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My "Local" Foray Into Volunteering

Great Northern and Cascade Railway in Skykomish, Washington ~ 2014 to 2019

by Elizabeth Guenzler

Skykomish, Washington, the small King County town on Highway 2, forty-five minutes east of Monroe and just before the Cascade Tunnel, was where I could be found on several weekends between May and October from 2014 to 2019 when I was not volunteering at the Fraser Valley Heritage Railway. This location, well-known to aficiandos of the Great Northern Railway and Burlington Northern Railway as the point where steam (later diesel) ended and electrification took over since the Cascade Tunnel is eight miles long, had long been a railroad town. Electrification ended in the 1950's but Skykomish remained a key location and staging point for locomotives and trains as they started their journey through the Cascade Mountains.

For detailed and historical information on the development of Skykomish and the Cascade Tunnel, here is a link to the late Curt Young's excellent article which is on the Great Northern and Cascade Railway's website. Curt was a key figure in the building of the Great Northern and Cascade Railway. He also owned and operated his own back garden railway. Skykomish History.

For more recent history, including the development of the Great Northern and Cascade Railway, its accomplishments and progress from its beginnings in 2011 to 2015, please see part two of the late Curt Young's article, which is on the railway's website. Recent History and Live Steam Railway Development.

My introduction to the group was in 2014 when Bob and I became members. Bob was eager to be an engineer and soon qualified on diesel, electric and steam, much to his enjoyment and satisfaction. I, on the other hand, became a conductor, distributing souvenir tickets, riding the trains in order to keep a watchful eye on the passengers and make sure safety rules were followed, helping in the gift shop and latterly, weeding the rose garden and other landscaped areas. It was always fun, no matter what I did or where my help was needed. I made it a point to ride at least once (usually several times) during each visit.

During the James J. Hill Days, the annual event in August during which area vendors set up stalls, visiting engines abounded and a community get-together was created and advertised, I was one of the pie judges. I sold popcorn and generally assisted where necessary. Several home made pies were submitted for the pie contest and about five impartial volunteers were the judges. It was a role I really enjoyed, something I had never done before, and sampling the delicious creations was always the highlight!

This group is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization supported by donations, county and state grants (applied for) and the generous support and unwaving dedication of the small group of volunteers. As these photographs will demonstrate, there have been several improvements and additions to the site over the years, including a covered waiting area, a second bridge, tunnel landscaping, a track extension that goes behind the station, as well as a re-vamping of the gift shop and museum inside the 1898 station.

The pictures were taken over the course of my time in Skykomish, or 'Sky' as it is commonly referred to. Unless there was a visiting engine, or something unique, I did not take many pictures as I was there to "work" as described above.

Note: This travelogue is not in any way meant to be a history of the organization, full coverage of the site improvements over the years, nor an exhaustive photographic record of visiting locomotives or my activities. It is, rather, my experiences and accompanying photographs of the highlights of the many weekend days I spent in Skykomish and represents part of the volunteering aspect of my life.

Work parties are conducted in the off-season, weather permitting, and on March 22nd, 2014, cement was being poured for the pad that will support the steel track for loading and unloading the locomotives. This is more commonly known as the steaming bays.

Bob attended this work party and helped to attach track to the ties.

The 1898 Skykomish station which is the museum and gift shop for the Great Northern and Cascade Railway. It was moved across the tracks from its original position and the outside railing was a work in progress.

Skykomish is along the BNSF Transcon so it is common to see BNSF freight trains with various cargo throughout the day. Here, C44-9W 5068 leads a westbound train through the town past the long-in-restoration Skykomish Hotel.

This welcome sign greets visitors beside the station, near the parking area.

The first time Bob and I volunteered during the season was June 29th, 2014 and Sarah Albin (the previous Treasurer's daughter) was running the train upon our arrival.

The two-sided glossy souvenir ticket (its second iteration) that were distributed to every rider.

This 0-4-0, owned by Bob Chapman, emerges from the tunnel on this day.

James Alkire (no relation to Bob) sometimes brought his Rock Island SW7 4908 to Skykomish.

This is probably the most-liked and unique live steam engine to visit Skykomish - built-from-scratch coal-fired 4-6-0, Northern Pacific 628. It is owned by Keith Sternberg of Lopez Island, Washington. He usually made the weekend drive twice a month from the San Juan Islands up to Skykomish and delighted everyone with his engine.

On the three-month-old steaming bays, Bob Chapman blows down the boiler of his 0-4-0 4.

August 9th, 2014, found a trio of BNSF locomotives in BN green (GP39-2 2826, GP40-2 3015 and GP39-2 2900). Not so much latterly, but in the early days, locomotives and track equipment could be found parked on adjacent tracks to the main line.

An empty coal train, BNSF 5692 East, passed through Skykomish that day also.

On September 14th of the same year, this eastbound BNSF coal train had CitiRail ES44AC 1408 and a Canadian Pacific AC4400CW on the point.

To bring up the rear of that train Canadian Pacific AC4400CW 8768 and BNSF C44-9W 4892 were the DPUs.

Amtrak's Empire Builder traverses this route twice a day and if it was running late, it would be seen either during the drive to Skykomish (occasionally crossing the highway at Index as we were approaching) or entering Sky, as it was on this day.

Keeping with the full-scale train theme for September 14th, BNSF auto rack train, 7563 West, came through town. The Cascadia Motel and Restaurant is in the background which used to be a three-storey building until fire destroyed the top level. The rooms are small, but adequate, and the food at the Cascadia serves very good "family style" meals.

We returned a week later and Keith Sternberg was bringing his Northern Pacific steamer into the station area.

BNSF SD70MAC 9695 (nee BN 9695) was the first time I had seen a Grinstein unit in Washington, a livery I am quite partial to.

It was not unusual to see the BNSF Boeing Train go through on its westbound trip to Renton, where the Boeing plant is located. Here is BNSF 5430 in warbonnet livery with its train of Boeing 737 fuselages.

BNSF SD9 17311 (ex. BNSF 61261, exx. BN 6126, exxx. GN 599, nee GN 1731) was donated to the Town of Skykomish several years ago and parked at the north end of the yard. This is how it looked in September 2014.

Riders of the Great Northern and Cascade (including myself at the rear) pass the SD9 as part of the trip around the town park.

The two ends of the locomotive.

A few members had volunteered to re-paint it, and put a great deal of work into making it look like this in August 2017. Its fate is still up in the air as of the time of this writing.

Northern Pacific steam engine original riding cars in their BNSF-style livery in front of the station. The gentleman in the background is Kevin Weiderstrom, the Great Northern and Cascade Railway's President and founding member.

This picture, by Malcolm Keithley, captures Kevin completely. He has put thousands of hours, effort and funding into making this a success. Kevin's work ethic, enthusiasm and dedication and knowledge of the Great Northern Railway is evident in everything he does. In March 2018, he was named "Sky Valley Citizen of the Year" honouring volunteers from a variety of civic and non-profit groups in Sultan, Gold Bar, Index and Skykomish. While humbling for Kevin, it was greatly deserved and it was an honour for both Bob and I to be in the audience and salute someone who had (and continues to do) done so much for the Town of Skykomish, family entertainment and keeping the trains alive in Skykomish for generations to come.

The spring and summer of 2014 saw the west end of the Cascade Tunnel replica be cemented and completed.

Close-up of the Cascade Tunnel sign on a beautiful autumn day.

Bob running Keith's coal-fired steam engine on this day.

The train coming out of the newly-finished Cascade Tunnel.

A little later, the diesel train was emerging from the tunnel.

Myself taking a break during a slow period in the day.

Over the winter months, new riding cars had been built and on opening day 2015, May 2nd, here is #1010.

Another winter and spring project was the eastern portal of the Cascade Tunnel and much progress had been made, and was still being done.

The west portal and the beginning of the landscaping around it.

BNSF SD70MAC 9701 was DPU on an eastbound freight on opening day 2015.

A great surprise was seeing Penn Central SD70ACe 1073, one of the Norfolk Southern heritage units, pass through Skykomish on July 3rd, 2015. This was the first (and only) heritage locomotive of the Norfolk Southern predecessor railroads that I have seen.

A fantastic model of the station at Wellington, famous for the 1910 avalanche, was on display starting on August 29th, 2015. I am unsure as to who built this.

This live steamer from Kitsap, I believe, was visiting and popular with everyone.

Great Northern 1728 also visited this day.

One of the volunteers, Ken Nesland, whose company assisted with the original landscaping, has these beautiful dogs, Emma and Mindy. They travel with him everywhere and are wonderful pets.

The club owned this Milwaukee Road bi-polar electric engine which did not often see the light of day. On May 29th, 2016, it was put into operation.

The electric locomotive at the station.

Stored in the railway's engine shed is a South Shore Line locomotive.

Also here is a Carson Valley Express boxcar.

August 13th, 2016 found Dumas Bay and Pacific 1943 as one of the engines giving rides.

It was always fun to see new engines visit, whether they be privately-owned or brought from another live steam railway operation for the day or weekend.

This day also brought out Sasquatch Valley 2-6-0 3.

Bob Chapman's 0-4-0 4 returned to Skykomish.

This Great Northern F7A and B unit is one that the club owns but was not operable at the time.

Putting a 7 1/2" gauge F unit into its size perspective with the engine shed behind.

Steam and diesel on adjacent tracks at the station on July 23rd, 2017.

Two have two CitiRail locomotives sandwiched between a BNSF locomotive was definitely something to capture on film, which I did on July 29th, 2017.

The Skykomish station was looking very good when Chris Guenzler visited the Great Northern and Cascade Railway this day, during a weekend visit to Washington.

Myself enjoying one of my many rides on this fun and free (donations gladly accepted) live steam railway.

The afore-mentioned engine shed of the Great Northern and Cascade Railway.

While Skykomish is not at a high elevation, it is very close to the Cascade Mountains. As such, the weather can be different in Seattle or Everett than it is in Skykomish. In addition, with the season beginning in May and ending in late October, the range of temperatures and conditions can vary greatly. Witness James J. Hill Day on August 12th, 2017 when umbrellas and jackets were the order of the day. I do not know who owns the TGV 12 but it was definitely the most modern-looking foreign engine I had ever seen.

The weather cleared up for the afternoon and Sasquatch Valley 2-6-0 3 joined the festivities.

Opening day 2018, May 5th included this Camano switcher 23.

The group had been busy over the off-season building this Howe Truss bridge which looked excellent.

Another project was the construction of a snowshed and an additional track where one lap around the site takes you through Cascade Tunnel and the second lap goes through the snowshed.

A train about to go through the new snowshed.

Two steam engines at the station on Opening Day 2018.

Southern Pacific 2764.

Bob at the controls of the coal-fired Northern Pacific 928.

A view looking into the snowshed.

Exiting the snowshed.

The train on the new second track.

Watering one of the steam engines on June 2nd, 2018.

Mike Heath at the controls of the BNSF engine on October 6th, 2018. He frequently spent weekends at Skykomish, operating the diesel.

Keith Sternberg reversing his steam engine to the switch so he can proceed to the steaming bays at the end of another busy day.

Great Northern 1728 came out for Opening Day 2019, May 4th

BNSF 4142 was at the ready.

A Northern Pacific caboose and stock car joined the gathering.

This trio was for display and private running only - no passengers!

Northern Pacific 928 returned to enthrall many.

People young and old came out to enjoy the trains on a lovely spring day.

Another visiting live steam engine.

Northern Pacific was well-represented here today.

It was quite a surprise when I heard my name called, looked up and saw acquaintance and fellow National Railway Historical Society member Doug Scott take my picture! I had known that he, his wife Ellen and a couple of other NRHS members were in the Seattle and Tacoma area on August 3rd, 2019 but it was unknown if any of them would make it to Skykomish due to schedules. He found me in my element, weeding!

Burlington Northern 4064 was here on August 10th, 2019.

Great Northern 600X joined the cast of engines this day.

Great Northern baggage car 5000 was being prepared for display.

Northern Pacific diesel on the point of another train.

Great Northern 1728 returned to give more rides.

Bob Chapman's 0-4-0 3 at the station.

Each time I visited the Great Northern and Cascade Railway, I always had a lot of fun, no matter if I was manning the gift shop, being a conductor, handing out souvenir tickets or spending the day weeding. At the end of the day, the donation money was counted and I usually helped with that before I left for the day.

While Kevin Weiderstrom has been the driving force behind this venture, there are many volunteers who have put a huge amount of effort and time into the project from the hands-on construction, creating the museum and gift shop, keeping and refining the bookkeeping system, donating and cooking the food for the volunteers each week and organizing events such as James J. Hill Days, to name just a few. Like-minded people such as Kevin Vick, Barry Bertram, Rich Hill, Konrad Roeder and his son Chase, the late Curt Young, Michael Pearce, Bob Alkire, Alex Biencik, Alyssa Dietz and her son Josh Stenchever, Lloyd Albin, Fred and Pat Brown and others have made the Great Northern and Cascade Railway what it is today. There are others who are as deserving as those named herein who should be recognized and included for their contributions and volunteerism with this gem of a live steam railway operation. If any of them read this report, I hope they will contact me so I can add them. The names that are listed above are those I worked with or became acquainted with over the years.