First Train Trip

What causes a person to start hopping freight trains? I can't remember what got me interested: some details of my life in the late 1960s have faded away. However, I remember enough to piece together this tale of a college student expanding his horizons in a way that his parents could never understand.

In the fall of 1967 I was living in Bellingham, Washington, then a cozy city of about 30,000 inhabitants, located 100 miles north of Seattle. I was a junior at Western Washington State College, which later became Western Washington University. For a reason that escapes me now, the thought of riding a freight train was planted in my brain that fall. Then it festered. I had been bitten by the freight-hopping bug.

Talking about this new railroad-related fascination led to my meeting a local resident named Scott who had hopped freights. He told me about riding conditions, useful types of freight-hopping gear, and basic safety precautions. He also explained the switching operation that takes place when a train stops in Bellingham to pick up cars that are going south to Seattle, and when freights pass through Bellingham. To my surprise he also said that the best way to get information on train movements was to ask the train crew members or yard workers. Can you believe that?

Soon after my conversation with Scott I was ready to do the deed. I decided to hop my first train in Bellingham and ride to Seattle, my home town. Most days there were two southbound freights that passed through town: one around noon and one in the evening. The evening train would provide the cover of darkness and arrived any time between 2000 and midnight. On a Friday evening in November I walked down to the Great Northern yard, arriving around 1900. My pack contained clothes and food. The yard was dead - not a soul around.

The yard was about a mile west of downtown, lying at the base of a minor bluff decorated with houses. Residents of the houses could gaze upon Bellingham Bay and the islands beyond it, the marine industries and marina on it, or the "industrial beauty" of the freight yard. On later visits to the yard I would discover that one or two house owners had a telescope in the living room, as is often the case in houses that have a sweeping view. At night, illuminated windows of these nicely-situated homes announced to anyone in the yard that comfortable living existed just above the grimy railroad environment.

Below the houses was a hillside about 30 feet high that was covered unevenly with maples, berry vines, horsetails, and various bushes. It ran at a steep angle straight down to the main line. The main line ran level eastward toward the Georgia-Pacific plant, but to the west - the direction my train would come from - it ascended gradually to reach the "housing" plateau. The yard was just two or three sidings next to the single-track main line.

About 50 feet south of the yard was the Milwaukee Road track, a local line connecting Bellingham with the town of Sumas, located northeast of Bellingham on the Canadian border. Just past that track was a street that carried traffic going to and from downtown Bellingham and the nearby maritime industries on the bay. South of the street was an occasional commercial building, and beyond, Bellingham Bay.

The first thing I did was inspect the freight cars sitting on a track. The typical assortment of cars in those days was primarily boxcars with a few tank cars and lumber flats, maybe even a gondola. The large Georgia-Pacific paper factory in town generated a lot of boxcar loads of new paper. It also was the reason for tank car traffic: inbound cars carried chemicals for the plant and outbound cars carried by-products of the paper-making process. G-P's discharges of mercury were known to harm fish in the bay.

After looking over the cars for a while I climbed into an empty boxcar next to the main line. From this vantage point I would be able to see the train as it approached. I planned to stay in this car only until the train pulled in because I had no idea which cars would be picked up. The only activity in the area was the occasional passing of a car or truck on the street.

Finally I heard the deep rumbling sound of locomotives to the west. The blast of a horn at a distant crossing confirmed that a train was approaching. Pretty soon a brilliant light came around the bend at the top of the grade: my train had arrived! This metal snake, having originated in Vancouver, British Columbia, coasted down the gentle grade, decelerated as it passed the yard, and came to a stop with the engines out of view. I moved to the east end of the sidings so I could watch the switching action.

Soon the crew was engaged in perplexing back-and-forth train movements. The lights of the swinging lanterns looked nice but mystified me. I think I was too timid to ask a switchman what was going on. At one point I realized that the crew had pulled cars off of one of the sidings and onto the main line. Suddenly I was overcome by a fear that the train would leave without me. Close by on the main line was an empty boxcar; I headed briskly toward it. The train moved a bit, getting my adrenaline going. I threw my pack inside, then dove in head first, my balls slamming onto the hard steel floor. The pain of that dive was quickly overcome by the consolation that I was on the train. All that worry was for naught: the train stayed there for a few more minutes before leaving town.

In a few minutes the train started up, rumbled past the Great Northern Railroad depot and headed for points south. The ride to Seattle took me past the Georgia-Pacific plant and through South Bellingham, Burlington, Mount Vernon, Stanwood, Marysville, and Everett. South of South Bellingham the line passed through some tunnels (I believe one of them appears in a photograph in Daniel Leen's book "The Freight Hopper's Manual for North America").

After Marysville the line crossed the Snohomish River into Everett, then primarily a pulp- and paper-mill town. The crew switched cars in Bayside Yard on the northwest side of town. Somehow I survived this switching activity, in spite of my confusion. South of Everett the route followed Puget Sound - an inland body of salt water - all the way to Seattle. This was a fast ride on a double-track route; speed was at least 45 mph most of the way. The cold wind in my face was invigorating. I was fascinated by the lights of boats, houses, and grade crossings.

Shortly before reaching Balmer Yard in Seattle, the train crossed the Lake Washington Ship Canal on a neat bascule bridge, from which I could look down at the Hiram Chittenden Locks. Past the bridge, the train crept through a ravine that led to the yard in the Interbay area. Eventually it came to rest on a yard track. I dismounted, carefully crossed a few cuts, and snuck out of the yard unnoticed. It was only a 40-minute walk from there up the hill to my parents' house.

I had traveled 95 miles on a loud, dirty, cold, uncomfortable train and loved every minute of it, and it hadn't cost me a cent. Riding for four hours in that boxcar, looking out at lights and shadows, was a sensory blast. I knew before I got off the train that this was something I wanted to continue to do in spite of the discomforts. Little did I know then that this attraction would eventually take me across the country and down to California, exposing me to many views of back yards, industrial scenes, and various types of terrain. I'm still enchanted by trains: once bitten, forever infected.