Rails Over the River

“The second railroad meeting last Friday evening would not have impressed a stranger very forcibly with the idea that the people of Snohomish were imbued with a spirit of progress.”

This was reported 123 years ago in the Snohomish Eye, at a time when two railroad companies wanted to come through town, a Canadian company from the north and the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Company from the south, but both concerns wanted property and money from the citizens of Snohomish.

Ferguson, Blackman, Cathcart put up the first $1500 in cash and Mary Low Sinclair (then Mrs. Packard) donated some 20 lots to keep the latter company aiming toward Snohomish, but more was needed.

Ferguson’s brother, Clark, the town’s first milkman, offered to head up a subscription committee that would solicit funds from property owners along the proposed route of the train. John Otten rose to speak, offering $25 if the railroad would not come near the town. (Otten’s short-slightness may have led to his mercantile business eventually going belly up and the sale of his handsome new building at 1024-26 First to Tom Marks who wasted no time in having his name chiseled in stone and placed over the entrance.)

With the Lake Shore operation just over the hill from the Snohomish River, a curious concern was mentioned in the June 13, 1888, issue of the Eye: “Should the railroad touch the shores of Lake Stevens, a town will be built that will become a dangerous rival to Snohomish. Being situated near the geographical center of the county, could but with little difficulty secure the county seat.”

By July however, with regular train service to and from Seattle expected by the end of the month, attention was focused on the preparations to welcome the “Seattle excursionists.” The reception committee consisted of about 20 of the leading businesses and professional men. Between 300 and 500 excursionists were expected for a public reception in Atheneum Hall, located on the northwest corner of Avenue D and First, with a free lunch served at 3p.m in Ferguson’s new hall just across the street. Although the return service to Seattle was scheduled for 6pm, many visitors had indicated a desire to remain in town for the grand free ball that evening. First class accommodations would have been available at the recently opened Penobscot Hotel on First, an investment of the visionary Blackman Brothers, in preparation to serve a new class of visitors with over-sized wallets.

No mention of how the “open house” went in subsequent issues of the Eye, but the August 4 issue reported, “… between 75 and 80 passengers arrived on Wednesday’s train.”

Since the railroad bridge was still a work in progress at this time, arrangements were made for carriages to pick up the passengers and bring them across the river on George Tompkins ferry at Avenue D.

Work continued on the bridge even though the Lake Shore owners were under an injunction by the Canadian company “laboring under the delusion that they have the exclusive right to construct a road between Seattle and the British Columbia,” as the newspaper put it. However, since the bridge builders had their plan approved by no less an office than that of the Secretary of War, work continued uninterrupted.

The August 31 issue reports that, “the draw of the bridge was swung into position for the first time last Wednesday afternoon,” which could be the occasion pictured in our historic image. The Lake Shore owners secured a modification of the Canadian injunction that allowed them to finish the bridge and the running of trains thereon upon posting a $20,000 bond.

The first passenger train crossed the bridge and entered Snohomish City proper on September 19, 1888; but on October 27, a run-away log boom consisting of some 3,000,000 logs jammed up against the southern most pier of the new bridge.

“The pier slowly but steadily crowded down until the span was about six feet out of line with the draw, when at 2 o’clock with a crash it gave way, “ the paper reported. “It is doubtful if the missing spans can be replaced before low water next summer. About 500 people witnessed the thrilling scene,” the report concluded.

Published in the Snohomish County Tribune, March 17, 2010


The first railroad bridge to cross the Snohomish River into Snohomish City, completed September, 1888. Since the previous July, service ended south of town and passengers used the ferry at Avenue D to reach town. This system was called into service again in October when the pier seconded from the left collapsed due to pressure from a run-away log boom consisting of some 3,000,000 logs.
(Photo courtesy University of Washington, Special Collections, #uw18022)

The second railroad bridge over the Snohomish River built in 1910 as it appears today, without train traffic. Will that change this summer with the arrival of an excursion train to Snohomish?

7 thoughts on “Rails Over the River

  1. linda waugh

    looking at this picture and remembering our walk yesterday, it looks like the only part that moved was the section on the lower pier closer to the north side of the river. I didn’t notice any difference in the rails there (except the second line). Is the channel deeper on that side? Am I imagining things?

    thanks for the tour- it was fun and informative. I may not climb through anymore fences for awhile though.

  2. Pingback: Walking Tour takes the high (rail)road | Snohomish: Then and Now

  3. Warner Post author

    eMail from Allen Miller:
    Linda is correct in that the lower portion of the bridge on the north bank of the river is the part that turned. There is no evidence from above, as the swing span was “straight railed” into place many years ago. There is a small cabin underneath the bridge that contains a two cylinder gasoline engine that was used to provide the power for turning the bridge. I think this engine had a clutch assembly attached to a geared shaft that still runs the length of the swing span underneath.
    There was another cabin on the west side of the bridge at track level. You can still see the remains of the stairway from this cabin that led down to the lower cabin. Inside this cabin was where the bridge tender had his office. From here he probably threw the signals and derails in both directions to warn oncoming trains that the bridge was in the open position for river traffic.
    Once the easer bars were retracted and the end locks lifted the bridge could then be swung 90 degrees, opening the channel for boats to pass through. The span that turned was perfectly balanced and, in the event of mechanical failure, these bridges could be turned by hand by placing a large capstan over a square shaft that protruded up to the ties. Then, walking in a circle and pushing the wood beam ahead of you, the shaft would slowly turn and the bridge would swing.

  4. Jeffry Joly

    Do you [have] any track level photos of the bridge pre-turntable removal? I had seen a picture of a train supposedly over the Snohomish River Bridge but it was a curved track.

  5. warner

    A email reply from Allen Miller:
    I have never seen any photos of the bridge when it was operable. It was carried in the Northern Pacific employee timetables as an operable swing bridge for many years after it was taken out of service, as were several others. My guess is that, if it ever needed to be set up as an operating swing bridge again, it was already classified as such, therefore not requiring lengthy and costly permit process to re-designate it as an operating drawbridge.
    If you want to see a similar bridge in action, go to You Tube and make a search for a video titled “Swing Bridge in Action” and you will see a short video of a railroad swing bridge closing and the easer bars dropping back into place. After a train crosses, there is some video* of the shaft turning under the bridge and the end locks being lifted, as the bridge is re-opened.

    * http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_S882ALjCyA

  6. Gsxr Superbike

    when I went to school in the 70’s there the bridge was in use it would go to the feed lot and pick up beans from the bean plant, I remember skipping school and seeing the massive oil engine housed in the cabin to move the bridge for vessels, yup in the day Everett and Snohomish were just as busy surpassing Seattle in the lumber trade, surprised that bridge is still there, I skipped school one day during the big flood of 74 the water was about one foot below the lowest pint of the bridge, thats no joke, I remember seeing cows come floating down then hitting the undercarriage if the bridge gussets and getting forced under the water completely then they would come popping back up about 20 foot down like a cork, I remember guy faucet and terry were with me skipping school to check out the monster flood, my ma was cooking at the silver king I remember being afraid for her as the water was up to the window

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