Northern Pacific Railway opens its Auburn Yard on April 10, 1913.

  • By Hilary Pittenger
  • Posted 7/15/2019
  • Essay 20811

The Auburn Yard, a repair and freight transfer facility located in Auburn, Washington, opens on April 10, 1913. Located at the western terminus of the Northern Pacific transcontinental rail line, the Yard fundamentally changes the small village of Auburn from a sleepy agricultural town to a railroading center in the early 1910s. Its construction nearly doubles the adult population of the town over the span of three years and brings in new residents from across the United States and internationally. The Yard would provide repair, refueling, freight managing, and crew support services to Northern Pacific train traffic for 57 years and marked Auburn as a center for railroad culture long after that. The Yard would become the third-busiest Northern Pacific facility in the county, and the steady, union-backed jobs created a skilled workforce that would help make Auburn an industrial center later in the twentieth century.

Northern Pacific Expansion Plans

The Northern Pacific Railway began service in Auburn in 1883, as part of a larger plan to connect Seattle and Tacoma by rail. Auburn was the western anchor end of a rail line that ran all the way from St. Paul, Minnesota, to western Washington Territory. The railway industry in this period was massive, with national railways competing to be the first to gain access to new, lucrative markets, as well as stay at the forefront of new technological developments and efficient business practices. To this end, Northern Pacific engaged itself in a huge and costly upgrade of facilities in Washington State from 1909 to 1916, including the decision to construct a repair shop and yard on its anchor end in Auburn.

Located at the center of the Northern Pacific’s north-south main line between Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland, Auburn in 1910 was little more than a small farming community. The town's population was a mere 957, a figure easily dwarfed by the remote mining town of Black Diamond, population 2,051. Surrounded by some of the richest topsoil in the United States, the local railroads would haul hops, berries, and lettuce from Auburn to all parts of the nation.

Rumors of the Northern Pacific's construction plans began to circulate in 1910, with the May 14 Auburn Argus reporting that the railway was buying up land in town. While the paper asserted that this meant hordes of railway workers would descend upon the town at any moment, it would actually take more than a year before the first engineer would step off a train from St. Paul. In the meantime, unseen agents of the railway busied themselves in acquiring an initial 100 acres for the shop and yards. More than a month later, the home office made its intentions known: Auburn was to be the home of a new yard and serve as the railway's western freight headquarters.

The planned yard on the south side of Auburn would include many facilities for caring for train cars and their cargos, including a freight transfer shed, where freight was loaded or unloaded from train cars and transferred to trucks or wagons; classification yards, where train cars were separated from their original trains and reorganized according to their next destinations; a twenty-five stall roundhouse, a semi-circular building surrounding a turntable where locomotive engines were stored, repaired, and most important, turned around; a machine shop and adjacent RIP (Repair, Inspect, Paint) tracks for repairing freight cars; specially-built tanks and sheds for storing sand, oil, water, and ice; a massive new 500-ton dock specifically for handling coal; and a powerhouse and water works to provide utilities exclusively to the Yard. Thirty miles of tracks would have to be laid to connect all of these facilities and enable the cars to be easily moved between buildings.

The humans who would be working at the Yard also required new facilities: an office for the business and clerical workers; storehouse for supplies and tools; bunk houses for the yard's section crew to rest in between shifts; and a new passenger transfer depot at East Auburn. The yard would be so large, it would require its own fire department and police force.

Some existing railroad buildings in Auburn would be repurposed in the yard. The freight depot located on First Street would become the yard office, and the existing passenger station would be refurbished and pulled just a few blocks south to Main Street. From the small depot at East Auburn to its southern limit, Auburn Yard would stretch three full miles and cost more than $750,000 to construct.

Opinion pieces in local newspapers announced the construction and accompanying rising land prices could make Auburn "another Hyde Park" and that the population could grow to 10,000 within three years. Other articles suggested that the building of a ship canal from Puget Sound to the Auburn Northern Pacific terminal was "not impossible nor improbable." The Railway expected to employ 600 workers in Auburn once the Yard was completed, eclipsing the town's largest employer at the time by a wide margin. But before those future workers could come, the yard needed to be built. George A. Kenrick, the company's project engineer, arrived in Auburn from St. Paul in June 1911. Ahead of him stretched more than two years of construction.

Construction Begins

Clearing and grading began in the late summer of 1911 and by the spring of 1912 the grounds were ready for structures. A 4.9-mile pipeline from Little Soos Creek would bring water to the Yard in April, and the foundations of the roundhouse were completed in the same month. The new construction brought a minor economic boom to Auburn in the form of new real estate sales close to the proposed depots. Stores hiked up the prices of food and dry goods to make money off itinerant workers. Even con artists took advantage of the construction to make money. In one incident, an unnamed criminal represented himself as a Northern Pacific engineer in order to cash false checks, making off with at least $100 in cash.

Like many railway projects, companies and laborers from outside the community were brought in to do the construction work. Auburn was to be no exception. A plumbing company from St. Paul was brought in to install power and water lines. European immigrant laborers were brought in to lay tracks, because they could be paid less than American-born laborers. The yard had 140 Greek and Austrian immigrants doing track work; by May the entire Greek force had been laid off and replaced by forty Bulgarians, as the railway continued in its quest for the cheapest labor available. In June, an all-Greek work crew was back, housed in bunk cars and charged with unloading 30,000 tons of coal from Roslyn that had accumulated in the yard.

By the end of September the filling and paving of the roundhouse and shop was completed, the Soos Creek pipeline put in place, wiring for electric lights completed, and a 125-foot brick smokestack for the powerhouse was finished. All this work was not done without a human price, however. Harry Sullivan fell off a handcar and David Jones, a mere 18, had the misfortune of operating a gravel spreader alone. The control lever flew back and struck him in the face, flattening his nose. Many other deaths occurred at the other Northern Pacific facilities in Auburn throughout the construction period, a near-monthly reminder of the inherent dangers of living and working near railroads.

The Yard Opens

In March 1913, the railway announced the yard would finally open on April 10 under the auspices of General Yardmaster Ivar P. Iversen. Iversen arrived from Pasco, Washington, early in April and felt his first job was to try to postpone the opening of the yard, which was still lacking scales and the tracks were not ready. On April 5, he announced that he intended to delay the opening by five days. However, Northern Pacific's Puget Sound Division Superintendent John Joseph McCullough immediately overruled him.

So, sharply at midnight on April 10, 1913, a Wednesday, the unfinished yard opened. Thursday morning the first train arrived, greeted by a skeleton crew of Superintendent McCullough, Division Roadmaster A. F. Olsen, Yardmaster Iversen, and no less than 10 clerks. The RIP tracks and machine shop were still idle, however, as all their equipment had yet to arrive.

By the time of the Auburn Merchant's Protective Association banquet on April 21, railway officials were ready to roundly proclaim their success. In front of 110 people including Auburn-area business owners, agents of other local railroads, the company's own dignitaries, and Auburn Mayor J. B. Waugh, Superintendent McCullough touted the Auburn Yard as Northern Pacific's newest accomplishment.

McCullough shared the railway’s figures for the new facility at the banquet. The yard would handle an expected 44 trains a day; classifying 2,150 cars of freight every 24 hours; weighing 600 cars a day on two 150-ton scales. To accomplish all this work, a work force of roughly 567 employees was hired with an expected monthly payroll of $75,000. The average take-home pay for a member of this new force was expected to be $100 a month. This new work force at least doubled the actual number of Auburn’s working men and women from 1910.

For all the celebration surrounding its opening, the yard was a bit slow to get working at full capacity. When the first payday rolled around on May 17, Agent John W. McKee's disbursement was $30,000. No small sum to be sure, but not the reported $75,000. Two weeks later, the yard's first death would bring a more significant tragedy. Harry Von Ostrand, 18, a callboy who had just moved to Auburn to work at the new train facilities, fell on May 29 while jumping off the Seattle to Portland Fast Mail.

Despite these setbacks, the yard's work steadily increased. The Northern Pacific's new Bureau of Efficiency announced plans for yet another storehouse and a platform for the storage of scrap. One of the last construction projects was completed in May when the refurbished passenger depot was slid to its new location on Main Street and an 800-foot long hedge of roses planted around the perimeter. That July, Auburn handled 38,982 cars, making it the third busiest point on the railway after Tacoma and Duluth, Minnesota.

The Northern Pacific and its workers had become a vital part of the town's life, economy, and infrastructure. In June 1913, The Terminal Investment Company, a real-estate development corporation formed to take advantage of rising land values close to the new Northern Pacific terminal, donated land and playground equipment to create Terminal Park, Auburn's first public city park.

By November, Auburn Yard had a yard record of servicing 1,483 engines in a month and the time had come for the company's investment in Auburn to truly start paying off. On November 16, 1913 the Northern Pacific 4014 steam locomotive derailed on the Palmer Cutoff east of Wynaco, Washington, after running over a broken rail, falling 300 feet down an embankment and piling twenty-four cars of grain on top of itself. The train crew escaped injury, but three migrant workers hitchhiking on the train were crushed in the ensuing pileup. Following the wreck, the mangled cars were shoved aside, the line reopened, and the 4014 dragged the last few miles into Auburn. The wreck of 4014 allowed Auburn's new work crews to demonstrate their repairing prowess when they returned the engine to service in 24 hours.

A Lasting Impact

By the time the Yard was completed, Auburn's population had more than doubled to 1,928. Within months of the yard's establishment, some of the most prominent figures in town were the railway's agents, yardmasters, and foremen. In a few short years many members of Auburn's PTA, school board, chamber of commerce, city council, and mayors would come from the working ranks of the Northern Pacific Railway.

The Auburn Yard would continue to be a hub of labor and industry in Auburn for the next 57 years. During World War I it was the site of union strikes and women entering the railyard workforce when the United States nationalized the railroad system and looked for new labor pools to compensate for soldiers who were overseas. In 1926, Northern Pacific's Bureau of Efficiency found a way to be more efficient by discontinuing freight transfer services at Auburn and moving 75 positions to Tacoma and Seattle. Despite this, railroad unions would ensure that worker benefits and wages stayed stable in Auburn throughout most of the twentieth century, helping to keep Auburn a solidly independent, middle-class town while other nearby agriculture centers became suburbs and bedroom communities for Seattle and Tacoma.

As railroads transitioned from steam to diesel power in the 1940s and 1950s, many of the Yard's buildings were modified to work with the new technology, but the central roundhouse remained relatively untouched. Northern Pacific would remain the largest employer in Auburn until it lost that crown to Boeing in the 1960s. Industrial manufactures such as Boeing benefited from the skills the railroads had taught Auburn's labor force. The roundhouse was closed in 1982 following the merger of Northern Pacific into Burlington Northern, but the ray-like shadows of the roundhouse foundations can still be seen when driving east on Highway 18 over the Auburn tracks.


Josephine Emmons Vine, Auburn: A Look Down Main Street (Auburn, Wash.: The City of Auburn, 1990), p. 37; "Railroad Engineers Here To Start Big Project," Auburn Argus, June 24, 1911, p. 1; "Northern Pacific Buying Land Here," Ibid., May 14, 1910, p. 1; "The N.P.'s Auburn Terminus," Ibid., June 18, 1910, p.1; "Build Car Shops Here," Ibid., March 2, 1912, p.1; "Twenty-Three Miles Side Track Laid," Ibid., May 4, 1912, p.1; "Depot Will be Moved Closer In," Ibid., November 30, 1912, p.1; "Repairs on Depot," Ibid., March 8, 1913, p.1; "The Ideal City," Ibid., July 29, 2911, p.1; "Is This a Pipe Dream?" Ibid., February 24, 1912, p.1; "Borden's Condenser," Ibid., July 22, 1911, p.1; "Work on Terminal Yards," Ibid., August 5, 1911, p.1; "The Smoothest Swindler on Record," Ibid., July 15, 1911, p. 2; "Austrians Quit -- Greeks Discharged," Ibid., May 4, 1912, p.1; "Hit by Train," Ibid., July 6, 1912, p.1; "Terminal Yards to Open April 10," Ibid., March 29, 1913, p.1; "Yard Foreman Coming," Ibid., March 29, 1913, p. 1; "Yard May Not Open until 15th Of April," Ibid., April 5, 1913, p.1; Clarence Bagley, History of King County, Washington, Volume I (Seattle: S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1929), p. 721; "N.P. Freight Terminal Is Now in Operation," Auburn Argus, April 12, 1913, p.1; "$75,000 Per Month Pay Roll for Auburn Says Superintendent J. J. M'Cullough," Ibid., April 26, 1913, p.1; "First Pay Day," Ibid., May 17, 1913, p.1; "Fatal Fall from Moving Train," Ibid., May 31, 1913, p.1; "City Is Given Deed to Park," Ibid., June 7, 1913, p.1; "Twenty-Two Cars Ditched in Wreck," Auburn Globe, November 22, 1913, p.1; "Two More Bodies Found in Wreck," Ibid., November 29, 1913, p.1; "Friends in Life -- In Death Together," Ibid., December 6, 1913, p. 1; "Auburn’s Population 1928," Auburn Argus, May 3, 1913, p.1; "Clean Government Is Their Slogan,”"Auburn Globe, November 8, 1913, p.1; 'McKee Enters Race for City Clerk,' Ibid., November 15, 1913, p.1; J. A. Phillips III, 'The Road to Nationalization: The Northern Pacific Railway at Auburn Yard, 1914-1917," White River Journal, January 1996, p.3-6; "Northern Pacific Celebrating 75th Birthday," Auburn Sun Pioneer-Progress Edition, July 1958, p. 3; Emmet Pierce, "Train Shop Reaches End of the Line," Tacoma News-Tribune, January 2, 1982, p. A-1; Note: This essay is based on the article "Roundhouse Days" by J. A. Phillips III, originally published in the White River Journal, October 1995, p. 3-6, significantly expanded and edited for HistoryLinkJuly 2019.

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