In the Footsteps of Railroad Dreamers and Builders:
Bicycling the Olympic Discovery Trail

Story and Photos by Bret Wirta – The Incidental Explorer

Distance: 140 miles – Time out: 6 days

Pet Friendly: No

September 18th – 23rd 2013

Trisha and I took a few days off after the busy summer had ended to bicycle over the route of the Olympic Discovery Trail (ODT). While we journeyed along the trail, we were also journeying back in time. The route of the ODT is over the former tracks of three tiny railroads that were stitched together through the primeval forests of the Olympic Peninsula over a century ago.

Because of isolated geography, difficult topography, economic disasters and local politics, it took a generation for the three railroads to lay one hundred miles of track, but when complete, the Port Townsend Southern Railroad, the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway, and the Spruce Railroad shipped local goods to markets, transported strategic raw materials during both world wars, and opened the region to tourism. Beginning in 1890 and lasting for three-quarters of a century, these railroad tracks were vital to the economic development of the northern Olympic Peninsula as they simultaneously shaped its geography and character. But in the end, the three tiny railroads were swallowed up by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad in its quest to become a transcontinental railroad giant.

We began our journey in Port Townsend where Trisha and I enjoyed a delicious breakfast at the tiny Blue Moose Café just a block or so from the trailhead. Tana Mae and crew cooked big meals in their miniature kitchen. Trish said the veggie pecan sausage was delicious! With uncomfortably full bellies, we slowly pedaled south along the trail as it hugged the shoreline of Port Townsend Bay. It was mid-morning and low tide. A wrecked boat lay on its side in the wet sand while the sun sparkled on the water, like an impressionist painting.

A multi-modal path from Port Townsend to the Pacific Ocean was once just a crazy idea, but it’s fast becoming a reality. Today the ODT is 140 miles of quiet streets, busy highway shoulders, and rural paths along disjointed segments of railroad right-of-way. The trail runs across the northern edge of the Olympic Peninsula through half a dozen towns, two counties, tribal lands, private land, National Forest and National Park. All these agencies, municipalities and people have partnered to form the Peninsula Trails Coalition. The PTC doesn’t build or own the trail, their separate partners do that, but the PTC works hard to maintain the section of trail that have already been built.

Start in Port Townsend

Start in Port Townsend

The Port Townsend and Southern Railroad – When Optimism Ruled the Day

The first segment of the ODT, the Larry Scott Trail, follows the right-of-way of the first railroad built on the Olympic Peninsula, the Port Townsend and Southern Railroad. The Port Townsend and Southern Railroad, which began operations in 1890, was built for one reason: so that Port Townsend, not Seattle, would be chosen as the lucrative terminus of the country’s next transcontinental railroad.

When Trisha and I began our bicycle journey we weren’t thinking railroad history, we were simply enjoying the scenery. We pedaled southwest through woods and fields. Cows munched on thick grass and horses eyed us lazily through split-rail fences. Then, six miles from the Port Townsend trailhead, the Larry Scott Trail abruptly ended at a highway intersection.

Bicycling the Olympic Discovery Trail - map by Per Berg

Bicycling the Olympic Discovery Trail – map by Per Berg

We looked at our map to discern which road would be the safest route to Discovery Bay. Back in the early 1880s, where we stood was primeval forest. At that time, the country’s third transcontinental railroad, the Northern Pacific, was being built across the northern tier of the United States. At that time, where the railroad would terminate hadn’t been decided. The city that was chosen would become a wealthy gateway, not only for the markets back east, but also westward across the Pacific, where the vast riches of the Asian silk markets shimmered.

Was it such an absurd dream for Port Townsend, isolated by the deep waters of Puget Sound and located far away on the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, to believe that it could be chosen as the Northern Pacific Railroad’s terminus? Why not? Port Townsend didn’t call itself “Key City” for nothing. In the early 1880’s, Port Townsend was already a prosperous city whose tall ships sailed the world. While Port Townsend’s promoters were planning for a city that would eventually hold 20,000 people, Tacoma was a mudflat and Seattle was just another village. But the citizens of Port Townsend realized that if the railroad terminated on the other side of Puget Sound ships would no longer have a reason to call on their harbor and their thriving economy would cease. So instead of just praying for the Northern Pacific to come to them, Port Townsend paid surveyors to find a route southward where their railroad could link with the Northern Pacific at Portland. That accomplished, there would be no need for the Northern Pacific to continue the railroad to Seattle. With righteous zeal, Port Townsend set out to control its own destiny!

Loved the trail out of Port Townsend

Loved the trail out of Port Townsend

Back at the end of the Larry Scott trail, there was no option for Trish and me but to peddle along the shoulder of SR-19. Here, the Port Townsend and Southern Railroad’s right-of-way to Discovery Bay has been lost, and so for now, the Olympic Discovery Trail is routed along the highway shoulders. The railroad’s water-level route originally ran right along the east edge of Discovery Bay and that coveted shoreline right-of-way was grabbed by homeowners soon after the railroad’s demise.

At first Trisha and I found a four foot-wide shoulder so there was plenty of room as highways go. We turned west past Anderson Lake Park. After the park we turned onto SR-20, a terrifying three-mile section of narrow, two-lane road that dropped steeply. There was little or no shoulder. In Trisha’s words, “There were six inches to ride on and big trucks passed us. It was spitting rain. There were blind corners and cliffs. You couldn’t get out of a truck’s way. I felt vulnerable. You couldn’t see anything. I wasn’t used to riding next to trucks. I did not enjoy that part of the ride at all .”

Back in 1890, when the Port Townsend and Southern Railroad finally began operations, it didn’t reach all the way to Portland as the big dreamers had planned. All that had been built was a tiny 25 mile section of track. Steam engines from Port Townsend chugged across the wilderness to Discovery Bay and then another twelve miles further south through more old-growth forests to the village of Quilcene on Hood Canal. Without the link to Portland there was no freight and few passengers. The railroad tenuously existed with the help and support of the little communities along the tracks, but the village of Quilcene was the biggest railroad advocate of them all.

Trish and I pulled off busy SR-20 at the Eaglemount Rockery Cottages to rest our nerves. We were surrounded by tiny stone houses, miniature castles, a ghost town and Whiskey Bill and his Moonshine Still. The Eaglemount Rockery Cottages was a homemade roadside attraction from the 1950’s that remains frozen in time. The grounds of the cottages were filled with quirky and random items like doll house-sized castles made of pebbles, cement donkeys, a living-room sized diorama of Europe, Indian maidens, and a life-sized one-room school house filled with cement students. That’s just a fraction of what’s there. There is a self-guided tour available or you can spend the night and enjoy the view of Discovery Bay. Trisha thought the place was a little bizarre, but I loved the uniqueness – this was no cookie-cutter, franchise hotel. We chatted with the owner, Grandpa Earney , who wanted me to tell everybody, “Don’t miss Mount Rushmore!”

Eaglemount Rockery Cottages

Eaglemount Rockery Cottages

Back on our bicycles, we coasted down a long hill. On our left, trucks thundered and cars whizzed past, while on our right lay the tranquil Discovery Bay. The waters of the bay were as empty as when Captain Cook explored and named the place in 1792.

The end of the nineteenth century was an age of optimism on the Olympic Peninsula. The Port Townsend and Southern Railroad ended at Quilcene, but every townsperson knew that any day now construction would continue to Portland and connect with Northern Pacific Railroad. Quilcene was proud to be part of the grand vision of the Port Townsend and Southern Railroad. The citizens of Quilcene didn’t see themselves as they were, a few hundred souls, barely eeking out a living in their muddy village at the end of a railroad to nowhere; instead the community believed it was their destiny to become a magnificent city along the tracks of a great transcontinental railroad. Quilcene did everything it could to work together and fulfill their grand purpose. The Megaphone, an enthusiastic newspaper whose presses were powered by a wobbly waterwheel, trumpeted the intoxicating wonders of Hood Canal, and the rest of the townspeople helped out where they could. When the Port Townsend and Southern’s steam-powered engine ran out of water at the station, in a burst of community spirit, the citizens left their homes and businesses, formed a long line from the tracks to the river, and filled the engine with water, bucket by bucket.

The optimism of the Olympic Peninsula was shaken when the Northern Pacific shortened its route, bypassing Portland in favor of Seattle, and then another transcontinental railroad, the Great Northern, announced that it too would reach Seattle from the east. How could Port Townsend become a transcontinental railroad terminus now? Why even bother to finish the Port Townsend and Southern Railroad’s connection to Portland? In their hour of need, the citizens from Port Townsend to Quilcene turned to James Gilchrist Swan, the greatest railroad promoter on the Olympic Peninsula, to save them.

James G. Swan was a man of so many talents that it would be easier to list what he couldn’t do. For almost half a century Swan used his multitude of skills to improve the conditions for those living in the Pacific Northwest. Swan, a prolific journalist, was genuinely interested in the people of the communities where he lived, whether it was in Neah Bay, teaching the Makah school children, in Port Angeles, collecting northwest tribal art for the brand new Smithsonian Museum, or in Port Townsend, where he was an unflappable advocate for the Port Townsend and Southern Railroad.

For fifteen years, Swan lobbied hard for a transcontinental railroad terminus at Port Townsend, and for a time his optimistic reports helped buoy the outlook of the Port Townsend and Southern Railroad. In Port Townsend, to the delight of Swan’s friends, Key City boomed. The population tripled and land speculators went wild. Beautiful new mansions were built on the bluff and stone office buildings and warehouses were constructed all over town to handle the freight that was sure to come. Speculation fever spread down the tracks so that even little Quilcene caught a dose of it. Quilcene farmers purchased special seed potatoes that promised to grow into a prolific cash crop, needed, of course, because of all the new settlers the railroad would bring.

Goofing at Sparrows Collectables

Goofing at Sparrows Collectables

All was blue sky until the Panic of 1893 struck the nation with such economic severity that even Swan admitted that the railroad southward along Hood Canal would never be built. The Port Townsend and Southern Railroad gave up. Quilcene’s ever-optimistic newspaper, The Megaphone, suspended publication, while land speculators throughout Port Townsend filed for bankruptcy. Quilcene farmers fed their coveted seed potatoes to the pigs. Overnight, people who had jobs and were flush with cash were suddenly out of work and surviving on their hunting, fishing and trapping skills. Finally, the tracks from Quilcene to Discovery Junction were abandoned. Though James G. Swan would remain an optimistic booster of Port Townsend until his death, it would take another quarter-century and a different railroad to connect with the Port Townsend and Southern Railroad. The Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway would arrive, not from Portland in the south, but from Port Angeles in the west.

The Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway – Decades of Broken Promises

Trish and I paused for a moment on the eastside of Discovery Bay. Here at long-gone Discovery Junction, the Port Townsend and Southern and the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway had connected. Ahead of us, at the head of Discovery Bay, was a hamlet that consisted of three curio shops, Fat Smitty’s hamburger joint, a grocery store, a seafood restaurant and a drive-up latte shack. As we bicycled past we could see some businesses were open, some closed, and some were being remodeled. We stopped and chatted and laughed with Marie Bray at her Sparrows Collectables shop at the head of Discovery Bay.

This bay was once a prolific wildlife habitat. When a freight train was delayed at Discovery Bay, Earl Clark and his crew jumped down, and seeing it was low tide, they “…got some sacks and went out on the beach. By the time (maintenance) had got here we had about three bucketfuls of clams! Nice big juicy ones they were too!” Over the years, the railroad, highway, and an old sawmill had degraded Discovery Bay to where there was little wildlife and few salmon spawning in its creeks. The west shoreline was stagnant backwater cut off from the rest of Discovery Bay by an old railroad trestle, but soon after we were there a major shoreline restoration had been completed by the North Olympic Salmon Coalition. The old railroad trestle was removed, contaminated soils around the mill site were excavated, and the railroad embankment was restored to natural shoreline. Bicyclists will enjoy seeing this successful habitat restoration after the planned relocation of the ODT from the highway to along the shoreline is completed.

Discovery Bay before shoreline restoration

Discovery Bay before shoreline restoration

The old mill that once stood along the railroad tracks was the Maynard Sawmill. It was the primary employer for the thriving community of Maynard. While the mill, railroad station and almost all the buildings of the hamlet are now gone, the restaurant that used to feed the people of Maynard, against all odds, lives on! Today the Snug Harbor Café is a cozy eatery that serves good food and boasts of live music on Monday nights. Over half a century ago, railroad engineers used to signal the restaurant with an early-morning blast of their freight train whistle while still on the other side of Discovery Bay. The lights in the restaurant would blink on and off in acknowledgement, and when the train rounded the bay, breakfast was waiting for the crew.

The Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway was completed in 1914. Why did it take two decades to lay the forty miles of track from Discovery Junction to Port Angeles? That’s because the community spent much of their time listening to the empty promises of a rapscallion named Norman R. Smith. Young Norman Smith had the gift of gab and a lack of scruples that he learned from his father, Victor Smith. During the 1860s, when Dad Victor was Treasury Agent for the Olympic Peninsula, he was such a scoundrel that he had to be dismissed by none other than President Abraham Lincoln himself.

But could you really blame the likes of Norman R. Smith for trying to build a railroad with no money? The beginning of the 1900s on the Olympic Peninsula was a time and place for a white man to simply take what he wanted. Boldness, perseverance and tenacity won the day. After all, didn’t brash Thomas Aldwell build a great hydroelectric project with no money in his pockets?

Trish and I turned off SR-101 and onto Old Gardiner Road. We stopped where leafy trees overhung the empty lane to explore an old cemetery. We walked slowly around the uneven ground and unkempt grass, while the breeze off the bay smelled of mud and sea. Trisha read the grave markers, and we speculated on those long-ago lives. A wife’s loving message to her husband told that for 60 years she’d been his companion, friend and advisor. Her love note ended with, “Farewell until we meet again in the great hereafter.” There were many other touching messages, but there was one lonely gravestone carved with just the name Kuta and “Died January 18, 1915 / Gone but not forgotten.” Though I’ve done a bit of research, ironically there doesn’t seem to be anybody who knows anything about Kuta.

Old Gardiner Road turned west and we said goodbye to Discovery Bay as we cut across rural Miller Peninsula, passed tiny churches, lush fields and small homes with big lawns. Halfway across Miller Peninsula where Old Gardiner Road rejoined SR-101 was the Wild Birds Unlimited store. The store caters to birders, but their popular mascot is Luther Lassen the cat – go figure! Anyway, Marc and Christie Lassen have created a wonderful garden sanctuary. We stopped and enjoyed a snack, before getting back on our bicycles and continuing west along SR-101. The traffic was heavy but there was a wide, paved shoulder. Finally, a couple of busy highway miles later, the old road veered off to the right again and we found the Olympic Discovery Trailhead, the actual right-of-way of the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway.

Surprises along Old Gardiner Road

Surprises along Old Gardiner Road

Back in 1901, Norman Smith schemed and rumors swirled, but Smith couldn’t get his railroad to Port Angeles built. When Smith became convinced that the Union Pacific Railroad would reach Port Angeles from the west, he quickly ran to a narrow strip of land between the mountains and Lake Crescent where he was sure the railroad must pass. Smith purchased a single iron rail, sawed it in two, and spiked it to the ties, becoming the proprietor of the “Shortest Railroad in the World.” Smith’s strategy was that the Union Pacific would have to buy his railroad from him, but in the end, the coming of the Union Pacific was just another rumor.

After bicycling along twenty miles of busy roads, Trisha and I found the Olympic Discovery Trail quiet and inviting. The trail was a ten-foot wide asphalt path that disappeared around curves and through tunnels of trees. A few early autumn leaves floated down to the smooth pavement. We coasted down a long hill and through the trees until the horizon opened up at the head of tranquil Sequim Bay.

We bicycled along the path of the old railroad as it curved through the village of Blyn. When the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway ran through the village, there was a cannery, logging mill, log dump, pool hall, dance hall, hotel, railroad depot, general store, church and post office. Today, none of that is left, so instead Trisha and I coasted past a library, art gallery, community center, clinic and park – all new and beautifully constructed. This is the Jamestown S’Klallam tribal community. And why the resurgence in this tiny community instead of decline? In 1874, several families from the Klallam Tribe, who had been removed from their traditional village in Dungeness, pooled their money and purchased 210 acres here. After a difficult and protracted struggle, in 1981 the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe was officially recognized by the federal government. Today, thanks to the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, Blyn is a vibrant, attractive community, not the typical atrophied town, left for dead, after the railroad left and the forests were logged.

Blyn circa 1914. Clallam County Historical Society

Blyn circa 1914. Clallam County Historical Society

From the 1890’s to the early 1910’s there were many rumors of multiple railroads reaching Port Angeles from all directions. One railroad scheme even had the train arriving on a ferry from a railroad based in Everett. Norman Smith pledged $50,000 to make that railroad happen. The problem was that Norman Smith didn’t have any money. Murray Morgan tells the story about what happened when Smith ran into his tailor who was trying to collect on overdue bill:

As the tailor approached, obviously intending to raise the subject of his bill, Smith pivoted gracefully and began an earnest conversation with a storekeeper. Timing his movements by the tailor’s reflection in the store window, he managed to keep his back firmly to his creditor, who, in extremity, drew from a sheath his tailor’s scissors and with a flourish trimmed off Smith’s coattails.

The people of Port Angeles waited for a railroad, but their hopes were dashed again and again because, in the end, the bluff and bluster of Norman Smith wasn’t enough to build it. Smith gave up and moved to California. Finally in 1912, two Seattle-based businessmen, logging baron Michael Earles and contractor C. J. Erickson simply horse-traded empires. After seeing the vast tracts of Olympic Peninsula timber, Earles said he would build a huge sawmill at Port Angeles if Erickson would build a railroad Eastward from the forests to the city. Now, Olympic Peninsula logging would begin in earnest.

While the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway that was finally built along the Olympic Peninsula shores brought economic benefit to the communities it touched for three-quarters of a century, what it left when it dissolved into bankruptcy was a legacy of shoreline degradation and wetlands destruction. Like the Maynard trestle at Discovery Bay, the Blyn logging dump on Sequim Bay was an ecological disaster. Today, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and its partners have done a wonderful job restoring the Sequim Bay estuary by cleaning up the mess that the railroad left behind.

Trish and I stopped on the bridge over Jimmycomelately Creek to watch Summer Chum Salmon swim upstream. The gigantic fish, half out of the shallow water, slapped their tails and pushed their big bodies along the gravel streambed. Just below us the fish rested in a deep pool where a salmon trap dammed the creek. There, two volunteers netted the salmon, identified them, and then released them on the other side of the dam to swim upstream and spawn naturally. In 1999, before the remains of the Blyn logging dump was removed, the bridge over SR-101 was enlarged, and the stream bed was restored, only seven Summer Chum spawned here. Now, thanks to the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, North Olympic Salmon Coalition, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and countless volunteers, over 1,500 Summer Chum Salmon per season return to spawn in Jimmycomelately Creek at the Sequim Bay Estuary.

Volunteers count Summer Chum Salmon at Jimmycomelately Creek

Volunteers count Summer Chum Salmon at Jimmycomelately Creek

We left the salmon of Jimmycomelately Creek behind and bicycled along the west shore of tranquil Sequim Bay. I’ve enjoyed this scenic stretch of the Olympic Discovery Trail along the Sequim Bay Estuary along the Sequim Bay Estuary many times and Trisha thought it was pretty, too. Trisha especially liked when we threaded among the big firs at Sequim Bay State Park. Further down the trail we stopped and peered over the edge of the 400-foot long Johnson Creek Trestle. A mile down the trail, we arrived at our destination for the evening, the Sequim Holiday Inn Express and Black Bear Diner, which is adjacent to the trail on the east end of Sequim. Luckily, we arrived during the Manager’s Reception and were treated to free wine, beer and hors d’oeuvres. Still ravenous, we feasted on delicious steak dinners at the Black Bear Diner and ended our day watching the sun set on the hotel’s rooftop garden.

On February 12th, 1915, an enthusiastic audience feted the new industrial leaders of the Olympic Peninsula. C.J. Erikson’s Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway was moving logs out of the forest and providing much needed passenger rail service. Thomas Aldwell’s Olympic Power Company was providing electricity as far away as Bremerton and Michael Earle’s “Big Mill” could saw timber as fast as it could be cut. It was time to tame this wild land. But there was one official who urged a modicum of conservation. Washington State’s Governor Ernest Lister reminded those at the crowded banquet to clean up after the virgin timber was logged-off. Lister urged upon the citizens the need for more hogs and fewer stumps.

When the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway began operations not only did it haul logs, but also two passenger trains a day, filled with excited tourists who traveled between Port Angeles and Seattle on the 5 ½ hour combination rail and ferry ride. Tourism to the Peninsula soared, and for the first time, the U.S. Forest Service which administered Olympic National Monument, began to see recreation as part of their mission. Trails that were built for fire protection were used by the many hikers who were now vacationing on the Peninsula, thanks to easy passenger train access.

Trisha and I began our second day along the Olympic Discovery Trail with a delicious breakfast at the Sequim Black Bear Diner next door to our hotel. Just past the Sequim Chamber of Commerce the trail weaved on and off the quiet backstreets and shady lanes of Sequim. We bicycled past many cute shops and restaurants. You could spend a whole day just exploring Sequim.

Day 2- Breakfast at Black Bear Diner

Day 2- Breakfast at Black Bear Diner

Back when the railroad was king, not only did it pit cities against each other over who would be the transcontinental railroad terminus, but the railroads forced even little towns, just a few miles apart, to compete for a railroad depot. In 1893, Sequim Prairie (as it was then known) was a backward hamlet, while the town of Dungeness, six miles to the north at the mouth of the Dungeness River, was a thriving port. Dungeness boasted a steamship wharf, hotel, drug store, bowling alley, photo shop, creamery, saloons and numerous trading companies. The citizens of Dungeness thought they had assured themselves of a railroad depot by bribing railroad officials with three hundred Dungeness town lots, but when the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway finally reached the Sequim-Dungeness Valley in 1914, tracks were laid right through the center of Sequim, and a depot was built at the south end of what is now Sequim Avenue. Two decades later, the state highway was routed through Sequim too. Trains and trucks ended Dungeness’s shipping heyday, and now Dungeness is the quaint little hamlet that Sequim Prairie used to be.

We continued bicycling west through Sequim. Beginning at Sequim Avenue along Hendricks Road the ODT grade is separated from the street traffic by an irrigation ditch, the instrument by which the Sequim pioneers first used to make their dry prairie bloom back in 1895. Every year since, on the first full weekend in May, the citizens of Sequim have celebrated that event with the Irrigation Festival, the longest continuously running festival in the state.

On the far west side of Sequim, the trail crosses the big trestle at Railroad Bridge Park. This early segment of the ODT that was created in 1991. The park is now owned by the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and they manage it in partnership with the Dungeness River Audubon Center and the Olympic Peninsula and National Audubon societies. The Audubon Center building was loaded with interesting exhibits and information on birds of course, but also about much of the flora and fauna of the area. The taxidermy specimens were impressive.

Railroad Bridge Park

Railroad Bridge Park

We pedaled westward on the Olympic Discovery Trail toward Port Angeles. Along a bluff above the Strait of Juan de Fuca sat an exact replica of Mount Vernon, the home of our country’s first president. The George Washington Inn is a beautiful bed and breakfast. It’s a great place to stay with its luxury rooms, waterfront panorama and breathtaking views of the Olympic Mountains. Innkeepers Dan and Janet Abbott love bicyclists!

The next fifteen miles was one of Trisha’s favorite parts of the ride as we pedaled westward along the lush farmland and through the forests. After the Morse Creek Trestle the trail met the shore of the Strait of Juan De Fuca. A stiff onshore breeze pushed against us until we entered Port Angeles Harbor. Perfectly protected, Port Angeles harbor lies behind Ediz Hook, a crooked sand spit big enough to hold a United States Coast Guard Naval Air Station at its tip. Big tankers lay at anchor in the smooth waters. Here, between Morse Creek and Ennis Creek, the trail is squeezed between the vertical bluffs and the shoreline.

There has been commercial activity at the mouth of Ennis Creek for over a century beginning with a sawmill in 1887, then a specialty spruce mill built during World War I, and ending in 1997, when the Rayonier pulp mill shut down. When Trisha and I bicycled into Port Angeles on the Olympic Discovery Trail, the entire delta was surrounded by a chain link fence behind which contaminated soils were being removed. Unlike the railroad, which disappeared leaving dangerous chemicals in the soils around the shoreline, Rayonier is not running away. The massive clean-up of this 75-acre property and adjacent sea bed is being monitored by Washington State’s Department of Ecology. For over sixty years the Rayonier pulp mill specialized in extracting cellulose fibers for the film and plastics industry. Up until the 1970’s, all the nasty chemical byproducts were either flushed into the harbor or incinerated to generate steam-powered electricity. The clean-up will take years, but the good news is that when it’s finished, the fences can come down and the property can be used once again.

At Port Angeles harbor, we took a break at Frances Street Park. The harbor was a busy mix of wandering tourists and blue-color bustle, and it smelled of fried burgers, cedar logs, diesel and salt water. One pier was crammed with restaurants and shops, while at another dock, a mountain of logs was being loaded onto ships destined for China. A quarter of a mile of a mile beyond a marina bursting with fishing vessels and luxury yachts, a sign directed us away from the harbor and along the shoulder of a steep road up the bluff. We bicycled past where the Port Angeles railroad depot was once located.

Trail meets the sea

Trail meets the sea

On the bluff above town, we pedaled along Milwaukee Drive through a neighborhood of modest homes with stunning views. We found the Olympic Discovery Trail again and coasted through the forest and along back roads down to the Elwha River valley. West of Port Angeles, at the Elwha River, Trisha and I bicycled along the ODT over a beautiful new bridge. Automobile and truck traffic crossed high up on the upper deck while we pedaled across on a lower deck that hung suspended from huge cantilevered girders.

We had reservations for the Lake Crescent Lodge on the south shore of Lake Crescent, so we detoured a mile west of the pedestrian bridge, and backtracked eastward (re-crossing the Elwha River) along SR-112, until we reached SR-101. There we turned west once again (re-crossing the Elwha River a third time), and headed toward the south shore of Lake Crescent, peddling along the shoulder of SR-101.

Wonderful bicycle bridge

Wonderful bicycle bridge

By 1918, the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway completed seventy miles of track from Discovery Bay through Port Angeles and into the western forests as far as Twin Rivers. The little railroad hauled timber and brought much-needed passenger rail service to the people of the Olympic Peninsula. While the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway filled local transportation needs and domestic demands for lumber, the final railroad of the Olympic Peninsula would be constructed to harvest a single species of tree that would help the Allies win Word War I in far-away Europe.

The Spruce Railroad – One Man’s Personal Sacrifice to Win a War

The last of the three railroads to be built on the North Olympic Peninsula was known as the Spruce Railroad. The Spruce Railroad was built in 1918, not because of the eloquent lobbying of the likes of James G. Swan, or the deep pockets of somebody like the wealthy C.J. Erikson; the Spruce Railroad was built because the United States and its Allies were in danger of losing the air war over Europe during World War I. It would take one man and the spruce forests of the Pacific Northwest to change all that.

A century ago, Europe was locked in a horrific war. Though only invented a decade earlier, a new weapon, the airplane, was quickly becoming an important tool to winning the conflict. Like today, the army that controlled the skies controlled the battlefield. But airplane production had come to a standstill for America’s World War I allies, Britain and France. The Allies had run out of the critical material for airplane construction – wood from the spruce tree. Spruce was to early airplane frame manufacturing what aluminum is to airplane manufacturing today – it was strong and light. The Allies desperately needed more spruce, and the greatest stands of spruce left were located in remote valleys of the Pacific Northwest, like the virgin spruce forest west of Port Angeles.

While Trisha and I pedaled along the shoulder of SR-101 westward to Lake Crescent Lodge, logging trucks barreled past. Thankfully, there was a long, flat stretch of highway along the Indian Creek valley, where the shoulder was a full four feet wide, so the trucks didn’t scare us too much. We took a lunch break at Granny’s Café. We ate delicious burgers, and the freshly baked berry pie was to die for!

At 4pm we reached the south shore of Lake Crescent and crossed into Olympic National Park. Here the broad highway with its bike-friendly wide shoulder disappeared. This was one of the more frightening roadways on our journey on the Olympic Peninsula. The twisting road around the south shore of Lake Crescent had no shoulder and lots of traffic. The National Park Service’s idea of bicycle safety was to install a sign with a push-button on the east side of the lake. Trish pushed the button and a light above the sign flashed, notifying drivers that up ahead, somewhere along the twelve miles of shoreline road, they would need to share the road with bicyclists. The silly flashing sign didn’t make us any safer, but what did was the fact that it was the end of the day, so there were no speeding trucks loaded with logs to run us off the road. We recommend planning your dash along the south lakeshore for after work hours, if you can.

Push button and pedal like heck

Push button and pedal like heck

We were frazzled but exuberant when we finally finished the four miles of twisting lakeshore road and reached Lake Crescent Lodge. We ended the day by enjoying a glass of wine along the beach as the sun set over the mountains. All felt absolutely perfect. We’ve stayed at Lake Crescent Lodge many times. We love the way the lodge sits right on the shore of the lake. With the lodge’s cheerful fire that’s always crackling in the big stone fireplace in the lobby, Trisha said, “It’s always nice here, no matter what the weather.”

We spent two relaxing days at Lake Crescent Lodge. We read, ate delicious food in the dining room and even watched a barefoot waterski exhibition. We love the combined bar and lobby of the Lake Crescent Lodge – it’s a great space to meet interesting people.

Rewarding moment

Rewarding moment

While we relaxed at Lake Crescent Lodge, across the lake we could see people hiking along the Spruce Railroad Trail along the shoreline. Back in World War I, at the same time as the US government and its Allies were clamoring for spruce to build the planes needed for air superiority, logging output in the Northwest spruce forests was plummeting. Logger’s morale was low because living conditions in logging camps were cold, wet and dirty, and the loggers’ demands for an eight-hour work day were being ignored. Men laid down their axes and walked off the job. In a radical move, the US Army formed the Spruce Products Division and sent one man to the Pacific Northwest forests to run the entire operation.

The man the army chose was Brice Disque. At the time of the United States entry into World War I, Captain Disque was eagerly awaiting orders to fight overseas alongside his fellow soldiers, but the commander of the US forces, General John J. Pershing, had other plans for Disque. Pershing ordered Disque to the Pacific Northwest to command the Spruce Products Division.

Disque was an amazing organizer. In less than a year, Disque’s Spruce Products Division improved living conditions in the logging camps and coerced truculent timber barons to shorten the workday to eight hours. Where the loggers wouldn’t work, soldiers traded their rifles for axes and logged the spruce themselves. To reach inaccessible stands of trees, the Army doggedly laid hundreds of miles of railroad tracks. On the Olympic Peninsula, Disque’s division constructed a specialty spruce mill on Ennis Creek, built the Spruce Railroad, to log the spruce forest west of Lake Crescent. Though no timber was ever shipped over the Spruce Railroad, spruce from other Pacific Northwest forests was sent overseas where it built thousands of planes, ultimately achieving air superiority for the Allies.

Lake Crescent Lodge

Lake Crescent Lodge

Trisha and I left Lake Crescent Lodge early Saturday morning and bicycled the rest of winding SR-101 along the south shore of Lake Crescent. That was the perfect time to be back on the road – very few cars and no logging trucks! We intersected with the Olympic Discovery Trail at Fairholm at the western tip of Lake Crescent in the shadow of Mt. Muller. Just a mile to the east back along the Spruce Railroad Trail was the Crescent Mine – a great place to explore.

The railroad tracks that Disque hacked out of the forests of the Olympic Peninsula connected to the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway near Joyce, then ran along the north shore of Lake Crescent and eventually all the way to the outskirts of the town of Forks. Disque’s railroad was eventually sold to the Port Angeles Western Railroad Company where it was used extensively until 1953. Today, the Spruce Railroad Trail is poised for anther historic change as Olympic National Park, Clallam County and the Peninsula Trails Coalition prepare to repair and rebuild this section of trail along Lake Crescent. Soon the Spruce Railroad Trail will become another paved segment of the Olympic Discovery Trail, and no longer will the dangerous ride along the narrow shoulder Highway 101 along Lake Crescent be necessary.

Spruce RR - Clallam County Historical Society

Spruce RR – Clallam County Historical Society

By the end of World War I, Disque had been promoted to Brigadier General, but instead of being lauded, Disque became a scapegoat. While spruce lumber production in Washington and Oregon was a great success, all the money spent on domestic airplane manufacturing yielded no results. Not one U.S.-manufactured aircraft saw action in World War I. The Spruce Railroad at Lake Crescent never moved a single log and the huge specialty spruce mill at Ennis Creek never sawed a single board during the war. Eventually, both were sold off by the government as surplus. The opposition party in Congress eventually settled on one man to blame for all the waste—Brice Disque. Though Disque was finally exonerated of all charges of malfeasance, the bitter fight with Congress left him a broken, paranoid man. Brigadier General Brice Disque never fought overseas, but he was a war casualty, just like his maimed and fallen brothers on the battlefields of Europe.

The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad
The Corporate Giant Takes Control

Trisha and I crested the hill above Fairholm and turned to the south on the Cooper Ranch cut-off. We pedaled through the Sol-Duc River valley. It was ten miles of paved road – all downhill! We passed miles of managed forests that alternated with clear-cuts, replanted seedlings and straight Douglas Firs. The timber in these vast forests was the main reason that all the railroads of the Olympic Peninsula finally came under the domination of a corporate giant, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad.

Empty Road

Empty Road

In the beginning of the 1900s, the last transcontinental railroad to push westward across the United States of America was the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad and its story is the final chapter of the railroad that eventually became the Olympic Discovery Trail. In 1909 the Milwaukee Road, as it was known, muscled into Seattle among three other transcontinental railroads, the Union Pacific, Northern Pacific and the Great Northern. But the Milwaukee Road didn’t stop there – the railroad continued west, its eyes bright with the reflection of the limitless timber of the Olympic Peninsula and the money to be made there hauling forest products.

Trish and I coasted along the long downhill under a blue sky through the Sol-Duc Valley. It was a wide road with little traffic, and so we had the countryside to ourselves. We caught glimpses of the winding Sol-Duc River through the dense trees. Finally the country road ended and we joined SR-101 again.

The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad purchased the Seattle, Port Angeles & Western Railway in 1918 and operated over the tracks of the Port Townsend and Southern and the Spruce Railroad. Gone was the individuality of the three railroads; together they became the Olympic Peninsula Branch line of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, also known as The Farthest West Railroad.

The construction of the Olympic Loop Highway and the Depression in the 1930s ended the need for passenger rail service on the Peninsula and so the Olympic Peninsula Branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad was free to focus on hauling freight. During the economic boom that followed World War II, Peninsula mills were turning out products that the rest of the country needed. The Milwaukee Railroad was flush with paying customers.

Trisha and I stopped for lunch in the village of Beaver at the Lake Pleasant Grocery right along SR-101. I’m a bit of a grocery store aficionado, so I appreciated the well-stocked shelves and the store’s history dating back to the mid-‘40s. When it was my turn in line, I was ready to offer a compliment to the hard-working young woman behind the counter. “Is this your store?” I asked. “Sort of. It’s my Mom’s place. It will be my inheritance,” she sighed. “Nobody wants their Mom to live forever more than me.”

Pleasant stop

Pleasant stop

After World War II, the pulp-wood logging of the Olympic Peninsula increased rapidly. The railroad was running five freight trains a week from Port Angeles to Port Townsend. At Port Townsend the freight cars were loaded on barges and towed to Seattle. According to Earl Clark, one train consisted of “six loads of pulp: four going to Eastman Kodak in Rochester NY; one to a textile plant in Holyoke, Mass; and the other to Kingsport Tenn. The Crown Zellerbach newsprint mill had consigned six cars of newsprint to the Denver Post. The Peninsula Plywood Corporation contributed four cars going to Buffalo and Philadelphia; the Fiberboard mill has three loads of pulpboard headed for Southern California.” And just how flush was the Milwaukee Road? The railroad charged almost $1,000 in fees for each one of those freight cars. In 1947 alone, the Olympic Peninsula Branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad collected $2,744,658 in freight revenue.

Just south of Beaver, we had our first flat tire with Trisha’s new bicycle. I fixed a flat on my 30-year-old Trek road-bicycle with no problem, but when Trisha’s brand-new Cannondale got a flat, I was at a loss on how to convert my bike pump from Schrader to Presta valves (think PC vs Mac). Thank goodness for Tom and Lisa, bicyclists from Palmer, Alaska, who showed me how to reverse the valve or we might have been sitting by the side of the road forever.

During post-World War II, the Milwaukee Road was a very successful railroad. Earl Clark thought the flush times would last forever. Clark wrote in 1950, “The busy little (Milwaukee Road), carrying her rolls of newsprint, sheets of plywood, bundles of cedar shingles, pulp for camera film, and rayon fabrics, fiberboard for bags and boxes destined for all corners of the nation, has little to fear. For the present at least there are no signs that she will be hauled off to rip track while rust creeps over the once familiar rails.” Instead, by 1980, the trans-continental Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad was bankrupt and the Olympic Peninsula Branch’s tracks were ripped up in 1985.

At the end of the day we crossed the Calawah River Bridge just outside of Forks. It was in this river valley that the original Spruce Railroad ended. In Forks there were many signs welcoming the fans of the vampires of the Twilight books, but it was easy to see that logging is still an important part of the Forks economy. Empty log trucks were parked all along the streets ready to be driven into the forests the next morning. Forks embraces its history with its own Timber Museum.

We liked Forks. We stayed at the Forks Motel. It was clean and comfortable. There were dinner and breakfast choices just down the street. Nothing fancy, but after a long day of bicycling, a shower and a sit-down meal seemed like heaven to us.

Day 4- Wet start

Day 4- Wet start

The Spruce Railroad ended at Forks and I think we should have ended our bicycle journey there too, because that night the first storm of the autumn season hit. The next morning we pulled on our raingear and pedaled out of Forks into a driving monsoon. We spent the day fighting winds and pelting rain as we slowly pedaled south along SR-101. Drivers were stopping to remove trees and branches from across the road. We just kept peddling until we reached the Pacific Ocean and our final destination, Kalaloch Lodge. We rented a cabin on the bluff and spent our time drying out, eating wonderful food and watching the waves crash along the deserted beach.

So how do you summarize our 140 mile bicycle journey along the route of the Olympic Discovery Trail from Port Townsend to the Pacific Ocean? The paved and finished sections on the east side of the Peninsula were beautiful and pleasant, but at least for the next few years, be sure to schedule your ride during the weekend over Highway 101 along Lake Crescent when there are no logging trucks thundering down the highway!

Sunshine on the coast

Sunshine on the coast

Does the history of the railroads of the Olympic Peninsula matter today? If you are a fan of The Olympic Discovery Trail, it does because much of the ODT runs over the old railroad right-of-ways and across trestles built by the railroads. But in addition to that, the railroads shaped the geography and character of the Peninsula. The prosperity that was expected to follow the arrival of the transcontinental railroad was the reason that many of Port Townsend’s grand Victorian buildings were constructed. Tiny Quilcene exists because it was at the end of the tracks. Port Angeles would have never grown to be the economic and political leader of the Olympic Peninsula without the railroad providing an easy way to ship finished goods from all the city’s mills.

The railroad spawned a new industry on the Olympic Peninsula – tourism. Prior to passenger service, only the well-funded and organized climbing clubs like the Seattle Mountaineers were able to explore the newly designated Olympic National Monument. But once railroad passengers could easily reach the park’s entrance, trail construction and tourism grew concurrently. Given the resentment against the creation of a National Park from the timber, mining, hunting and homesteading interests on the Peninsula, it is reasonable to think that without support of the tourists that the railroad brought to the Peninsula, Olympic National Park might never have become a reality.

Finally, speculate how European history would look today if Brice Disque hadn’t been able to get all that spruce to our World War I allies to build planes. Instead of the Allies achieving air superiority, would the Germans have won that war?

While the railroads of the Olympic Peninsula helped develop logging, industry and tourism, we’ve only recently begun to address the dark story of the ecological damage that railroad construction and the subsequent industrialization has caused. Finally, decades after the bankruptcy and abandonment of the railroads infrastructure, forward-thinking organizations have begun to repair shoreline and estuary habitat destruction.

We reach the ocean

We reach the ocean

Today the legacy of the railroads of the Olympic Peninsula is continuing in the efforts of the Peninsula Trails Coalition. The PTC wants the route from Port Townsend to the sea to become a world-class, multi-modal trail. The hardworking PTC, whose volunteers do everything from designing, building and maintaining the trail could use your help. If we all work together, someday you’ll be able to bicycle the same 140 miles that Trisha and I rode, not along any dangerous highways, but entirely on the safe and scenic Olympic Discovery Trail. Join the Peninsula Trails Coalition and make the legacy of the railroads of the Olympic Peninsula a positive one for future generations.


Trailhead details: We parked our car in the Jefferson Transit Park-And-Ride lot at Haines Place and 12th Street next to the Port Townsend Information Center. We phoned Jefferson Transit at 360-385-4777 and told them we were bicycling the Olympic Discovery Trail so they wouldn’t tow our car. Next time we’re going to enjoy all the entertainment that Port Townsend has to offer by staying overnight and making arrangements to leave our car where we stay. Allow for an entire day to retrace your route and return to your car at Port Townsend using public transportation. At Kalaloch Lodge catch the earliest Jefferson County Transit bus to Forks. Transfer to the Clallam County Transit bus to Port Angeles. Transfer at Port Angeles to another CCT bus to Sequim. At Sequim, transfer back to the Jefferson County bus to Port Townsend. The bus bike racks only holds 2-3 bikes per bus, so get in line early.

Acknowledgements. I’d like to credit these wonderful sources and authors for the history lessons on Olympic Peninsula railroads: The Last Wilderness by Murray Morgan, especially on Port Townsend and James G. Swan; Dub of South Burlap by Brandon Satterlee for the Quilcene history: American Canopy by Eric Rutkow on the Spruce Railroad and Brice Disque and The Furthest West Railroad published in the March 1950 issue of Railroad Magazine and written by Earl Clark.

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2 thoughts on “In the Footsteps of Railroad Dreamers and Builders:
Bicycling the Olympic Discovery Trail

  1. Chuck LeBer

    Very nice article. I would add that Port Angeles is the other U.S. city with a Federal Charter. In the event the Confederacy overran Washington D.C. all of the Federal records were to be shipped here.
    Oh, and the original Puget Sound Cooperative Colony (PA site) was a communal affair with gender equality and less than biblical marital strictness.

    My hiking plans for May or June are to take the bus to Amanda Park and walk back to town.

  2. Ed Emanuel Jr

    I thoroughly enjoyed your story. I grew up in Port Angeles ,so a lot of the places you so wonderfully described made me feel like I was riding with you. Especially the rockery cottages where I would visit with my family when it was still in operation. But what really made me love your story , of course, was the railroad history. My father was the general agent for the milwaukee railroad in port angeles from 1958 to 1971. When he passed away last year, I was left with a archive of memorabilia and documents dating back to the early 1900’s. I have been doing a lot of research on the history of the railroads on the north olympic peninsula and have never read anything that brought such a personal down to earth connection like your story did. Thank you very much, Edward Emanuel Jr

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