South Cle Elum -- Thumbnail History

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 10/05/2013
  • Essay 10642
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South Cle Elum is a small town on the south bank of the Yakima River, opposite the larger city of Cle Elum in Kittitas County. The town sprang to life in 1908 when the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad (the Milwaukee Road) laid its transcontinental tracks along the south side of the Yakima River instead of through Cle Elum on the north bank. Enterprising citizens platted the site and the railroad built a depot, roundhouse, and rail yard. Soon it was bustling with train crews and other railroad workers. South Cle Elum remained a key division point for The Milwaukee Road for 66 years. The town incorporated in 1911 and had 587 residents in its first census in 1920. The Milwaukee Road fell on hard times beginning in the 1950s. South Cle Elum ceased being a division point in 1974 and the last train rolled through in 1980. However, the town successfully transitioned from railroad town to historic railroad destination. The Milwaukee Road's old rail yard and restored depot are now part of Iron Horse State Park and a popular destination for rail buffs. The town is also a destination for hikers, bikers, and equestrians on the former Milwaukee Road right-of-way, now known as the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. As of the 2010 census, South Cle Elum's population was 532.

On the Banks of the Yakima 

For thousands of years, the site of South Cle Elum, on the banks of the upper Yakima River, was part of the traditional hunting, gathering, fishing, and camping grounds of the Yakama tribe and its related bands. The Kittitas band of the Yakamas had populous villages along the upper parts of the river, in what came to be known as the Kittitas Valley, and along the Cle Elum River. "Cle Elum" is a modified version of the Indian name for the river, "Tle-el-Lum," said to mean "swift water" (Hitchman).

Life for the Kittitas band began to change in the 1840s, when Catholic missionaries arrived in the Kittitas Valley, and then in the 1850s, when non-Indian settlers began to pass through in wagon trains en route to Puget Sound. In an 1855 treaty, the Yakamas and other tribes in the region ceded most of their lands, including the future site of South Cle Elum, in exchange for a reservation on the lower Yakima. This did not prevent war from breaking out over the increasing encroachment of gold prospectors and settlers. By 1859, most of the area's tribes had been forced out of the Kittitas Valley and onto the Yakama Reservation.

There were some early cattle operations in the 1860s in the grasslands where the Cle Elum and Teanaway rivers poured into the Yakima. However, the area that came to be known as Cle Elum, along the Yakima River a few miles downstream from the mouth of the Cle Elum River, didn't really begin to attract attention until coal was discovered in vast quantities near Cle Elum and the future town of Roslyn in 1886. The timing was ideal, because the Northern Pacific Railroad was snaking its way up the Yakima Valley toward its eventual goal of Stampede Pass, and it needed local coal. Cle Elum and Roslyn immediately became coal boomtowns. Cle Elum also became a bustling railroad town as the construction headquarters of the Northern Pacific's Stampede Pass tunnel project.

By 1906, Cle Elum had been a busy coal and railroad town for nearly 20 years. Over on the south bank of the river, however, nothing existed except for a few farms. That was about to change dramatically.

The Milwaukee Road Arrives 

That year, the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad (commonly shortened to the Milwaukee Road) announced an ambitious plan: to build a massive Pacific Coast Extension, all the way across the Rockies, across the Cascades, and westward to Puget Sound. The word soon leaked out that the route would come up the Yakima River in the vicinity of Cle Elum -- but not actually through Cle Elum. The Milwaukee Road route would be on the south side of the Yakima River, where no town yet existed. It didn't take long for enterprising citizens to realize that the railroad would need to establish a depot on the south side of the river, so they platted the future town of South Cle Elum alongside the proposed tracks. In 1908, the Milwaukee Road arrived and built a depot at South Cle Elum, along with an engine terminal site, maintenance shop site, and massive rail yards. It turned South Cle Elum into an instant railroad boomtown. By 1909, through-train service was rolling through South Cle Elum, and the town became the crew change point for crews from Othello, in Adams County, to the east and Tacoma to the west. South Cle Elum remained the crew change point for the next 66 years.

"Trainmen, rail yard and track maintenance crews lived in the town with their families," and also in some bungalows built by the railroad (Borleske, Interpretive Trail ...). Many of the single men and laborers lived in the rail yard's large bunkhouse.

It wasn’t long before South Cle Elum was big enough to consider the next logical step, incorporation. Many townspeople were not interested in merging their community with its larger neighbor on the north side of the river. They wanted their own city. On July 26, 1911, the citizens voted 92 to 34 to create the town of South Cle Elum. Incorporation became official on August 28, 1911. During the same election, R. F. Adams was elected South Cle Elum's first mayor.

The progress of the new city is reflected in its city council meeting records, the highlights of which were compiled by the city as part of its centennial celebration in 2011. The meeting records show that the council met informally on August 23, 1911, in the Johnson Brothers store, and then had its first regular session on August 25, 1911, at Leidell's Hall. There, the council took care of the most pressing business: issuing three liquor licenses to the town's saloons. The council also hired a town attorney, health officer, and marshal. During the town's first year, the council also drafted an animal control ordinance, graded the streets, and built the town's sidewalks.

Railroad Boomtown 

In 1912, South Cle Elum built a town hall and jail, at a cost of $1,318. The council held its first meeting in the new town hall on November 18. The council also dealt with one of the consequences of being a railroad boomtown -- it instructed the town marshal to "investigate houses of ill fame" (Council Meeting Highlights). Apparently, the issue did not go away, since the marshal was again asked to look into complaints about "houses of ill-repute" in 1921 and 1925 (Council Meeting Highlights). The town was also coping with a large number of boxcar riders and transients. In 1917, the Washington National Guard asked the town to post a "companion" -- a watchman -- to identify all persons crossing the bridge into town, for the purpose of keeping "hobos and persons of evil design out of town and off of The Milwaukee Road" (Council Meeting Highlights).

Meanwhile, the South Cle Elum rail yards continued to grow. The depot itself was substantial: 132 feet long by 24 feet wide, "divided into four primary sections, the ticket office and station agency at the west end, the waiting room, a lunchroom/restaurant or 'beanery' in the middle section, and a freight/baggage section in the east end" (Borleske, "An Overview ..."). The huge rail yard also contained a massive roundhouse, with stalls for eight steam locomotives to be repaired and serviced, and an 85-foot turntable, where locomotives were "balanced on a bridge-like structure and turned by hand and lined into tracks leading to the roundhouse" (Borleske, "An Overview ...").

In addition, there was an ice house, foreman's office, water tank, sand tower, sand drying house, and three bungalows. In 1920, the rail yards also acquired a huge new electrical substation to accommodate a technological breakthrough: the electrification of the Milwaukee Road from Tacoma to Othello. The Milwaukee had determined its most mountainous stretches could most efficiently be powered by electricity, in the manner of electric trolley cars. For one thing, it eliminated the dangerous problem of smoke in the long mountain tunnels. The substation at South Cle Elum converted 100,000-volt electrical current to 3,000-volt direct current, which was fed into the trolley wires suspended over the tracks. Electrification proved to be a rousing success and was used into the 1970s.

South Cle Elum's first U.S. census in 1920 showed a population of 587. The town was thriving, although it remained much smaller than its sister city of Cle Elum, which had 2,661 residents that year. Around that time, South Cle Elum looked into acquiring its own water system, but decided that it was cheaper to continue to get its water from Cle Elum. However, the town had its own electrical lines, phone lines, street lights, and fire department. Students attended South Cle Elum Grade School but attended high school across the river at Cle Elum High School.

Depression and World War 

The Great Depression, beginning in 1929, hit South Cle Elum hard. The population dropped to 338 by 1930 and a year later the council was attempting to provide for the many "needy families going hungry" (Council Meeting Highlights). The city offered jobs to needy men -- cleaning up the town hall, clearing brush, and fixing sidewalks -- in exchange for store credit. However, in 1932, all wages for town positions were cut by 20 percent.

Conditions slowly improved, partly because of an influx of federal public works jobs in 1935. The town's 1940 census count remained virtually unchanged at 340. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the council met in special session and created a City Defense Council. One of its first acts was to purchase an air raid siren, which shrieked every night at 9 p.m. "as a test and to signal curfew" (Council Meeting Highlights). Soon the South Cle Elum rail yard became a transit point for war supplies and troop trains.

A South Cle Elum man, Douglas A. Munro (1919-1942) became one of World War II's heroes. He grew up in one of the rail-yard bungalows and was the son of a South Cle Elum substation operator. He graduated from Cle Elum High School and became a U.S. Coast Guard petty officer. 1n 1942, Munro was in charge of a group of landing craft at Guadalcanal. He volunteered to use his landing craft to rescue wounded and trapped Marines from the beach. He evacuated many of them, but was shot while completing the rescue. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor -- the first and only Coast Guardsman to receive the nation's highest military honor. He is buried in Cle Elum and Douglas Munro Boulevard in Cle Elum is named in his honor.

Remaining Independent 

South Cle Elum began to grow after the war, jumping to 442 residents in 1950. Some townspeople worked in the region's natural-resource industries, logging and coal mining, although by this time coal was in the latter stages of a long decline. The Milwaukee Road remained the town's key employer. The famous Olympian Hiawatha passenger train, with its distinctive Superdome observation car and Skytop lounge, began rolling through South Cle Elum in 1947, en route between Chicago and Puget Sound.

That same year, residents voted for a bond issue to develop a town water system. Costs proved too high, however, so in 1954 the water system plan was dropped. The following year, 1955, citizens in both South Cle Elum and its larger neighbor considered a plan under which Cle Elum would annex South Cle Elum. Cle Elum voters approved the proposal, 171 to 90, but the voters of South Cle Elum scuttled the merger, rejecting it by a vote of 90 to 51. Residents of the smaller town said they were worried that a merger might result in the loss of their grade school and fire department. The issue of merging with Cle Elum was raised several times through the decades, including one proposal as late as 2000. As in 1955, South Cle Elum chose each time to remain independent. (In the early 2000s, the town did join cooperative districts for regional water and sewer service).

In 1956, South Cle Elum sold its electrical distribution system to Puget Sound Power & Light, and residents voted to use the proceeds to fund a town water system. Water mains were installed and in 1958 South Cle Elum finally had its own municipal water. Meanwhile, the town's fire department began developing the town's first park, now known as Firemen's Park, in 1952. South Cle Elum's location, in the lee of the Cascade Range crest, made for some rough winters. One of the roughest arrived in 1955, when the council declared an "extreme emergency" on December 20, 1955, because of snow that began the "first week of November" and had not let up (Council Meeting Highlights).

The Milwaukee Road's Long Decline 

The 1950s proved to be a turning point in the fortunes of the nation's railroads, including the Milwaukee Road. Diesel trucks, buses, and airplanes were cutting deeply into the Milwaukee Road's market. The railroad converted most of its locomotives to diesel -- although some electric locomotives lingered in this stretch of track until 1972 -- in an attempt to become more efficient. However, the railroads were waging a losing battle. Freight traffic continued to drop and passenger traffic all but dried up. The Olympian Hiawatha and all other passenger trains quit rolling through South Cle Elum in 1961. The ticket office in the old depot was vacant.

Yet a different kind of transcontinental route, Interstate 90, arrived on the outskirts of South Cle Elum in 1964. The highway was dedicated on October 5 in a ceremony attended by a large crowd, including the mayor and town council. They stood under the South Cle Elum Way overpass and were told "it was the most expensive umbrella they had ever stood under" (Council Meeting Highlights). The town's population dropped to 383 in 1960 and 374 in 1970.

Meanwhile, things were looking even more dire for the Milwaukee Road. In 1974, it ceased using the South Cle Elum Depot as a division point and crew-change point. The rail yards were virtually abandoned. In 1977, the Milwaukee Road declared bankruptcy for the third time. On March 16, 1980, the final freight train rolled east through South Cle Elum and the Milwaukee Road's entire Pacific Coast extension was shut down. A few months later, the Milwaukee Road sent the town a letter stating that the tracks themselves would be ripped out.

This was a severe blow to South Cle Elum, not just economically but also emotionally. One resident said "it broke my heart, to see the depot all fenced in" (Vinh). Yet the town persevered and even began to grow. The 1980 census saw the population jump to 449. Many of those residents turned out for the town's 75th birthday parade and picnic in 1986. The population rose to 457 in 1990, and stayed at that exact number in 2000.

From Rail Stop to Rail-History Destination 

As it turned out, the closure of the Milwaukee Road marked the transition of South Cle Elum from a railroad stop to a surprisingly vibrant railroad-history destination. The residents of South Cle Elum immediately began organizing to restore the depot and the other buildings in the rail yards. In 1984 Monte and Connie Moore presented plans to the town council to turn the old Milwaukee Bunkhouse into a bed and breakfast. It is now the Iron Horse Inn Bed & Breakfast. However, the rest of the rail yard was abandoned and began to deteriorate.

That began to change in 1999. The Friends of the South Cle Elum Depot, a volunteer group, devoted thousands of hours to cleaning up and restoring the depot. Later in 1999, the state stepped in and acquired the depot, substation and rail yards. The state also acquired the Milwaukee Road track route and converted parts of it -- including the South Cle Elum rail yards -- into Iron Horse State Park, which stretches from Cedar Falls near North Bend all the way to the Columbia River. In addition, the state converted a 300-mile section of the Milwaukee Road's tracks -- including the part through the rail yards -- into the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, named for an equestrian group, the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders Association, which supported the project.

The Cascade Rail Foundation, dedicated to the legacy of the old Milwaukee Road, was also instrumental in restoring the depot and creating the South Cle Elum Rail Yard National Historic District. The meticulously restored depot was reopened in the summer of 2006 and in 2013 houses a railroad museum and a restaurant. The Iron Horse Inn, run since 1999 by Mary and Doug Pittis, has seven rooms in the old bunkhouse, plus four cabooses, complete with Jacuzzi tubs.

The Seattle Times noted in 2006 that the entire rail-yard complex had become "a hotbed for cross-country skiers, equestrians, mountain bikers and hikers, thanks to the old railroad tracks" (Vinh). The newspaper urged visitors to pull themselves "away from the hot tub" and stroll out to "the Rail Yard Interpretive Trail that takes hikers through the train's steam engine era to its diesel and electrical age" (Vinh). South Cle Elum now attracts train buffs from all over the country.

Celebrating 100 Years 

In August 2011, South Cle Elum celebrated 100 years of existence with a centennial celebration at the South Cle Elum Firemen's Park and the gloriously restored South Cle Elum Depot. It was a vivid evocation of South Cle Elum's railroad heritage, with reenactors in 1911 garb roaming the grounds. The U.S. Coast Guard sent an honor guard in memory of the rail yard's most famous resident, Douglas Munro.

Throughout its history, the town of South Cle Elum has struggled through a number of rough winters and spring floods, along with the nearly constant financial crises endemic to small municipalities. Yet for more than 100 years, South Cle Elum has endured and thrived. As of 2010, the population had risen to 532.


John C. Shideler, Coal Towns in the Cascades: A Centennial History of Roslyn and Cle Elum, Washington (Spokane: Melior Publications, 1986); W. D. Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley, Washington, Comprising Yakima, Kittitas and Benton County, Vol. 1 (Chicago: S J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1919); An Illustrated History of Klickitat, Yakima and Kittitas Counties With an Outline of the Early History of the State of Washington (Chicago: Interstate Publishing Company, 1904); Council Meeting Highlights (Town of South Cle Elum, 2011), available at Office of the Clerk/Treasurer, South Cle Elum, Washington; Mark Borleske, Interpretive Trail Guide: South Cle Elum Rail Yard National Historic District, undated pamphlet published by Cascade Rail Foundation and Washington State Parks, available at the site, copy in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane, Washington; Mark Borleske, "An Overview of the Milwaukee Road Site, South Cle Elum," Cascade Rail Foundation website accessed August 13, 2013 (; Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (Tacoma: Washington State Historical Society, 1985); "Town's Merger Meeting Called," The Spokesman-Review, January 15, 1955, p. 6; "Town Rejects Merger Plan," The Spokesman-Review, May 19, 1955, p. 7;Tan Vinh, "Riding the Trails and Recalling the Rails in South Cle Elum," The Seattle Times, August 24, 2006, (; Interpretive signs, South Cle Elum Rail Yard National Historic District.

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