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Thread: The Gulch

  1. #1

    Default The Gulch

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    Officially it was termed the “Tacoma Hill”, or to some the “Tacoma Eastern Hill”. For me, a kid growing up on the east hills of Tacoma, it was simply, the gulch.

    The gulch: where a stretch of mountain railroading ran right through my own backyard.

    The gulch: where 4 bits for bus fare, a roll of Tri-X for my Yashica TLR would produce a day of photographing some of the most interesting railroading the Milwaukee Road could offer.

    The gulch: where I cut my eye teeth, learning capture a railroad in film and in words.

    35 years have past since I shot the orange and black challenging the steepest grade on their trek west. It was a time when there was still optimism that the Milwaukee Road was still “America’s Resourceful Railroad”, that they were going to make a go of it despite the BN merger. Concessions giving them access to Portland and Memphis had boosted traffic. The Tacoma Eastern was no longer a branch hosting a log train and a few freights to Longview. It had become an essential link in the Milwaukee’s mainline.

    As much as I loved the Cascades, the TE was where the real action was, and it was right in the middle of my own neighborhood.

    Tacaoma Junction

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    The Tacoma Eastern actually began at Tacoma Junction. Here we see the Bellingham Job returning from the north, the lead units negotiating the interlocking’s trackwork. The train continues on the mainline towards Tideflats Yard, while the empty track in the foreground is the beginnings of the TE and the approach to the Puyallup River trestle. Sharp eyes will pick out the small station, and the UP tracks that split off and themselves cross the Puyallup where they interchange with the BN at Reservation or continue to their own small yard near 15th street.

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    Like most operations associated with the Milwaukee Road, the Tacoma Eastern line had some unique operations. Trains bound for the TE would have to back out of Tideflats Yard clear of Tacoma Junction before they could be correctly routed. Conversely, trains coming in from the south such as Extra East 6008 would have to pull clear of the junction and back the three mils to Tideflats.


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    The first few miles of the TE where mostly suspended on a series of bridges and trestles. Not far from Tacoma Junction the line crossed the Puyallup River, and then over the multitrack BN main at Reservation, Puyallup Ave, Portland Ave, and then the long “S’ trestle that spanned above the light industries along 26th street.

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    On a sunny Saturday morning in late February, 1971, a little bit of history is being made. Tucked in-between to U-boats is a strange little contraption making its inaugural run up the TE. Dubbed the “SG-1”, (soon knick named the "Twinkie"), this homebuilt slug unit proved so successful, it became a standard on the Morton logger, and was the prototype of other Milwaukee Road homebuilt slug unit configurations.

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    The 26th street trestle above the old Tacoma Box plant was a favorite haunt. Here Portland bound freights and helpers would put on a grand showing, making a run for the hill. Proving my point, a freight rumbles overhead with a “super slug set” helper working mid-train.


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    With the increase of traffic and train size thanks to the Portland Gateway, helpers became the rule up the gulch. If not already out on the line shuttling cuts of cars up the grade to Hillsdale, a slug set helper, (usually the 47A slug set with various additions MU’ed) would be cut into the train at either Tideflats Yard or Tacoma Junction for the run straight up the hill such as the case of Extra West 6007.

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    More often than not, southbound trains would pause at the “Old Coach Yard”, now home to the modern Sounder trains, where the helper, usually the 47A slug set MU’ed with any number of combinations, would be cut into the train.

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    Helpers cut in, trains would duck under the 26th street viaduct and rattle the walls of the Brown and Hailey candy factory hell bent for leather, their crews hoping they’d stay on the rail and make it to the top at Hillsdale.
    Last edited by Martin Burwash; 01-05-2007 at 01:59 AM.

  2. #2

    Default The Gulch Part 2

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    The Climb to Hillsdale

    You are down in a narrow gorge. It's close quarters but you stand in the ditch next to a twisting section of track laid on a steep grade. Down around the curve the hoarse chug-a chuga of 4-cycle diesel engines is progressively growing louder. From around the corner three black and orange U-boats crawl their way past your vantage point, the dust of the sand blown under their trucks lingering in the air. Cars inch slowly by.

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    About the time the burbling of the GE's on the head-end begin to fade, the 2-cycle scream of yet another set of prime movers begins to make itself known. Mingled with a GE "popping Johnny", a mid-train helper set leans into the tight curve in front of you. More cars, the din fades as the bay window caboose slowly rolls out of sight.

    This little drama could have been up in the Cascades or the deep canyons of the Bitterroots. Yes, it could have, but it wasn't. It was right under the 38th Street bridge in Tacoma. All the while this freight train was scrapping for every inch on a steep "mountain" grade, Tacoma Transit busses were thumping overhead, the bustle of a city all around.

    This is the gulch I knew. Mountain railroading within the city limits.

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    38th Street: The Parade Ground

    Bus fare, my trusty Yashica 2 1/4, and the slope above the 38th Street S-curves, I called it the parade ground. I would sit there for hours watching the parade of Milwaukee trains tackling the gulch. If I was lucky I could catch the Morton Logger taking a string of empties up the hill with two 6000 class U-boats and the "Twinkie" as standard power early in the afternoon. More often than not, the EMD slug set, usually MU'ed with something with a little more "kick" would be busy shuttling cuts of cars up to the small yard at Hillsdale where a southbound freight was being assembled.

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    The big show would come late in the afternoon when the Portland freight would back out from Tideflats Yard. Taking on the EMD slug as a helper, they would tackle the gulch. Rain or shine, I would occupy that grassy hillside and watch the show of shows.

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    46th Street

    At 46th Street trains emerged from the narrowest confines of the gulch. Here the tracks began to straighten and the grade "leveled" to a more manageable 3% vs the nearly 3.8% down at 38th Street. Still sanding the rail, the GE slug set takes a break off the Morton Logger and moves a cut of cars past 46th Street and on up to Hillsdale early one Sunday morning.

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    A late winter sun shines on the afternoon freight as it sand blasts its way out from the shadows of the gulch.

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    Hillsdale: The Top of the Grade

    Between 64th and 72nd streets, the grade finally leveled. They called it Hillsdale. There was a small yard where cuts of cars could be stored, later assembled into longer trains for the Portland gateway. Just in from the Rose City, the engineer of the 5507 sets and little air and kicks in his dynamic brakes for the steep drop to Tideflats. In the distance a group of cars sit on a siding, part of the afternoon freight south.

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    Out Across the Prairie

    These days, it is hard to believe how short a distance you had travel outside the city limits of Tacoma before the landscape became rural. With the grades of the gulch behind, trains rolled across the fir tree and grass prairie ground south east of Tacoma. A barbed wire fence and dirt road parallel the Morton Logger as is eases through Fredrickson, the site of recent industrial development. Further south, a Portland freight splashes through a down pour between Loveland and Roy, near the Fort Lewis Military Reservation while down at McKenna, a bay window caboose shakes the timbers of the trestle spanning the Nisqually River.

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    Gone But Not Forgotten

    A lonely switchstand juts from the scotch broom south of Hillsdale. Its lock is shiny, but its gears are covered with rust. I left Tacoma in the early 1970's, when I can back, the Milwaukee Road was gone. Fortunately, the gulch did not share the same fate as did so much of the Milwuakee Road west. The tracks stayed and in time trains once again began challenging the grade from 26th Street up to Hillsdale.

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    Even with the revival of the line up the gulch servicing the industries south of Tacoma, the old parade ground above 38th Street just isn't quite the same. Long gone from everyday reality is the sight and sounds of 4 U-boats or the 47A slug set popping around from the far curve and grinding their way by with the heavy tonnage bound for Portland. Gone too is the old ABS signal at Hillsdale, giving Milwaukee Road hoggers the all clear to make the dangerous downhill run to tidewater.

    Yes, the orange and black might be long gone from the gulch, but what the mind forgets, the heart will always remember.

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    Last edited by Bob; 01-10-2007 at 04:51 PM.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Oct 2005
    Zanesville, Ohio


    I remember reading about the gultch in some issue of Trains when I was a kid. Mr. Clean's Fs, was part of the title, I think.

    I enjoyed your essay. It was a nice tour of one of your favorite spots, and I vote to approve.
    Chris Crook

    pictures and yap

  4. #4


    Martin, the maps say "Frederickson", but I've had other old MILW folks tell me "No, it's Fredrickson". Do you happen to have a timetable or other reference you could check to see how the railroad spelled it?

    "Mr Clean's Machines" was the name of the essay, and I found the photos and article quite fascinating. Like Martin, I found the idea of a mountain grade in the middle of a city intriquing. As a fan of railroad engineering I also was interested in the grade, wood trestles and how they'd built the concrete walls around the track to accomodate Interstate 5.

    At the time I lived in Pennsylvania, and hadn't been west of the Mississippi yet. Little did I know I'd be making many trips up and down that hill on a variety of motive power, steam and diesel, passenger and freight, ranging from 100 car loggers to 2 car passenger specials. I certainly never expected it, and even in my wildest dreams I'd never have predicted runs up and down that hill with a Reading T1, which also had never been west of Chicago, heck 2100 probably hadn't even been west of Pittsburgh yet back then.

    As for the essay? Between Martin's photos and the subject matter, I'd rate this one 6 stars out of a possible 5.
    Last edited by Bob; 01-06-2007 at 12:22 AM.
    Bob Harbison
    RailroadPhotoEssays host

  5. #5


    No, "scrapping" is the word I intended to use.....

    Frederickson - Fredrickson...I honestly don't know which it was. I was doing good to remember that the photo was even taken in the vacinity!

    My old buddy Blair Kooistra did the TRAINS article. His work and mine book end nicely. He started shooting the TE in the mid to late 70's, just about the time I moved out of the area and quit shooting it.

    Martin Burwash

  6. Default

    I responded to Martin's posting of 'Part 1', but that seems to have gotten lost with the merge of part one and two. As usual, Martin has produced a fine piece of RR journalism - I like it a lot. Having spent some time on the 'hill' watching C&W, Tacoma Rail, and steam excursions, I can relate to this piece. It is a visceral experience standing trackside there.

    Martins early work with the Yashica is evidence of well developed abilities at an early age. Wonderful angles and composition make them a joy to look at. I vote to post with a quick edit review to look for typos.

  7. #7
    Two23 Guest


    I say it's good enough as is. Man, I wish I was into photography when there were still some of the Fs running out there! I came close--I got some shots of the leased sharknose on the Nebkota a few years ago. What RR is running on the tracks now? Did it turn into a shortline?

    Kent in SD

  8. #8


    OK, I've deleted my chit-chat, Martin answered my question and while I appreciated the answer to "Is that where I think it is?" it really didn't add to the presentation.

    Martin, you asked about combining the two posts. It can't be done, due to the way the attachments are handled. Sorry...

    Also, you mentioned deleting that last photo, thinking it was a duplicate, but I only see it once. Have I overlooked a second copy? I like the shot, the herald on the nose is cool.
    Bob Harbison
    RailroadPhotoEssays host

  9. #9


    I originally had the shot of the 192 introducing Part 2, like the herald at the beginning of Part 1. When I combined the two the nose shot didin't really fit, thus it was dropped to "Attached Thumbs". I have no problem with it staying there.


  10. #10


    OK, I've made one very minor edit, I changed the 192 nose from an attached thumbnail to an inline photo. All that did was get rid of the "attached thumbnail" box, but it does clean things up a bit.

    Since we've got 3 yes votes, I'm going to ship this one.
    Bob Harbison
    RailroadPhotoEssays host

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