Seattle to Tacoma

It was mid-March in 1996 and I had trains on the brain. For months I had been thinking about driving to the Tehachapi Loop. One Friday I covertly spent time at work making a list of the things I wanted to take on the trip to the Loop. This excited me so much that I decided to hop a freight that evening. Upon clearing it with my spouse, I packed my gear. This would be my first freight trip in about 14 years. I was way overdue for a rail adventure.

Due to time limitations, I wanted to do something short and sweet and somewhat familiar. This ruled out the UP, of which I knew little and had never "patronized." My options were BN from Seattle to Everett and BN from Seattle to Tacoma. Both destinations were about 30 miles away from Seattle. Balmer Yard in the Interbay area of Seattle was my starting point for either destination.

The drive from my home in Renton to Balmer Yard in Seattle took about 40 minutes. Two short blocks from the yard I stopped at the Interbay QFC grocery store to buy bagels and macaroni salad. It was a two-minute drive from there to my parking spot on a residential street, near the north end of the yard. Time: 2100. Unknown to me then was that seven hours later I would dismount a grainer in Tacoma. For a few minutes I watched train action from the grassy bluff above the yard, then walked to the end of the bluff and strolled into the maze of tracks and switches.


A lot of fun is made of men because they won't stop to ask for directions. But when it comes to freight trains, getting directions is the only way to fly - unless one knows for sure which train to get and where it is. In this spirit I headed for the only travel agents I could see - two carmen working on an empty "Boeing fuselage" flatcar at the end of a string of cars. I suspected that these cars were headed east because empty airplane cars generally travel back to Wichita, Kansas for re-loading. Sure enough, one of the carmen said that the cars were headed east. That meant that they would go to Everett, one of my desired destinations. However, that didn't mean I'd be able to ride the train because eastbound trains generally did not stop in Everett: they would merely turn east there and continue on their way to the mountains. And even though the train would slow down for its passage through town, I knew from experience that it wouldn't slow down enough to allow me to dismount safely. In other words, hopping an eastbound train was not one of my options.

Seeing nothing else of interest here, I wandered toward the south end of the yard to inquire about southbound trains. Even with my head lamp, I had to watch my step: piles of dirt and gravel and old ties obstructed some areas. There was no action and no workers around at the south end of yard, so I walked back to the north end. I climbed aboard the Boeing car, the workers having finished their repairs and gone. In shadows cast by the yard lights I ate some of the macaroni salad, which was delicious. Being in the freight train environment can make the simplest food seem like nectar from the gods. When a set of units backed up toward me, I hopped off and headed to the south end of the yard again. I was a man with a mission but the mission was not being fulfilled.

But my situation started to look better when I reached the south end of the yard: switching was taking place opposite the yard office. Two units were idling on a nearby track. I asked when a train was headed to Tacoma and one of the brakemen said that a Portland train was leaving from the next track pretty soon and that the power would be connecting shortly. I thanked him and started looking for a ride.

The second car in the string was a gondola whose dirty bottom was partially covered by waterproof paper and heavy metal strapping. It was not a suitable environment in which to make my "comeback," so I kept looking. A boxcar had only one door open which disqualified it immediately - it's bad enough that I could have been trapped inside if the door had slammed shut, but worse was the lack of opportunity to view scenery on one side. Another gondola was clean but its high walls would have made climbing out of it difficult. Then I saw the two units backing up to the string of cars, I realized that the "unsuitable" gondola was the only car available to me. I hastily headed back to the head end, hopped onto the hefty hardware of the gondola ladder and hoisted myself high above the heath. (Sorry about "heath"; it was the only "h" word I could think of.) I asked the brakeman if the train was setting out or picking up cars in Tacoma. He said that they weren't going to stop in Tacoma, but would be picking up cars at "Stacy" (Stacy Street Yard in southern Seattle), which would put me "about 70 cars behind the power." This meant that I'd have to dismount on the fly in Tacoma, but I figured the train would be going slow enough so that it wouldn't be a problem. The thought of riding the dirty gondola didn't appeal to me, but the pick-up at Stacy Street Yard signified the possibility of finding a better car later.


In a few minutes (time: 2340) the train departed. As my car was pulled past the end of another string of cars, the yard office came into view, so I hunkered down to prevent my being seen. In a few moments I passed under the Magnolia Bridge, a structure I've driven and bicycled over a zillion times because I used to live in Magnolia. Beyond the bridge was the long secluded straightway to the waterfront piers. The huge grain silo complex between the tracks and Elliot Bay stood like a fortress as I rolled by. Seclusion abruptly ended when I reached the next grade crossing at Pier 70, a trendy retail area on the waterfront. Some people were milling about (this was Friday night, after all), so down I went again. The ups and downs made me feel like a Jack-in-a-box.

From here the tracks continued south a couple of blocks, then veered left slightly to enter the downtown tunnel, the only route for trains between Balmer and points south. Diesel fumes in the tunnel weren't nearly as bad as I had anticipated: perhaps my being only two cars behind the units kept me in an exhaust "shadow." In the tunnel's darkness something dripped onto my uncovered head. As I came out of the tunnel I passed King Street Station, which was illuminated but as busy as a ghost town. Just south of there I went by the first signs of construction of the new Mariners baseball stadium. (Note in 1999: one end of the stadium has been built over the tracks and baseball games are interrupted every time a train passes by, blasting its horn at the nearby grade crossing on Royal Brougham Way.)

From there to the UP yard at Argo travel was slow and uneventful. This is a commercial/industrial area populated by Amtrak maintenance and storage tracks, warehouses, small factories, a garbage transfer station (where garbage trains were loaded), a post office sorting facility, and various retail businesses. I stayed low at grade crossings: being apprehended for trespassing would have sullied my comeback. South of the Spokane Street Viaduct I felt safe enough again to stand up to watch the "scenery." As I entered the curve just north of Argo, I saw the remnants of the old NABISCO sign structure next to the Cascade Designs warehouse. That sign played an important role in my trip from Seattle to Rochester in 1968.


After passing through the curve, the track straightened out and ran parallel to the tracks of Union Pacific's Argo Yard. Near the south end of the yard the train slowed down to pick up the cars that had been brought down from Stacy Street Yard. This was the "Stacy" pick-up the brakeman had mentioned at Balmer. As my industrial limousine crept down the line I looked at a string of cars a few tracks over, wondering if it were the one to be picked up. There were one or two container cars near the end and several grainers toward the front.

At 0020 (now Saturday) the train came to a stop on the south main. The units disconnected, rolled a few hundred yards down the track, and stopped near a switch. There they sat there for a long time, waiting for permission to cross a yard track (so the brakeman told me later). After a while I got tired of looking at the units, so I gazed at the clear night sky, which was somewhat obscured by the glare of the sodium vapor yard lights. Suddenly I was awakened from my lethargy by the appearance of a shooting star zipping through my field of view! Seeing this was a minor miracle because of the glare. To the north, grain-loading machinery at the MacMillan-Piper facility constantly rattled. Jets flew low over the yard on their way to landings Sea-Tac Airport. Standing in the gondola to take all this in, I realized that people in the yard tower could see me, so I hunkered down again.

Finally some action: the units backed down a yard track and connected to a string of cars. I couldn't tell if those were the cars I had inspected earlier because of the glare of the yard lights. But as the units pulled forward, it became evident that the cars being pulled were the same cars I had observed. This was my call to action. I quickly dismounted the gondola and walked toward the rear of my train to find a better ride. There was nothing to speak of. By the time I checked out all the cars, the units had cleared the switch and were backing up to my gondola. The brakeman connected the two strings of cars together and started the long walk up to the units. This gave me time to inspect the cars that had been picked up. The container cars I had seen earlier had no floor. One of the grainers was pretty dirty and another was no great shakes either, but its empty porch was on the rear end. In addition, any grainer would provide a safer and more pleasant moving dismount than afforded by the gondola. I got on the grainer and sat down.

Shortly thereafter, a truck appeared about a quarter of a mile away on the gravel road next to the tracks. Hmmmmm. Its headlights bobbed up and down as it moved from the rear of the train toward me. This perturbed me. Two guys with flashlights got out and started walking toward me, one on each side of the train. It looked as though they were looking for something - me! Guys in the tower must have seen me and told the bull. I was pissed off for being so careless.

Now what? If I got off my car one of the men would surely see my silhouette and I'd be apprehended. If I stayed put, they'd find me during their inspection. I felt trapped, waiting helplessly for the inevitable lecture or ticket or arrest. Then I realized I had a chance to avoid being caught by hiding in the grainer's cubbyhole. I quickly stashed my gear there and squeezed in, assuming a pretzel-like position in order to remain low. The thought of getting dirty in there was a turn-off, but that's the price one has to pay once in a while. I waited and waited for the sound of boots on gravel, but it never materialized. The two men never showed up. They must have been performing a maintenance inspection and found what they were looking for. What a relief! I had gotten all hot and bothered - and dirty - over nothing. The train pulled out at 0130, passing the brick buildings of a cold storage company, and quickly picked up speed as it came within sight of Boeing Field.

Strobe lights were flashing brightly at the south end of the runway. Just beyond, BN's intermodal yard at South Seattle was all lit up, but had little activity. A northbound UP train passed by. Seattle Rendering Works, just north of Black River Junction, was operating. I thought about the poor folks pulling the graveyard shift in that awful environment. It helped me put into perspective the dread I sometimes feel when thinking about my comfortable office job.


At 0140 the train stopped for a red block signal at Black River Junction, one of my train-watching hang-outs. I removed my earplugs: the croaking of a zillion frogs enveloped me. Such a sound is one of the simple pleasures of traveling by train. To the ground I descended and looked around a bit. Bright orange illumination came from Seattle Rendering Works, whose light lit up the hillside to the east, and from the garbage transfer station. Every now and then a car drove up or down nearby Monster Road. The cold air prompted me to don my down parka (up and down the ladder again). While standing next to my coach I finished the macaroni salad and ate a bagel. Water from my half-liter bottle was invigorating. The Green River, about 100 feet to the west, flowed quietly toward Elliot Bay. Beyond the river, Foster Golf Links was devoid of activity: golf courses are lonely places at night. All this contributed to that neat feeling of being "at one with the train." I ascended the grainer's ladder as the train got under way at about 0210.

As I passed by the small yard at Orillia, local switching was in progress. From Orillia Yard to Auburn the trip was boring. Beyond Auburn it wasn't much better: the only thing of interest was the neatly-illuminated electrical generating station at the base of the hill to the east. The towns of Sumner and Puyallup were uninspiring, except for the fact that traffic on the streets had to wait for me to get out of the way.


In a wooded area just east of Reservation the train stopped for a long time. (Reservation is a railroad "station" where the main lines of the Burlington Northern, Union Pacific, and Tacoma switching roads all come together. It's about half a mile east of Tacoma's Bay Yard.) A northbound train went by. To the south, an occasional car drove by on the minor street above, illuminating the trees. For a while I peered at the stream next to the tracks, trying to determine in the dark which way it was flowing. Little sparkles of light in its surface did not reveal the direction of flow. In a field on the north of the tracks stood radio transmitting towers. To pass the time I watched the red lights on the towers: when the top light flashed on, the lower lights dimmed slightly. The cycle of flashing and dimming put me in a pleasant trance for a while. I learned long ago that one must appreciate the most insignificant things in order to survive long periods of freight train inactivity.

Finally, at about 0400, the train crept into the yard and stopped on the second main line. So much for brakeman's statement that they would pass through without stopping. I dismounted and started thinking about getting a ride back to Seattle.