Seattle citizens start work on Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad on May 1, 1874.

  • By David B. Williams
  • Posted 3/13/2013
  • Essay 924
See Additional Media

On Friday, May 1, 1874, the citizens of Seattle travel by boat, foot, and horse to the mouth of the Duwamish River to start work on Seattle's second railroad, the Seattle & Walla Walla. Nearly every store in town is closed as merchants, teachers, clergymen, bankers, and saloon keepers work together to clear land for the first railroad out of Seattle and over the Cascade Mountains to Walla Walla, then the wealthiest city in Washington Territory. By the end of the year, volunteers and paid workers will have laid twelve miles of track.

Seattleites Vow to Build Their Own Railroad

Like many who lived in upstart cities in the American West of the 1870s, pioneering Seattleites dreamt that the railroad would arrive and connect them to rest of the country. Instead, on July 14, 1873, a telegram arrived. Addressed to Arthur Denny (1822-1899), it read "We have located Terminus in Commencement Bay." The authors were Richard Rice and John C. Ainsworth (1822-1893), directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Not only would the great train company not come to Seattle, but it would end its cross country tracks in Tacoma, Seattle's most despised neighbor.

In response, city residents gathered in a mass meeting on July 17. Leaders vowed they would build their own railroad across the mountains and a week later the newly elected commissioners filed articles of incorporation for the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad. To fund the railroad, $10 million in stock was approved, selling for $100 per share, though anyone could offer up what they could, including labor, blacksmithing, tools, and railroad ties.

In one case reflecting the era's racist attitudes, William Renton pledged $1,000 and "10 Chinamen" for a month. Not that locals wanted such help. Under the headline "No Mongolians," an editorial in the Puget Sound Dispatch hoped that the railroad would hire only American or European workers, claiming they would keep their pay in town and not send it back to Hong Kong (Puget Sound Dispatch, July 24, 1873).

Central to the success of the railroad was its access to the economic bounty of the region. "The first 25 miles from Seattle the road would pass through coal fields as rich and abundant as any in the world," asserted the editorial writer (Puget Sound Dispatch, July 24, 1873). A bit of hyperbole, but the coal fields east of Lake Washington had been surveyed a few years earlier and found to contain coal beds richer than any in the west. Plus, San Francisco was an inexhaustible market for the coal. Once completed, the railroad would tap into the coal fields and pay for itself quickly, or so the new commissioners proposed.

Construction Begins with Enthusiasm

With the surveying completed over the winter of 1873-1874, plans came together for a gala inauguration of the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad to be held on Friday, May 1, 1874. The men would do the manual labor and the women would provide food. Advertisements went into the local papers and to surrounding communities. Organizers also put up posters with admonitions such as "Come all ye adults of mankind/Nor let there be none left behind," though one wag added in blue pencil "Come each of you and bring your tools/And work away like ___ ___ fools/Don't beat the devil about the bush/But skoot the road to Mox-la-push" ("By the Way").

The plan was to convene about three miles south of Seattle, near a bend in the Duwamish River. Or it may have been at the mouth of the river. It is not clear where exactly this spot was. Many years after an event she did not witness, Arthur Denny's granddaughter Roberta Frye Watt (1875-1963) wrote "the grade was laid out along the country road from one hundred and fifty feet east of the intersection of Spokane and Grant Streets to a point a short distance south of where the old brewery at Georgetown now stands" (Watt, 371). No one else appears to have noted the spot with any more precision.

The day began at 5:00 a.m. with a brass band, the firing of cannons, and the ringing of bells. Many rode horses, walked, or traveled by wagon, though a good crowd caught the steamer Comet, towing the schooner C. C. Perkins, which departed from Atkins Wharf (then the southernmost point in town and in 2013 roughly the intersection of First Avenue South and South King Street). The boats, which carried supplies and about 150 men and women, got stuck on the muddy tidal flats of the Duwamish River. (They didn't move until the afternoon tide lifted the boats again; apparently the would-be-workers didn't suffer as the supplies included enough liquor to disable a few travelers.)

"By 9 o'clock ... nearly every store, shop, saloon and other places of business were deserted. There were probably a thousand men and women actively engaged upon the railroad line," noted one reporter ("Railroad Work Begun"). One gang of 250 included the Chief Justice of the Territory, eminent clergymen, and gentlemen of leisure, as well as lawyers, bankers, and saloon keepers. "Never, perhaps, were before seen in any gang of railroad laborers, so many soft hands, white shirts and gold chains" ("Railroad Work Begun"). The following week business in Seattle was noticeably less rushed than usual, as the workers recovered from their atypical exertions.

For lunch, at a half-completed grist mill, the women of town laid out a feast: chicken, ham, pickles, jellies, pies, cakes, and biscuits. Speeches followed the repast with John Denny, Chief Justice Orange Jacobs (1827-1914), and Henry Yesler (1810-1892) urging on the assembled workers, the latter by stating it was "time to quit fooling and go to work" ("Our May-Day Festival!").

By the end of the day, Seattle's citizens had cleared, grubbed, and graded nearly a mile. The work, according to "experienced engineers," was equal to $1,000 in contract labor ("Railroad Work Begun"). "There can be no doubt about the seriousness of our citizens in their determination that the Seattle and Walla Walla Railroad shall be a success" ("Our May-Day Festival!").

After the first day's enthusiasm, spirits lagged with many fewer showing up the following week. But they did come and they did work, clearing and grading 12 miles by the end of October. Daily train service on the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad, however, did not start until March 7, 1877. Two days later a small amount of coal arrived from Renton. It would be another year before regular, large-scale coal deliveries from the big Newcastle fields began. With the new trains, coal exports jumped from 9,027 tons in 1874 to 132,263 tons in 1879.

The Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad never made it anywhere close to its end point in eastern Washington, but it did ultimately earn its shareholders a good payback. In November 1880, Henry Villard (1835-1900) and the Oregon Improvement Company bought the little railroad for $350,000, more than twice what it cost. Villard then changed its name to the Columbia & Puget Sound Railroad.


"By the Way," The Seattle Times, July 21, 1893, p. 3; Roberta Frye Watt, Four Wagons West: The Story of Seattle (Portland: Binfords & Mort, 1931), 371; "Railroad Work Begun," Puget Sound Dispatch, May 4, 1874, p. 3; "No Mongolians," Puget Sound Dispatch, July 24, 1873, p. 3; "Our May-Day Festival!," The Daily Intelligencer, May 2, 1874, p. 3; Kurt Armbruster, Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle, 1853-1911 (Pullman: WSU Press, 1999).
Note: This essay replaces a previous essay on the same subject.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You