A Relic Along The Rails

An Enormous Piece Of Whatcom County Railroad History Awaits An Uncertain Future

A railroad turntable sitting upon two sets of wheels on tracks in the forest
Sidelined by a broken dream, this unusual hulk of riveted iron patiently waits in loneliness for a more hospitable, functional place to call home. (D. Spangler)

Hiding under damp maples in a gloomy and forgotten, forested byway of Whatcom County, WA, and far removed from the self-absorbed roar of the freeway, the myopic hustle of box store parking lots and frenetic busy-bee intersections, is this incredible piece of railroad equipment. Some readers will recognize it as an antique railroad turntable. A remarkable relic, I happened upon it on a rainy, autumn history outing in 2020, down the sodden, sagging Lake Whatcom Railway tracks.

Deep in that drenched, woodland valley, it looms larger than life, cradled upon two temporary sets of railroad wheels known as “trucks.” It is parked on an abbreviated zig-zag rail siding paralleling the old Northern Pacific Railroad’s branch line tracks that once served Bellingham and other settlements once pulsing along the line from Wickersham, WA. As I marveled at this unexpected, quiet behemoth, I felt dwarfed by its moldering majesty as rain pitter-pattered the sunsets of orange and yellow leaves covering the wet ground all around me. Many thoughts swirled around in my head. I felt like it was saying something to me, but since the veil of the forgotten was too thick, its tale was inaudible. Why was it there, of all places? Was it from Bellingham? What was it trying to tell me?

My imagination’s eyes darted back along the dotted-line of its likely journey. I was impressed by the fact that someone, using a giant’s “labor of love” tool kit, went out of their way to remove this hulk from its original location and haul it to its present spot only to have it rust silently. This was an enormous task, and likely executed by those extraordinary little people with big hearts, those loving volunteers with some free time, skills, and pick-up trucks full of passion, mere ants in contrast to a major corporate railroad with an army of workers, budget-bags of money, and railyards full of capable, willing equipment. But, after they brought it to where it currently sits, something somewhere along this unknown story went sadly awry — I could sense it — and I was overcome at once with a yearning desire to give this amazing chunk of metal a voice.

It seemed relieved to have been noticed. As another September leaf fell to the earth, I took a few photographs, and I left the mysterious iron giant and its lonely rail line to the watchful eyes of the dripping forest.

According to the railroad enthusiast organization, American-Rails.com, turntables like this example are anachronisms, and only a few are actually in use by modern railroads anymore. Following on England’s heels, the earliest turntable in the United States came to life during the 1840s. Its design and purpose were straight-forward. Since American steam locomotives did not operate efficiently in reverse, turntables were used to turn the engines around and often were placed right outside of a roundhouse where locomotives were parked and serviced. A turntable also required much less room than the sizable space requirements for a “wye” — a curved, triangular layout of track that achieved the same goal of maneuvering an engine and its tender to face the opposite direction. The turntable concept operated as a simple, slow-spinning bridge that rotated upon a central axis-bearing in a round pit five to ten feet deep. The edge of the pit was typically ringed with a circular rail for the supportive sets of small rail wheels at both ends of the turntable. The spinning table was so well designed that one or two railyard workers could turn an entire locomotive by hand, earning it the moniker “Armstrong.” As steam locomotives grew longer and heavier — some eventually weighing up to an incomprehensible 600 tons — the weight and the length of the tables increased with them. This necessitated the mechanization of many turntables powered by hydraulics, pneumatics, or electricity. But then, over the following one-hundred years, technologies changed. As diesel-electric locomotives began to rule the rails, and steam locomotives were phased out completely, turntables were no longer needed; Diesel-electric locomotives were designed to run both forward or in reverse.

As the middle of the 20th century proceeded, the use of turntables and their existence began to disappear nationwide. In our area, as late as 2018, the abandoned mining townsite of Monte Christo, deep in the mountains east of Everett, WA, still had a short, shallow turntable in place. Even after nine decades of neglect and being cut off from a continent of rails, it was still spinnable by hand. For all I know, it may be there today, kinetically pleasing hikers and the curious with its titanic groans. That being said, most of the existing railroad turntables still in operation in the U.S. are kept alive by small tourist excursion railroads and railroad museums, thankfully hellbent on keeping this history alive.

Our local Lake Whatcom Railway is one of them. An excursion railroad organization located in Wickersham, WA, its beginning lies along the steel path of an impassioned railroad enthusiast named Frank Culp, a career railroad man who had worked for the Milwaukee, Northern Pacific, and the Burlington Northern. At a vulnerable moment in history, he saw the opportunity to preserve — lock, stock, and barrel — an entire working section of the Northern Pacific Railroad, founding Lake Whatcom Railway (LWR) in 1970. This entailed a train yard, structures, equipment, tracks, and rolling stock, including two passenger coaches built in 1910 and 1912 — all genuine artifacts once owned and vacated by the Northern Pacific. Even Lake Whatcom Railway’s once active centerpiece— steam engine #1070 — was the last steam locomotive retired from regular service by the grand old N-P railroad.

Since the tracks and right-of-way where this turntable is parked are owned and maintained by Lake Whatcom Railway, I wrote to them to see if they could color in some of the blanks spots in this turntable’s story. Bob Culp immediately responded, delighting my soul with a few archived photos and details of its history regarding their railroad. In addition to that volley of who, what, and when, what follows is what I could glean from online railroad history sites, a 2008 issue of the Bellingham Business Journal, and an excellent book off of my good ol’ history shelf, The Early Railroads of Whatcom County Washington Territory, by Karl T. Kleeman and William L. Rink.

It is indeed a piece of Bellingham Bay and British Columbia Railroad (B.B.&B.C.) history. Incorporated in 1883, the nascent railroad, in its push to meet the Canadian Pacific at Sumas, WA, built a roundhouse and an earlier turntable at their rail service yard at Laurel and Railroad Avenue’s intersection in 1891. At some later point, the B.B. & B.C. replaced the older turntable with a newer, sturdier one, but when exactly when this occurred, I am not sure. Since the image below, taken in 1911, shows a newer, crisp-looking, riveted iron turntable in operation matching the one sitting on LWR’s siding, it is safe to bet that these two dates bookend the window in which this would have taken place.

In this Sandison image taken a year before the Milwaukee Road took the reigns, B.B.&B.C.’s engine #3 is parked for a photoshoot on what appears to be a relatively young turntable. While it is difficult to say for sure in the black-and-white photograph, the turntable’s painted iron sides look to be in good condition, and the ties and top deck are undamaged, dead-flat, and sharp like new wood. (Photo courtesy of Whatcom Museum Archives)

I was curious just how it arrived in Bellingham. Upon one side of the turntable’s span is mounted a builders plate proudly declaring it was “Built By Philadelphia Turntable Company” with the serial number #335. Since the B.B. & B.C. was by then linked with the rest of the western hemisphere freshly zippered together with a multitude of railroads, it is likely the long, prefabricated span weighing possibly 30 to 40 tons was freighted over rails from back east to its new home on Bellingham Bay.

First stamped into a mold of sand then cast in molten iron, this cold badge proudly proclaims its maker in a no-nonsense, industrial typeface that allowed for a touch of flourish to only the numbers. I wonder how long ago the manufacturer disappeared into the wispy valleys of time. (D. Spangler)

Which route this would have taken is not known. It could have been through Canada by way of the Canadian Pacific Railway or over the Cascades via other American rail lines. Though I have my doubts, it is plausible it could also have been shipped in the belly of a coal smoke-belching freighter on a lengthy voyage “around the horn” of South America. This would have occurred several years before the opening of that herculean project and time-saving waterway, the Panama Canal. However it arrived, what an interesting journey in that earlier era it must have been.

When the cumbersomely named Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, & Pacific Railroad —graciously known with fewer verbal trip hazards as “The Milwaukee Road” — purchased the B.B. & B.C. railroad in 1912, it ran it under a newly created subsidiary named the Bellingham & Northern. Under this new owner, trackage and facilities were expanded. In 1918, the Bellingham & Northern came full circle when it was devoured by its own creator, The Milwaukee Road, who ran the line as their own for the next sixty years.

For decades after its installation, the turntable was a tireless beast of burden for The Milwaukee Road. Its usefulness, however, must have been greatly diminished over time as it calmly reached the outer bounds of its inevitable obsolescence. After all, the two shiny-new diesel-electric locomotives that arrived in 1952 to replace the Milwaukee Road’s steam engines must have sounded its death knell.

As the 20th-century played out, transcontinental railroads began shrinking nationwide, trimming unprofitable routes and services to meet the steep challenges of a new era. Bellingham, a city once sewn together by a slew of active rail lines and spurs, was no exception to this gentle retreat of the railroads. From the 1940s through the end of the 1990s, track after track was abandoned and trolly, interurban, and rail services were regionally curbed or eliminated. Local rail companies that helped develop Whatcom County vanished in the wake of closures, bankruptcy, or the eventual, inevitable absorption by more prominent rail entities like The Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, and The Milwaukee Road. But two of these corporate giants, the Great Northern and the Northern Pacific, still found it difficult to thrive. The two were eventually consumed in 1970 by the consolidating mouth of seven other defunct rail lines known as the freshly-minted empire of Burlington Northern. In 1996, after merging with a tenth struggling railroad, the Santa Fe, the railroad was officially renamed the Burlington Northern Sante Fe, or BNSF.

That left The Milwaukee Road. In 1977, after the financial woes that haunted it most of its life, the local, stand-alone remnant of the old railroads filed for its third bankruptcy. By 1980, having abandoned all of its tracks west of Miles City, MT, it finally slinked back to its birthplace in the midwest, where it was soon absorbed by the Soo Line Railroad. Listed somewhere on a piece of paper in those once-important files of that withering Milwaukee Road was this turntable. I wonder when it was last used.

In the vacuum of the Milwaukee Road’s departure, the old Railroad Avenue roundhouse facility was on the verge of official abandonment, and the unwanted iron turntable was no doubt in the way and doomed to be scrapped. Lake Whatcom Railway wasted no time, purchasing the turntable to be reinstalled at “a proposed roundhouse and turnaround on the lake end” of their tracks. With such specific infrastructure plans in the works, I can imagine that Frank and Bob Culp had kept a close eye on the status of this unappreciated railroad gem for years.

The long period of forlorn disuse and neglect is striking in this south-facing image from the 1970s. Here we see the turntable in its natural habitat many years before its removal, and its historic partner, the long-abandoned roundhouse, is still standing. During the 1980s, the roundhouse was demolished, and by 1988 its remaining concrete pad and deep locomotive service pits had sprouted a picturesque scene of alder trees, broken bottles, blackberry vines, and a tilted, abandoned car resting on a garden of trash. What an odd juxtaposition this was where once a goodly part of early Whatcom County’s economic livelihood literally pivoted. (Photo courtesy of Lake Whatcom Railway)

Shortly after they completed the transaction, a team of LWR folks dismantled the turntable, including the center bearing, circle rail, ties, top rails, and deck. While the smaller parts were trucked over roads to Lake Whatcom Railway’s rail yard, where they still sit today, the heavier components and the turntable itself were craned onto a railroad flatcar waiting nearby.

In this Jack Carver image dated July 31, 1980, the crew prepares the turntable to be extracted from its 90-year-old nest. I wonder if the wooden retaining wall of the pit was salvaged as well. Note how many more panes of glass were broken in the roundhouse’s upper windows since the 1970s image above. (Photo courtesy of Whatcom Museum Archives)
Looking north, the turntable span is skillfully craned onto a waiting flatcar at the former Milwaukee Railroad turntable pit; its bags packed for the short journey and an unexpected, multi-decade layover ahead. The active G-P paper mill can be clearly seen beyond the old railyard’s sand house in the background. Sunny and airy as this scene was, today it is a disorientingly shady canyon of apartment buildings. (Photo courtesy of Lake Whatcom Railway)

From the short cliff of the old turntable’s crater, this assemblage was hauled by Burlington Northern to Lake Whatcom Railway in Wickersham. LWR’s steam locomotive #1070 took over at the pick-up point, pulling the turntable to what everyone hoped and believed were temporary accommodations.

Since then, it has remained right where ornery time left it.

But, as mentioned earlier, the visionary folks at Lake Whatcom Railway never intended the turntable and its associated bones to be hidden away at some dead-end, forested corridor of a dank, industrial morgue. Instead, they envisioned it to be a living, breathing part of a historical railroad to share with the public.

The turntable arrives upon a flatcar at Wickersham. Lake Whatcom Railway’s steam locomotive, #1070, ever the workhorse, is seen here working its magic after the handoff from Burlington Northern. (Photo courtesy of Lake Whatcom Railway)

But before that dream could become a reality, an escalating right-of-way conflict with a neighboring property owner began to boil over like an unfriendly, overheated pot of oatmeal. After a series of courtroom proceedings and appeals, LWR was legally barred from using a short section of right-of-way they had been using for years. In the aftermath, the rails and ties along the disputed section of right-of-way were pulled up, and fences built across the remaining old grade, effectively cutting their railroad into two segments without any access to the other end of their line. While LWR continued excursion trains on their lengthier eastern section, this ruling silenced the imminent possibilities of a working turntable on their west end.

Who knows if and when fate will untie this unfortunate knot.

Keeping history alive is not easy in a national culture that relegates so many irreplaceable sites and artifacts to that dangerous cliff in the margins. No matter how infrequent a few weekend excursion trains a year it may be, not everyone wants history saved from the brink of loss being publically celebrated in their backyard. But as anyone who investigates — be it an archaeologist, a crime investigator, or any other researcher who seeks to capture the past — knows that time is erosive. What remains of an event, person, place, or thing oxidizes all too fast, dissolving into shadows so dark it can elude any recovery attempt. The result is that history is always at risk, and legal roadblocks can be one of those quagmires where history vanishes forever. Saving the historically worthy requires many things: The resources of allies; Sympathetic neighbors; The approval of officials; A stable economy and government; A nation at peace; And the helpful support of the law. Since a few Lake Whatcom Railway neighbors have had claims that the courts have so far upheld and that a century’s-worth of railroad right-of-way documents can be easy to interpret in favor of either side, I dearly hope that this is one 70,000 lbs. piece of historical equipment that does not fall through a crack as thin as a court document ruling against it.

So, where does that leave the turntable? Heavily padded with pillows of moss and its rusty, riveted sides speckled with constellations of lichen, it sleeps listless and in limbo at the semi-defined, tangled end of a legal right-of-way lawsuit spun for nearly four decades. I worry if it’s once freely spinning end wheels will irreversibly petrify themselves to the turntable to ever be freed again. After forty years of waiting in damp stillness, in that shaded, deciduous cathedral, a group of maples has leaned into it for so long that one tree trunk has morphed its mouth around one corner of the iron span, like a snake attempting to swallow a 19th-century bridge. Whether this is the end of the story or only the middle point in a saga whose pages only the future can turn is not easy to say. But, here on this legal plateau, the impassioned stakeholders of Lake Whatcom Railway are still patiently holding their breath as they standby for a better outcome. Summing up the situation, Bob Culp ended with this: “Still waiting for the world to be set right again to reuse [the turntable] for its intended purpose.”

He’s certainly not alone in his sentiments. I do wonder if someday both parties can iron out a workable compromise. A die-hard fan myself of preserving what remains of sensitive history, I think I may fill my lungs with a heady swig of air myself and join them in their wait.

In the meantime, like lush flowers pushing themselves through the pointless pavement of easy-come cynicism, there are positives to keep in mind, and with those, we forge ahead. We still have Lake Whatcom Railway. Thanks to them, the turntable was never melted back into seventeen forgettable, four-door sedans. Furthermore, though the turntable’s next chapter has yet to be written as it sits frozen in time, it is still there to see. And while there are no plans for the remainder of 2021 to open up their railroad for passengers, there is a good chance that when the tyranny of COVID19 and its goon-squad variants are beaten back from a worldwide pandemic to a mere annoyance, Lake Whatcom Railway should resume train excursions on certain weekends in the coming years. I have ridden their train several times, and for anyone who enjoys getting a genuine taste of another era, I recommend it highly. It is a unique, scenic experience for all ages and certainly worth the beautiful drive to get there. We are lucky to have Frank and Bob Culp and their dedicated group of people at Lake Whatcom Railway sharing their passion for history with us all.

For those who someday decide to take a ride in a Lake Whatcom Railway’s passenger coach, keep your eyes peeled. You just might get a glimpse of the groggy giant picturesquely parked in the trough of time.

History can be connective. Since I am moved by what remains, I am documenting and sharing remnants of Pacific Northwest history before they vanish forever.

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