N.P. Ry.

Roundhouse Days

The Northern Pacific Railway and the Building of Auburn Yard, 1910-1913

Roundhouse Days

On touring the Palmer Cut-Off at the turn of the century, the Northern Pacific Railway's Second Vice-President John W. Kendrick remarked to his Chief Engineer Edwin H. McHenry in far-off St. Paul, Minn., that the far from complete line contained a notable deficiency; it lacked a shop and yard on its anchor end, Auburn. Scarcely a decade passed before the Northern Pacific found itself having to dig into its coffers and correct the mistake.

               It came at a time that paradoxically could not have been better -- or worse. The onslaught of World War One traffic was still a few years away, and with it the U.S. Railroad Administration's nationalization of American railroads. In 1910, the Northern Pacific had the luxury of building its own yard in its own way, far removed from inflated prices and worker shortages. At the same time, between the years of 1909 and 1916, the railway engaged itself in a huge and costly upgrade of facilities in Washington. Wood frame depots were replaced with brick, the Pt. Defiance Line was built and put into operation, the Head-of-Bay yard in Tacoma constructed and the Northern Pacific's east-west route over the Cascades double tracked from Lester to Easton. In addition a ventilation plant, the largest in the world at the time, was constructed at Stampede Tunnel. Against this backdrop of improvements, the Northern Pacific began a construction project which would change the face of Auburn for more than half a century.


Auburn, 1910

Located at the center of the north-south main line between Seattle and Tacoma, in 1910 Auburn was like most of the towns in southern King and northern Pierce counties -- a small farming community. Around these towns lay some of the richest topsoil in the United States. For years to come local railroads would be hauling the burden of the area -- hops, berries and lettuce -- to all parts of the nation. When the Northern Pacific began construction in 1910, Auburn was still a part of this heritage. The town's population in that year was a mere 957, a figure easily dwarfed by the remote mining burg of Black Diamond, which boasted a population of 2,051. By the time the Northern Pacific was done, just three calendar years from the census, Auburn's population had more than doubled to 1,928. (While this was a monumental increase for the former farming community, it was nowhere near the leap for the diminutive town of Wymer, a Northern Pacific telegraph office and water stop in the middle of the Yakima Canyon. By 1913 it had climbed an astronomical 533 per cent, to three.)

               The Northern Pacific expected to employ 600 workers when its shop and yards were completed, a facility which would easily dominate employment in Auburn. Within months of the yard's opening, some of the most prominent men in town would be the Northern Pacific's agents, yardmasters and foremen.

               What the solons in the Northern Pacific's General Office Building in St. Paul may not have considered was how fully the lives of their employees would become intertwined with the town their railway was in the process of re-shaping. Within the space of a just few short years, Auburn's mayor would be Otto P. Bertsch, a Northern Pacific conductor. (His successor would be John W. “Mac” McKee, the local agent.) Even additions to the town would bear the names of the Northern Pacific's employees. For years hence, many of Auburn's school board members, chamber of commerce members, city council members and mayors would come from the ranks of the Northern Pacific Railway.


Mr. Kenrick's Yard

Rumors of the second coming of the Northern Pacific began to circulate in 1910, with the Auburn Argus reporting on May 14 that the railway was buying up land in town. While the paper asserted that this meant hordes of workers would descend upon the town at any moment, it would actually take more than a year before the first engineer would step off a train. In the meantime, however, unseen agents of the railway busied themselves in acquiring an initial 100 acres for the shop and yards.

               It was more than a month later that the railway made its intentions known. Auburn was to be the new home of a yard, similar to that of the Minnesota Transfer in the Twin Cities. In short this meant that Auburn would become the Northern Pacific's western freight headquarters, a sprawling facility with a general freight distribution point, a series of classification yards, a roundhouse and machine shop and a RIP track (Repair In Place or Repair, Inspect, Paint) for freight car repairs. While local papers relayed this news to the community, citizens were still left to wonder when the great works would commence. The editor of the Argus had a word for the wise on that, too. "Jim Hill isn't paying a thousand dollars an acre to watch the grass grow."

               Most of what would become the yard was still pasture and orchard when Project Engineer George A. Kenrick arrived in June, 1911. Ahead of him stretched more than two years of construction. The yard he had yet to build would need its own water works, power plant, fire department and police. Tracks would have to be laid everywhere: yard tracks, RIP tracks, approach tracks, lead tracks, caboose tracks -- as well as tracks to the major and minor facilities around the yard. Structures to be built included a 25-stall roundhouse, a machine shop and office, sanding, water, and oil facilities, a store house, an ice house, a freight transfer shed, bunk houses for the yard's section crew, a massive coal dock and a passenger transfer depot at East Auburn. Other buildings required moving. The First Street depot would become the yard office, the passenger station would be refurbished and pulled just a few blocks north to Main Street. From the small depot at East Auburn to its southern limit, Auburn Yard would stretch three miles and cost upwards of $750,000.


Of Construction And Contractors

Grading began in the late summer of 1911 and by the spring of 1912 the grounds were ready for structures. Thus, in May, 1912, the contract for the transfer shed was let to Rounds-Hudson Co. They were tasked with constructing a wood frame shed a whopping 40 by 800 feet long, for $20,000. By the end of the month they would have 75 men at work on the shed. That same month six brick layers started work on the machine shop walls. April had already seen the completion of the foundation for the roundhouse. At the southern end of the yard one of the two overpasses being built was held up -- crews had yet to move the telegraph and power lines. That month a 4.9 mile pipeline from Little Soos Creek to plumb the yard buildings was being built by Adam Spotts and a crew of 12 men on behalf of the plumbing contractor.

               Like many Northern Pacific construction projects, companies known to the home office in St. Paul were called in to build at far-flung locations. Auburn was to be no exception to this tradition, for in June the Healy Plumbing and Heating Company of St. Paul was contracted to install power and water lines at the yard. Another minor tradition on the Northern Pacific was the railway's proclivity for using European immigrants for track work. The yards had been started with a force of 140 Greek and Austrian immigrants on track work, by May the entire Greek force had been laid off and replaced by a crew of 40 Bulgarians, as the railway continued its quest to tap the cheapest labor available.

               Summer, 1912, saw the company getting a little ahead of itself -- declaring the yard would be opened by November 1. It turned out to be an underestimation of six months.

               June saw pile driving on the south end pedestrian viaduct and finishing touches being put on the transfer shed, as well as the 500-ton coal dock. Brick work was completed on the machine shop and roundhouse and the timbering of the roundhouse roof was begun. When completed, the roof would be covered with a layer of gravel and tar. Concrete work began on the oil house and cinder pit that month, but three small brick buildings still needed to be constructed to serve the storekeeper's needs. Finally for June, an all-Greek labor gang was back, housed in bunk cars and charged with the task of unloading 30,000 tons of Roslyn coal which had accumulated in the yard.

               In late August the turntable arrived in three cars. Before it could be unpacked, assembled and installed, a two-foot fill was required around not only the turntable pit, but the roundhouse and outlying buildings as well. Arriving that August were the materials to construct a 24- by 44-foot passenger transfer depot, to be put in at East Auburn, as well as a 20- by 80-foot wood frame building to serve the yard foreman, car repairers and store tools. The yard was also being wired for electric light.

               During September the filling and paving of the roundhouse and shop were completed, Spotts' Suise Creek pipeline put in place and distributor lines run out for fire hydrants. Brickwork continued, this time taking the form of a 125-foot smoke stack for the power house. All this work was not done without a human price. The Argus noted that September was particularly bad for the Northern Pacific's workers. Harry Sullivan fell off a handcar and David Jones, a mere 18, had the misfortune of operating a gravel spreader alone. Without another worker to keep pressure on the control lever, it flew back and struck him in the face, flattening his nose.

               Work continued as winter moved in. On the Argus' report of November 29 the Northern Pacific's deadline for the opening of the yard had been surpassed by nearly a month. Construction now focused on fuel storage. Concrete work for a 50,000-gallon fuel oil storage tank had to be completed, as well as cement foundations for the newly mobile Main Street depot. New telegraph poles between Seattle and Auburn were distributed along the line and were ready to be set up. Adam Spotts was back on Soos Creek, this time setting up a dam and intake.

               In the late winter of 1912, Northern Pacific’s forces continued to finish and finalize the yard. January, 1913, bore witness to the completion of several key components: the coal dock, turntable, roundhouse tracks and the concrete work of the fuel oil plant -- though it was still waiting for its 50,000-gallon tank. The cinder pit was being finished and an 800-foot umbrella shed at East Auburn begun. The storehouse was still awaiting construction.

               February saw the opening of the East Auburn passenger transfer station and in March the Northern Pacific announced the yard would finally open on April 10. Still, work remained. The railway had to purchase four lots behind the Green River Hotel on which to place the Main Street depot. As that structure was being re-wired, re-painted and generally refurbished, Auburn's passengers would have to make do with the First Street depot and the freight depot. In early March the Argus reported the machine shop would not open until April 1, due to the late arrival of machinery and the un-readiness of the yard's power plant.


Auburn Yard, 1913

With the arrival of spring the Northern Pacific announced who would be running the yard. General Yardmaster was to be Iver P. Iversen, from Pasco; Assistant Yardmaster would be S. L. Graham, and a crew of three clerks. These five men were to be the first employees of a yard where the Northern Pacific expected to employ 600. Iversen had arrived early in April and his first job he felt, was to try and postpone the opening of the yard. On April 5 he announced to the Argus that he intended to delay the opening by five days. He still did not have scales and his tracks were not ready. He would not have the opportunity however, as Puget Sound Division Superintendent John Joseph McCullough immediately overruled him.

               Thus, sharply at midnight on the April 10, 1913, the unfinished yard opened. Thirty hours and ten minutes later the first train arrived. It must have been quickly handled, as Superintendent McCullough, Division Roadmaster A. F. Olsen, Yardmaster Iversen and no less than ten clerks awaited it. This skeleton crew would shortly be augmented by an additional ten clerks and some 55 switchmen. The RIP tracks and machine shop were still idle however -- all their equipment had yet to arrive.

               By the time of the Auburn Merchant's Protective Association banquet on April 21, Northern Pacific’s officers were ready to roundly proclaim success. In front of 110 area businessmen, agents of other local roads, as well as the Northern Pacific's own Fourth Vice-President George Theron Reid, General Superintendent Ira Burton Richards, Tacoma Division Superintendent William C. Albee and Auburn Mayor James B. Waugh, Superintendent McCullough touted the Northern Pacific's newest accomplishment -- Auburn Yard.

               The yard had an expected monthly payroll of $75,000 for an annual total just shy of a million dollars; it would handle an expected to handle 44 trains a day; classifying 2,150 cars of freight each 24 hours; weighing 600 a day on two 150-ton scales. To keep up with the traffic Auburn would employ a general yardmaster, a night yardmaster, four assistant yardmasters, day and night chief clerks, 20 additional yard clerks and a force of special agents to patrol the grounds.

               The 60 locomotives assigned to the roundhouse would require 35 freight conductors, 120 engineers and firemen, 105 brakemen and an additional 30 trainmen for relief. Eight to ten switch engines would be needed, each with five or six switching crews and 12 extra switchmen. Upkeep of these locomotives necessitated four more foremen, six hostlers, 25 machinists and helpers, ten boilermakers and at least 15 other craftsmen. The shop force would also include inspectors, pipefitters, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, carpenters, boiler washers, fire builders, engine wipers, as well as nearly as many helpers for each of these crafts. The RIP track would require another four foremen, six hostlers, eight inspectors, four oilers, four blacksmiths, four air brake men, ten carpenters, and 60 carmen. The coal dock, sand house, ash pit and other buildings would require yet more foremen and some 40 laborers, wipers and sweepers. The storehouse required a storekeeper, clerks and more laborers.

               This work force of roughly 567 almost equaled Auburn's entire population when the yards were begun, they undoubtedly outnumbered the actual number of the town's working men and women in 1910. The average take-home pay for a member of this new force was expected to be $100 a month.


Moving On

The Northern Pacific and a few miles of railroad track and had just irrevocably changed the face of Auburn, throwing it squarely in the middle of the industrial age. When the first pay day came on May 17, Agent John W. McKee's disbursement was but $30,000. No small sum to be sure, but no where near the reported $75,000 of the superintendent. Another blow, more personal this time, was coming. The yard's first death, of 18-year-old call boy Harry Von Ostrand, fell on May 29. While jumping off the Seattle to Portland Fast Mail, he was caught and crushed.

               Still, the yard's ranks were in the process of filling out, the number of its employees increasing. Even before the yard was finished it was being enlarged. Charles Banks, of the Northern Pacific's new Bureau of Efficiency, announced plans for yet another storehouse at the yards, a 48- by 60-foot structure to be built between the machine shop and the just finished storehouse. The new building would be used to store brick arch for steam locomotives, blacksmith coal, gas pipe and iron stock, all of which were presently stored outside. It also would include a 12- by 24-foot platform for the storage of scrap. One of the last moves was completed that May, as the refurbished passenger depot was slid to its new location.

               Throughout the summer and early fall engines now came in for servicing, as did cars, cabooses, steam shovels and Lidgerwoods. An 800-foot long hedge of roses was planted around the passenger depot, a recent addition to the blocks around the Green River Hotel.

               As the Northern Pacific's rotary snowplows were readied for the snow season, the solons in St. Paul decided it was once again time to send the engineer who had overseen it all on to his next assignment. On October 3 George Kenrick received the order to move on to Olympia. There was work yet to be done on the Northern Pacific.

               Before he and his small family prepared for yet another move in the service of the railway, local agents John McKee and William J. Gregoire, along with a host of others, decided that an old-fashioned going away party was in order. On the October 10, at McKee's home, a group of the new Auburnites gathered to bid farewell to the master builder. The friendships established between Kenrick and the people of Auburn would last for years to come. As he moved on in the service of the Northern Pacific, many Auburn residents followed his progress in their weekly papers.


En Masse

In the meanwhile, the time had come for the Northern Pacific's investment in Auburn to start paying off. The wreck of Extra 4014 West on November 16 allowed Auburn's new craftsmen to demonstrate their prowess. On the Palmer Cut-Off downgrade east of Wynaco Class Z-3 4014 left the track after running over a broken rail. The mountain Mallet plowed some 300 feet down an embankment and piled up 24 cars of grain on top of itself. The train crew escaped injury, but three hobos were crushed in the ensuing pile up. Ironically, Engineer Colby of the errant freight derailed the very next day in Buckley and then hit another train just days later at Cle Elum. The Auburn papers subsequently reporting that he felt "Hoodooed."

               Following the wreck, the mangled cars were shoved aside, the line reopened and the 4014 dragged the last few miles into Auburn. There, Boiler Foreman Lou Burno and his men descended on the behemoth en masse, returning it to service in 24 hours flat. The shop's men, who had come from not only well-known points on the Northern Pacific like Tacoma, Seattle, Ellensburg, Pasco and Mandan, but from far-flung locations such as Ottumwa, Iowa and Georgia as well, were now welded together in their new town, and new yard, Auburn.

               As the Northern Pacific marched towards 1914, World War One, and nationalization, the numbers started to come in on the road's new freight terminal in the far west.

               The first report was the total number of cars handled system-wide. That July, just months after its hasty opening, Auburn had handled 38,982 cars, making it the third busiest point on the Northern Pacific. In a one day examination on August 11, the yardmasters and clerks at Auburn found they had handled 796 cars between 6 A.M. and 6 P.M.

               On November 21 the second report came in, this time on engine service system-wide. Again it showed that only two facilities, Duluth and Tacoma, a mere two of the 26 total across the Northern Pacific, had serviced more locomotives in a month than Auburn. The town's record stood at 1,483 in a month with a cost per engine of $1.53, a figure sixth from lowest overall.

               As much as the Northern Pacific and its workers had become vital part of the town's life and economy, the town now found itself, and quickly began to view itself, as a vital part of the Northern Pacific. Shortly before the yard's completion in the fading summer of 1913, the editor of one of the local papers ventured out to see the thing that had so dramatically changed the life of his town. He quietly noted "There are 150 switch lamps in use every night in the Auburn Yards . . . this makes a beautiful sight."


Author: John A. Phillips, III. Title: Rail-Related Links. URL: www.netcom.com/~whstlpnk/rhdays.html.

© March 20, 2002