In the spectrum of economic development ideas, ranging from good to bad, The Train to the Mountain was neither.
It certainly wasn’t a bad idea to attach Tacoma to Mount Rainier National Park in visitors’ minds. And linking it via steam passenger rail service had benefits as well.
A 1992 News Tribune editorial called it a “particularly promising idea” because “Americans love trains. They love mountains, too.”
But given the economics of the plan, it wasn’t exactly a good idea either. No one, not even U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, could assemble the funding needed to make it happen. Track upgrades and equipment that were to cost $6.8 million in 1992 became $15 million in 2002 and $24 million today.
And had it been built, it would have demanded operating subsidies from someplace, partly from freight service on the same lines, but also from government entities that couldn’t afford it then and can’t afford it now.
That’s probably why its long death rattle may be coming to an end. Tacoma is negotiating to sell some of the track it acquired two decades ago to create the excursion train. The proceeds will help pay off the debt incurred over the years.
So, not good and not bad. But as ideas go, it was certainly a fun one, and one rooted in the city’s history. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Tacoma Eastern Railroad (later purchased by the Milwaukee Road) ran excursion trains to its National Park Inn.
Historian Michael Sullivan wrote in Columbia Magazine: “With elegant new passenger cars, linen and silver service, and a romantic destination that loomed in the distance during virtually the entire journey, the National Park Limited carried more than 100,000 people a year during the 1920s.”
The train left Seattle’s Union Station at 7:30 a.m., passed through Tacoma and reached Ashford at 10:45 a.m. It returned to Seattle by 7:30 p.m. But by 1932, when it became clear that automobiles were the preferred method to reach the mountain, the train service ended.
Based on that history, the proposal to restore passenger service emerged from a period in Tacoma when there was no such thing as a dumb idea, even though in hindsight many fit into that particular file folder. Because the city and the region were so moribund economically, all ideas – especially those that came from the big economic players and the senior politicians – carried equal weight.
So a Washington History Museum shared standing with an ice-skating rink and retail emporium in Union Station. Winning federal support for what would have been one of the smallest national parks in America on the Foss Waterway got the same psychic investment as developing a state university campus.
We suffered other economic development ideas such as funding the Goodwill Games’ swimming and diving complex by combining it with a waterslide and wave pool, locating the Point Defiance aquarium on the Foss, putting the city on the map with a convention center spire, creating a multiplex theater and lifestyle center on Antique Row, and turning over the Tacoma Dome parking lots for the Cosmos office development.
Because the city was trying to emerge from a century-old inferiority complex, we were told to suspend disbelief even when it was not only appropriate but necessary.
The Walk on the Mountain, for example, would have been a “park” on the Foss that would serve as an interpretive center for those visiting Mount Rainier. Visitors would stop in Tacoma first, get oriented, perhaps see the mountain in the distance if it was a rare clear day, and then drive to the park, where there is another interpretive center.
RIP Train to the Mountain. It would have been a cool thing if only someone else would have paid for it. Let its passing call attention to where we were and how far we’ve come. It is a reminder that while creativity is to be encouraged, we can have the confidence to reject dumb ideas, regardless of whose brains they emerge from.Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/politics