Burlington Northern's "Kapowsin Logger" derails over the Puyallup River near Electron on March 6, 1979

  • By Russell Holter and J. Clark McAbee
  • Posted 11/09/2020
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 21130

In the predawn hours of March 6, 1979, a Burlington Northern train hauling logs from Lake Kapowsin to the St. Regis Paper Company in Tacoma derails at a bridge over the Puyallup River. The train crew escapes injury, but four cars laden with logs spill into the river 21 feet below. The Puyallup River Bridge, built in 1910 for the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company, suffers heavy damage, and the Burlington Northern line is abandoned after the wreck. 

Into the Drink

On a chilly evening of March 5, 1979, a Burlington Northern train crew reported for duty at Burlington Northern's downtown Tacoma operations center at 25th and Puyallup Avenue. The conductor and engineer, veterans of the high iron with decades of experience, drew a plum assignment: The Kapowsin Logger. The old heads preferred jobs that did not wander far from home, a short run out and back; they would leave the oneway trips and cheap motels to their younger colleagues.

They departed the Tacoma yard at 7 p.m. Their train consisted of a string of empty log flats followed by a caboose. The big green locomotive, pulling the train, was Burlington Northern engine No. 5388. As the train arrived at Meeker Junction, just east of Puyallup, they switched from the Seattle mainline to continue working southeast toward Orting. The Kapowsin Logger eventually turned south a few miles beyond Orting. The crew's destination was another 10 miles distant: a logging reload site located on the eastern shore of Lake Kapowsin.

Upon arriving at the reload site, the string of empty cars was exchanged for fully loaded ones. The train crew took its lunch break around 1 a.m. After lunch, the crew inched its way through the predawn darkness to inspect the 44 log-laden cars coupled to the engine. By law, each car in a train must have its brakes inspected before being cleared for departure. The train of logs was bound for the St. Regis Paper Company on the Tacoma tide flats.

Once the brake check was complete, the crew looked forward to a leisurely return to Tacoma. If all went as planned, the crew could be tied up and back home by 7 a.m. The maximum speed of the train for the first 10 miles was a mere 10 mph. About two miles beyond the St. Regis reload site at Lake Kapowsin was a trestle spanning the Puyallup River. A bridge had been installed by the Northern Pacific in 1910 at the lip of Ohop Valley near Electron; the first bridge was replaced with the composite timber and steel deck about 10 years later. 

On this night, the powerful headlamp on the General Electric U30C locomotive illuminated the 286-foot-long trestle off in the distance for the engineer to see. The 390,000-pound locomotive negotiated the trestle effortlessly, crossing safely to the opposite bank.

Then came calamity. Railroad managers speculated that a chain, binding a load of logs, sprung loose or snapped. Freed of its chains, a log protruded dangerously close to the ground 24 cars behind the locomotive. As the errant car approached the trestle, the protruding log sunk lower and lower. The car, bearing 50 tons of logs, gently swayed down the tracks until it met the bridge. Acting as a giant plow, the log impaled itself into the trestle's wooden and steel framework while the 3,000-horse-powered locomotive, now resting on solid ground, continued to drag the train behind it to its ruin. The log splintered trestle timbers, unzipping the structure and creating a gaping failure. One by one, flatcars plunged through the broken bridge and into the glacier-fed Puyallup River.

When the train finally pulled itself apart, the emergency brakes automatically applied. The front and rear halves of the train came to a gentle stop on opposite banks of the river. Four of the seven derailed cars had plunged into the river, but no one was injured. The conductor descended from his perch inside the caboose. He snapped on his lantern and gazed at his watch. It was 4:40 a.m. He proceeded through the darkness 10 cars ahead. There, he found remnants of his freight train had disappeared into the inky blackness of the Puyallup River 21 feet below. Thus, came an abrupt end to 91 years of railroad operations on the former Tacoma, Orting, and Southeastern Railway tracks.

The Road to Kapowsin

The Tacoma, Orting, and Southeastern Railway began operating in 1888 as a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific. By 1889 it was transporting vast quantities of timber cut by the St. Paul and Tacoma Lumber Company from the forests in eastern Pierce County to the lumber company's mills in Tacoma for processing and shipment.

St. Paul and Tacoma cut stands of forest systematically, first acquiring deeds or contracts to the land and then sending out surveyors. These surveyors were followed by "timber cruisers" who inventoried trees by size and species. One of the outfit's early cruisers was Fred Hilgert, who had worked the woods of Wisconsin and whose services were in high demand. While cruising one day, Hilgert crashed through the woods and into a clearing overlooking Lake Kapowsin. He loved the location so much that he staked a settler's claim. With his wife Mete, the two proved up the claim by building a cabin. They were the first permanent settlers of Kapowsin.

In its first years of operation, the Tacoma, Orting, and Southeastern extended its mainline, crossing five trestles and one switchback to gain sufficient elevation to reach the next logging camp. Each subsequent year, temporary spur tracks were hastily laid. When the supply of trees within easy reach of a particular spur was exhausted, the temporary spur would be taken up and a new spur would be tacked down elsewhere within the holdings. "From twenty-five to thirty carloads a day came down from the mountains in the summer of 1889," historian Murray Morgan wrote. "A year later the rails had been extended another six miles and more camps opened. Fifty carloads a day were being spilled into the waiting ponds (in Tacoma)" (Morgan, 72).

In 1909, the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company moved to expand its reach even further. A ready supply of trees was available, but the railroad -- by now known as the St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company Railroad -- would need to push farther into the woods beyond Lake Kapowsin to get to it. A new line was extended over Fox Creek, and a wye formed at that location. The junction was noted on Northern Pacific timetables as "Puyallup River" or "Puyallup River Junction." The railroad then advanced into the wilderness for a couple of miles, following the river closely. At the lip of Ohop Valley, a bridge was constructed across the river. It was here in the early morning hours of March 6, 1979, that the doomed Kapowsin Logger wrecked on its return trip to Tacoma.

During World War I, the St. Paul & Tacoma built a locomotive maintenance facility at a camp on the plateau above Lake Kapowsin. The new facility was designed to repair a crippled locomotive onsite rather than having to move it some 16 miles or more for service. In the years before the Great Depression, the St. Paul & Tacoma operated five remote logging camps in southern Pierce County. The daily output reached a staggering 125 carloads of fallen logs, with one carload bearing anywhere from one to seven logs from an average-sized Douglas fir. Trains passed through Orting three to four times a day with logs destined for the mill ponds on Commencement Bay. 

The St. Paul & Tacoma Lumber Company continued to log Pierce County until 1958, when it merged with St. Regis to become the St. Regis Paper Company. In 1984, five years after the Kapowsin Logger wrecked at the Puyallup River, St. Regis merged with the Champion International Corporation and left Tacoma for Champion's headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. 


"Rail Equipment Accident/Incident Report No. PA334" U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington, D.C., undated; Timetable No. 16, Burlington Northern, October 29, 1978, p. 15; "Flatcars Dumped in River When Old Bridge Collapsed," The Dispatch, March 14, 1979, p. 1; Herbert Hunt, The History of Tacoma, Vol 1 (Tacoma Historical Society reprint, 2005), p. 197; Peter J. Lewty, To the Columbia Gateway (Washington State University Press: Pullman, 1987), p. 14; Murray Morgan, The Mill on the Boot, (University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1982), pp. 51, 53-54, 62, 68, 72-73, 78, 129-130, 141, 166, 206, 222, 235. 

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