Making the Grade
Lost railroads of Skagit
Wednesday, April 3, 2019
Although I relished the opportunity to pull the misery whip and build cedar puncheon bridges through the swamp with a core group of well-seasoned timber beasts during my tenure with a Sedro-Woolley-based trail association, I appreciated listening to their stories and gleaning whatever critical topographical insight they might be willing to share even more.
Fortunately—whether we were shoring up crib walls high on the checkerboard flanks of Blanchard Mountain, cutting switchbacks through the clear cuts on the backside of Anderson Mountain, or punching corridors through dog hair timber up around Josephine Lakes—my crewmates proved to be exceedingly gracious in their willingness to reveal many definitive treasures hidden in variable terrain.
Regardless of how high or deep into the foothills we ventured, there was one human-made feature in particular I learned to cherish and familiarize myself with above all others—abandoned logging railroads.
But it was hardly love at first site.
When I initially bemoaned the fact that there seemed to be an excessive amount of rusty old cables and derelict equipment scattered far and wide throughout the forest (making already difficult ground even more difficult to dig trail through) a dedicated and erudite history buff from Birdsview took me under his wing and kindly led me to the light.
First, he took me on a guided tour of Blanchard Mountain, pointing out myriad places where the current trail system up there either bisects or directly overlays the original cuts, ballast and incline sections built by Samish Bay Logging Company to bring timber out during the 1910s and ’20s.
Then he hauled me up to Lyman Hill under the auspices of bucking windfall, only to spend the lion’s share of the workday regaling me with harrowing tales about steam shovels, cableway skidders, Shay No. 3 locomotives, High Hercules log trucks and raging wildfires a hundred years ago that charred the trees on the slopes around us to ruin with belching flames 20 stories high.
“The once and former glory of Skagit’s logging railroad heyday, from roughly the 1890s to the 1940s, can be found moldering away in the ferns aplenty on pretty much any hillside between the South Fork of the Nooksack to the Snohomish County line,” proclaimed my guide.
“And don’t even get me started on the trestle bridges,” he gleamed. “Cavanaugh Creek, Red Cabin Creek, Baker River Canyon—back in the day they had train cars full of old-growth logs wobbling over rickety tracks suspended in the air upward of a hundred feet or more with nothing but a few poles spiked together with boards to support them. I mean, just try to imagine riding on a train like that.”
So I did. And the mere thought of it made my hair stand on end. Still does.
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