Opening day drew crowds from throughout the region to ride, help run and relive the heyday of the Great Northern & Cascade Railway on Saturday.
Doors opened at the gift shop, visitor center and museum, and operation of the miniature replica railroad commenced for a fifth season this weekend in Skykomish.
Kevin Weiderstrom, Great Northern steam era historian and president of the Great Northern & Cascade Railway nonprofit charity organization, kept schedules for the locomotive trips on track. The railway has steam locomotives fired by propane and coal, as well as gas-powered engines.
“I want to try to keep the railroad history like this alive,” Weiderstrom said.
Construction officially began on the train tracks, and the onsite original depot was converted into the gift shop, visitor center and museum in 2012, all opening in 2013.
That first year it was 90 degrees during the grand opening, Weiderstrom said. Since then, the weather has included a brisk wind, patchy cloud cover and some rain, which does sometimes impact attendance. Still, more people come each year, he said.
All facets of the organization — including membership — expand by about 30-35 percent annually, Weiderstrom said. There is no required fee for visitors, but donations are requested, which are the nonprofit’s primary source of income. All revenue goes back into building additions to the railway replica, and running the converted depot, he said.
The majority of items in the museum were donated by members, local families and visitors, Weirderstrom said. Many that have shown up over the years have come as a surprise. On opening day this year, he was gifted a Great Northern Railway blanket from around 1915 that was likely a family heirloom.
4Culture, a King County arts, heritage and culture organization, provided a community grant that has allowed GN&C Railway to expand visitor center hours to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday each week this summer.
This spring, volunteer crews spent hours each weekend putting in new track and landscaping to get ready for the season opener.
Lopez Island resident Keith Sternberg has volunteered his live-steam hobby locomotive each year since the railway first opened for rides. He said he loves the way the entire program is run, and the rich history of the depot itself.
Sternberg’s interest stems from an early career in the railroad industry. He now teaches younger generations how to run his locomotive to keep the knowledge alive. He said there are only a handful of replica railways like the GN&C Railway in the region that the public can access.
“We do it in miniature here, so we don’t have to use as much coal that way,” he said.
Sternberg makes the long journey almost every other weekend throughout the summer to donate his time and equipment, which he built by hand. He said riders of every age show a strong interest in the vehicle. The younger visitors are especially shocked to discover such large machinery is capable of running without electricity, he said.
The dedicated hobbyist added, “There is something attractive about boiling water.”
Last weekend, Sternberg and the other volunteer engineers took turns taking passengers through the route that includes 3,300 feet of train track, a tunnel that replicates the original Cascade Tunnel at the east entrance, and the current eight-mile tunnel at the west entrance.
Lynn Wright and her granddaughter, Evie Endahl, had a chance to ride all three locomotives this year. Endahl came all the way from Spokane to ride the railway with her grandmother, who is from Monroe.
Endahl said she enjoyed traveling through the tunnel, and the trains all went about the right speed for her. She said on the smaller green live steam engine the plumes of smoke were hard to combat at points.
“I think it was pretty fun,” she said.
The individual engines cost $30,000-40,000 each, Weiderstrom said.
“A lot of people say they are toys — they are not toys,” he said.
Weiderstrom said the plan is to continue to add more landscaping, and to replicate small depots that were established along the original route to the Cascade Tunnel. Another 1,000 feet of track will be finished within the next two months.
Skykomish leases the three-acre property the converted depot and railway sit on from Burlington Northern Sante Fe. The agreement will be in place for about another 45 years, he said.
The long-time Skykomish resident said his interest in the railroads reaches far beyond the 11 years he has lived in town. He said many of the region’s cities and communities would not exist without the railroad.
When the depot first opened in Skykomish, the majority of the town’s population worked for the company, Weiderstrom said. Most of the rides coming and going were freight, and a few carried passengers. Without projects like the GN&C Railway that history is at risk of fading away, he said.
“I think to know where you are going, you have to know where you came from,” he said.
Photos by Kelly Sullivan: Lopez Island resident Keith Sternberg tinkers with his coal-fired locomotive on the Great Northern & Cascade Railway in Skykomish on Saturday, May 6. Lynn Wright and Evie Endahl ride the Great Northern & Cascade Railway on Saturday, May 6.