Olympic Discovery Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Olympic Discovery Trail
Length: 90 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking
Counties: Clallam, Jefferson
Surfaces: Asphalt, Crushed Stone, Dirt
State: Washington

A Brief History

Railroads have not operated on Washington’s beautiful Olympic Peninsula since the mid-1980s, but today part of a former right-of-way is now a section of the Olympic Discovery Trail. Much of the history of this property can be traced back to the classic Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (a.k.a., the Milwaukee Road), which acquired the line shortly after arriving to the Puget Sound in the early 20th century. Its purpose was primarily to serve the local timber industry, and it was the only major Class I railroad with service on the peninsula. When the Milwaukee Road left the West Coast after 1980, another railroad continued to operate the remaining line between Port Angeles and Port Townsend for another decade until it, too, called it quits.  

When the Northern Pacific reached Puget Sound during summer 1883, there was much fanfare for most communities, large and small, regarding the economic opportunities the railroad would afford. This sentiment was no different on the Olympic Peninsula, since most residents believed the NP would soon reach the area to serve the growing port city of Port Angeles. This hope led to the establishment of the region’s first railroad, the Port Townsend Southern. Unfortunately, funding for this project took years to secure, and by that time, the Northern Pacific had chosen not to build into the peninsula, leaving the task of established rail service solely up to local communities. This changed with the arrival of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (CM&StP ) to Seattle in 1909. Looking to expand its presence in the region, the CM&StP chartered the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway (SPA&W) on January 20, 1915, to acquire the rights of the Seattle, Port Angeles & Lake Crescent Railway (SPA&LC). While some survey work had been accomplished on the SPA&W, no actual track had been laid.

With financial backing of the CM&StP, construction of the SPA&LC began at Port Angeles and headed west along the coast, reaching Majestic in 1914, the first section to open. A year later, the railroad extended eastward, reaching Discovery Bay and Port Townsend, the latter of which became its primary dock for car-float service to Seattle and Bellingham. By 1918, the SPA&W reached Deep Creek farther to the west, giving it an entire system of roughly 71.5 miles. On December 31 of that year, the property was formally transferred over to the CM&StP, which renamed it as its Olympic Division (later, it became known as the 14th Subdivision of the Coast Division). Despite the fact that the railroad never reached Washington’s mainland directly, its presence on the peninsula was nevertheless a significant boon to the local economy, particularly the timber industry.

From Port Townsend the Milwaukee Road (as it was known following a 1927 bankruptcy) used three-track barges powered by a pair of tug boats (MT 20 and MT 21) to move freight cars to and from Seattle’s Pier 27, where its primary yard on the city’s waterfront was located. Service to the Olympic Peninsula continued to grow through the 1920s, seeing several trains daily. Passengers, who reached the peninsula via steamboats owned by the Puget Sound Navigation Company, enjoyed the luxuries of local resorts such as the Olympic Hotel, Olympic Hot Springs Lodge, and Lake Crescent Taverns, among others. The railroad released pamphlets annually to tout the region’s tourism, continuing to do so until finally abandoning passenger service in 1931 when U.S. Route 101 was completed and competition with automobiles became too great. By then, remaining service was supplied by a gasoline-powered “Doodlebug” motorized rail car.

From the line’s early days, its freight consisted almost entirely of timber-based traffic, both of the online variety and interchanged with the peninsula’s two other railroads: the Port Angeles Western at Disque and Port Townsend Southern at Discovery Junction. The latter was renamed as the Port Townsend Railroad after 1945, and it eventually completed a 30-mile line as far south as Quilcene, which was acquired by the Milwaukee Road in 1975. As local timber tracts played out over the years, there wasn’t much else to sustain the line. This was particularly true after 1953 when the federal government greatly expanded the size of the Olympic National Park, removing significant land from logging. Additionally, the Port Angeles Western was formally abandoned that same year (service had ceased in 1950), and with no longer any need to continue operating its line west of Port Angeles, the Milwaukee Road abandoned the roughly 21 miles from there to Deep Creek, leaving about 50 miles to Port Townsend still in service.

By the 1970s, traffic had declined to just over 5,000 carloads annually (most of which was finished lumber products). It lost nearly 50% of that amount in 1978 when the railroad put weight restrictions on the aging wooden dock at Port Townsend. To try and cut mounting losses, the company’s two tugs were decommissioned, and the work was contracted out to Foss Tug of Seattle. By then, the Milwaukee Road was in bankruptcy court, and the future of Olympic Peninsula operations looked grim. In 1980, the railroad abandoned the entirety of its Pacific Northwest operations from Montana westward (roughly 1,100 miles of track). Incredibly, the peninsula trackage was revived by a short line: the Seattle & North Coast Railroad (S&NC), which began service on March 24, 1980, just days after the Milwaukee Road officially stopped running trains in the region.

The little S&NC, which even hosted excursions, may have had success as a much smaller operation focusing more on customer service and winning back new business. However, it needed to overhaul the dock at Port Townsend to allow for much heavier loads but did not have the projected $800,000 to do so. As a result, operations were suspended after June 4, 1984, and the rails were removed by 1987.

Railroad attractions near the Olympic Discovery Trail include the Bellingham Railway Museum in Bellingham; the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad & Museum in Chehalis; Chelatchie Prairie Railroad in Chelatchie; Lake Whatcom Railway in Wickersham; Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad in Elbe; Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie; and the Tacoma Railroad Heritage Center in Tacoma.

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