When the Train Crossed Avenue D

THIS IS THE STORY OF JOSEPH McNULTY who broke his wooden leg protecting the citizens of Snohomish from being hit by trains.

But first some background. When the Milwaukee Road came to town in 1911, on tracks laid high on a wooden trestle running alongside the north bank of the Snohomish River, it agreed to provide a flagman where the tracks crossed Avenue D. According to Darrington resident and historian, Allen Miller, whom we introduced to you last month, two watchmen provided 24/7 coverage of the intersection. Their headquarters was a tiny guardhouse that can be barely made out in our faded historic image, nestled up against the utility pole.

It wasn’t long before the first incident was recorded in this newspaper of record, but not between an automobile and a train. According to the September 6, 1912, issue of the Snohomish County Tribune, eyewitnesses saw a speeding auto knock the (unnamed) flagman, who was guarding the crossing for a passing train, “to the ground insensible.” He was rushed to Snohomish General Hospital (yes, here in town), where the attending physician set his broken ribs back in place. The driver of the auto did not stop, but as the article reported, “the Milwaukee detectives will undoubtedly be on the parties trail.” Allen never found a follow up to this story in the paper.

Then there is the McNulty incident. Less than a year later, June 17, 1913, an article reported, “Joseph McNulty, flagman for the Milwaukee Railway, has brought suit against F. K. Folliott for $8,000 damages claimed by the plaintiff to be due him as a result of a broken wooden leg and injured feelings.” Folliott attempted to go around the flagman in front of an approaching train, when McNulty was struck and thrown on the tracks, breaking his wooden leg. The broken member was repaired for $125 and the balance of the claim, $7,875, was for injured feelings. Again, no follow up story was found in later editions.

And the headline for a story in the April 8, 1926, issue of the Tribune reads, “Bell Replaces Watchman Pat.” Pat Gannon’s job as guard at the Avenue D crossing was eliminated by city ordinance. “The council has decreed that the Milwaukee must install a wig wag signal at that point, which will probably mean that Pat moves elsewhere,” the story explained. “Pat’s little cabin near the crossing and his waving cane and lantern are familiar sights.” A well-known character around town, “Pat the Watchman, faithfully guarded wagons, buggies, then autos and trucks from the oncoming trains for 16 years.”

The wig wag signal was most likely a blinking red light and bell mounted on a metal pole anchored in concrete and located in the center of Avenue D. The signal was left behind when the railroad company abandoned the right of way in 1940, and over the years its badly chipped base bore witness to the rapid increase of automobile traffic in Snohomish.

Many thanks to Allen Miller for bringing this story to my attention, and for sharing his photographs. Please contact me if you have a story or historic photograph to share.

Published in the Snohomish County Tribune, February 17, 2010


Looking east up First Street with a horse drawn cart heading toward the Avenue D Bridge, dated 1912. To the right of the horse and cart, nested up against the utility pole is the Milwaukee Road’s flagman booth. The large structure left of center is currently the American Legion Building, but back then it was the depot when the train ran on tracks laid on a high wooden trestle alongside the north bank of the Snohomish River. The dark object behind the cart appears to be a boxcar parked on a siding. (Photo courtesy Allen Miller.)