 1928.  Next to go was the three-mile branch to Mountain Camp (formerly called "Ladd") in 1934, followed by the 2.01 mile Electron branch in 1937 that had been built to haul construction materials to the Puget Sound Power & Light plant on the Puyallup River.

    The biggest change came in 1943 with the abandonment of about 15 miles of original grade and construction of 13 miles of new line between Eatonville and Elbe.  This line relocation was made necessary by the building of Alder Dam and the formation of its backwater, Alder Lake, which covers much of the old grade between Alder station and Williamson, west of Elbe.  Portions of the old line, from each end, were used as material spurs, and the Alder station was renamed "Alder Dam" during the construction project.  The depot from Alder was moved and made into a home that stood into the late 1970s still wearing the Milwaukee colors of orange and maroon!

    The last bit of Tacoma Eastern trackage to be abandoned was the two miles into Ashford in the mid 1960s when the Milwaukee cut the line back to the log reload at National.  The remaining portions of the Tacoma Eastern survive to the present, outlasting the Milwaukee Road's departure from the West by 14 years.

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