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The Railroads of Grays Harbor, 1880-1900

The lure of Timber Resources The industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century brought with it an increased national appetite for many natural resources and the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest provided a significant location of valuable, largely untapped, resources. This environment attracted many people with dreams of wealth and while a few of the dreamers succeeded, most did not.

(evergreen tree)
The region surrounding Grays Harbor, Washington provides an interesting example of the rapid industrial growth, including the associated growth of the Northern Pacific, that took place in the Pacific Northwest during the late nineteenth century. The NP recognized the financial potential of the Grays Harbor area as shown in this NP Annual Report to Stockholders of 1890:

No portion of the Pacific Northwest is growing in population and wealth faster than Southwestern Washington. To reach the important towns of that part of the state, about 172 miles of new road have been projected under the general name of United Railroads of Washington. The lines of this company will probably not be completed before the autumn of 1891, the policy of the company being to make careful progress.
The Northern Pacific Railroad was the first line to serve the Grays Harbor region of Washington state. The first portions of the Grays Harbor Branch were completed in 1892 when the line terminated in Ocosta-by-the-sea. (later known simply as Ocosta) The location proved to be a poor choice since the harbor was quite shallow and silt-filled in this area. The other side of the harbor, where the towns of Aberdeen and Hoquiam were already established, had much better natural shipping lanes.

The NP was very active in Southwest Washington over the next decade, but so were several other smaller railroads. It's interesting, at this point, to examine the various earlier attempts to reach Grays Harbor.

Early Attempts to Reach Grays Harbor by Rail Prior the arrival of the NP, other attempts to tap the rich timber resources of Grays Harbor with rail service had been attempted. One of the most notable attempts was begun by the Oregon & Washington Territory (O&WT) Railroad. The OW&T was led by George Washington Hunt, of Walla Walla, Washington, but the primary financial backer of the line was C. B. Wright, an NP director.

The O&WT was a small railroad serving the grain-producing region of Southeastern Washington and owed much of its success to indirect support from the NP. At this time the NP was involved in a complicated legal battle with the UP over this region and the NP backed the OW&T in order to gain a foothold into UP territory.

The degree of control which the NP held over the O&WT is unclear, but by the summer of 1889 the O&WT was making plans to reach Grays Harbor. Newly platted lots in Grays Harbor City, none less than $500, were quickly sold and a 6,600-foot trestle was erected out over the mud flats into the harbor. The population in nearby Hoquiam increased from 400 to 1500 nearly overnight. Unfortunately, primarily due to questionable legal actions brought by the NP, the road was never completed and the O&WT fell into receivership. This failure was in spite of a pledged $750,000 subsidy to support construction was promised by the residents of Grays Harbor City, Hoquiam, Aberdeen, and Montesano. Grays Harbor City never recovered. Shortly after the failure of the O&WT, the town was deserted with many of the buildings being moved on barges to Hoquiam.

While Hunt was planning the O&WT rail line to Grays Harbor, early in 1887, the Puget Sound & Grays Harbor (PS&GH) railroad was organized by the owners of the Port Blakely Mill company. This line was projected to run from Kamilche on the southern tip of Puget Sound to Grays Harbor passing through Elma and Montesano. By 1889 the PS&GH stretched from Kamilche to Montesano, thus placing the railroad within ten miles of Grays Harbor.

The PS&GH was a small, primarily logging, railroad with 5 locomotives, 3 passenger cars, 8 general freight cars, and 72 logging cars, however much of it's right of way followed a route to Grays Harbor that the NP desired.

Just as the PS&GH was in it's infancy, the Tacoma, Olympia & Grays Harbor (TO&GH) was formed as a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific on May 7, 1890. The goal of the TO&GH was to reach Grays Harbor from the NP's Pacific terminus in Tacoma. Shortly after it's formation, the TO&GH purchased the portion of the PS&GH between Elma and Montesano. By late 1891 the TO&GH was operating trains between Tacoma and Montesano and was negotiating with town leaders and land owners on Grays Harbor.

Prior to this point, a group of investors formed another railroad company the Tacoma, Olympia, & Pacific (TO&P) on July 25, 1889. The publicly-stated goal of this company was to build a rail line to a new town on Grays Harbor, Ocosta, from the NP terminus in Tacoma. Realistically, this company, along with several other paper railroads of the day, was formed to provide an attractive package to the NP. And the TO&P was indeed attractive to the NP. Shortly after the NP formed the TO&GH, the TO&P holdings in Ocosta were purchased.

A Grays Harbor Railroad Terminus is Chosen As the end of the tumultuous 1880's was reached, the NP was within 10 miles of Grays Harbor and had purchased the land needed to build a terminus on Grays Harbor. But it still was not clear, at least to the residents on Grays Harbor, where the NP would build it's terminus. This became the big question of the day as the tiny mill towns vied for the privilege. Contemporary readers would guess one of the existing mill towns of Aberdeen, Hoquiam, or perhaps Cosmopolis, but to understand why the NP chose Ocosta it is useful to digress for a moment and look at how the NP behaved in anther small town a few years earlier.

East of the Cascades, in what was then Washington Territory, the NP planned to run the Cascade line though Yakima City. However, the NP engineers were not at all satisfied with the depot location mandated by the city. The ground was marshy, was inconvenient to business interests and the railroad had little control over surrounding property. Given these conditions the NP decided to locate its depot facilities north of Yakima City in a new town site called North Yakima. While the citizens of Yakima attempted to fight this action, the NP offered to move buildings free of charge and give free building lots to those who would move to North Yakima. Soon a substantial portion of Yakima City moved and the NP had solved its depot-location problem.

Given the NP's history in communities like Yakima City it should come as no surprise that in 1890 colonel F.D. Heustis, the NP's building contractor for the Grays Harbor line, announced that the NP would bypass the existing towns of Grays Harbor to create a new town, which would serve as the line's terminus. The new town was grandly named Ocosta-by-the-Sea, but was normally called Ocosta. This announcement was met with a flurry of land speculation and on May 1, 1890 some 300 building lots were sold for a total of $100,000.

As early as 1891, the NP had second thoughts about Ocosta. It offered, on September 24, 1891, to build a line into Aberdeen if the city would donate depot ground, build a depot costing no less than $2500 and donate the right of way through streets and private property. The city did not accept the offer.

Grays Harbor Finally Gets a Railroad NP records show that the line to Ocosta was completed in 1892. However, shortly after the line was completed the devastating financial panic of 1893 coupled with a lack of expected federal funds to deepen the harbor near Ocosta and a large labor strike spelled trouble for the Ocosta terminus.

In 1893, the NP was back in Aberdeen with another offer to build a spur into the town. However this time the NP had just floated a $12,000,000 bond issue under the terms of an agreement that there would be no new construction. To work around this limitation the NP asked Aberdeen to pay the cost of building the line, estimated at $35,000, for which the NP would reimburse those who provided the financing with a 50% rebate on freight charges. The city met to consider the offer but decided that it could not raise the money and once again turned down the proposal.

Grit and Determination Rather than accept the NP's offer to reimburse construction costs, the citizens of Aberdeen instead decided to build the spur into Aberdeen themselves. When completed they planned to turn the line over to the NP.

Most of the Aberdeen extension had been graded by the NP prior to the financial panic of 1893, but the methods used to build the Aberdeen spur were downright amazing. Much of the rail for this two-mile extension was salvaged from the British bark Abercorn, which had sunk at the entrance to Grays Harbor in June of 1888. The rails had lain in salt water for nearly six years and local folklore says that one could tell when a train reached Aberdeen simply by the sound of the wheels on the rails pitted by salt water.

Three local mill owners, Weatherwax, West and Wilson, donated ties and the town's founder, Samuel Benn, donated building lots to any man who would give 10 days labor or ten days pay at two dollars per day. Accounts of this construction tell of a town driven to succeed. Young men were given time off from school to work on the line and the whole town would turn out on weekends.

The line was completed to the east edge of Aberdeen and on April 1, 1895 the first train steamed into Aberdeen to the sounds of a welcoming, brass band.

The NP Finally Reaches the Industrial Centers Nearly four years later, on October 21, 1898, the NP extended the line over the Wishkah river, through central Aberdeen and on to Hoquiam. The 4.6 mile extension largely replacing the plank road that had been built between 1888 and 1890.

The Hoquiam extension was financed with a construction loan from the Grays Harbor Company, which on occasion used the name "Grays Harbor Northern Railroad" to secure construction estimates without divulging to contractors their relationship with the NP. The Grays Harbor Company was comprised of Henry Heermans and George Emerson, both of Hoquiam, along with Heermans' long-time friend and business parter from Duluth, Minnesota Chester Congdon.

The Grays Harbor Company's construction loan was to cover the costs of preparing the roadbed for the laying of rails, including the cost of bridges over the Wishkah and Hoquiam Rivers. The loan was to be repaid, with 3% interest, out of non-lumber gross earnings from this extension.

When Hoquiam was reached the many mills and industries along the waterfront in Aberdeen and Hoquiam were accessible to the NP. The success of this line can be viewed in the traffic data for 1900 shown below.

Station Tons forwarded Tons received Passengers
Cosmpopolis 26,872 2,590 2,492
Ocosta 2,176 917 1,452
Hoquiam 27,446 18,261 11,450
Aberdeen 8,357 37,820 18,312

The largest harbor mills, located in Cosmopolis and Hoquiam, were the major shippers primarily producing lumber and shingles, while Aberdeen, being the largest population center on Grays Harbor, was the primary receiver of freight. Although Aberdeen had several small sawmills it also had several other industries served by rail. A gas works, a shipyard, a flour mill, a slaughter house, and a hardware outlet (logging supplies) each had a rail siding and account for a significant share of freight received.

Subsequent Construction By 1909 Ocosta had nearly withered and the UP finally arrived on Grays Harbor. The Oregon and Washington Railroad, a subsidiary of the UP, shared a line with the Milwaukee Road to Grays Harbor along south side of the Chehalis River valley, roughly paralleling the NP line on the north side of the valley. The UP, however, learned from the NP blunder in Ocosta and ran their line directly to Aberdeen. Joint facilities were constructed in both Aberdeen and Hoquiam with a small engine-servicing facility in Hoquiam.

Construction continued through Hoquiam towards the Pacific. In 1905 the line terminated in Moclips, a small beach resort, which became a moderately successful summer vacation spot for people in the larger cities on Puget Sound. In addition to the tourist traffic, this 27.8 mile extension, carried logs to the harbor mills from areas which could not be reached via rivers.


Notable Locomotives used on the Grays Harbor Line Most of this material has been graciously provided by Lorenz P. Schrenk.

First Locomotive to Serve Ocosta

When the first train arrived in Ocosta it was pulled by locomotive number 99, an American Standard built by Baldwin in October of 1881. It was one of 47 Baldwin 4-4-0's with 17x24-inch cylinders and 62-inch drivers that the NP ordered between 1879 and 1882. These locomotives were called "Old Standards" to differentiate them from another series of 4-4-0's ordered from Baldwin in late 1882 and 1883. Number 99 was renumbered 852 in 1897 and was sold to the Sierra Railway in July 1898. It became Sierra's number 4 and in 1917 was sold to the Pickering Lumber Company in Standard California. Renumbered 14, it served Pickering until 1938 when it was scrapped.

First Locommotive to Serve Aberdeen

Train number 115 was the first train to serve Aberdeen. It was pulled by another Old Standard, number 114. The engineer was A.L. Wood and the conductor was John Stamper. This locomotive was build by Baldwin in March 1892. It was renumbered in 1897 to 853, Class C-1 and was sold to the Sierra Railway as their number 6 in April 1899. In 1922 it was sold to the Atlas-Olympia Company in Atlas, California. It was scrapped in 1937.

Minnetonka / Old Betsy

One of the first four locomotives purchased by the Northern Pacific was named Minnetonka. It was purchased from Smith & Porter in 1870 to be used for construction work.

Minnetonka was shipped to the West Coast in October 1871 for use during construction in Western Washington and when this construction was completed Minnetonka was sold in 1886 B.P. Turner of Olympia, Washington, for use in lumbering operations. It was resold in 1889 to the Port Blakely Mill Co. and used to build the line between Kamilche and Montesano. It was resold in 1895 or early 1896 to the Polson Brothers Logging Company at Hoquiam, Washington, and used in logging service until 1928 when it was set out on a spur in the woods. It was nicknamed Old Betsy during its career at Polson. In 1932, whil preparing to participate in the Century of Progress Exposition at Chicago in 1933-1934, the NP desired to reacquire Minnetonka to use as part of the transportation show. The show featured early and modern engines actually running across the stage. The NP traded Class F-1 2-8-0 No. 51 to Polson for Minnetonka. The Minnetonka was rebuilt and shipped to St. Paul by flatcar. No. 1 was painted on the engine during this period. The engine was then exhibited at the Chicago Fair. Later, Minnetonka was sent to Duluth and put on display indoors at the Lake Superior Museum of Transportation.

By Mike Davidson - 20 Jun 2001 - Home Page

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