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Thursday, August 24, 2006 - Page updated at 12:25 PM

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Riding the trails and recalling the rails in South Cle Elum

Seattle Times staff photographer

Folks here in South Cle Elum didn't seem to mind when the trains that rumbled through town rattled their coffee tables and made their tea cups tap dance on their saucers.

The steam locomotive, after all, created this small town.

It was inevitable, then, that some hearts would ache when the last train left South Cle Elum's station more than two decades ago — like losing your first love, one local called it.

This small town, in North Kittitas County, population 570, reveres its train legacy. So much that in the past decade, dozens of volunteers have spent thousands of hours fundraising and refurbishing its boarded-up train facility on the southwest edge of town.

Sure, scores of whistle stops and cabooses are being restored in Washington and across the country, but few historic preservation projects have a grander vision than South Cle Elum's.

Here, the locals want a museum, covering the state's rail history, with cabooses, passenger cars, a diner and a gift shop. They intend to draw hikers and bikers to the train tracks that have been converted to recreational trails.

It's a start

If you go


South Cle Elum Historic Depot and Rail Yard

Where

The historic rail yard is about a 90-minute drive from Seattle on Interstate 90. Take exit 84 toward Cle Elum/South Cle Elum. Turn right onto First Street West, then right onto Rossetti Way, which will become South Cle Elum Way. Follow the signs to the depot.

The depot, 801 Milwaukee Road, South Cle Elum, is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. six days a week. Closed Wednesday. Call 509 674-2006 or go to www.milwelectric.org.

Lodging

Iron Horse Inn Bed & Breakfast, 526 Marie Ave., South Cle Elum, is located near the depot. Some cabooses serve as rooms. Price range from $80 to $135. Call 509-674-5939 or go to www.ironhorseinnbb.com. Great breakfast. Innkeepers are knowledgeable about the town's train history.

Food

Owens Meats, 502 E. First St., Cle Elum, 509-674-2530. Sells pepperoni by the yard, a popular snack with bikers and hikers. Open daily, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday. (Will be closed on Sundays starting in September).

Cle Elum Bakery, 501 E. First St., Cle Elum, 509 674-2233. The town's historic bread store is a popular tourist attraction. Offers soups and sandwiches. Open 7 a.m. to 5:30 pm. Monday-Saturday and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

Roslyn Bakery & Cooking Co., 305 First St., Cle Elum, 509 649-2833. Its roasted onion-and-parmesan loaf is a must. Open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday. Closed Monday and Tuesday.

Traveler's tip

If you hike or bike the Coal Mines Trail, be sure to first pick up the self-guided "Coal Mines Trail" booklet, available free at the local museums, some shops and the Cle Elum/Roslyn Chamber of Commerce and Information Center, 401 W. First St., Cle Elum.

For detail on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, go to www.parks.wa.gov.

More information

Washington has many renovated train stations and cabooses. For a complete list, go to rrshs.org/depotmuseums.

Already, a depot converted to a cafe with a modest train exhibition has opened. An interpretive trail about the history of the freight train already has been built. And nearby bunkhouse and cabooses-turned-bed-and-breakfast rooms are often booked.

By early next year, outdoor enthusiasts will be able to rent mountain bikes at the depot to ride along the two former railroad tracks.

Near century-old cabooses and passenger cars will be showcased in the rail yard soon. And plans to renovate the substation into a train museum are in the works.

It's far from being complete, but the South Cle Elum rail yard draws hundreds of railroad enthusiasts and history buffs on weekends.

It shouldn't be a surprise that people are coming even before the entire rail yard is renovated, said Mark Borleske, a local train historian. The train moved this nation. It's a slice of Americana. A train "has its own language, its own way of doing things. It's like going off to sea. It's a job that takes you away from home. So there is a lot of kinship" people have with the train.

The first train road to town in 1909, and South Cle Elum was incorporated two years later.

The rail yard served as a stop for maintenance checks and crew changes. Engineers, conductors and mechanics slept in a nearby bunkhouse.

The train, the Chicago-Milwaukee-St. Paul Pacific Railroad, also known as the Milwaukee Road, transported timber from Snoqualmie to the Midwest, refrigerators to the well-to-do in Puget Sound and military supplies through the Rocky Mountains and the Cascades.

After the train outlived its usefulness — the last train left here in 1980 — the state purchased the tracks from the Milwaukee Road and made this rail yard a part of Iron Horse State Park.

State aid needed

Donovan Gray, of Olympia, a historic preservation planner for the state capitol, leads the restoration effort. His nonprofit Cascade Rail Foundation is relying on state dollars and donations to complete the $2 million museum by 2013.

These days, the restored depot is bustling with train aficionados and locals who chat about the halcyon days.

"This has a special place in my heart," said 72-year old Lloyd Olson. "I get goose bumps."

He recalls soldiers dropping pins and World War II mementos from their train windows to him and other boys. Olson, who lives three blocks from the tracks, said "It's like living by the freeway I guess. You're just used to it."

Now, visitors can stroll around the depot and cafe and look at the black-and-white photos of railroad workers and artifacts while waiting for their gravy sausage biscuits.

It's also easy to turn a rail-yard visit into a weekend excursion by sleeping at the Iron Horse Inn B&B, where the cabooses, some with hot tubs, have become a popular romantic getaway.

Run by innkeepers Mary and Doug Pittis, the bed and breakfast is adorned with railroad signs and mile posts, American Flyer model trains and old photographs of conductors and engineers who lived in town during the Great Depression.

The most interesting memorabilia, though, relate more to the heart than to the train.

Memories left in the caboose guest book:

Sept, 6, 2004

"This is where I started to fall in love with Linda."

Simon

April 24, 2005

"He proposed to me in this caboose before dinner.

"Soon to be Scott & Christine Willis."

A route to history

If you can pull yourself away from the hot tub, stroll past the blueberry bushes and onto the Rail Yard Interpretive Trail that takes hikers through the train's steam engine era to its diesel and electrical age.

South Cle Elum has become a hotbed for cross-country skiers, equestrians, mountain bikers and hikers, thanks to the old railroad tracks that have become recreational trails.

The old track, now the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, stretches from the Cedar Falls in the Cascade Mountains to the Columbia River in Central Washington, passing through horse ranches, mountainous terrain, sagebrush desert and farmlands.

The depot sits roughly at the halfway point of this 100-plus mile trail. Many bikers and hikers use the depot as a starting point or as a pit stop.

Old tunnels and milepost markers remain along the trail. West on the trail from the depot is scenic Peoh Point and a rusty truss, two miles down.

Locals know this as the site of a train derailment in 1978. But visitors more likely will notice the majestic confluence of the Yakima and Cle Elum rivers below.

Another old train track, Coal Mines Trail, lies a couple miles north of the depot.

This 4.7-mile trail takes you to three historic towns, from Cle Elum through Roslyn and ends in Ronald. People hike or bike through this interpretive trail, reading about the trains going through the coal mines in Roslyn in the 1880s.

The coal mines lured Italians, Poles and Serbians, as well as African Americans; some of their mom-and-pop shops still endure to this day.

There is much to see. Roslyn is known as the fictional town of Cicely from the television series Northern Exposure.

Plenty of history

The Cle Elum Bakery still makes its baguette and cinnamon rolls from its century-old brick oven. Across the street is Owens Meats, run by a fourth-and fifth-generation sausage making family dating back to 1887.

"People don't give up the past very easily here," said historian Mary Ann Reason, of South Cle Elum. That's why the depot is the talk of the town.

"When I walked my dog by the John Wayne Trail, it broke my heart to see the depot all fenced in," she said. But now, she said, look at it.

Indeed, lots of visitors are.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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