Washington Residents Work to Save Hometown Depot

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on February 15, 2004

It’s been 24 years since the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad closed its depot and substation in South Cle Elum, Wash., but if residents have their way, it’s easy to imagine the area bustling once again.

The railroad once played an integral role in the history of the town of 453 residents 83 miles east of Seattle, providing passage for travelers and cargo through the mountain passes and a livelihood for many.

But after decades of neglect, the train depot had become a shell of its former self, dusty with broken, boarded windows and faded paint. However, in 1999, a group of passionate volunteers, railroad buffs, and former rail workers—the Friends of the South Cle Elum Depot—came to the rescue, jacking up the building and pouring a new concrete foundation. They replaced the roof in 2002, and last year added new paint that mirrors its original 1909 maroon and orange exterior.

The group, which also incorporated as a non-profit organization known as the Cascade Rail Foundation, plans to have the depot’s interior completed this summer. The group’s vision is to see the entire rail yard, including the nearby substation, resurrected—and transformed—into a place where travelers can rent bikes and skis, have a bite to eat, and learn about railroads and the region.

At its peak, the depot was the pulse of the town, which incorporated in 1911. Local residents would sit around the horseshoe counter in the depot’s 24-hour cafe, drinking coffee and eating family-style meals alongside railroad workers.

Unlike other rail stops that have been abandoned and dismantled, South Cle Elum’s wooden frame depot and striking brick substation were in relatively good condition.

“It’s rare to see something like this standing so long,” says Donovan Michael Gray, who organized the Friends of the South Cle Elum Depot after returning from a trip tracing the Milwaukee Road line, as the old Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad was called. It was the last railroad built out to the Pacific Coast and was unique in railroad history, using electricity as power. At one time, it claimed to be the world’s longest electrified railway.

The Milwaukee built South Cle Elum’s electrical substation in 1919 for the huge transformers that powered the trolley lines. Crews also maintained trains at the substation. Today, the substation stands empty inside the cavernous brick building; the slightest whisper ricochets from wall to wall.

Rail enthusiasts are funding the depot’s renovation, although the depot, substation, and yard site now are owned by the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission and are part of Iron Horse State Park—a 105-mile scenic trail that follows the route of the old Milwaukee Road line.

Near the depot and substation is the Milwaukee Road’s old bunkhouse, since converted into the Iron Horse Inn—a bed and breakfast crammed full of local railroad artifacts that distinguishes each room with the name of a former Milwaukee crew member. In addition to running the inn, innkeepers Mary and Doug Pittis both volunteer with the depot project.

“The passion for the railroad rubs off on you,” says Mary, who serves as treasurer of the Friends of the South Cle Elum Depot. “You can’t help but get into it.”

Today, South Cle Elum, whose name is derived from an American Indian term meaning “swift water,” is a mixture of commuting workers and retirees. The local post office serves as the town center, where residents socialize when picking up or dropping off mail. And of course, the depot’s restoration has become the heart of the community’s efforts, says Mary, bringing townspeople even closer together.

In 2003, residents were honored to learn that their railyard was added to the National Register of Historic Places. One more reason to preserve the hometown depot.