Ying & Yang

History of the Northern Pacific Prairie Line


The Coming of the Railroad

Yelm Area Prospers

1910 - 1919 Prairie Line Operations

1920s & 1930s Operations

The War Years

Recent Years

1925 NP Map - Western Washington

City of Yelm takes control of railway strip

The Railroads of Grays Harbor, 1880-1900

Northern Pacific Railway



The railroads played an important role in the development of the Puget Sound area. In its early years, the South Thurston County area of Washington had the privilege of being located on the main rail line between Seattle and Portland.  The segment of the main line which ran from Tacoma, Washington to Tenino, Washington, was once known in timetables as the "Prairie Line".   The line passed through Pierce County communities of Lakeview, McChord and Roy and the Thurston County communities of Yelm, Rainier, and Tenino.

In recent years, the favorable economics of truck transportation for freight and the personal automobile for passenger traffic has caused a decline of rail traffic. As a result, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF), current owner of the line, has abandoned or scaled down the Prairie Line to an almost non-existent status.

The Coming of the Railroad

In the mid 19th century, many communities were just getting their start in the Pacific Northwest. In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation which chartered the Northern Pacific Railroad to complete a line between the mid-west and Puget Sound. The legislation included the reward of a 40-million-acre public land donation. With that challenge in place, each of the local communities attempted to persuade the Northern Pacific Railroad to choose them as the western terminus. Great prosperity and development would result for the chosen community. The list of finalists for the terminus included: Olympia, Steilacoom, Tacoma, Mukilteo and Seattle.

By 1870, the Northern Pacific (NP) had raised enough money in bond sales to begin the line westward from Minnesota. In addition, a line was started north from Kalama, Washington, located approximately 40 miles north of Portland on the Columbia River. This line was to connect with the Puget Sound western terminus. By the end of 1871, about 21 miles of rail had been laid. In June of 1872, construction was in full swing with a full crew of 800 men and two locomotives. The men were paid $2.25 per day.

One of the locomotives involved in the construction was the famous "Minnetonka," one of the first locomotives in Washington state. After serving the NP in its early years, the Minnetonka was run by the Rayonier logging railroad near Hoquiam until 1933, then traded back to the Northern Pacific for restoration and preservation. It was still in operating condition a century later and used by NP in exhibitions.

With the exception of a delay to build a bridge crossing the Cowlitz River, the line moved rapidly northward reaching the small community of what was to be named Tenino by October of 1872. Regular service began in November over the 65-mile line between Kalama and Tenino.

Due to financial difficulties for the NP, a major washout on the newly constructed segment, and the uncertainty of the location of a western terminus, construction was stalled at Tenino for over eight months. During this time, many rumors circulated about the terminal choice. Olympia experienced a major land boom in speculation that the city would be chosen.

In May of 1873, construction began again in the general direction of Olympia. After years of study, on July 14, the Northern Pacific Board finally chose Tacoma on Commencement Bay for the Puget Sound terminus. Immediately the line was surveyed in a eastward direction from Tenino toward Tacoma. Some land had to be deeded back to Olympia when it was named as the terminus. Not only was Olympia not selected as the terminus, it was bypassed altogether. Arthur G. Dwelley notes in "Prairies & Quarries" the blame was placed on a greedy real estate company (a subsidiary of NP) and the fact that Olympia had a shallow water harbor. The capitol city eventually built its own narrow gauge railroad to connect with the NP mainline at Tenino. It was called the Olympia and Tenino, then the Olympia and Chehalis Valley Railroad, finally the Port Townsend Southern Railroad.

The tracks were complete to the Yelm, Washington area by the fall of 1873 and the Nisqually River crossing was finished by late September. The work proceeded through the prairie to where Roy, Washington is now located, and on to Lakeview and the South Tacoma area. The construction was delayed four miles southwest of Tacoma in October due to a shortage of iron and money.

The 40-mile segment between Tenino and Tacoma was completed on December 27, 1873 and service began on January 5, 1874.  Established stations were located at (in order from South to North): Tenino, McIntosh, Rainier, Yelm, Roy, Hillhurst, Lakeview, South Tacoma and Tacoma.

Business was not booming in the early years on the Pacific Division line as it was known. One mixed passenger and freight train per day each direction was scheduled between Kalama and Tacoma from 1873 to 1877. Other freight trains were run on an as-needed basis. A line was completed between Hunters, Oregon, and Portland on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. With a transfer ferry across the Columbia from Kalama to Hunters, the Tacoma-Portland run went into service on October 9, 1884. The Oregon side ferry terminal moved to Goble, Oregon on June 14, 1890.  The long awaited transcontinental route from St. Paul, Minnesota, was completed over Stampede Pass on July 3, 1887.The initial transcontinental train began service between St. Paul, Minnesota and Portland, Oregon as #1 The Pacific Mail (westbound) and #2 The Atlantic Mail (eastbound).


Yelm Area Prospers

With the arrival of the railroad in the late 1800s, several businesses sprang up in the Yelm area near where the rails crossed a wagon road to Olympia. Edgar Prescott in his book "Early Yelm" quotes a Yelm pioneer James Mosman as saying "The railroad never gave us much in the way of service". Evidently, the only facility was a wood platform and trains had to be flagged for passengers to board -- with a white cloth during the day, by lighting a newspaper at night. Often the signals were ignored by the "highballing" train crews in a hurry to complete their run to Tacoma. Incoming freight was left somewhere in the vicinity of the platform.

Fed up with the poor service to the area, James Mosman approached the NP about setting up a manned agency at Yelm. The NP laughed at the idea claiming the area accounted for only $11.00 per month in revenue. Mosman proved there was much more business than the NP noted by meeting every train for the next month, noting its freight (marsh hay and dairy products) and passenger business far exceeded the $11.00 figure. He presented his findings to officials who agreed to let him act as agent and gave him 15 percent of revenue from ticket sales and express. In the first two weeks, Mosman's take was $120.00. The NP eventually granted a recognized agency for Yelm.

Mosman's next demand was that a depot be built. The NP once again turned him away and he took his case before the Interstate Commerce Commission at Olympia to argue that the amount of business at Yelm warranted a depot building. The Commission granted the depot be established and the structure was finally built sometime around 1912.

1910 - 1920 Prairie Line Operations

In 1909 a Columbia River bridge at Vancouver, Washington was completed dispensing with the ferry crossing at Kalama. This provided the NP with a continuous rail line from Portland, Oregon to Seattle, Washington.  The August, 1909, NP Public Timetable shows the following eight daily passenger trains (four each direction) between Seattle and Portland over the Prairie Line:

In January 1910, the Union Pacific Railroad (UP), also known as the Oregon, Washington Railroad & Navigation (OWR&N), reached an agreement granting their trains trackage rights on the line from Portland to Tacoma. In June 1910, a similar agreement was signed with the Great Northern Railroad (GN). The November 1913, GN Public Timetable shows the added six daily passenger trains over the line.  With the addition of the other railroads, activity was at an all time high for the mostly single track line. Louis T. Renz reports in his book "The History of The Northern Pacific Railroad" that daily totals from the three railroads were 22 passenger trains and 18 freight trains -- and those figures were on the increase.

In May 1914 the following Seattle-Portland passenger trains were scheduled over the Prairie Line:

In addition, NP ran the following trains Grays Harbor Trains over the Prairie Line between Tacoma and Lakewood:

These trains headed west from Lakeview to Nisqually on the American Lake Line towards Grays Harbor destinations of Hoquiam and Moclips.

The need to improve the operations became evident.  The NP contracted to have the line from Tenino to Kalama double tracked, straightened, and reduced in gradient. The same had already been completed on the Kalama-Portland segment in 1909.

Since a portion of the "Prairie Line" south of Tacoma contained 2.2 miles of 2.2% grade, the NP surveyed a much flatter grade into Tacoma. The new line was to diverge at Tenino, follow the grade of the NP-owned Port Townsend Southern Olympia branch for six miles to Plumb, and then head northeast toward Nisqually and Steilcoom. The line followed the Sound to Point Defiance, entered a tunnel at Ruston to the Commencement Bay side of the Point, then turned south into Tacoma.

Since the new line was at water level and contained no grades to speak of (.3% maximum), the NP did not complain about increasing the length of the Tenino-Tacoma segment from 39.18 to 43.71 miles. This line was completed with double track in December 1914 which corresponded with the opening of Tacoma's new Union Station.  The GN and UP were given a choice of moving operations to the new "Point Defiance Line" or to continue using the Prairie Line.  The UP rerouted all passenger and freight business to the new line on December 15, 1914 whereas the GN decided to keep all operations on the Prairie Line.  The NP moved most of its mainline freight and passenger business to the new line.  The June, 1916, NP Public Timetable  shows only one NP Seattle-Portland passenger train and one Grays Harbor train (Tacoma-Lakeview) remaining on the Prairie Line.

1920s & 1930s Operations

In the 1920s, timetable stations were located at (in order from South to North):

Of these West Tenino, Rainier, Yelm, Roy, and Lakeview had depot buildings and handled train orders via telegraphers.   South Tacoma not only hosted a depot and train orders, but was the location of NP's shop facilities.   The line was double tracked between South Tacoma and 15th St near Tacoma Union Station.  Rainier was the north base of the Castle Rock helper engine district.  

Industries in the 1920s included:
Tenino: Russell Shingle Mill Co., Mutual Lumber, Tenino Stone Co., Feed and Fuel Warehouse, Union Oil Co., Western Quarry Co., and Standard Oil.

McIntosh: Green River Lumber Co., Johnson Creek Lumber

Wetico: Interchange with Skookumchuck Railroad (the Weyerhauser Timber Company logging railroad later known as the Chehalis Western Railroad).

Rainier: Lindstrom Hardforth Lumber Co. (originally built as Bob White Lumber Co )

Yelm: 2 mile logging branch line owned by the Gruber-Docherty Lumber Co.(originally built as Harstad Lumber Co.), Standard Oil,

MP 24: McKenna Lumber Co. Spur, Triangle Lumber Co.

Roy: Standard Oil, Frank Betchard Lumber Mill & Logging Road connection,

South Tacoma: South Tacoma Lumber co., Morris Furniture Co. Saxton Lumber Co.

The August, 1921 Union Pacific Public time tables shows the GN running four passenger trains daily, two each way, on the line and the NP running passenger service between Tacoma and Lakeview only and then down the American Lake line. By 1926, the GN cut its passenger service to two daily passenger trains, one each way.  The NP was running four passenger trains which included the westbound and eastbound Grays Harbor trains on the Tacoma to Lakeview segment, and the westbound and eastbound Willapa Harbor train to and from South Bend. A July 26, 1926 dispatcher's train sheet for the Tacoma-Tenino segment lists two through GN freights each way and a GN local freight.  The NP shows a way freight running from Tacoma to Camp Lewis and return.

As was the case for most industry and business, the 1930s saw great decline for railroad business which resulted in many line and station closures.  The Prairie Line was no exception to this as services were further cut back.  By 1935, only Yelm, Lakeview and South Tacoma hosted telegraph operators (days only) between Tacoma and Tenino.

In 1933 each railroad (NP, GN, and UP) cut back to operating one passenger train each way between Seattle-Portland.   The GN continued to run its daily passenger train contribution to these Seattle-Portland "Pool Trains" over the Prairie Line throughout the 1930s. This train ran across the "Drawbridge Line" in Tacoma which crossed the City Waterway just north of Union Station in Tacoma and necessitated backing out of Tacoma Union Station after the southbound station stop, and backing into Tacoma Station on the northbound run. A helper engine was usually added to the southbound to pull the train out the steep Union Station stub track and provide pusher service up the 2.2% grade between Tacoma and South Tacoma.  A small tower named 15th St. Tower located just north of Tacoma Union Station handled all the operations in this area.

The GN ran daily Seattle-Portland time freights #671 and #672 as scheduled second class trains. The NP was down to one Grays Harbor passenger train, which used the Tacoma-Lakeview segment.  NP also provided local freight service.


The War Years

As World War II efforts increased, traffic increased on the line as it was used as an alternate route for troop trains to and from Tacoma.  GN's time freights #671 and #672 often ran with 3 or 4 sections.  Two new time table stations were added in the McChord Airforce base area: McChord Field MP 29.5 in 1940, and Mobase MP 28.1 in 1942.  In 1943, the Yelm and Lakeview telegraph offices were manned 24 hours with three shifts or "tricks" to handle increased traffic.

The April 23, 1942, NP employee Tacoma Division timetable shows the line as the Fourth Sub-Division Main Line (Prairie Line) with the following scheduled daily GN trains: passenger trains # 459 and #562; time freight #671 and #672. NP ran daily (except Sunday) passenger trains # 423 and #422 (Seattle-Hoquiam) over the Tacoma to Lakeview segment of the Prairie Line.

 Juaquin Miller, father of Donald R. Miller, resident of Yelm, was assigned as agent at the Yelm site and other small local agencies on the NP during the late 1930s and 1940s. Don Miller recalls the thrill of attempting to flag down a large scale steam locomotive with a heavy load and a full head of steam to make the small grade into Yelm. He also recalls there were two desks back to back in the agency: one for Northern Pacific business, and one for Great Northern business.

The Prairie Line lost its through passenger service on August 8, 1943 as the GN moved the Seattle-Portland pool passenger train over to the double track Point Defiance line. The scheduled GN time freights #671 and #672 were also moved on this date over to the newer more efficient main line.  There was an agreement activated for the NP to handle the previous GN freight business.  Jim Frederickson, retired NP dispatcher, recalls a possible cause for the move due to the city of Tacoma complaining about the long GN trains tieing up the many grade crossings between downtown Tacoma and South Tacoma.  


Recent Years

In the post-war years the traffic dwindled back to a secondary or branch status with logs and lumber products the main commodities carried. The NP canceled the Seattle - Hoquiam passenger trains #422 and #423 in February 1956 thus marking an end to regularly scheduled passenger service on any portion of the line. The Yelm agency closed in the late 1959 and the depot, which stood near where the current city hall is, was subsequently dismantled leaving a wood platform which still stands in the overgrown brush today.  This period of time also witnessed the last runs of remaining steam locomotives as the NP finished converting to all diesel power.

For Freight service, the line saw the near daily NP Mobase local which worked industries at McChord, Roy, Yelm, Rainier and ran as far south as Wetico to interchange log cars with the Weyerhauser Timber railroad: Chehalis Western.  The industry base in the Tenino area was worked by the Tacoma-Portland local off the double track main line.

In 1962, the north end of the sub-division was changed as, 15th St Tower was closed and operations were transferred to a newly created train order station: UP Jct.  In 1966, the South Tacoma train order station closed.  By October 1967, Lakeview, the last manned station between Tacoma and Tenino, ceased operations.

According to Jim Frederickson, the railroad would reroute some Point Defiance main line trains that carried modern oversize freight cars over the Prairie Line as there was limited height clearance under the approach to the Drawbridge Line in Tacoma. These cars, including special ones containing Boeing airplane parts, would also be set out in Tacoma or Tenino by through trains and handled by the Mobase Local to the other end of the line. Jim also remembers the line being occasionally used in conjunction with the adjacent American Lake line to simulate double track for detours if the Point Defiance main line was blocked by slides along the sound.  

In 1970, both the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern lost their individual identities when they merged with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and the Seattle, Portland & Spokane to make one large company: the Burlington Northern (BN).

In 1973 the restricted clearances of the Point Defiance line was suddenly improved due to an errant routing of a 20 high Boeing airplane car under the 185 high Drawbridge line approach. After evaluating the damage to the bridge, BN decided to abandon the Drawbridge line. As a result, the need for the Prairie Line as an alternate route was eliminated. The Prairie Line then officially terminated at Tacoma's Half-Moon Yard, located north of Union Station.  With the closing of several mills around the Tenino area and the ceasing of log hauling by the BN, local traffic dwindled to next to nothing by the 1980s. A 1984 BN employee timetable instructed "Between Rainier and Tenino Jct. - Expect to find cars stored on main track" -- meaning this portion of the line was out of regular service.

In 1986, BN severed the "Prairie Line" from the main line at Tenino and took the line south of Yelm out of service. Until a flood which damaged the Nisqually River bridge in 1996, Burlington Northern - Santa Fe (BNSF) still ran the local freight, "The Mobase Local" which ventured approximately once a week to Yelm to deliver a boxcar or two to Amtech Inc.  The City of Yelm purchased the Roy-Yelm segment from BNSF and the rails have now been removed. Roy is currently the end of the line.

In April of 2003, BNSF took the northern most 2.1 miles of the Prairie Line out of service.  Due to the cost involved in constructing a crossing for the Tacoma Sounder light rail, the Sounder agreed to pay for refurbishing the American Lake line if  BNSF would abandon the Prairie line through downtown Tacoma.   Starting on November 16, 2004, Freight service on the American Lake line is now provided by Tacoma Rail from Nisqually on the Point Defiance line. BNSF retained the Prairie Line between Lakeview and Roy.  A weekly BNSF crew delivers grain cars to the Wilcox Farms at the Roy elevator. The American Lake line segment still sees occasional BNSF train movements of military equipment between Fort Lewis and Tacoma.  

The future for the southern portion of the line is more bleak for future rail service. In the mid-1990s, the Thurston County Parks and Recreation Department  purchased the right-of-way from Yelm to Tenino. The rails and ties have been removed and this segment has been added to the growing Thurston County "Rails-to-Trails" system. This east-west trail links with the north-south ex-Chehalis Western Logging Railroad right-of-way at Wetico.

Sounder Commuter Trains

During 2011 and 2012, the line between Lakeview and Tacoma was rebuilt to host Sound Transit commuter trains. Service began between Lakewood and Seattle on October 8, 2012. The line was rebuilt to modern standards utilizing concrete ties, continuous welded rail and Centralized Traffic Control (CTC). Two new stations were constructed at Lakewood and South Tacoma and a small yard was built just north of Lakeview for servicing the trains overnight. The northern section was rebuilt down South Tacoma hill and now connects to the ex-Milwaukee/Tacoma Eastern line at Freighthouse Square. Trains run at 60mph between Lakewood and South Tacoma and 30mph on the 2.85% grade between South Tacoma and Freighthouse Square. The rebuild also allowed for eventual double track between South Tacoma and Dupont as Amtrak service will eventually move to this route from the Point Defiance route. 

Sources used:


Last Updated: 10/09/2012

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