Sunday, November 18, 2012

A Railroad Runs Through It: Bob Heirman's Stories of working on the train to Darrington.

Bob Heirman, center, seated.

The November 15, 2012 meeting of The Centennial Trail Coalition of Snohomish County, at Oso Fire Hall, was a great success as Bob Heirman, author of A railroad runs through it: Reflections from Everett to Darrington shared stories of his years working on the railroad along the route that is now The Whitehorse Trail, hauling logs from the many mills along the way to Darrington and taking them to Everett.
Boulder River RR Bridge 1935
Boulder River Bridge today

Mr. Heirman has written extensively about his life working on the railroad between Everett and Darrington, and in recognition of the connection with the local Whitehorse trail, he spoke about the activities on the rail line between Arlington and Darrington.  Mr. Heirman started working for the Northern Pacific Railroad at the age of 18 (he is currently celebrating his 80th birthday).  He received recognition both for his writing and his work as fireman on the rail line and he was proud to be one of the last generation of people who got to work on the steam engines in this area.  Notably he mentioned his recognized poem about the sights and memories passing through Hazel.  He said Darrington was “the prettiest town in the world” and he shared tales of many people that were residents of the towns and sidings along the route and the colorful people who were his co-workers on the train.

The railroad to Darrington opened July 1st, 1901 and was originally aimed at the mining opportunities in progress, but soon became a workhorse for the growing logging industry.  There were many logging companies bringing logs to the rail line, and each of these companies had numerous miles of rail that they built to access the forest.  By 1918 there were 5 trains a day.  In later years one or two trains a day would come to Everett with 100 railcars loaded with logs.  In Mr. Heirman’s early years it was common that three logs would fully load a car, and sometimes only one log was a load for a car.   Many of the sidings along the route are only shadow memories today.  

A map with the old sidings named and located:
View Whitehorse Trail in a larger map

Others have lost their connection to the stories of the rails. Cicero, Oso, Halterman, Rowan, Hazel, Tulker, Fortson, Barco, Andron, and Darrington.  Some of those names are hard to find on any recent maps. In the 1950’s the train was able to travel at 30 mph to Oso, then would travel at only 10 mph from there to Darrington because the rails were not able to handle a higher speed.  The trip took 2 hours and 40 minutes, one way, and in his book, Mr. Heirman calls it "the Darrington Logger". Listening to these stories, you also soon realize that the engine numbers often became as iconic and well known as the names of towns and mills and people.

Besides Mr. Heirman’s writing there were other well known accounts of the area, famous for the fly fishing, notably Zane Grey wrote of fishing on Deer Creek.  Besides the tales of amazing fishing on Deer Creek, the railroad workers had to watch as the local youth played a game of chicken with the approaching locomotives, waiting to the last possible moment to leap from the bridge next to Oso, into the water of Deer Creek.

One interesting discovery the engineers of that day learned was a surprising way to deal with the fall leaves that would cover the rails and sometimes freeze on the iron rail.  As the train went uphill toward Darrington this combination of ice and leaves would cause the drive wheels to slip and the locomotive would loose traction and momentum.  The train engineers learned to set the brake slightly which would prevent the wheels from suddenly spinning, and thereby actually help the train keep moving forward.  The steam trains also had extra challenges to be learned by the young Mr. Heirman, about building and maintaining the fires in the fire box, shovelling the fuel by hand, and knowing how to read the sometimes oddly arranged gauges and valves.  

The rails were pulled up in 1990, but it is clear that Mr. Heirman sees those trains yet today with fond and respectful and appreciative recognition of the colorful times and grand people, and the impressive landscape.

It was fitting that the evening talk was framed in the fire hall at Oso, backed up by the impressive red fire engines. One of Bob's great stories was about a big fire at the Eclipse Mill in Everett, and his arriving to get the diesel locomotive going and then managing to pull many of the loaded cars out of the fire. In his era, working 16 hour days was the norm, or rather, 15 hours and 59 minutes. Mr. Heirman joked some about sleeping on the job, but you can't help but know, the bigger truth was that there was not much that he missed. He surely must have "slept" with one eye open.
There were many enthusiastic questions from the audience.  One person asked: “How did the ‘Tin Bridge’ get its name?”  Mr. Heirman responded, “You folks must have named it.  For us it was bridge number 4.”

The Centennial Trail Coalition of Snohomish County would like to especially thank Bob Heirman for the great success of the evening and his wonderful sharing of the history of this spectacular valley.

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