2. Cle Elum

including the coal train grade up to Roslyn

The Cle Elum depot has a small railroad museum, open for brief hours on weekends during tourist season. There's also a sweet-looking diner section that seemed to be awaiting a new operator. Business may be slow - the last train came through in 1980.

Just west of the depot there's a big electrical substation. It was here I learned this road changed from steam to electric locomotives in 1917, using 3,000 Volts of direct current, carried in overhead lines like trolley wires. This western section here in Washington was electrified in 1920, after federal WW I restrictions were relaxed. The system was so much more efficient than steam it paid for itself by 1927.

A 100,000 Volt line along the tracks carried AC power to the substations, where it ran DC generators that powered the train motors. The DC circuit ran through the overhead wires, the motors, and the rails back to the substations.

The DC current could travel the overhead powerlines 12 or 15 miles before the voltage dropped too low, so there were substations every 25 or 30 miles along the grade. This one at Cle Elum is the only one I saw.

1920 GE-ALCO gearless "Bi-Polar". 3480 hp, 70 mph. 10251 is the lone survivor, renumbered as E2 in 1939, donated to the Museum Of Transportation in St. Louis in 1962. The 4 others were all scrapped.

Photo thanks to Wikipedian Kbh3rd

10251 also got itself in another fine railroad photo -

"Push-of-war", bi-polar 10253 overpowers two steam locomotives, pushing them back. When the two steamers pushed back against the bi-polar's regenerative braking, they could barely move it.

With a name like "bi-polar", you might think these train-pullers either went too fast or too slow. In fact it referred to the design of the on-board DC motor-generators. The machines were noted for having a stable temperament in the most trying circumstances.

Management de-electrified its lines in the early '70s - turning to diesel-electric locomotives just before the oil embargo, and doubling their power costs. They gave up their relatively cheap hydro-electric power, and electric train-pullers that used regenerative braking on down-grades, which had saved brake and wheel maintenance and about 12% of power costs.

They filed for bankruptcy for the 3rd and last time in 1977, and abandoned this line in 1980 as they tried to re-organize on a profitable basis. The Milwaukee Road was absorbed by another rail line a few years later, and became history.

Per wikipedia's page on the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific -

In Washington State, the Milwaukee Road right-of-way was acquired by the state, through a quitclaim deed, and is used as a non-motorized recreational trail called the John Wayne Pioneer Trail. The corridor is effectively "railbanked" under state legislation that allows for the potential reversion to rail usage in the future along with the creation of an alternative route for a cross-state non-motorized recreational trail.

There are informative historical kiosks, and a short walking trail around what used to to be the trainyard.

The depot's in "South Cle Elum". For any services or supplies, ramble north and east until you hit an obvious but lightly-travelled arterial that passes under I-90 into the main part of town.

There are minimarts on the mainline ahead at Easton and Hyak, but this is the last sizable town on the grade til North Bend, some 70 railroad miles west. If you'll need anything beyond basics, this is the place.

At the crossroads in town there's a tourism office on the left chock-full of local information. Even if it's closed, good local maps are posted outside. Also on the left, over a hill, is a supermarket, so they say.

Right across the intersection is a good-looking bike shop and the beginning of the coal-train trail up to Roslyn and Roland - well worth taking.

A word of warning - I'd been getting occasional off-key redneck vibes along the road since Goldendale. Maybe the recent Rainbow Gathering in the Washington Cascades had something to do with it - I don't know - but as a biker with a ponytail I was warned about rednecks back in Ellensburg. In Cle and Roslyn I got dirty looks and one smart-ass remark. Common sense and the rule of law should keep the peace - most of the time.

Nuff said. Being advised, these places are definitely worth checking out. Here's a look -

The Coal Train Trail

(Eyes getting old? Click here FOR FULL SIZE)

Good dirt surface, with a steeper grade than I expected to see - but the coal trains went up empty and came down loaded, so grade was less critical.

Smaller trails run off the main grade to old mine sites. I wish I'd allowed more time to explore these, but I'd already arranged to meet a friend early in the afternoon, whose game leg wouldn't take strenuous riding without consequences. From the grade, I saw some foundations, a few historic signs on mine disasters, and some "No Trespassing" signs.

The coal mines were developed in the 1880s to supply the construction and operation of the Northern Pacific Railway. They drew miners from around the country and the world - the town's cemetery is famous for having 26 separate sections for various ethnic and fraternal groups.

Peak output was 2 million tons in 1910. With dieselization of railroads, the last mine closed in 1963, leaving 80% of the area's coal still in the ground.

The grade enters Roslyn by the old company store, and continues a couple more miles to the town of Roland, built over the old No.3 mine. I passed the mine gate - could've explored - but headed back to the Brick in Roslyn to meet up.

The town may look familiar if you saw the TV series Northern Exposure (1990-95). The exterior shots were filmed here, in the role of Cicely, Alaska. It also appeared in the 1978 movie The Runner Stumbles, with Dick Van Dyke and Kathleen Quinlan.

The Brick was rebuilt in 1898 after a fire, and named for the 45,000 noncombustible bricks it took. Coal mining being such an infernally dusty job, the owners came up with a big improvement over the standard spittoon - a metal trough of running water along the base of the bar.

Typical of mining towns, the guys at the bar will leer at anything with long hair. (That's actually my friend Barry Mercer, who came up to show me around).

Roslyn also has an excellent museum of its history, mainly the mining. Altogether, even without exploring old mine sites, this is worth the side-track ride up the grade.

Cle Elum

Barry and I did some easy riding around downtown, east of the coal line. We found a thrift shop with some great stuff, and excellent espresso with outdoor tables on a quiet side street.

I asked Barry to to review this page before I published the links, and he was kind enough to give me an insider's view -

I think the red neck stuff is "ok", but you might mark it with a note about the wild swings in property values and the economy that have turned the area from a hard working blue collar area into a tourist and vacation home mecca, where traditional locals have to travel to participate in a working economy.

They said when I lived there that 60 percent of the working residents commuted to other areas, at least 70 miles away for work, many to Boeing, or related jobs in areas like Everett, Seattle, and Kent.

In the last few years, it has become a stopping point for "hippies" to squat during the summer months, setting up camps and leaving a mess behind. Some setting up on street corners to "mooch" a living by panhandling tourists. I really found the locals very nice, and entertaining when I lived there.

You can quote me!

I didn't see any of those no-good "hippies" around - maybe they were lost in the woods after the Gathering - but I see his point about outside social and economic disruptions unsettling people in a rural town.

And on a back street I saw the God of 4-Wheel-Drives - !

Bow down! The brew must get through!

Me too. I skipped the supermarket, got some basics at the downtown minimarts, and got back on the Milwaukee grade, riding into the sunset.