Seattle to Rochester

part 1: seattle to chicago

This multi-day excursion in August, 1968 was my first cross-country freight train trip. A little less than a year had passed since I had hopped my first freight. The trip came about because of two things: a desire for a big freight train adventure and the wish to see my home town, Rochester, New York, which I had left five years earlier when the family had moved to Seattle.

Part of my preparations for the trip involved planning a route east: I spent hours in the main library in Seattle, pouring over maps and "The Official Guide to the Railways," the bible of freight train schedules. I determined that the easiest route would be Seattle to Chicago on the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific ("The Milwaukee Road"), Chicago to Pittsburgh on Penn Central, Pittsburgh to Buffalo on Penn Central, and Buffalo to Rochester on Penn Central. "The Official Guide" showed that the Milwaukee Road had a hotshot train once per day in each direction between Seattle-Tacoma and Chicago: it was called the Thunderhawk and took 72 hours in either direction. That was the train I wanted to ride. A week or two before the start of the trip I had gone to Seattle and made some inquiries at the Milwaukee Road's Seattle yard behind and to the north of the big Sears store on First Avenue South. (In 1999, the site of the yard is a paved area where containers and chassis are stored. The building that used to house a Sears store is the headquarters of Starbucks Coffee.)

FRIDAY (8/23)

On Friday morning I rode a Greyhound bus from Bellingham, where I was a college student, to Seattle. That night I stayed with John B., one of my college pals. He was at his parents' house for the summer.


Late Saturday morning John's father drove me into downtown Seattle, where I purchased some gear for the trip: nothing like some last-minute preparation for a grand journey! At REI (Recreational Equipment, Incorporated; affectionately known then as "The Co-op") I bought a Svea camping stove, stove fuel, dehydrated food, and a water bag. Talk about confidence: I had never used a camping stove before, but I expected to be able to use this one on a freight train!

Before I knew it, it was 1830, so I caught a city bus for the ride down First Avenue South to the Sears store. A brief walk through the parking lot and around the north end of the store brought me to the modest yard (the primary west coast yard was in Tacoma). I set my bags down and asked a switchman about the Chicago-bound Thunderhawk, which from prior inquiries I knew left around 2000. He confirmed the schedule and showed me where the train was being assembled, then advised me to lie low until the train pulled out because the bull was in the yard. I filled my water bag at an outdoor faucet and settled down on the nearby loading dock of the Sears building. Sitting on a pile of empty canvas bags I could peer through the wooden slats of a merchandise cart and see the yard, yet I was invisible to anyone in or near the yard: perfect waiting place!


When the switcher came off a side track and moved toward my train, I sprung into action, donning my pack and picking up my gym bag and water bag. After entering the yard, I inspected the train and realized that the only thing to ride was an empty auto carrier at the head end, just behind the switch engine. Because auto carriers had no sides and because I was afraid of being seen by the bull, I waited in an empty boxcar on the next track. At 2000 the switch engine came to life, jerking the Seattle section of the Thunderhawk into motion. There was no sign of the bull. I hopped aboard the auto carrier - I was on my way to Chicago! After a straight-away of about half a mile, the tracks curved left to run parallel to Union Pacific's Argo Yard. As I went through the curve I basked in the glow of the large red neon NABISCO sign near the tracks. (In 1999 the sign is long gone but the tall metal posts are still in place. The former Nabisco bakery is now the home of Cascade Designs, a well-known maker of foam air mattresses.)

Next to the UP yard the engine picked up speed, throwing sparks into the air. In the darkness this was a visual treat, but I, being right behind the engine, was in the flight path of the wind-blown sparks and had to dodge them as they flew onto my car. Near the south end of Boeing Field, nearly opposite the Associated Grocers warehouse, the train stopped. It was about 2030. A switchman got out of the engine and disconnected the air hoses. When I asked him what was going on, he said another crew would be coming from Renton to pick me up. The engine departed, leaving me there all alone. Though disappointed, I switched to "waiting mode," in which I studied my surroundings. To the east was Interstate 5. Just west of the tracks was Airport Way, where an occasional car or truck went by. Beyond Airport Way was the Associated Grocers warehouse and the south end of Boeing Field with its runway approach lights. To the north and south stretched railroad tracks. Etched in my mind forever is an image of the railroad spur next to the Associated Grocers warehouse. My excitement was tempered by loneliness.

Thirty minutes later (2100), a Milwaukee Road train came up from Renton. It zoomed by, headed for the Seattle yard. I thought, "Great, when it comes back from Seattle it will get me and I'll be on my way." But when the locomotives returned from Seattle they ran right past me without stopping. I wondered what the heck was going on and felt cheated. (In looking back I would guess that those engines were from a westbound train that was headed for Tacoma.) Light rain began to fall. Road engines appeared at 2145 and took my cars to Black River Yard, just outside of Renton. Hallelujah!


When I got to Black River Yard, the Tacoma section of the train was sitting there. The thought of riding this windy auto carrier for three days was out of the question, so I dismounted to look for another car. Imagine my disappointment when, after walking the entire length of the Tacoma section, I found nothing to ride. My trip was threatened. I told a switchman of my plight and asked him if he knew of any empties on the train. Maybe he was impressed by the fact that this 20-year-old kid, who looked younger than his age, was going all the way back east, because he checked his computerized train list and found me an empty boxcar going all the way to Chicago. With the car number in hand, I trudged off to find my ride. It was a green Penn Central boxcar that I hadn't noticed before because its doors were closed. In the interest of proper scenery-watching I opened both doors and discovered that it was clean inside. I climbed in and waited for the crew to put the two sections together and depart.

It was about 2330 when the Thunderhawk pulled out of Black River Yard. Coming out of the wooded area around the yard, I gazed upon the bright lights of businesses in Renton. Then, to my surprise and delight the tracks ran down the middle of a street in the city. (Twelve years later I would become a resident of Renton and this street would become very familiar.) Soon I was zipping down a valley, watching the scenery and the occasional traffic on the Maple Valley Highway, sometimes only 20 feet away. After a long run through a road-less, unpopulated area - part of Seattle's Cedar River Watershed - the train stopped for switching at Cedar Falls. Rain, solitude, and faint lighting made this place eerie. Under an overcast sky that was shedding tears, the train continued east. From a few miles past Cedar Falls all the way to the Snoqualmie Tunnel the route hugged the sides of mountains. From my dry, swaying accommodations I could look down onto the highway and see car headlights spreading illumination into patches of fog sitting at ground level. What a treat!

Passage through the 2-mile-long Snoqualmie Tunnel was quick; upon exiting it I went past the railroad buildings at Hyak. They sat on high concrete foundations to survive the heavy snows of winter. It took a few minutes to pass Keechelus Lake; an occasional snow shed added visual interest. Farther down the line, after going through Cle Elum, I fell asleep.


It was 0600 Sunday when I woke up. I found myself at Beverly, a tiny railroad town on the Columbia River. This part of eastern Washington (east of the Cascade Mountains) is dry and barren. The early morning sun made the soil and steppe vegetation seem "super-colored." The fast run to Othello was flat and sort of boring. (Today, with my knowledge of the geology of that area, I would think it fascinating.)

The next stop was Othello, an grubby little farming-and-railroad town. Its ugliness called for an appropriate response from me, so I urinated on it as the train sat in the yard. Leaving Othello did not break my heart. Further east, the scenery gradually improved as I gained altitude. Pine trees began to dot the landscape. Rock Lake, a long narrow body of water, was nicely situated in a lava valley. Rosalia was a cute little town. The route crested near the Idaho border, then made a gradual descent toward Avery, Idaho.

In the small town of Avery, the train stopped for about 40 minutes. During this time a huge electric engine (a "Little Joe") was put on the front of the train for the climb over the Bitterroot Mountains. I filled my water jug in the nearby St. Joe River and gathered some ballast stones for later amusement. The train pulled out at 1430. From Avery, the tracks followed the river, where numerous fishermen were "at work." To relieve boredom I tossed ballast stones at line-side poles as the train went by them. The tracks eventually went up the one side of Loop Creek valley, then through a big horseshoe curve and up the other side. I could see the engines above me on the opposite side of the curve. Forested mountains provided nice views. The tracks leveled off and plunged into a long tunnel. In fitting style, I crossed the crest of the Bitterroots on my back and in darkness. When daylight assaulted me again, I was in Montana, but I didn't know it until I saw the writing on billboards by the highway about half an hour later.

Once the tracks descended to level land, the engineer made haste; it felt like 60 miles per hour. It was in this state of rapid movement that I used my camping stove for the first time. I made a valiant attempt to cook Mountain House freeze-dried beef hash. It's bad enough to struggle with a stove for the first time in decent conditions, but I was in a speeding, bouncing boxcar. Adding water to the package wasn't so bad, but lighting the stove and managing the cooking process was rough. Picture me, bracing myself in one of the forward corners, holding the pot on the stove as the stove's flame heated the beef hash. This effort was not without disappointment: some hash burned on the bottom of the pot, and none of it got beyond "warm." What the heck, I wasn't out to win any cooking awards. It was food, well done or not.

At or around 1900 I was in Missoula. The light in the sky was attractive, so I took a nifty sunset photograph. Scenery-viewing kept me awake. Deer Lodge passed in a flash: all I remember was a depot illuminated humbly by incandescent lamps. It got cold. The sky was full of stars. I had hardly slept in the past 20 hours. East of Three Forks I conked out solidly, waking up at 0455 (Monday) in Harlowton.


In the yard in Harlowton the electric engine was set off and the diesel engines were re-fueled. To occupy my brain I walked around in the yard to take pictures. It was cold. When the train left at 0607, the sun was casting long shadows. Eastward from this point Montana was boring: the scenery was bleak, barren, and desolate. I could not then and can not now imagine why people live there. Somewhere in this God-forsaken land a sobering sight caught my eye: four or five crunched, twisted boxcars laid in a pasture next to the tracks.

During a stop along the Yellowstone River I put a penny on the rail and watched it get stretched out as a few freight cars rolled over it. I had the sense to do this ahead of my boxcar so that the train's movement brought my car to me. This part of Montana was boring as hell, so I looked forward to reaching North Dakota. Joy filled my being in the late afternoon when on a grain elevator I saw "Hettinger, North Dakota": out of Montana at last! Near sundown the train stopped on a siding to wait for a westbound to pass. Being in the middle of farming land, far from highways and sounds of the city, it was wonderfully quiet. The gentle sound of grain being caressed by the breeze was accented by the pretty songs of birds. Every once and a while, courtesy of the breeze, I could hear the deep rumbling sound of the locomotives of my train, far ahead. I climbed on top of a grain car to take in the "view." I felt like a man on an island: delightfully alone.

Late that night (2340) I found myself in Aberdeen, South Dakota. During the lengthy stay, a guy about my age hopped into my car and joined me for the ride eastward. He had left Seattle ahead of me on another train and got switched off here. Our rail limousine departed: onward to Minneapolis! We both went to sleep. Miles west of Minneapolis we awoke and got up to observe our approach to the city. It was Tuesday the 27th. The line went through Minneapolis below street level, in a cut punctuated every so often with a street overpass. We moved slowly down the cut in the warmth of the morning. My boxcar buddy got off a few blocks east of Sears (he thus rode from Sears to Sears). As he departed we wished each other good travels.

I passed over the Mississippi River on a high bridge and continued on a down-sloping grade to the Milwaukee Road yard in south St. Paul, arriving there at 0930. Forward movement stopped. Nothing happened for a long time, so I decided to make use of this pause: I filled my water bag from a nearby faucet. Then I tried napping. At 1100 on this sunny day the train crept ever so slowly out of St. Paul and headed south. After crossing the Mississippi River the train ran along its west shore, parallel to a highway. Its speed increased dramatically: I passed automobile traffic on the road! In the long gentle curves I noticed that the train was much longer than before. Going into St. Paul there were about 60 cars, but here I counted about twice that many.

The rampaging pace lessened and the train turned left to cross the river on a very long bridge. On the other side of the river I passed through LaCrosse, Wisconsin, then entered rural countryside. The towns of Sparta, Tomah, and Portage were lost in the blur of constant movement. The sun fell below the horizon. I lost track of where I was; I knew only that I was headed for Milwaukee. After a couple of hours of transit through dark farmland, I got to Milwaukee. Here the rail line passed through the city in a grimy industrial environment in a river valley. Above the north bluff I could see the buildings of downtown. Atop the south bluff the only thing of note was a nicely-illuminated dome structure. I learned later that the dome was part of the city's plant conservatory.

From my map studying prior to the trip I had formed the impression that the ride from Milwaukee to Chicago would be short and sweet. Even though I moved rapidly down the line, the ninety-mile stretch took much longer than I had anticipated. At a junction the train veered right to by-pass the northern part of the city, then curved south and skirted the western edge of O'Hare International Airport, where it stopped in the darkness and sat, and sat, and sat. Jets taking off from O'Hare flew right over me. I got awfully cold so I hopped out of the car to warm myself and see what was going on. I heard a switch engine on the next track and traffic on a nearby freeway. While walking along the train I passed a refrigerator car with a blasting motor. Here was some relief from the cold: I stood in the motor's warm exhaust. Finally the train resumed motion; I guess it had been waiting for clearance to proceed.


A long, slow, curving approach brought me into the huge Milwaukee Road yard at Bensenville. The train stopped and the air brakes gave off the tell-tale whoosh when the locomotives disconnected: end of the line for this train. It was just before midnight Tuesday. I had boarded the Seattle section of the train 76 hours earlier and I had come about 2000 miles. The next thing to do was to get from here, south of O'Hare International Airport, to the Penn Central yard on the southeast side of Chicago, about 16 miles away as the crow flies. I got my gear together and placed it at the doorway of the boxcar. After hopping down to the ground I donned my pack, grabbed the gym bag and water bag, and started walking in the darkness between cuts to the front of the train. I needed to consult the Bensenville travel agents.