My childhood on Vashon Island held many charms, and one big flaw. We had no trains. But I loved it when we came to Tacoma and Dad drove right next to the tracks along Commencement Bay. In the 1950s and '60s trains surrounded us in life, legend and American culture, and even kids knew the importance of railroads in history. We'd seen photos of logging operations and Saturday matinee westerns with wild gunfights on top of speeding trains. We'd been to Disneyland. Our parents talked about hobos riding the rails during the Great Depression. We begged Santa for Lionels. But what about children today, or in the future? Our region's railroad legacy goes on, but floods in January of '09 shut down an important train museum.
For the past fifty years the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie, Washington has offered kids and their families a chance to experience train travel like it was in the old days, thanks to the museum's interpretive railway program. This section of track, built in 1889 as the Seattle Lake Shore and Eastern Railway Company, was acquired as a branch line by Northern Pacific Railway in 1896, whose western headquarters resided in Tacoma. These days museum visitors spend about an hour chugging along through the scenic upper Snoqualmie Valley. This happens every weekend, April through October, plus during seasonal special events and school programs. In 2008 the riders who answered the call, "All aboard!" numbered 47,000. Nearly that many more visited the historic Snoqualmie Depot and the Conservation and Restoration Center, and learned from the museum's exhibits. But it's significance extends beyond a fun afternoon.
"The Museum is far more than just a depot, train ride and a history lesson," said Executive Director Richard Anderson. "It's about a sustainable local economy, a shared community identity, and a really great gathering place for families and friends to get together for a shared experience." Indeed, many small businesses and individuals rely on tourism to make a living in this small town nestled in the Cascade Range. It's the kind of place where folks stick together during hard times. When flooding in early January left two miles of track and two timber trestles underwater, and caused numerous washouts citizens rallied, donating over 160 hours of work so far. Anderson told me, "When I asked our Mayor, Matt Larson, for a letter of support, he had it to me within twelve hours."
Although volunteers are still greatly appreciated, this problem can't be solved by volunteer labor alone. Much of the work requires special expertise and equipment and that means money. Damage costs are estimated to be at least $100,000. Because of policy changes, museums are no longer eligible for funding through F.E.M.A. for the types of repairs needed, even though they could prevent future damage. It's disconcerting to realize this is the second "hundred year flood" in two years, and one wonders about the impact of logging and development.
"The Northwest Railway Museum has experienced flooding before but this is the deepest water yet and demonstrates a disturbing trend of increasingly serious natural disasters that threatens not just the museum but the community," said Anderson. Now he hopes the public will come forth to offer financial assistance in time for the whistle of the locomotive to be heard in the hills again this spring.
"The January 7th and 8th flood has been devastating for the Northwest Railway Museum. We are grateful for all the community support we are receiving and are hopeful that together we will be able to fully recover," Anderson said. He hopes readers will visit the museum website's secure online donation page, or mail donations to Northwest Railway Museum, P.O. box 459, Snoqualmie, WA 98065. For information you can call the museum at 425-888-3030 or email Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org. It will just take a little bit from a lot of people to get this historic railway back on track. Please help spread the word.
Photos are used with permission from the Northwest Railway Museum. Please also see the train museum blog.