Skykomish soon to celebrate opening of small-scale steam train
By Chris Hendrickson, Valley News
The earth shook as huge boulders crashed to the ground last week while Skykomish Town Councilmember Kevin Weiderstrom watched a dump truck disgorge its heavy cargo. He was watching the final pieces of a new railroad arrive in Skykomish, and last week he put in more than 50 hours of volunteer work on the project, on top of his full-time job.
“Sleep is overrated,” said Weiderstrom.
Weiderstrom is the project manager for Skykomish’s new Great Northern and Cascade Railway, which is part of the Town Center
project. The railway features a scaled-down, fully-authentic live steam locomotive which will carry up to 40 passengers around its half-mile course. The 2,600 feet of track have been painstakingly laid in an hourglass shape, located between East Railroad Avenue and East Old Cascade Highway, directly in the center of town.
The first phase of the project is nearing completion and the town is gearing up for the grand opening that will take place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 4.
“There is a lot of excitement about the mini-railroad. I have had calls and visitors from as far away as New York from train enthusiasts that can hardly wait for the railroad to open,” said Skykomish Mayor Tony Grider.
The project began on the heels of the town’s extensive oil cleanup process, which took over six years, and is now finished, with the exception of the area under the Skykomish School.
The economic situation in Skykomish was dire as residents and businesses were disrupted from the invasive clean-up process. Town council recognized the need for a magic bullet, and began to visualize ways of bringing some bustle back into the struggling town, one of which was to build their own railroad.
Town council members voted, and in 2011, plans for the railway project were approved.
Weiderstrom, a train enthusiast himself, partnered with experts Bill Zingheim and Clark Crandall of the Port Ludlow-based company Northwest Railroad Foundry and Supply, which specializes in building 7 1/2 gauge railroads. Zingheim caught wind of the project and contacted Weiderstrom, volunteering his services.
Weiderstrom said that without Zingheim and Crandall, the railroad would not have happened.
Funding came in part from a portion of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad settlement, in which the town negotiated $300,000 and ownership of the original Skykomish railway depot, which was built in 1898.
Renovations on the depot have included a new foundation, windows, siding and roof, interior repairs and bathroom installation.
Further improvements are ongoing. Upon completion the historic depot will serve as the visitor’s center.
The town was also given permission by Burlington Northern to utilize part of the Great Northern Railway’s logo, the highlight of which is an image of a goat standing on a rock.
In addition to the original seed money given to the town from Burlington Northern, historical preservation grants have also been beneficial to the project. Thus far Weiderstrom has orchestrated the receipt of nearly $40,000 in grants, two of which came from the King County organization 4Culture, a public development authority dedicated to preserving heritage.
From creating the custom-built ten-foot sections of track, to spreading the ballast, to laying the railway, to the landscaping and everything in between, volunteer labor has allowed the project to become a reality. Many local businesses and residents have donated time and materials to help construct the railroad and the surrounding park, and the work is still in progress. Residents, business owners, Skykomish School students and officials have all volunteered time and hard work during this first phase of development.
“It really is a testament of the spirit of volunteerism of the Sky Valley community,” said Mayor Grider.
Arriving a week ago, the town’s 725-pound steam locomotive is referred to as a 2-6-0, numbers which directly relate to the train’s wheel alignment. Ten four-person passenger cars have been crafted in the Skykomish School’s woodshop, their construction carefully coordinated by Weiderstrom and Zingheim.
The track is perfectly scaled to be one-eighththe size of a regular railroad track. It is complete with its own golden railroad spike reminiscent of the golden spike used at Promontory Summit in Utah in 1869, which celebrated the joining of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads, creating the first transcontinental railroad. The driving of that final railroad spike was a ceremonious occasion.
Weiderstrom’s hope is that as significant as the joining of those two railways was to our entire nation, the new miniature railway will be for the future of Skykomish. The anticipation is that the steam railroad will draw crowds of over 1,500 train enthusiasts per weekend, which would greatly benefit the town’s economy.
“You have to infuse life into the town. If you don’t, it just can’t sustain itself,” said Weiderstrom.
The powerful live steam locomotive will have the capacity to carry 30 to 40 adults and children at a time around the track at speeds ranging in between four and six miles-per-hour. Train rides are free for the public, with donations gladly accepted. The train will run on weekends throughout the summer.
Future plans for the locomotive include the development of haunted Halloween rides and other special holiday events.
Train enthusiasts will be welcome to bring their own trains and give them a spin on the meticulously-built track, which in addition to the golden spike, features a bridge hand-built from donated railroad ties, a spur track to accommodate guest locomotives, and a 40-foot tunnel. The entrance to the tunnel is being modeled after the Cascade Tunnel located at Stevens Pass.
Landscaping is currently ongoing, with many volunteers busily arranging rockeries, planting trees, flowers and other foliage to prepare for the railroad’s grand opening. Local landscape architect Ken Nesland has donated time, materials, and use of equipment.
New Skykomish businesses are preparing to open, including a hair salon called Amy’s Hair Depot, and a candy shop called Skykomish Toot Sweet, both located in the landmark Maloney Store building. In addition to treats, Toot Sweet will also carry train memorabilia and other gifts.
“It’s going to be pretty much all railroad-oriented gifts and that sort of thing,” said Toot Sweet co-owner Debra Koch. “We’re excited about it.”
These businesses hope to gain a foothold in the community as momentum builds from the anticipated weekend train hobbyists.
“It is fantastic news to me as I can’t recall a single new business opening its doors in Skykomish since BNSF’s cleanup began,” said Mayor Grider.
This is only the first phase of the Skykomish Town Center project, and there will be much more to come including the painting and completion of the railway depot, a nearby picnic area, food service, and eventually additional track.
Weiderstrom just wants people to come and enjoy the railroad. The idea is for families to be able to come to Skykomish and have a great time without spending a lot of money, he said. The final loop of track was laid about two weeks ago, and was a pivotal moment.
“I took a look at it, and it hit me. This is going to be a reality,” said Weiderstrom.
The Great Northern and Cascade Railway has established a club to help operate the train. For more information on joining, or to volunteer time or funds, contact Bill Zingheim at email@example.com, or leave a message at 360-437-2754.
For additional information about the project, including step-by-step documentation of the construction process, visit the Great Northern and Cascade Railway website at: http://gncrailway.com/.