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Railroads: What might have been | History Files


Thanks to William Russ, an article from 1907 in the Aberdeen Herald passed through my hands. The article reported the competing railroad plans to build belt lines around the Olympic Peninsula.

Union Pacific and the Milwaukee Road had teamed up to compete against a plan by the Northern Pacific to build railroad lines up Hood Canal to Port Townsend, and across the north end of the peninsula to Port Angeles and Forks, and then by a sea level route to Hoquiam and Aberdeen.

From Aberdeen, the loop would be completed near Olympia.

There was certainly enough forest to cut that would justify building a railroad. Port Townsend would have become the international port that its boosters always believed it would be. Port Angeles would have played second fiddle, rather like Everett does to Seattle.

A map in the article showed the competing belt lines and spoke about the surveying crews that were already in the woods preparing the route for the new railroad.

Yet today we all know that it didn't happen.

The Olympic rain forest still stands. It wasn't cut down like the Puget Sound forest and the Cascade forests. Fate intervened. In October of 1907, the Panic of 1907 occurred in New York. This is where the study of history becomes distracting and often pulls in directions unexpected.

A major casualty of the Panic of 1907 was Knickerbocker Trust in New York, the third largest trust company in New York. The Knickerbocker headquarters was in a Roman0style temple on 34th Street next to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, designed by Stanford White.

White is not as well known for his skill as an architect, though it was considerable at the time, as he is for his murder in the case of " The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing." White had been murdered the year before the Panic of 1907.

The effects of the panic were felt everywhere, and ultimately resulted in the formation of the Federal Reserve Bank. Among the effects, railroads found it much more difficult to borrow money. Neither of the competing belt lines around the Olympic Peninsula was built.

Port Townsend did not become the rival to Seattle. The Olympic Peninsula remained relatively rural compared to the central Puget Sound.

A trip to Port Townsend is to take a trip back in time to a slower era, although people of the time probably didn't think it was so.

The effect on Mukilteo and Edmonds is that the Great Northern Railway, which connected them to the world, remained the major commercial connector until the formation of highways. If Union Pacific, Milwaukee Road, and Northern Pacific had built to Port Townsend and Port Angeles, the major commercial development might well have moved there instead of central Puget Sound.

Edmonds and Mukilteo might be the places where visitors would go to travel back in time to a "slower" era. It is easy to imagine a major port city at Port Townsend. The geography of Port Townsend is not more difficult than the geography of Seattle was before its streets were re-graded and its hills were sluiced into Puget Sound.

The harbor at Port Townsend is roughly the same size as Elliott Bay.

The hopes and aspirations of Port Townsend were slapped down hard twice, first by the Panic of 1893, and then by the Panic of 1907.

The position of Edmonds and Mukilteo was boosted by events that happened on the other side of the continent, events that no one locally could have predicted or orchestrated.

Port Townsend remains for us to enjoy, never having reached its aspirations, but maybe succeeding in another way by giving a sense of peace and rest to tens of thousands of visitors.


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