Thursday, October 31, 2019

Halloween on Monster Road: Black River Junction Story

As a young man chasing trains around Seattle in the early 1960's, one of my favorite places to hang out was Black River Junction, about 10 miles south of Seattle. Black River Junction offered not only fantastic rail traffic, but also, during certain times of the year, a chilling spooky feeling. Because to get to Black River Junction, we had to exit Empire Way - now Martin Luther King Blvd - onto Monster Road!

Monster Road

Yes, there is a Monster Road, named for John Monster who set up a 160 acre farm on the Green River Valley floor near Black River in 1880. This account found in the history of the Skyway neighborhood, tells of him driving his cows twice a day across the Seattle to Portland main line for years, without tangling with a train!

Heading down Monster Road toward the White River valley floor, we had to pass by the mysterious Technical Research Company.

Set back off the narrow road, behind chain link fencing and a screen of brush and trees, several ominous buildings. Their mercury arc lighting and a mysterious humming sound gave friend Elwin Purington and I pause to wonder what unspeakable terror lurked behind the gated compound!

We had the Union Pacific, Northern Pacific, Great Northern, Pacific Coast, and course, the Milwaukee Road transiting the area. Pacific Coast Railroad (PCRR) was a historic connecting line from a coal loading facility on Seattle's Elliot Bay, up to Black Diamond and several other coal mines south and east of Seattle. In 1952, Great Northern purchased the line, but operated it as PCRR

Black River Junction

Milwaukee Box Cab Southbound at Black River Junction Tower. Circa 1935.
Pacific Coast #14 Southbound for Black Diamond. Circa 1935.
Black River Junction was special, because all of Seattle's major carriers funneled through this location.

Free of grade level crossing, freighters and varnish had their first shot at Run 8, heading south, clearing the carbon by the time they passed Black River Junction Tower.

After dark, the area became more exciting. Air horns shouted out from north and south. It was a guessing game what railroad was passing through. Spring and fall would bring foggy evenings, which heighten the exhilaration. Headlamps became comet-like apparitions, and sounds muffled.

I vividly remember a very foggy evening, listening to a moaning single trumpet air horn off in the distance, moaning four long blasts repeatedly, requesting to utilize the wye configuration offered by the junction.

It wasn't until 1927, that the Milwaukee completed the electric lines from Black River Junction to Seattle. Until that time, the electrics were replaced by steam at Maple Valley to haul trains to Seattle!

At the controls of the Box Cab on the inaugural run was Seattle's Mayor Bertha Knight Landes.
According to this account published in the July 1927 Milwaukee Road Magazine, Ms Landes proved to be very competent at running the Box Cab the 10.1 miles from the Junction to Seattle.

Black River

At one time there had been a beautiful functioning Black River. It was fed by over flow from the south end of Lake Washington, flowing generally SW emptying into the White River.

But as Seattle city limits pushed south, and marsh land was drained to produce farm land, a massive project was undertaken, forever changing the hydrology of the area. That occurred in 1916 with the completion of the Lake Washington Ship Canal and what is commly referred to as the Ballard Locks.

This resulted in Lakes Union and Washington dropping some eight feet in level, effectively shutting off Black River. It's entrance was sealed to force incursion by the Cedar River

Today, one can trace the former river bed, as it winds up from the former confluence with the White River.

Looking carefully in the upper right corner, you see the former river bed runs beneath the runway of Boeing Aircraft Renton Complex.

When the Milwaukee Road marched across the continent, construction terminated at Maple Valley Washington.

The Road signed a 99 year agreement with the Pacific Coast Rail Road (PCRR,) to make it's way down to Black River Junction, and north to Seattle. So that leg of the road was dispatched by PCRR

From Black River Junction to Tacoma, dispatching - excluding the PCRR stretch - was conducted from the famous "D" street warehouse in Tacoma.


Williamson's Final Report 

Back in the '70's, the Milwaukee Road filed papers with the Interstate Commerce Commission, requsting abandonment of the west extension. As part of the process, The Road hired the prestigious Booze, Allan, & Hamilton (BA&H) consulting firm, to support the claim that it was too expensive to continue operations west of Miles City Montana.

To that end, BA&H contracted with Harry M. Williamson, a self-employed railroad engineering consultant, with an impressive resume. Mr. Williamson conducted a detailed survey from Miles City to Tacoma. The purpose of his examination was to provide an estimated cost to bring the Road up to not Class One, not Class Two, but to Class Three status.

This report to support the notion that the Milwaukee Road could not afford to repair the line, should the Interstate Commerce Commission deny the abandonment application

Here is a view of Black River Junction Tower few rail fans could ever image capturing in their lens! These photos are from a series of photos, taken to document Williamson's findings.

Believed to be Paul Cruikshank, VP Operations, Milwaukee Road

Presented as "Written Direct Testimony of Harry M. Williamson" often referred to as the "Williamson Final Report," it makes for interesting reading.

We think Harry Williamson is far left next to Paul Cruikshank. In the "hole" just south of Black River Junction, meeting southbound Amtrak.

While there is much speculation including conspiracy theories concerning the demise of the Road - some implicating Washington Governor Dixi Lee Ray. However, Governor Ray came into office in 1977, long after the Roads tooth decay began!


A Blog article is dry toast without photographs. So I am always grateful when photographers permit my use of their photos to illustrate a story.

•  John Carr, for the Black River Junction Tower shots, taken whilst he was stationed near Bremerton in the US Navy. His web site - Carr Tracks - contains a cornucopia of rail photography!
•  Thomas White, for his "Maple Valley Dispatchers Record of Movement of Trains."
•  Scott Lothes at the Center for Railroad Photography & Art, who generously allowed use of the photos from the Williamson assessment trip.

4 Comments - Click here:

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. The map of the original rivers that used to drain into the Duwamish was particularly enlightening. The Duwamish must have flooded alot up until the diversions and then the Howard Hanson Dam...

Rod Nelson
West Seattle

ole amundsen, jr. said...

Several years ago, I met a fellow aboard, I believe, the City of New Orleans who was just retired from the Wisconsin Central and told me that he was the one who wrote the financial report on the Milwaukee's fatal condition resulting in its demise. Could that possibly have been Harry Williamson? He had the roomette across from me and we had some nice discussions of the Milwaukee, IC, WC and CN: he seemed to regret the outcome of his work.

Robert in Port Townsend said...

The purpose of the Williamson survey and subsequent report did NOT result in the Roads demise.

As Mr. Williamson writes on page one of his report, his job was to "catalog" the problems and estimated cost of repairs.

The Road would present his report to the ICC showing the Milwaukee Road could NOT AFFORD repairs, should the abandonment request BE DENIED.

That is why he was hired, through Booze, Allen & Hamilton, as an independent observer, not from "inside" the Road.

LinesWest said...

Robert, what a nice article as usual. One of the things that I particularly appreciate about this trip on the MILW is the vehicle of choice: a '75ish Suburban. I grew up with one of these beasts that was painted red with a red interior, red vinyl seats and red rubber floors. I still remember those seats sticking to you on warm days and Dad having to nurse the old choke along from time to time with a clothespin on the butterfly valve.

Thanks for the history and memories.


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