A Short History of Lester and Stampede Pass
Lester's and Stampede Pass' modern history begins with the Northern Pacific Railroad, chartered under President Lincoln as the second of the great transcontinental railroads. As a land-grant railroad, the NP received title to millions of acres of land along its route in return for constructing its line into what was at that time a vast and still unsettled land. This land could then be sold to raise money to finance the construction. Today, most of the large cities between Puget Sound and Saint Paul lie along the route of the former NP. More than one found itself named after an NP employee (Billings and Rapleje, Montana, Kendrick, Idaho and Lester, Washington for example).
Unfortunately the NP seemed to be running on borrowed time from the start, having had to weather not only ice bridges across the Missouri River in the earliest day's of its construction, but the financial scandals of Jay Cooke, its main financier and promoter as well. Cooke & Company's closing brought the Panic of 1873 and the first bankruptcy of the NP.
Reinvigorated by emigrant editor-turned-speculator Henry Villard, who collected $8 million in a blind pool of European investors, and pushed the NP to its Gold Spike just east of Missoula in 1883 (Albeit via Portland and Villard's Oregon Railway & Navigation Co).
The NP, already completed between Kalama and Tacoma, Washington still did not have a direct link between the growing communities of Puget Sound and the East, as stipulated in its charter. If you wanted to leave for St. Paul and the east from Tacoma in 1883, it would have required a train trip to Kalama, a ferry ride across the Columbia into Oregon, and a another long train trip to the east via Portland, Pasco, and Spokane. This great circuitous route was deemed a violation in the NP's charter by the Government, and as a means of prodding the NP into action, gave the railroad notice to complete a direct line to Puget Sound or forfeit its millions of land-grant acreage.
With the final notice of move-it or lose-it, the railroad swung away from Pasco and drove up the Yakima Valley. From Yakima the NP's crews moved north through the rugged Yakima Canyon, to Ellensburg. At the same time the NP pushed west from Tacoma, from its branch lines to Carbonado and Wilkeson. These branches had been in place since the 1870s to reach the lucrative coal fields of the Cascade foothills. Most of this coal, taken down the line through Buckley, South Prairie and Puyallup was destined for export to California, and helped to pay for the NP's expansion in western Washington.
Moving north from the Buckley-Enumclaw area, the NP's rails swung into the upper Green River Valley at Palmer, and pushed east through what was then dense forest. In the process they created the telegraph station towns of Eagle Gorge, Garibaldi (Baldi), Canton(Humphrey), Maywood, Nagrom, Kendon (Green River Hot Springs), Lester, Weston, Kennedy, Borup and Stampede.
Finally in 1886, after digging through snow all the way from Ellensburg to Stampede Pass, the NP stood poised to truly complete its line linking Puget Sound with the east. With crews in the east and in the west the only thing that stood in their way were a mere two miles of solid rock and the Government's deadline.
Long before that year the NP decided the only way to link eastern and western Washington was to put a 1.89 mile long hole through the top of Stampede Pass. It would be one of the longest tunnels in the country, and as it would later prove, one of the most difficult. The best railroad builders in the country were invited to bid on the construction of the tunnel. Several who had helped push the NP to this point threw their hats in the ring, hoping for the million dollar job and the $100,000 bonus if the tunnel could be finished in 28 months, beating the deadline and saving the NP's land-grant.
The man who won the day was an unlikely prospect, a businessman who lived in a town that wasn't even in a state (Washington was not admitted to the Union until the year after the completion of Stampede Tunnel) and who had never before constructed a tunnel, Nelson Bennett of Tacoma. Bennett, however inexperienced he may have been in building tunnels, was a shrewd operator, for he was buying equipment in New York City at a fantastic rate the day after he learned the job was his.
He bought everything, locomotives, blacksmith shops, electric light plants (Reputed to be the first in Washington) air compressors and anything else he could lay his hands on, and all in duplicate, for he would dig his tunnel from both ends at once, light it with electric light, and keep moving forward, round-the-clock to beat the deadline and get his bonus. Equipment in hand, he sent it all west, to the end of the rails in Ellensburg. From there men and horses had to drag it up through dozens of miles of snow.
They started February 13, 1886, in a winter more severe than anything Washingtonians have known in nearly 50 years, and for two years more they labored, blasting, removing the tailings and blasting again. Through soot and rock and underground streams they kept moving, timbering as they went, lining the walls with a million bricks imported from China. Despite having their own hospital at the top of that mountain, the tunnel had killed 29 men by the time it was completed. Five more would die after completion, during the tunnel's masonry lining. However many of the 2,000 Chinese working across the line and through the tunnel were killed may never be known, Bennett and the NP didn't keep records for them.
In that May of 1888 Bennett was to have his bonus and the NP its land-grant. Washington was still a Territory when the cities of Puget Sound finally had a direct link with the East. How soon after the completion of the line the upper valley began its lumber boom no one can say now, but the towns, for a while, did grow and prosper. Eagle Gorge was at one time home to the Eagle Gorge Logging Co., the Page Lumber Co., the Buffelin Lumber Co., the Cougar Logging Co. and the Gale Creek Logging Co. Maywood hosted the Dean's Lumber Co., (Which also had a mill at Lester) the Morgan Lumber Co. around World War One and the Scott Paper Company in the 1950s. Baldi was home to Seattle grocer R. A. McDonald's dairy farm up until the construction of Howard Hanson Dam in the late 1950s. Nagrom held lumber baron Elmer G. Morgan's mill, which lasted until the 1920s, (Nagrom is simply Morgan spelled backward) a town which, in its heyday, rivaled Lester in size. Hot Springs, which began life as the Kendon and then Green River Hot Springs, as opposed to Stevens' Pass Scenic Hot Springs, was home to a large and ornate health spa and hotel. The hotel is reputed to have burned down twice, the second and final time around 1911.
Around 1911 the City of Tacoma filed for water rights on the Green River at a place now known simply as Headworks. Some 20 miles to the west of Lester, this place would become the site of an intake to a gigantic gravity pipeline, and then another, siphoning off some 50 to 80 million gallons of water a day to quench Tacoma's industrial thirst. From 1911 to the early 1960s all would be at peace in the upper Valley. The US Forest Service entered into a simple agreement with the City of Tacoma to protect the water supply from pollution. The NP did the same by locking the toilets on their passenger trains through Tacoma's watershed.
It was an easy job because ready access to the area simply did not exist. The railroad was the only way in or out of the upper Valley. Real road access was rudimentary up until 1933, when the Civilian Conservation Corps established a camp at Lester. Part of President Roosevelt's job program for an America slipping deeper into the Great Depression, the CCC's built the greatest portion of the road system in the area today. Forest Roads 54, 52, and their numerous branches were for the most part created by the CCC's and brought access to Lester and Stampede Pass. Finally, Lesterites could drive out to Ravensdale or Enumclaw and the cities Down Below.
However, as soon as the roads went through, the City of Tacoma put gates on them. In conjunction with the City of Seattle, who's watershed some of the roads also ran through, access in or out quickly became limited to residents and those who worked in the watersheds. Things came to a head in 1964. Tired of being under lock-and-key, the residents of the valley took their case to King County. King County Highway Department officials removed one after another of Tacoma's gates with a pick-up truck, in what quickly became dubbed the Lester Gate-War. The County Prosecutor, seeking a legal end to the matter, began condemnation proceedings against the roads to secure them once and for all for King County. In a series of running legal battles that wound up in the State Supreme Court, Tacoma beat King County in the best two-out-of-three.
Soon afterward, the City of Tacoma took further steps to protect its water supply. Slowly but surely the City condemned eastward from the intake, purchasing land immediately along the river. By 1967, they had reached Lester. There, in negotiation with the NP, the City bought the nearly the entire townsite, 80 some-odd acres, for $35,000. From then on Tacoma, a landowner of perhaps 10,000 acres in a watershed encompassing 148,000, would have perhaps the greatest say on access to Lester.
Lester itself began life as in the 1880s as Deans, after the local lumber company. With the completion of Stampede Tunnel in 1888, rumor has it that the town started being referred to as Lester, after the NP's local telegrapher Lester Hansacker. The official name stuck, but Lester's telegraph call letter's always remained Dm, possibly an homage to the original Dean's Mill.
Slowly, often simply by outlasting its rivals, Lester became the center of activity in the upper valley. One by one other towns closed down, victims of mill closings, depletion of the timber, fires, or flood (The backwaters of Howard Hanson Dam consumed Eagle Gorge and Baldi). Nearly all of Lester was owned by the NP, which did not sell its land, only leased it out to those who wished to build homes in Lester (This would later become a primary reason of Lester's demise).
In its Golden Age Lester was home to a two-story schoolhouse and a separate two-story gym, a 6-stall roundhouse, a two-story hotel constructed by the Railway to house its crews, a Forest Service Guard Station and Fire Warehouse (Some of the only buildings standing in town today) a three-story wooden coal dock for the steam engines, and assorted offices and bunk houses for the track and engine crews. Hocking's Store, the Lester Garage, and Pete Schmidt's beanery rounded out most of the businesses in Lester up until the 1950s.
In 1948 the Soundview Pulp Co. moved into Lester, building one of the last old-fashioned logging camps: bunkhouses, offices and of course, the cookhouse. This was later to become Scott Paper's camp and would last until 1978, logging timber from Burlington Northern lands. Scott provided seasonal work from April to early winter for an average of 150 loggers every year for nearly 30 years, doubling the population of the town.
As the logging age began anew in Lester in the late-1940s, another age was ending. From its beginning, Lester had been a railroad town. Built to house the crews that cut through 12-foot snow drifts, maintained the tracks, serviced, scheduled and ran the trains, Lester had from the 1880s to World War Two served steam engines. These hulking locomotives were based at Lester to shove trains from Auburn over the hill and through Stampede Tunnel. Inherently labor-intensive, they required constant attention and a force of hundreds of skilled laborers in shops stretching from Tacoma to Yakima to keep them in working order.
All this was to change in 1944, with the first purchases of diesel locomotives from General Motors. Overnight, the NP had at its disposal a way to eliminate the army of men and women necessary to keep its fleet of steam engines on the move. Very quickly the NP moved to dieselize one of its most problematic stretches, the Stampede Pass line. With the tight confines of Stampede Tunnel quickly filling with smoke every time a steam engine entered it, what better way to eliminate the problem than with diesels?
By 1956, the roundhouse at Lester would be boarded up and well on its way to being demolished, the shop crews furloughed or sent to distant points. The coal dock would be gone, and soon to follow would be water tanks which stood at nearly every point on the Auburn to Yakima run. With helper engines being run from Auburn instead of Lester, the Lester Hotel would be quick to follow the roundhouse.
With the increased use of telephone, radio and microwave communications, the telegraph would become more and more obsolescent, and with it, the telegraph office. Tiny stations dotting the landscape along the line would be closed and demolished. The vent plant at Stampede, forever used to push smoke out of the tunnel so that the next train could safely enter would be switched to remote. Then it too would finally be closed and torn down.
In 1954 Lester rebuilt its school system with a brand-new $175,000 school, paid for entirely by private contributions. The school, built to educate 100 children, would see, by the 1970s, graduating classes of one. Throughout the life of Lester, however, the school played a focal point in the lives of Lesterites. Dances, movies, socials, elections were all held at the school. The quality of education that the Lester School provided was a point of pride throughout Lester's history, graduating students that would go on to become doctors, lawyers and a State Supreme Court Justice.
1970 saw the merger of the Northern Pacific with its long-time competitor the Great Northern and two other railroads, forming Burlington Northern. After the merger, Stampede Pass would see a gradual slowdown, fewer and fewer trains and less and less of the necessary maintenance required to run the railroad. The merger would also leave BN with three lines across Washington State: the Stevens Pass line, the Columbia River line, and Stampede. Stevens Pass was a straight-shot across Washington and the most efficient of the routes, the Columbia River was flat, and although longer, far more fuel-efficient than crossing the Cascades, in addition, it reached the important terminal of Portland directly. With the recession of 1982 BN found itself with far more track than trains to run, and Stampede Pass was quickly and quietly shut-down.
It seems highly ironic that the thing that finally shut Lester down for good was the school. In 1984, legislation sponsored by Art Wang of Tacoma was signed into law by Governor Booth Gardner. The legislation, designed at eliminating small, tax-consuming school districts, effected only two-such districts in the entire state. The second, of course, was Lester. With its closing, most of the jobs in Lester, a half-dozen or so employed by the school, ceased to exist. Perhaps the greatest irony was that when the Lester District was merged into the Enumclaw School District, it included over half-a-million dollars still in Lester's accounts.
All that remained was a community of retirees, nearly all of whom, including Gert Murphy, leased the land their homes sat on from the City of Tacoma. These leases were (And are) non-transferable, not even to relatives. Simply stated, when someone leaves Lester, there is no one on earth they can sell their home to. Thus, when someone moved out, or died in Lester, the City of Tacoma moved in and bull-dozed the house. After the bill was passed, over three quarters of the remaining homes in Lester, including all but two buildings of the former logging camp, fell to the dozer's blade. (These two were removed to the Foothills Historical Society in Buckley and are now part of a small logging museum).
The NP depot, built in the 1880s, outlasted the Scott Paper camp, the Lester School, and the NP itself. Sold to a Woodinville resident on the condition he move it off the site around 1983, he failed to do so and the depot returned to BN's care. It's next stab at preservation was a possible move to the City of North Bend for use as a museum, this also fell through due in part to the costs of relocation. With all the attention focused on it in the early 1980s, the King County Landmarks Commission placed it on the County's Historic Preservation List in 1984. Soon afterward it was placed on the Washington State and National lists. It was demolished by BN in 1992.
Today, all that remains in Lester is the Forest Service's Guard Station, started in 1916 and enlarged by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 and 1934. Turned over to the Washington State DNR in the 1970s, it was closed after a recent drinking-and-driving accident with one of the DNR's fire crews. Tacoma refused to let crews stay overnight in the Station, and the DNR dropped its lease. This historic station will probably be the next to go in Lester.
While Lester's fate was sealed long ago, new chapters are still being written in Stampede Pass history. In the beginning of October Burlington Northern announced that Stampede Pass may have to be rehabilitated and reopened, what was bust in 1982 is the import container boom of the 1990s. And visitors still drive the long miles of dusty roads from I-90 to reach Lester, either to chat with their old friend Gert, do a bit of hiking, exploring or fish and hunt in the old north woods, or continue a tradition begun by the Muckleshoots far before any settler's arrived at Stampede Pass: pick huckleberries.
Ann Hopping, Photo Department Manager
Tacoma Public Library
Judith Kipp, Librarian
Tacoma Public Utilities
Washington State Historical Society
Author: John A. Phillips, III. Title: A Short History of Lester and Stampede Pass.
© March 20, 2002