Burke-Gilman Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Burke-Gilman Trail
Length: 18.8 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking
Counties: King
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Washington

A Brief History

Today’s Burke-Gilman Trail follows a former right-of-way of one of Seattle’s first railroads: the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railway (SLS&E). Because transcontinental lines building from the east were still struggling to reach Puget Sound, the SLS&E was an attempt by its promoters to close this gap itself, or simply head north and connect with the Canadian roads near Vancouver, British Columbia. While the railroad completed lines radiating away from the north, eventually reaching Sumas, the hopes of reaching such eastern destinations as Spokane—and even all the way to North Dakota—never materialized due to funding shortfalls. During the 1890s, the 100+ miles of the SLS&E completed at that point were finally acquired by the Northern Pacific Railway in an attempt to dominate rail service in the Pacific Northwest and keep then-rival Great Northern at bay. Overall, the SLS&E lines never provided significant traffic to the NP system in later years. Following the Burlington Northern merger, the railroad began abandoning various sections of the property, the first of which is now the Burke-Gilman Trail.

The Northern Pacific Railway was the first of three major transcontinental railroads to connect the Midwest with the Pacific Northwest. The company was created by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1864, and was intended to connect the Great Lakes with Puget Sound. By the 1870s, the road had reached as far west as Dakota Territory, but funding issues stalled further construction. A decade later, new sources of capital allowed the NP to reach Portland, Oregon, in 1883. Within 2 years, its Cascade Branch stretched from Kennewick to Yakima. Despite all of this growth, there were no immediate plans to connect Seattle, although the railroad announced its attempts to reach Tacoma as early as the 1870s. This move frustrated Seattle leaders, which then attempted to construct their own railroad to establish a through transcontinental connection to the outside world. They incorporated as the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad (S&WW) in 1873. The promoters hoped the company would eventually connect its namesake cities. The S&WW was able to begin construction on May 1, 1874, and reached the coal mines near Renton by early 1877, roughly 15 miles to south.

Unfortunately, financial problems caused the project to stall, ending any hopes of reaching Walla Walla, nearly 300 miles away to the southeast near the Columbia River. Almost a decade later, a new railroad was formed by Seattle businessman to see two visions realized: First was the hope to once again have the city connected by a major rail line. Second, and more important, was for the railroad to become a profitable venture by serving the nearby timber and coal industries. The Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern Railway was chartered on April 29, 1885, to either establish a connection with the NP to the east or build north to reach the Canadian Pacific at Sumas, Washington, along the border with British Columbia. After the SLS&E secured initial funding, the first segment opened and is now part of the Burke-Gilman Trail. From the depot at Columbia Street and Western Avenue in Seattle, the railroad pushed north to Woodinville, some 24 miles away, and was in service by 1887.

By spring 1888, the SLS&E had reached Gilman (now known as Issaquah), roughly 17 miles east of Seattle, which allowed the railroad to tap local coal interests. At this point, company officials decided to continue east to reach the Northern Pacific. Construction made it as far as Sallal Prairie (near present-day Tanner), about 63 miles east of Seattle, but lack of funding precluded any further building eastward. Just before the road was acquired by the NP, in 1890, the SLS&E turned its attention northward again in an attempt to reach Sumas and a connection with the CP. Having completed this 126-mile line within a few years, the SLS&E’s network peaked at less than 200 miles. As Seattle rapidly grew into a major city and port, on May 23, 1890, the SLS&E was absorbed by the Northern Pacific, which attempted to lock up the Pacific Northwest from growing competition, including the Union Pacific and Great Northern (this was a few years before both the NP and GN was owned by James J. Hill). Following a bankruptcy during the summer of 1893, the SLS&E was renamed as the Seattle & International Railway and was formally absorbed by the NP on March 21, 1901. As part of the NP system, the former SLS&E lines mostly contributed timber and coal traffic, provided car ferry service along Puget Sound, moved other general merchandise freight, and operated local passenger service.

As early as the 1920s, passenger train schedules were reduced and ended entirely between Seattle and Woodinville by 1938. The railroad did, however, continue to offer excursions and fan trips along the route through the 1960s (a concept that is unheard of today on most major freight railroads). During March 1970, the Burlington Northern Railroad was formed through the merger of the Northern Pacific, Great Northern, Chicago Burlington & Quincy, and Spokane Portland & Seattle. A year later, the corridor that is now the Burke-Gilman Trail was abandoned in 1971. By 1978, the first 12.1 miles opened to the public as a recreational corridor.

Explore nearby railroad attractions at the Bellingham Railway Museum just north along Interstate 5; the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad & Museum in nearby Chehalis; Lake Whatcom Railway at Wickersham; Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad in Elbe; Yakima Valley Trolleys in Yakima; and the Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie.

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