This Little, Short-Lived Railroad Had a Big Impact

March 7, 1877

The first train of the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad began operations on a 14-mile (22.5-kilometer)-long stretch between the city of Seattle and town (present-day city) of Renton in what was then the Territory of Washington. (This territory became a state more than 11 years later.) The San Francisco Chronicle reported, “Excursion parties were taken out in the forenoon and afternoon free of charge, and quite a little glorification was enjoyed.”

The impetus for creating the Seattle & Walla Railroad can be traced to 1873 when the Northern Pacific Railway chose the town (now city) of Tacoma over Seattle and other Washington communities as its western terminus. Far from docilely accepting this decision, the citizens of Seattle became outraged and sought to build their own railroad.

A leading force behind the development of this railroad was James M. Colman, owner of a Seattle lumber mill. Colman was one of the railroad’s nine founding trustees, and he staked out the then-lavish sum of $20,000 for the new initiative. He also recruited labor contractor Chin Gee Hee, who subsequently returned to his native China and established himself as a renowned railway entrepreneur, to organize and oversee a crew of fellow Chinese immigrants helping to construct the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad.

Ironically, the railroad never reached Walla Walla. This was due in large part to the fact that — with both an overland travel route to Portland, Oregon, firmly in place and access to inland water transportation readily available – the citizens of Walla Walla did not have the level of enthusiasm and sense of urgency that their Seattle counterparts did when it came to a railroad.

The Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad, which ultimately covered 21 miles (33.7 kilometers) between Seattle and the coal-mining settlement of Newcastle (incorporated as a city in 1994), was around for just a few years. Notwithstanding its short-lived existence, the railroad left an outsized and longtime legacy. Above all else, the large amounts of coal transported by the railroad helped fuel the momentum that has made Seattle an economic powerhouse in the Pacific Northwest.

For more information on the origins and debut of the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad, please check out http://historylink.org/File/755.

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