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RyPN Articles July 1, 2006
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Milwaukee Railroad Depot in South Cle Elum, Washington Reopens July 1 After Seven-Year $1 Million Rehabilitation

The former Milwaukee Railroad depot in South Cle Elum, Washington will have its grand re-opening at 1pm Saturday, July 1 after a seven year, $1 million rehabilitation. The project has been shepherded by the Cascade Rail Foundation (CRF) in partnership with Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, which owns the building and 12-1/2 acres of the former railyard. The cost of the rehabilitation has been approximately equally shared between the CRF and its donors, and State Parks.

South Cle Elum depot in 1912, viewed from the north down 8th St. Photo courtesy of Ellensburg Public Library.

The Milwaukee Railroad was noted for having the first long distance mainline electrification in North America, 440 miles in Montana and Idaho, and 220 miles in Washington state, from Othello to Seattle and Tacoma. The depot, electric substation and three substation operators' residences at South Cle Elum represent the largest remaining collection of Milwaukee building structures in the western United States, and were recognized as a National Historic District in 2004.

Residence "Bungalows" of sub-station operators at Cle Elum, 1925. Photo by Lionel Sikes, courtesy of Iron Horse Inn Bed and Breakfast.

Built in 1909, the depot (known as Cle Elum on the Milwaukee, though the "real" Cle Elum was just north across the Yakima River) had served as a community hub until 1974. During those 65 years, the depot hosted a restaurant, locally known as "The Beanery," which provided food service to train and engine crews at this division point. The restaurant operated 24/7 all through that time, under the management of the Interstate Company, which ran numerous beaneries for the Milwaukee Railroad. It was the only restaurant open late at night in northern Kittitas County, and was where high school students would bring their dates after a Friday night football game, or where errant husbands would go to sober up after the bars closed. Unlike many Interstate operations, the South Cle Elum beanery was operated under subcontract by local residents and known for its high quality food service.

Depot in the 1950s. George Katalinich Jr photo.

In 1974, the Milwaukee initiated a crew run-through agreement that allowed train and engine crews to operate from Tacoma to Othello, and the depot was relegated to being a train order station only, no longer a division point.

The undertaking began in the fall of 1999, just after State Parks had purchased the depot. A group of volunteers formed through the Milwaukee discussion list on Yahoo Groups, and approached State Parks about "helping out." The first task was removal of over seven tons of trash (including an abandoned VW) that had accumulated on the site since the depot's closure in 1980, when the Milwaukee abandoned its Pacific Extension and the tracks were torn up shortly thereafter.

Depot in tarps in 1999. Bob Freeman photo.

The initial volunteer group included an architect, contractors, historic preservation specialists, a fundraiser and nonprofit organization specialist, and general rail enthusiasts. Funding was secured to build a new foundation for the building, which was suffering from a sagging post and beam foundation, showing as much as six inches of "droop." M. A. Mortenson Construction and lead Mortenson volunteer Marty Glass provided leadership to guide an eclectic group of volunteers in foundation construction, while the USDA Forest Service provided funding to hire a building mover to raise the building, and then lower it on its new foundation. This work was accomplished in 2001.

Dormer and peak de-roofed in 2003. Mary Pittis photo.

A $164,000 grant from the federal TEA-21 program was matched by the state legislature with another $160,000 to fund the exterior and interior rehabilitation of the building. BOLA Architecture + Planning of Seattle was selected to provide design and construction drawings.

Revamped depot in 2006. Donovan Gray photo.

Cochran Electric of Seattle, lead by volunteer Dick Pittis, took on the task of providing all the electrical work, including soliciting donations from their suppliers for all the necessary equipment, a contribution valued at close to $100,000. CRF vice-president Brian Lee, a licensed contractor, has headed up management of the rehabilitation for the last several years, and now serves as manager of the depot's operations.

Sad caboose shack. Photo by Phil Schimerer.

Reconstructed caboose shack in 2006 with 1946 rib-side caboose. Photo by David Newcomb.

Annual funding support has been provided by the Albert Casey T. O'Neil Foundation of Minnesota and the Dean S. Edmonds Foundation of New York/Virginia. Close to 100 individuals have also made contributions, along with steady support from the Town of South Cle Elum (pop. 580) through its hotel/motel tax fund. Additional hotel/motel tax funds have been granted by Kittitas County.

Cle Elum rail yard site looking north west just prior to the completion of the coast division electrification, 1918-1919. Photo courtesy of Iron Horse Inn Bed and Breakfast.

Only remains of the roundhouse are the turntable pit and inspection pit foundations. Donovan Gray photo.

A 2,200 foot-long interpretive trail has been constructed through the former rail yard, with 18 interpretive signs developed by CRF board member Mark Borleske and funded by a lead grant from Mark and Rae Lembersky of Seattle, supplemented with a grant from the Union Pacific Foundation, the National Park Service and in-kind support from the Lake Easton State Park staff. The interpretive signs tell the story of the Milwaukee Railroad's Pacific Extension and the rise and fall of the rail yard in South Cle Elum. The trail is wheelchair accessible.

1946 Milwaukee rib-side caboose donated by the Greater Othello Chamber of Commerce. Donovan Gray photo.

In 2005, the Greater Othello Chamber of Commerce donated a 1946 Milwaukee rib-side caboose to the Cascade Rail Foundation, which was installed in August at South Cle Elum. Othello and South Cle Elum, end points of a common division, are the only points on the former Milwaukee line to host identical cabooses! The towns had a long, socially connected history that the two cabooses commemorate.

The CRF has negotiated a 20-year operating agreement with Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission to manage development of the rail yard. The agreement is the first of its kind in State Parks' history, and is serving as a model for other community-based partnerships with State Parks to help expand its ability to serve the citizens of the state on a static budget.

In 2006, the CRF received the statewide planning award from the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, in recognition of no less than ten formal plans that have been developed over the past seven years to guide development at the Rail Yard. All work has been performed according to the federal Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties.

Cle Elum sub-station circa 1918-1920. Photo by Lloyd Lawson, courtesy of Gene H. Lawson Collection.

Future plans include rehabilitation of the electric substation into a substantial museum telling the story of the railroads (Milwaukee, and to a lesser extent, Great Northern and Northern Pacific) that crossed the Cascade Mountains. This $2 million undertaking is scheduled to open in 2013, coinciding with Washington State Parks' Centennial celebration. A strategic plan was developed in 2005 to guide the next 20 years of the rail yard's development, and is available for download at this link, under the "Document Download" tab on the left menu. Additional Milwaukee rail equipment will be restored and moved onto the site as funding becomes available.

The depot will be open 7am-3pm six days a week (closed Wednesdays) until early September, and then will reopen in May, 2007. Breakfast and lunch is served in the Depot Café (seating 42), and there is a modest railroad history exhibit in the former waiting room area. In 2007, mountain bike rentals will be available, operating out of the former freight room. Special dinner events are scheduled from time to time (check the calendar of events at the CRF website) or at this link. The facility is available for special events and catering services are offered as well.

The project stands as a testament to what a handful of determined, yet skilled, volunteers can do given the right degree of persistence, faith, skill and conviction, to save a small, yet very valuable part of the history of "America's Most Resourceful Railroad."

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Donovan Michael Gray is President of the Cascade Rail Foundation and serves as Preservation Planner for the Washington State Capitol complex in Olympia, Washington.