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Spirit of Washington Dinner Train ~ 2004, 2005 and 2007

by Elizabeth Guenzler

The Spirit of Washington Dinner Train operated in King County, Washington for fifteen years from 1992 to 2007. Guests enjoyed an excursion through the communities east of Lake Washington from Renton to Woodinville and back, with a dose of history and a good meal along the route.

The Temple family purchased a shortline freight railway they called the Washington Central Railroad. Entrepreneurial sorts, they decided to try an experiment in rail excursions. They leased a set of old dining cars from the Canadian Railroad Historical Association and offered a dinner excursion along the Yakima River Canyon south of Ellensburg for the duration of the Ellensburg Rodeo in 1988. The trip proved so popular that the Temples continued the enterprise the following spring, even adding a second route from Kennewick to the Hogue Cellars winery in Prosser. With the 1989 centennial of Washington's statehood in mind, the family christened the train Spirit of Washington.

May 1992 found the Temple family moving the dinner-train operation to Puget Sound with hopes of benefitting from a larger market and a year-round temperate climate. Eric Temple, with a degree in business administration from the University of Washington, was put in charge of the operation. The little-used Woodinville Subdivision of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line offered an excellent route between the City of Renton at the south end of Lake Washington and the popular wineries of the Sammamish Valley near the lake's north end. The Temples brought their collection of vintage engines and passenger cars across the Cascades and set up shop at the Renton Depot, contracting with BNSF for use of the line and retrofitting the dormant passenger station to serve as a welcome center.

The tracks from Renton to Woodinville and points north, once dubbed the Lake Washington Belt Line, were completed in 1904 by Northern Pacific Railway as a freight corridor, with some passenger service. All passenger travel along the route had ceased entirely decades before the coming of the Dinner Train, which offered a three-and-a-half-hour excursion six days a week from Renton to Woodinville and back, approximately twenty-four miles each way. Guests were served dinner on the way up and coffee and dessert on the way back. Soon a weekend brunch train was added. The initial destination in Woodinville was the Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery. After a year or two, when the active event schedule at that winery became an obstacle, the Dinner Train moved on to the Columbia Winery, where guests had a break of about forty-five minutes to stretch their legs, perhaps taste some wine and browse in the winery gift shop.

Views along the journey ranged from the industrial to the scenic. Riders experienced the trip along the 102 foot tall Wilburton Trestle across the Mercer Slough in Bellevue. The train traveled under both Interstate 90 and State Route 520, took in the ever-changing skyline of downtown Bellevue, chugged through the residential neighborhoods of Kirkland, an ended up in winey Sammamish Valley.

Wait staff provided running commentary on the passing sights, expounding on the abrupt drop in the lake's shoreline occasioned by the opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in 1916; the building in 1904 by the Northern Pacific Railway of the Wilburton Trestle, at 975 feet the longest wooden trestle in the Pacific Northwest; the industrial roots of Kirkland; and the growing wine industry of the bucolic Sammamish Valley.

Over the train's run, The Spirit of Washington strove to be a good neighbour, providing charitable gifts worth more than a million dollars to the community, both cash and ticket donations. As the century turned, BNSF looked to reduce its responsibilities by abandoning the Woodinville Subdivision. Things came to a head when the Washington State Department of Transportation announced plans to demolish the Wilburton Tunnel over I-405 in 2008 in order to widen the freeway. The tunnel, actually a lid over I-405, had been built in 1972 to convey the BNSF tracks over the freeway. Removal of the lid would by necessity break the rail line. Any re-routing of the track would take some time and effort, something neither WSDOT nor BNSF was interested in doing.

Eric Temple had been actively exploring his options, including the possibility of moving the headquarters of the Dinner Train to Bellevue, Redmond, or Woodinville, with a run heading up into Snohomish County. Ultimately, he accepted an offer to move the entire operation to Pierce County.

On July 31st, 2007, the Spirit of Washington made its last run out of Renton with many bystanders waving farewell. Three days later, on August 3rd, the train began a new excursion route between Tacoma's Freighthouse Square station and Lake Kapowsin. Hopes were high that the new route might eventually be extended as far as Mount Rainier. However, after ten months, the enterprise was scrapped as unprofitable.

My First Visit -- May 16th, 2004

My ticket for this evening's ride. I spent the weekend with my friend Bob and a long-time friend of his joined us. Before we boarded, the obligatory photographs of the train's consist were taken, all by Bob Alkire.

Washington Central FP9 84 (ex. Maryland Area Regional Commuter 7184, exx. Baltimore & Ohio 4472, exxx. B&O F3 165, 1948).

Spirit of Washington Dinner Train "Olympic Crusader" (ex. Canadian National club-observation 302, 1964, nee Reading coach-lounge 5 1937). Acquired by Washington Central in 1988.

Columbia Basin Railway 102 "Cascade" (nee ATSF). Purchased in 1988 from New Jersey Department of Transportation.

CBRW 101 "Chateau Ste. Michelle" (nee ATSF El Capitan car). Built 1937 and purchased in 1988 from New Jersey Department of Transportation.

CBRW 106 "Mt. Rainier" (ex. WCRC 800, exx. Falcon Safety 800, exxx. Auto Train 800, nee UP dome diner 8000, 1955.

CBRW 103 "Columbia Winery" (ex. Seattle North Coast "Dungeness River", exx. AMTK 3082, nee ATSF chair-club lounge 1398, 1937.)

CBRW 100 Super Dome "City of Renton" (ex. Princess Tours 7093 "Mt. Elias", exx. Tour Alaska "Mt. Elias", exxx. "Lindsay M" part of a restaurant complex in Shreveport, LA, exxxx. AMTK 9383, nee MILW 59.

CBRW 104 "City of Seattle" (ex. Golden Gate Railroad Museum 1984, exx. Espirit de Corps Sportswear 1984, exxx. AMTK 9351, exxxx. ATSF 501, nee ATSF "Plaza Laguna" (Name was never applied).

CBRW power car, a former Amtrak baggage car. Numbers unknown.

CBRW GP38 2814 (ex. WCRC 2184, exx. CSX 2184, exxx. SBD 2184, exxxx. SBD 6275, nee Clinchfield 2004) We boarded the "City of Seattle" and enjoyed a delicious salmon dinner as the train made its way to Woodinville. None of us drink wine so waited outside during the layover then partook of dessert on the return trip. Everything about my first experience on the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train was fantastic and I hoped to come here again.

May 7th, 2005

That opportunity would occur just fifty-one weeks later.

Myself in front of the train before its departure.

Bob and I ready for our second dinner train experience on this route.

WCRC FP9 84 and the train at Renton. We boarded the "City of Seattle" and had a lovely time on the train and enjoyed the chicken entree with dessert on the way back.

WCRC FP9 82 (ex. MARC 82, exx. MARC 7182, exxx. B&O 4582, nee B&O FP7 939) and the train at Woodinville.

The Columbia River winery at Woodinville, the layover location of the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train.

June 23rd, 2007

This trip was to take Bob's friends from Spring Hill, Kansas, who were visiting us in Lynnwood. We chose the lunchtime departure and this time were seated in the "Cascade". The salmon was as delicious as before and the four of us had an excellent time.

The side of the Spirit of Washington Dinner train depot at Renton.

WCRC FP9 84 and its train ready for the noon departure.

CBRW club-observation car 39 "Olympic Crusader" (ex. CN 302 1964, nee Reading 5 1937). This would be the last time we rode the Dinner Train from its terminus at Renton, since it was re-located to Tacoma in August 2007.

August 3rd, 2007

This was the first run of the Dinner Train on its new route, from Tacoma's Freighthouse Square 23.2 miles to Lake Kapowsin. Chris Guenzler was going to be in the area and we made plans for him to join us for Saturday's and Sunday's activities.

Anthony was our waiter this evening.

Myself and Bob ready to enjoy our last Spirit of Washington Dinner Train experience.

Views of the train as it climbed Tacoma Hill. Between courses, I walked through the train and took a few pictures.

The interior of one the cars during the stopover at Lake Kapowsin.

Lake Kapowsin as seen through the trees.

Evening views of the lake as seen from our table in the dome car.

Looking into CBRW 101 "Chateau Ste. Michelle".

Interior view of one of the coach cars.

The staircase of one of the dome cars. It had been an excellent experience and while not as scenic as the original route, the three of us enjoyed ourselves immensely.

I was disappointed when the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train finally shut down. The area, and the state, lost a large and unique tourist attraction. I am very glad I had four opportunities to partake in the atmosphere and ambience of the dinner train, and wish there were more such operations still around.