First County Railroad

Part 6 of 14: Memories of Long Ago

by Hiram Ellsworth Pearsall

In the spring of 1887, things were pretty quiet, but I finally got through the winter well and hearty–and now spring was here.

There had been no newcomers in the past two years that we had heard of. The population was pretty scattered in the county. Mr. Woods, who was one of the early pioneers, “Allowed” there were about 90 or 100 settlers in that part of the county south and along the river valleys, east to the Cascade Mountains, and outside of Snohomish City. Seventeen of these were white men who were early pioneers and had married native Indian women. The rest of the population was about equally divided between men with families and old bachelors who were holding down claims.

The past winter we got most of our news by reading the Seattle Post Intelligencer, which came up to Snohomish as a weekly.

There was much talk that Snohomish County was going to have a railroad. As near as we could gather from reading the PI, the people of Seattle were disgusted that the Northern Pacific Railroad had passed them up and made their terminal in Tacoma. To retaliate, some of the Seattle financiers formed a railroad company of their own. They called it the Seattle, Lakeshore and Eastern and was supposed to leave Seattle and run east, crossing the mountains, and then on east. The SL&E,however, was only built as far as North Bend. After the great fire of Seattle in 1889, and the panic of a few years later, the SL&E Railroad Company was sold to the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. The SL&E wouldn’t hit Snohomish County.

It was then that a branchline was started called the Seattle and International. The International left the main line at what is now known as Woodinville running through the three counties to the north to connect with the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Canadian Pacific Railway had reached the coast the year before, 1886.

It was a settled fact that the county would have a railroad. The road to British Columbia was to be completed to Snohomish in 1887.

My two brothers had worked the year before on the CPR under Thomas Earl and Company, so they followed the contractors back to Snohomish County. One of my brothers, G.V. Pearsall, took a contract to grade one mile of the line where it crosses the Cathcart district.

My brother, Volney, wanted me to go in with him as a partner. I didn’t know anything about railroading, but he said I had a couple of horses that did. So I joined in with him and put the horses to work on a couple of dump cars.

We employed about 30 men until the last of September. There are none left of that crew living that I know of. If R.J. Stretch of Monroe should read this, he would remember for his father, Jack, who was the first settler in what is now Monroe, worked for us. We kept him pretty busy as he was storekeeper, timekeeper and bookkeeper. He received $30 a month and board.

Charley Williams was a big, good-natured Welshman. He was powder man or “powder monkey” as we called him. His job was to blast out all stumps in the right-of-way, and in a mile of road in that location there were plenty of stumps. Charley surely liked to play a joke on a fellow when he could. Charley had a helper, Jim, by name, who was almost a boy, but he did his work. At that time, they used Judson powder. But, unlike powder, it would not explode with fire, nor would it explode with dynamite cap. By making a cartridge with three sticks of giant powder with a cap and fuse, it was placed in a gunny sack and tightly tied together.

Well, Jim had dug a hole under a large stump and Charley had the powder ready. They put it under the stump. Charley lit the fuse had hollered “fire.” After it was all over, Charley said, “Jim, go get that sack and we’ll use it again.”

Jim started to look all around but couldn’t find the sack. He saw everybody was watching and grinning, and then tumbled to the joke. He came to Charley and said, “Charley, you damn fool, didn’t you know that sack would be blown all to hell?” Then they all laughed and he thought the joke was on Charley.

In September, the grading of the mile was all done but one rock cut. That was a pretty hard job. Well, we just let the job to eight green Swedes. They took the job and bought one of my horses. My old buckskin mare, with the help of those Swedes, finished the job.

We were just cleaning up the job with just two or three men staying on to finish. The office of Thomas Earl and Company was in Seattle and Volney and I would have to go down to Seattle to see about our final settlement. The roadbed was pretty well graded through Woodinville, and the main line to Seattle was all graded but no rails were laid yet. We walked over the line, and on our return back, a little way out from the junction, in what they call the Bear Creek country, we sat down to rest by the railroad.

As we sat talking, we noticed a young growth of sapling fir timber that the right-of-way had cut through. There were many cutting railroad ties along the right of way. Well, why couldn’t we cut ties? There would be a chance to make a little money. We soon found the owner, a homesteader that lived close by. After a little dickering, we bargained for the timber. Along the right-of-way there were many men cutting ties, so we had little difficulty putting several to work hewing ties.

Well, we had bargained for the timber, the ties were being cut, they would have to be put on the right-of-way. I had sold one of the horses. The man over at Bear Creek had no team, nor did he know of a team to be had. Well, Mr. Kelsey was logging off the Monroe site where the high school and junior high now stand [North Kelsey Street area]. Kelsey had three yoke of oxen. He had quit logging for the season, so the only thing to do was to go and see him.

To get up to Kelsey’s was to travel up the south bank of the Snohomish River, just below the fork [vicinity of SR 522 bridge], then holler across to the McClurg ranch. Usually Ellick was soon across the river with his canoe for you. Sometimes he was paid, and sometimes he wasn’t. But it was all the same to Ellick, who was an eight- or nine-year-old half-Indian boy that was sure a dandy with a canoe.

Mr. Kelsey said he would not be using his oxen any more that fall and readily hired one yoke to me. But what could I do with them? I was brought up on a farm and used to horses and cattle. But oxen–I didn’t know their language at all. But having a rope attached to them I managed to coax them down the road to Snohomish, crossed the ferry, and arrived late that night at the camp, but hadn’t learned to talk “ox” yet.

Charley Williams, that big, good-natured Welshman, said he could talk “ox” so the next day we were at Bear Creek, and in due time the ties were piled on the railroad right-of-way, and we were through railroading. That yoke of oxen that were coaxed or driven nearly 25 miles over the Snohomish and King County line, hauled out the first railroad ties to receive a steel rail in Snohomish County.

At that time, I thought nothing about it–it was all in a day’s work–only trying to make a living in a new country. But now, as my memory flies back over the lapse of time, I see the great changes that have taken place. The great increase in population, the prosperity that came to the county, all started from the time of that railroad. I cannot help but think that I did something as a pioneer of Snohomish County.

Many times in the past two years of traveling over the highway between Snohomish and Woodinville near the King County line, I often stop to admire the nice bunch of healthy young fir trees, many large enough to make railroad ties.

–transcribed from the 1944 Monroe Monitor by Nellie Robertson

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