On May 22, 1961, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Company (more commonly known as the Milwaukee Road) ends passenger service between Tacoma and Chicago. On that day its last eastbound passenger train leaves Seattle and Tacoma and its last westbound train leaves Chicago, reaching Puget Sound two days later. This marks the end of 50 years of passenger service provided by the Milwaukee Road between the Midwest and the West Coast, and is a precursor to further declines in passenger-rail service nationwide in the 1960s.
The Milwaukee Road's beginnings date to 1847, when a regional railway carrier named the Milwaukee & Waukesha Railroad began operations from its Wisconsin base. For most of the nineteenth century it remained a predominantly Midwestern railroad, but the company grew as the twentieth century got underway. In 1905 the Milwaukee Road decided to expand its rail line to the West Coast and chose Tacoma as its terminus. Construction of the 2,227-mile line from Chicago to Tacoma began in 1906, and it was completed in a ceremonial spike-driving ceremony west of Garrison, Montana, on May 19, 1909. The line crossed five mountain ranges and had 52 tunnels and an even larger number of bridges and trestles. Freight service began in July 1909, and the line was also used for short-run passenger service for the next two years.
Daily passenger service began between Tacoma and Chicago on May 29, 1911. A morning train, the Olympian, left Tacoma at 7:30 a.m., while an afternoon train, the Columbian, left the city at 5:45 p.m. On the same day, two similarly named trains left Chicago en route to Tacoma. (In all, eight trains were available for the route, which came in handy if one or more were out of service.) On the inaugural runs, the Olympian that left Tacoma in the morning arrived in Chicago in its scheduled time of 72 hours, but the Columbian, which left Tacoma in the late afternoon, jumped the tracks as it traveled through southeastern Washington early the next morning, killing the engineer and fireman and injuring seven others.
Despite the bad start, the route became a profitable one for the Milwaukee Road. As ridership increased the company electrified part of the line, particularly advantageous in the era before air conditioning, since it eliminated the soot problem associated with steam-powered rail travel. By 1927 the Milwaukee Road had electrified approximately one-quarter of the line, much of it between Montana and Seattle. (The company would also soon begin installing air conditioning in its passenger cars.) But the company struggled financially, reorganizing in 1928 due to bankruptcy, and a decline in the number of riders led to the cancelation of the daily Columbian run in 1930, eliminating the twice-daily service that travelers had enjoyed for nearly two decades. The company declared bankruptcy again in 1935, but the Olympian continued to provide reliable daily service between Chicago and Tacoma until 1947.
On June 29, 1947, the Olympian Hiawatha began running between Tacoma and Chicago. For a time the Columbian also resumed daily operations between the two cities, but this ended by 1955. The Hiawatha, first introduced in 1935, was a streamlined train, designed to decrease air resistance, which allowed faster travel. These trains could -- and did -- cruise at 100 miles per hour, despite an official speed limit, at least in the 1940s and 1950s, of 80 miles per hour. The faster speed enabled the train to make the run between Tacoma and Chicago in as little as 44 hours and 30 minutes, more than a full day ahead of the original 1911 run.
The train was not only fast but also attractive, bedecked in Milwaukee Road colors of maroon and orange until its final years. Later versions of the Hiawatha had Skytop Lounge observation cars that offered panoramic views stretching up to the train's roof, although in a curious design quirk (perhaps not curious in the 1940s), the lounge's seats were arranged along the walls facing into the train, away from the scenery outside. In another interesting touch, the train was driven backward between Tacoma and Seattle; at Seattle's Union Station the engines were quickly switched to the other end of the train to continue the journey.
Despite the Hiawatha's amenities and its initial success, its days were numbered by the mid-1950s, as increasing airline travel and vehicle traffic took a mounting toll on train travel. The Milwaukee Road saw losses exceeding $2 million (more than $17 million in 2018 dollars) in both 1959 and 1960. In January 1961 the company asked the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) for permission to end passenger service on the route, which the ICC granted in part, ordering that service continue between Minneapolis and Butte.
It was raining in Tacoma and Seattle on May 22, 1961, when the last Hiawatha pulled away. The departure attracted relatively modest notice, perhaps not surprising since there were other carriers still providing train service to the two cities. The Seattle Times wrote a short editorial that in part bemoaned the accelerating general decline of rail services, but it was an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that best summed up the Hiawatha's quiet final departure from Union Station:
"Out in the empty waiting room, another railroad man took up the microphone of the public address system. John Stern, station master for the past 14 years, advised: 'This is the Chicago-Milwaukee superdome speedliner, the Olympian Hiawatha, leaving for the East at 3:30 p.m. (standard time). This train is for Renton, Cle Elum, Ellensburg, Othello, Spokane, Butte, Aberdeen, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Milwaukee and Chicago. The train is now loading on Track 7.' His audience was three or four people sitting out on the highbacked oaken benches" (Vertrees).
The sun shone in Seattle and Tacoma when the final westbound Hiawatha arrived on the morning on May 24, and as it turned out, it wasn't quite the end for the Milwaukee Road and its West Coast line. The company continued to use the route for freight service until March 1980, when another bankruptcy forced it to curtail its operations further. Five years later what was left of the Milwaukee Road was acquired by the Soo Line, a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and it was merged into the Soo Line in 1986.
Much of the track on the route was removed and the route itself converted into "rail trails." This is particularly true in Washington, where 285 miles of the old railbed, stretching from the Idaho border to Cedar Falls in eastern King County, is now the Palouse to Cascades Trail (previously known as the Iron Horse Trail, as well as the John Wayne Pioneer Trail). For both short and long jaunts it's popular with hikers, bikers, horse riders, and those curious to explore a piece of Washington's history.