The first Europeans to see the Olympic Peninsula were stunned by the thick conifer forests that stretched from shore to as far as the eye could see. Nearly 100 years later, thousands of Americans and immigrants streamed to the region, many to exploit this vast resource. The peninsula's early economy was built almost entirely on felling trees, milling the lumber, and getting it to market, all made more challenging by remoteness and the difficulties of transportation. By the early twentieth century dozens of small, private logging railroads built over the years were finally able to intersect with a standard-gauge line that greatly facilitated getting logs to mills and ports along the peninsula's northern shore. But for all its decades of service this railroad connected to no wider system, separated from the transcontinental lines to the east by the long stretch of Puget Sound. Among the early towns and settlements whose success hinged on rail transport were Port Angeles, Port Discovery, and Port Townsend, and the long struggle to connect these communities to each other and to the transcontinental rail systems was a drawn-out saga of dreams and disappointments that lasted well into the twentieth century.
The S'Klallam (variously Clallam and Klallam) Indians lived for thousands of years along much of the Olympic Peninsula's northern shoreline on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Early Spanish and British explorers, and later American settlers, brought with them diseases to which Native Americans had little immunity. In common with virtually all Northwest tribes (and many others across the continent), the S'Klallams were before long greatly diminished by smallpox, flu, malaria, and other pathogens brought from afar.
In 1851 the first permanent non-Native settlers on S'Klallam land came ashore at Port Townsend on the Quimper Peninsula, an appendage at the northeastern corner of the Olympic Peninsula that is separated from the main peninsula by Discovery Bay. Four years later, the S'Klallam and other area tribes accepted treaties negotiated with the federal government. The Treaty of Point No Point, signed on January 26, 1855, required the S'Klallams to move to a Skokomish Reservation established far down Hood Canal, but most refused. In later years surviving S'Klallams gathered into four distinct groups: the Jamestown S'Klallam, the Port Gamble S'Klallam, the Lower Elwha Klallam, and the Sc'ianew First Nations on Vancouver Island.
In 1854 the Washington Territorial Legislature divided Jefferson County almost in half, creating Clallam County out of most of the northern portion, from Diamond Point at the western head of Discovery Bay to the Pacific Ocean. Port Angeles and Sequim are in Clallam County; Port Discovery, Port Townsend, and Port Ludlow are in Jefferson County. It was in these places, and at Port Gamble on the Kitsap Peninsula, that the timber industry on the west side of Puget Sound got its start.
"So Delightful a Prospect of Fertility"
In 1792 two British ships under the command of Captain George Vancouver (1757-1798) sailed up the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula. Viewing the land to his east from the Pacific Ocean, Vancouver wrote, "The whole had the appearance of a continued forest extending as far north as the eye could reach which made me very solicitous to find a port in the vicinity of a country presenting so delightful a prospect of fertility" (Meany, Vancouver's Discovery, 61). When his ships turned into the Strait of Juan de Fuca in May 1792, Vancouver's view, now south, was still of trees blanketing the land to the horizon.
Farther east, as he neared the entrance to Puget Sound, Vancouver came to three long inlets. The first was difficult to enter and he did not venture in; it would later be named by others Sequim Bay. Vancouver named the next inlet Port Discovery after his flagship, and the third he called Port Townshend to honor a British marquis of his acquaintance.
It would be nearly 50 years before there was an organized American survey of the strait and Puget Sound. On May 2, 1841, the United States Exploring Expedition led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) anchored in Port Discovery, then went on to explore the waters farther inland. Wilkes dropped the "h" in "Townshend" and the change stuck.
The S'Klallams took trees to make houses, canoes, cradles, baskets, and other necessities of life, and early European and American sailors regularly went ashore to harvest timber for spars, masts, and ship repairs. Both Indians and sailors were highly selective, taking only what was needed and leaving mere pinpricks in the vast expanse of trees. But when waves of non-Native settlement came overland during the second half of the 1800s and early 1900s, most early communities on the northern half of the Olympic Peninsula developed around sawmills. The timber industry in all its phases eventually employed thousands and created great wealth for a few.
The first mill on the Olympic Peninsula was a small affair built in 1852 on the relatively sheltered waters of Port Ludlow on the peninsula's eastern shore. In 1853 a larger mill opened near the entrance to Hood Canal at Port Gamble on the Kitsap Peninsula. Within two years the Puget Mill Company was producing 40,000 board feet of finished lumber every day and it soon became the largest sawmill in the West. By the early 1860s nearly 71 million board feet had been produced by lumber mills on Puget Sound.
Due to a number of factors -- remoteness, primarily -- logging on the north coast of the Olympic Peninsula took somewhat longer to gain a foothold. The first commercial sawmill there was built on the western shore of Discovery Bay (Captain Vancouver's "Port Discovery") in 1858 by a company owned by Seabury L. Mastick (1826-1882) of San Francisco. It soon was the hub of a community that numbered as many as 300, almost all men, almost all mill workers, including a group of Chinese. Mastick built a long wharf into the bay and used his own ship, War Hawk, to transport lumber to booming San Francisco. By 1884 the mill, then owned by the Port Discovery Mill Company, had cut some 300 million feet of lumber.
Before too many years had passed major logging activities were underway near Port Angeles, Crescent Bay some 25 miles west, and Gettysburg (the latter of which, as with several other early logging settlements, no longer appears on most maps). Other areas on the peninsula, including around Grays Harbor and Shelton in the south, also were being heavily logged, and smaller operations, often just settlers clearing their land and selling the felled trees to the nearest mill, were commonplace.
The first trees cut were always taken near the shore, skidded or dragged to water, gathered together into booms, and towed or poled to a mill. Eventually these relatively easy pickings were exhausted, and loggers had to move farther inland. In 1878 one observer wrote of upper Puget Sound what would soon be true everywhere on the peninsula where major logging was done:
"It is perfectly wild, just a howling wilderness. It has all been logged over; you see everywhere the remnants of logging roads. The mill companies have taken all the good timber near the shore" (Historic Resource Study, 137).
Timber, Tracks, and High Hopes
In 1881 two inventions, both driven by steam, revolutionized the timber industry -- the donkey-engine-powered winch and small, gear-driven Shay locomotives. Together these innovations allowed operations to move into previously inaccessible areas. Beginning in the 1880s a web of small, locally-built-and-owned railroads, some nothing more than wooden tracks sometimes topped by strips of metal, developed along the north edge of the Olympic Peninsula. Several hundred miles of these narrow-gauge rails were eventually put down, work that continued well into the twentieth century.
These helped get the felled trees out of the deeper forest and to the mills, but the mills were still a long way from where their output was needed. To the east, across Puget Sound, the appearance of standard-gauge, long-haul railroads told the future. If the mills on the northern peninsula could be linked by rail to one or more of the transcontinental lines that reached the Northwest in the last two decades of the nineteenth century towns could prosper and fortunes were sure to be made.
Port Townsend, surrounded by mostly treeless prairie, was the only early settlement on the west side of Puget Sound that didn't grow up around a sawmill, but its founders hoped to profit from the timber trade by building an economy based on shipping and commerce. With an exceptional harbor at the very mouth of Puget Sound, it was thought by many to be the Northwest's city of destiny, and not without reason. For most of its first 60 years Port Townsend was the official Port of Entry for the Puget Sound Customs District; all foreign-flagged ships were inspected there, both coming and going, and even American vessels had to stop and report when outward bound. Inbound ships that weren't required to stop often did anyway; the prevailing winds in Puget Sound frequently worked against entry under sail, and Port Townsend became a marshaling point for ships waiting for better conditions or a tow. It was an article of faith among its citizens that if they could only get a link to a transcontinental railroad, the potential was unlimited.
In 1853 Territorial Governor Isaac Ingalls Stevens (1818-1862) had surveyed a northern route for a transcontinental rail line and recommended to Congress that somewhere in Jefferson County should be the site of a western terminus. Nothing came of it, but the idea became something of a civic obsession in Port Townsend. Several years later Travers Daniel, editor of the town's first newspaper, the Register, wrote of a future when "ships from the Indian Ocean, from Canton and Calcutta cross the Pacific and deposit their rich freight at the terminus of the great highway of the nations of the civilized world on Puget Sound" (Naylor, 25).
He made a very good point: From Asia to New York by ship via Cape Horn was a more-than-20,000-mile trip through one of the oceans' most perilous stretches, and the journey via the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa was at least 15,000 miles. In contrast, cargo shipped from Asia to Port Townsend and then by rail to the East Coast would travel a total distance from source to market of only about 8,000 miles, much of it on the relative safety of a speeding train. Since it seemed inevitable that there would soon be railroad systems spanning the continent, Port Townsend simply could not be better placed to be the entrepôt for this international trade in the Northwest. Or so its boosters claimed and its citizens fervently hoped.
Unfortunately, the critical key to this rosy future lay not in Port Townsend, but in the hands of the financiers who were building the nation's railroads. These men danced to no tunes but their own, and it was not for nothing that the popular press of the day took to calling them "robber barons."
A Long Wait for a Train
As the years following the Civil War ticked by and railroads reached more and more areas of the West, the northern Olympic Peninsula seemed trapped in another time. The people of Port Townsend watched in dismay as the railroads reached other cities and towns in Washington Territory and Oregon, and they waited impatiently for a line, any line, to come to them. In 1870 and 1871, when it appeared that the Northern Pacific might be the one, the city's economy boomed with speculation. When the railroad chose Tacoma as its western terminus in 1873, Port Townsend settled into a period of stasis, getting by with a mix of agriculture, commerce, and catering to the maritime trade.
Another boom came in the early 1880s, and Port Townsend's citizens contributed to build the town's first commercial sawmill, a rather small one compared to some on Puget Sound. The townsfolk were showing considerable pluck, but without a railroad link to the rest of the country lasting prosperity seemed forever out of reach. Making matters worse, steam power was fast replacing sail on the sea. The unreliable winds of Puget Sound that often kept ships in Port Townsend for days became less and less of a factor, and soon the town's shipping-related activities went into decline.
In 1883, the year its transcontinental line finally reached Tacoma, the Northern Pacific Railroad published a guide for potential settlers and identified the only commercial railroads then in operation on Puget Sound, all on its eastern shore:
- From Portland to Tacoma, by the Northern Pacific Railroad (Pacific Division)
- From Tacoma to Carbonado, by the Northern Pacific Railroad (Cascade Division)
- From Seattle to Newcastle, on the Columbia and Puget Sound Narrow Gauge Railroad
- From Seattle to Tacoma, by Cascade branch of the Northern Pacific Railroad
The publication also gave the locations of the region's major sawmills. Five of the largest -- at Port Ludlow, Port Gamble, Port Madison, Port Blakely, and Port Discovery -- were on the opposite side of Puget Sound, had no rail connections whatsoever, and were accessible only by water or overland trek.
A Do-It-Yourself Railroad
Although Port Townsend had few sizable trees to harvest, the lumber industry was booming on the northern Olympic Peninsula in the 1880s, which only made a rail link seem more necessary. But the region was still being largely ignored by the major railroads, and a few of Port Townsend's citizens took a step that was hoped would attract some attention. In August 1887 a group of five prominent men of the town, joined by two San Franciscans, filed incorporation papers for "The Port Townsend Southern Railroad Company" (Articles of Incorporation). The corporate articles gave an expansive definition of its intended purposes, but what the people of the town wanted desperately was a railroad:
"to be built, purchased, constructed or maintained to commence from a point at the Bay of Port Townsend, in Jefferson County, Territory of Washington, and run thence southward, or in a southerly direction, through the Counties of Jefferson, Mason, Chehalis, Thurston, Lewis, Cowlitz and Clarke to a point in said territory on the Columbia River" (Articles of Incorporation).
After nearly two more years with no takers from the established railroads, a civic effort raised funds to lay a planned six miles of track heading south. On March 23, 1889, almost every living soul in Port Townsend gathered two miles out of town near the homestead of Albert Briggs (1813-1888) to watch the work get started. Food and refreshments were brought and townsfolk cheered on the workers in a carnival-like atmosphere. But the effort soon consumed all the money that had been raised and most of the enthusiasm. When the men wearily put down their tools, the Port Townsend Southern had but a single mile of track, and it ended in no useful place.
Hope and Despair
Even this demonstration of determination and good faith failed to draw the interest of one of the transcontinentals, so a more audacious plan was devised. On June 13, 1889, dozens of the leading citizens of Port Townsend, men and women alike, pledged more than $100,000 to a trust fund that was to be used to lure a railroad. The requirements for getting the money were clear:
"That some one of the American Transcontinental Railroad Companies shall, on or before the 15th day of September 1889 commence the survey, and within two years from that date shall locate, build and operate a line of standard gauge railroad connecting the City of Port Townsend, via the west side of Hoods' Canal, with some railroad having transcontinental connections, and shall make the City of Port Townsend the Western terminus of such transcontinental railroad in Puget Sound" (Subscription).
The offer worked like blood in the water, and within a week some railroad titans came calling. Among them were General Grenville M. Dodge (1831-1916), who was the fabled chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad, and Elijah Smith, who headed both the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company and the Oregon Improvement Company (OIC). By July 1889 a deal was struck between Smith, representing the OIC, and the Port Townsend Southern. In exchange for the transfer of all rights and property of the latter, and the subscription money, the OIC agreed to lay 20 miles of track south from Port Townsend within six months and at least 25 more miles each year thereafter until they reached either the Columbia River or "some road having transcontinental connections" (Minutes, July 1, 1889).
Laying track started from Port Townsend heading south and was supposed to also start north from near Olympia to a meeting point, but didn't. Smith and his cohorts soon demanded changes to the agreement, including more time to fulfill their obligations. Work continued, however, and by late 1890 the tracks had passed the end of Discovery Bay and in 1891 they pushed to as far as Quilcene, on an inlet near the northern end of Hood Canal, a total distance of about 27 miles.
They would get no farther south, ever. The Oregon Improvement Company, the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company, and the Union Pacific were all in severe financial difficulty. When the OIC went into receivership in November 1890, The New York Times noted: "Large bonuses were given to the company by citizens of Port Townsend and Olympia, but would soon be swallowed up, as the cost of construction of railroads through timbered country is heavy" ("In a Receiver's Hands"). This was partially true, but the failure of the companies had more to do with their business practices than with the difficulties of laying track in rugged regions. They had already crossed mountain ranges to reach the West Coast and nothing nearly that daunting faced them on the planned route south.
The Times article could not capture the despair that swept Port Townsend as its dreams of becoming the hub of a great rail network radiating out from the Olympic Peninsula were drowned in a sea of red ink created largely by the tangled dealings of financial manipulators working from plush offices on the other side of the continent. Upon learning of the collapse, James Swan (1818-1900), a tireless Port Townsend booster and former agent of the Northern Pacific Railroad, sent a despondent telegram: "The jig is up. Reliable word reached me that Portland court today appointed receiver for 0. I. Co. This kills all hope that road will be extended. SWAN" (Morgan, "James G. Swan").
The bankruptcy of the OIC was followed less than three years later by the financial Panic of 1893, the rapid failure of hundreds of banks, and the beginning of the worst economic depression America had yet experienced. Its effects would be felt until the turn of the new century, and much of the blame was laid at the feet of the railroads. Their inability to meet their obligations when due crippled the nation's economy, much as it had done exactly two decades earlier, in 1873. As one commentator noted, the major lines had taken on huge amounts of debt to grossly overbuild, laying tracks that were "not needed, through miles and miles of uninhabited wilderness merely to insure that another road would not claim the territory first" (Carlson).
New Century, New Hope
In 1895 The New York Times succinctly summed up why the Port Townsend Southern Railroad had come to nearly naught:
"The purpose of the Port Townsend Southern was to connect Port Townsend with Olympia and run beyond to a connection with the Northern Pacific's main line at Tenino. The trouble has been that the road runs on the wrong side of Puget Sound. The roadbed skirts the west shore of the Sound, while nine-tenths of the people in the Puget Sound Basin reside on the east side" ("News of the Railroads").
In 1902 the Port Townsend Southern Railroad was purchased by the Northwestern Improvement Company of Cle Elum, a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific. In June 1906 it announced that it would extend the tracks from Quilcene to Olympia. Like earlier plans for this much-abused line, nothing came of it, but the Northern Pacific operated the Port Townsend-Quilcene line until 1914.
To add to Port Townsend's troubles, its role as a busy seaport was fading fast. The final insult came in 1911 when the Customs Port of Entry was transferred to Seattle. Military activities at Fort Worden, Fort Flagler, and Fort Casey helped sustain the town in the first two decades of the twentieth century, but its dreams of true greatness were finally dead and buried.
A degree of salvation came in 1927 when the National Paper Products Company built a major pulp-and-paper mill at Albert Brigg's homestead, where 38 years earlier the laying of the first mile of Port Townsend Southern track had begun with such optimism. In 2015, now called the Port Townsend Paper Corporation, it remained the city's largest employer. The community also developed a vibrant tourist trade, drawn by still-standing Victorian buildings and homes that testified to Port Townsend's once-great ambitions. In a happy irony, some of the lovely old downtown brick-and-stone buildings that eventually helped sustain the city were preserved simply because no one could afford to tear them down, much less put anything in their place, when the bottom fell out late in the nineteenth century.
A Tangled Web
The decline of Port Townsend and the closure by 1908 of all but one of the sawmills in Jefferson County (at Port Ludlow) was not the end of the railroad story on the north Olympic Peninsula. Clallam County, stretching from Cape Flattery to Diamond Point at Discovery Bay, still had substantial logging being done, and sizable towns were developing at Port Angeles and Sequim.
Tracking railroad history is a fraught exercise. Particularly during the industry's first 100 years, companies changed names and ownership with such abandon that charting a sure path through the thicket is sometimes impossible. Business records, often incomplete and in the early days handwritten, present a tangle of mergers, mortgages, loans, acquisitions, subsidiaries, trusts, bonds, trades, takeovers, and a variety of other complex transactions that obscured the railroads' business practices at the time and still today frustrate even the most tireless and determined researchers. The record is sufficiently ambiguous that equally credible sources disagree on important points, and the historian has little choice but to cull information from those that seem most informed, complete, and internally consistent. The records of the railroads that developed in the northern portion of the Olympic Peninsula in the second decade of the twentieth century are no exception, but it adds at least a small bit of clarity to track their progress by discrete events:
- The forlorn little Port Townsend Southern Railroad, under a variety of owners, had since 1891 been running back and forth between the town from which it took its name and the end of the line at Quilcene. It was for many years the only commercial rail line on the northern peninsula, and it always struggled. Its chief distinction may have been that it was reputed to have changed hands more than any other railroad in America.
- In November 1911 the Port Ludlow, Port Angeles & Lake Crescent Railway was incorporated.
- Within a month, without explanation, it was renamed the Seattle, Port Angeles & Lake Crescent Railway.
- In 1913 that company began to lay track west from Port Angeles. By early 1914 those tracks reached nearly 24 miles to Majestic, a place that no longer appears on most maps.
From here, things become increasingly murky.
In January 1915 the assets of the Seattle, Port Angeles & Lake Crescent were sold to a newly incorporated company, the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway (SPA&W). This company appears to have been a rather poorly concealed front for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company (commonly known as the Milwaukee Road), which in 1909 had completed the last transcontinental line that would be built, terminating in Tacoma and Seattle. It then began buying up small local railroads along its route as freight feeders for the main line. The company also operated car ferries and cargo barges between population centers down Puget Sound and port towns on the Olympic Peninsula, and this gave it a particular interest in any existing railroads in the latter place.
Later in 1915 the SPA&W obtained trackage rights for the line from Port Townsend to Discovery Junction at the end of Discovery Bay, midway on the old route to Quilcene. By 1916 it had extended that line about 27 miles west from the junction to Port Angeles, and it then added six miles of track beyond Majestic on the far western end to a place called Earles (which would disappear well before the start of the twenty-first century). There was now an unbroken rail line from Port Townsend through Discovery Junction and on through Port Angeles and Sequim to as far west as Earles, with a branch south from Discovery Junction to Quilcene. Sources differ slightly, but it seems certain that most if not all of this work was done in collaboration with and largely financed by the Milwaukee Road.
On December 31, 1918, the Milwaukee Road officially purchased the SPA&W, which had already been its creature in all but name for some time. Discovery Junction was now the point where railroad tracks from three directions -- west, northeast, and south -- came together, and the Milwaukee Road controlled them all, either through direct ownership or contractual rights of use. The company -- although itself troubled, bankrupted, and in 1927 reorganized as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad Company -- would dominate railroading on the northern Olympic Peninsula until the 1980s.
There were other railroad companies formed on the peninsula in the first few decades of the twentieth century, ephemeral corporate entities that came and soon went, but they laid no new track and their brief existences add nothing but more confusion to an already adequately confused picture. The one exception was the Spruce Railroad, built by a private firm that contracted with the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I to provide spruce for the manufacture of military airplanes. A grand opening of the system, which included two sawmills, was scheduled for November 30, 1918, but when the war ended on November 11 work immediately stopped on the still-unfinished project. Thirty-six miles of mainline track had been completed that branched off from the Milwaukee Road's line at Disque, a community about 16 miles west of Port Angeles that was named after Colonel Brice Disque (1879-1969), the army officer who administered the spruce project. From there it snaked southwest around the north shore of Lake Crescent and ventured as far as Tyee, about eight miles north of Forks in western Clallam County. In 1925 the railroad portion of the project was taken over by the Port Angeles Western Railroad Company, which operated it for more than 25 years before going broke and abandoning the tracks in 1953.
It was also in 1925 that the section of the original Port Townsend Southern line that ran south from Discovery Junction to Quilcene, completed in 1891, was finally judged incapable of ever paying its way. It was sold to the McCormick Logging Company, which used it for several years before uprooting the tracks and selling the steel. And in 1948, after 61 years of legal existence, the company called the Port Townsend Southern Railroad was officially dissolved, although its tracks to Discovery Junction were used for many additional years by others.
The Good and the Bad
According to an "Industrial Map" published by the Milwaukee Road in 1916, the towns and settlements that were on or near its railroad line traveling from Port Townsend to Discovery Junction were Hadlock, Irondale, Chimacum, and Woodmans. From Discovery Junction south to Quilcene lay Unca, Crocker Lake, Leland, Thomas, Cooks, and Beck. And from Discovery Junction to the western end of the line were found Blyn, Sequim, Carlsborg, Fuca, Reeveton, Port Angeles, Lauridsen, Elwha, Ramapo, Port Crescent, Joyce, Lyre, Majestic, and Earles. The trains didn't stop at all these places, and of most little or no trace remains, but without the railroad many would never have existed at all.
Railroading was cruel to Port Townsend, and Eastern financiers had for years toyed with the city's increasingly desperate hopes. But the track south from that city, on which work stopped in 1891, became a link more than 20 years later that tied Port Townsend to towns and villages spread along considerably more than half the Olympic Peninsula's northern breadth. Countless small logging railroads that intersected the tracks along its length fed the line, which then carried the forest's bounty to mills and to ports -- including Port Angeles, Port Discovery, and Port Townsend -- where it could be loaded onto boats and barges for shipment down the sound or around the world. It may have been an isolated enclave railroad, but it served its enclave well.
Throughout its working life the railroad was used primarily to support the timber trade. The Milwaukee Road made spirited efforts to develop a passenger service built on tourism, combining steamship rides from Seattle to Port Townsend and Port Angeles with rail tours of the northern peninsula. These were only moderately successful, and the spread of the automobile and the completion of the Olympic Loop Highway (U.S. Route 101) in August 1931 put an end to them.
In 1940, 1943, and 1953 the boundaries of Olympic National Park were expanded by presidential order, removing substantial areas from the grasp of the now-fully-mechanized timber industry, which could have shaved the foothills of the Olympics clean in short order. This greatly diminished the demand for rail transport and soon caused the Milwaukee Road to abandon its line west of Port Angeles. By the 1970s, only about 5,000 carloads a year ran between Port Angeles and Port Townsend, and this was reduced by half in 1978 when the wooden loading dock at Port Townsend was deemed no longer able to support the weight of trains.
Finally, in 1980, the Milwaukee Road was granted permission by the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon all its operations in the Pacific Northwest. Yet another company, the Seattle & North Coast Railroad, took over the peninsula line and ran the trains from Port Townsend to Port Angeles on the remaining track before being bankrupted and abandoned in June 1984. By 1987 the rails were being removed, and the often-troubled history of railroading on the northern Olympic Peninsula came to an end.
From Trains to Trekkers
When the rails were torn up in the 1980s, much of the roadbed and adjacent property owned by the railroads was sold or reverted to private parties and became unavailable for public use. But even as the rails were being removed, efforts began to rehabilitate sections that weren't disposed of; eventually plans called for these to become portions of the Olympic Discovery Trail, intended when completed to carry hikers and bicyclers from Port Townsend in the east to the shore of the open Pacific Ocean in the west, a distance of approximately 130 miles.
The idea started with the formation of the Peninsula Trails Coalition in 1987. The coalition's original goal was to create a multiple-use trail from Port Townsend to Forks, about 100 miles, using wherever possible the abandoned roadbed of the Milwaukee Road and the Spruce Railroad. This mission was later expanded to extend the trail another 25 miles to La Push on the peninsula's wild west coast. By 2015 the work was approximately half completed. The portion of the trail running through Clallam County (about 80 percent of the total) was managed by the Peninsula Trails Coalition and the remainder, in Jefferson County, by the affiliated Jefferson Trails Coalition. They coordinated with 10 federal, state, county, city, and tribal jurisdictions owning land along which the trail runs.
Unwinding the environmental depredations of the past is a complicated process, and sometimes the desire to use the old railbed for trail purposes had to defer to other needs. This was particularly true near Discovery Junction at the south end of Discovery Bay, once the nexus of the peninsula's rail lines. There, in an era when little thought was given to anything but "progress," the watershed formed by Salmon Creek and Snow Creek was severely compromised by the building of the railroad. The built-up roadbed bisected the entire estuary and destroyed valuable wetland habitat and fish runs, including those of summer chum salmon and steelhead, both eventually listed as endangered species.
As of 2015 the North Olympic Salmon Coalition and its partners had been working for 15 years to return this ecosystem to its natural state. The work, including removal of two railroad trestles, was designed to restore 22 acres of the estuary and reestablish 1.5 acres of salt marsh that had been long buried below the railbed, so that where flatcars laden with lumber once rumbled past, salmon would again swim upstream to spawn, shorebirds gather and nest, and the land more closely resemble the "delightful ... prospect" that Captain Vancouver described more than 200 years before.