Text and Photography by Ben Bachman
No northwestern rail story in the last decade has gotten as much play as the re-opening of Washington State's Stampede Pass. Everywhere you turned-on the Internet and electronic bulletin boards, in local railfan publications, in every one of the national railroad magazines, and even in the mainstream print and electronic media-it was Stampede this and Stampede that, over and over again, ad infinitum. You couldn't get away from it.
By now, northwestern trainwatchers are sick of th whole thing, right?
No way! We love this stuff. There is nosuch thing as too much Stampede Pass. Besides, now that the line is finally back in service, and the first runs (not to mention all the breathless gossip about when the first runs would actually take place) are out of the way, we can dig into the real meat of routine train-watching-and what a rare treat it is! The idea that we can come to this place, silent for so many long, painful years, and watch a plain old Burlington Northern & Santa Fe revenue freight train rumble nonchalantly by, just as if it were something that happened every day (which, incredibly enough, it does) really sets us back on our heels. It is absolutely electrifying.
Granted, traffic is still somewhat sparse. Oh, all right, it is very sparse, especially during daylight hours. Press release warned that's how things would be during the first year of operation-this piece of railroad is still very much a work in progress. Nevertheless, if you are willing to put in a little time, you are going to see some trains. And each one is going to be a thrill.
Just the sight of the gleaming railheads and the brand-new signals is a thrill. All the little things taken for granted elsewhere seem remarkable here. It is a tremendous kick, for instance, to switch on your scanner and actually hear something besides meaningless static. It's been a long, long time since a dispatcher has spoken names such as Easton, Lester, Cle Elum, and Yakima. Remember, Stampede Pass had been given up for dead. Watching it come back to life-watching it get up off the bed and start to move around the room a little-is a powerful and undeniably affecting experience, in part, of course, because the old Stampede, the classic Stampede Pass of the Northern Pacific era, meant so much. This was not just any railroad. It was one of the holy places in the northwestern railroad universe. It is difficult to imagine a trainwatcher anywhere in the state who didn't feel some sort of personal connection.
For one thing, the location is right: virtually in Seattle's backyard on one side of the mountains, and Yakima's on the other. Almost as soon as a train pulled out of town, it began slicing through tall timber, threading deep canyons, coiling upward toward the summit. Riding over Stampede in a dome car (still possible during the early Amtrak years) was a truly wonderful experience, all the more so because passenger trains provided the only way for the general public to see much of the western slope of the pass, part of a large, severely restricted watershed area owned by the city of Seattle. You can't drive inside the boundaries. You can't even go in on foot. According to some stories, the bathrooms of the North Coast Limited and other trains were locked while rolling through the area. Anyway, after passenger service ended, and most freights had migrated to other routes, Stampede enjoyed a final burst of glory as one of the last redoubts of Burlington Northern F-units. Long will the faithful remember the sight and the sound of those aging war horses at full bellow on the 2.2 percent.
Then came the Big Silence.
But the fans couldn't stay away. Even in a state of suspended animation, Stampede continued to exert a magnetic pull. It didn't hurt, of course, that I-90 parallels a 20-mile segment of the line between Easton and Cle Elum. If you drove across the mountains, a brief stop or two was irresistible, as was the chance to point your camera at those famous NP semaphore masts. Has any group of defunct signals ever been photographed more? If you lived in the Northwest and loved trains, it was something you almost had to do-a railfan rite of passage.
A little time spent communing with the ghosts of railroads past never hurt anyone.
Of course, some people enjoy torturing themselves with tantalizing visions of what might have been, and they could get off the interstate again at Cle Elum and take the backroad down the Yakima River to Ellensburg, gazing sadly at the railroad all the way. This section belonged to Washington Central, and appeared on maps as an active line, but saw virtually no use. Everything about it suggested eventual abandonment. The situation improved a bit at Ellensburg, however, thanks to a daylight Washington Central local scheduled to come up from Yakima three days per week. It is true that the little train was often just one or two cars long, with no caboose on the rear and an ugly, hulking CF7 on the point, but still, it traversed the awesome depths of the Yakima River Canyon, one of the most spectacular landscape features on any railroad in the state.
Today, much of the Yakima Canyon line has concrete ties and heavy welded rail, as does much of the line along the Yakima River between Cle Elum and Ellensburg. Talk about a resurrection! Pumpkins and War bonnets roll along at 40 to 50 mph, and these two sections of line (both of which offer countless photo opportunities without trespassing) are far and away the best bet for a one day visit to Stampede Pass, especially during winter and spring when higher elevations are snowed in. Besides, when the snow finally gets around to melting-usually by mid-June, perhaps a little later-train-watching opportunities at the summit are limited. No, to get the most bang for your buck, the Cle Elum-to-Yakima segment is the safest bet.
So, what's it like?
Well, if you've watched the television show Northern Exposure you already have some idea, because even though the show's setting was supposed to be Alaska, most of the exterior scenes were shot in Roslyn, an old coal mining town about five miles from Cle Elum. And it worked. Parts of this region really do look like Alaska. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that parts of Alaska look like a typical slice of the mountain West-the area around Cle Elum and Ellensburg. Down in the lowlands, you find a classic mix of ponderosa pine, cottonwoods along the streams, sagebrush hills, and irrigated fields. As for the high country, the Cascade Range doesn't need much introduction. The Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which straddles the Cascade Crest between Snoqualmie Pass and Stevens Pass, is the third most heavily used Forest Service wilderness area in the United States. The towering peaks, including a 9,000-foot titan named Mt. Stuart, the second highest non-volcanic mountain in Washington, provide a magnificent backdrop for railroad photos in the Ellensburg area, particularly in the morning.
Basically, this is a place that makes you feel good. It is beautiful, yes, but not in overtly touristy way. It seems more authentic than pretty. It is the kind of place, with its quiet grandeur and laid-back atmosphere (not to mention Ellensburg's average rainfall of nine inches per year), that makes you feel as if the malls, the traffic, and the overbearing yuppies of nasty old Seattle are on some distant planet. Except they aren't. Now that the speed limit has been upped to 70 mph on much of I-90, you can get from downtown Seattle to downtown Easton in just a hair more than an hour. And another 20 minutes or so will put you trackside in Cle Elum, ready to start burning up film.
Because this line has been in use for such a short period, operations and schedules are still very much in a state of flux. However, on each of two forays in early spring I saw three trains. The most important thing to know is that all trains change crews at Ellensburg. If a fresh crew is ready and waiting, the hand-off may take just a few minutes. If not, a train can cool its heels for an hour or two. Ellensburg is also a frequently used site for meets between eastbounds and westbounds, although long sidings (some equipped with dispatcher controlled signals and switches) exist at several other points too. But don't be deceived by what appears to be, at first glance, an operating CTC system. That may well come in the future, but at present, most of the Stampede Pass line is "dark," unsignaled territory regulated by track warrants.
If you come during the winter, bring tire chains (or a 4x4) and watch the weather forecast like a hawk. Although I-90 is a major highway, it is often closed because of heavy snowfall, avalanches, avalanche danger, and avalanche control operations. During winter 1996-97, for example, Snoqualmie Pass endured 19 closures lasting more than three hours. One closure lasted three days.
Secondly, don't be taken unawares by the brisk pace of most trains. Forty mph may not sound very fast, but it doesn't leave much time to be choosy about your next photo spot. A little advance scouting does wonders. Since everything here is right out in the open, you don't even really need a map. Just get on the road closest to the track and stick with it. However, if picture-taking loses some of its charm, as it often does when the light starts to go flat in the middle of the day, two other activities recommend themselves. The most obvious is tracing the route of the abandoned Milwaukee Road main line, which is easy to do. An even more satisfying option is hiking a trail that goes way, way up on the south rim of the Yakima River Canyon and provides mind-boggling aerial views of the railroad. The climb (about 600-700 vertical feet) is steep, sweaty work, but well worth it. To find the trailhead, look for the well marked "Umtanum Creek Recreation Area" between highway mileposts 16 and 17, park your car and cross the little suspension bridge. Be advised, that while fears of rattlesnakes are usually exaggerated, the venomous reptiles are here. So are ticks. Bear in mind, too, that the narrow, twisting highway through the canyon is one of the most dangerous roads in the state, mainly because people flock to the river on hot summer weekends, drink, and then get behind the wheel. Most of us would probably prefer facing a rattier than a drunk driver any day.
Fall is the most appealing time for photographers in the canyon, with windblown, heartsick blue skies and cottonwoods that turn a breath taking shade of gold. It's awesome. Of course, we haven't had a chance to put a diesel in our viewfinders-aside from the one pulling that little Washington Central local, plus a few BNSF SD40-2s on work trains last year along the Yakima in autumn for a long, long time. Hundreds of able photographers are no doubt champing at the bit, and with all of that pent-up enthusiasm unleashed at once, some spectacular images will inevitably result. Here's to good shooting.