From the mid-1860s, getting crops (hops) to market produced challenges for the Puyallup area’s farmers. By the spring of 1877, the Northern Pacific Railroad began to construct a rail line from Tacoma through Puyallup to coal mines in Wilkeson. Service was one train a day, in the evening.
In an interview published in the Puyallup Valley Tribune on Sept. 15, 1939, engineer W.A. Fairweather of Puyallup said the first train’s engine was a Pittsburg 34-ton wood burner with brass fittings and brass bands around the boiler. His daily load often was very light: on one trip he carried a non-revenue inspector, and on another, an empty beer keg being returned to the Shafer brewery in Steilacoom.
For years, the dismal transportation link between Puyallup and Tacoma caused considerable consternation. The carriage road along the river, consisting primarily of mud and stumps, became virtually impassable during the winter. The improved train service was adequate for freight, but much less so for passengers, many of whom were visiting hop buyers and sellers.
Dennis Larsen reported that Ezra Meeker, who frequently had to make trips to Tacoma and Seattle on this train, found the experience distinctly unpleasant. Service was twice a day in unheated, closed boxcars with simple wooden benches to perch on. Passengers crowded in shoulder to shoulder, and Ezra wrote that the summer heat in these closed cars and the physical closeness of the passengers to each other resulted in a “...profusion of unpleasant odors.”
For those and other reasons, Ezra promoted a competing, narrow-gauge commuter line from south Tacoma to Puyallup.
In the late 1880s, his preferred route, across tribal land and through the valley, was stymied by lobbying efforts of representatives of the Northern Pacific. His next option was to build a longer route along the ridge, later called the Grapevine Line.
In the early 1900s, additional service was provided by a short-line electric trolley operated by the power company. By about 1915, a bus company was competing with the trolleys.
The original railroad station in Puyallup was located at Meeker Junction, where the Tacoma Southern line currently breaks away from the main line alongside East Pioneer. The station was moved to its current location on Stewart in 1903.
Wagons were waiting to be filled with furniture and equipment as one train left, and the new station was up and running by the time the next train came through. The Meeker Society has photos of loaded wagons crossing Meridian to Main Street in front of the Elvins store.
The first Great Northern train arrived in Puyallup in May 1909, and the Chicago, Milwaukee and Saint Paul Railroad first clattered through Puyallup in May 1911.
Today’s Sounder replicates transport, thankfully much more comfortably, that first served the valley more than 100 years ago.Columnist Andy Anderson is the historian for the Ezra Meeker Historical Society.