Railroad an influential presence for a century

‘The Milwaukee Road’ started in 1883, ran locally
until 1980


Photo by Jack Carver #1995.1.2529, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.

The Milwaukee Road’s passenger and freight depot on Railroad Avenue shortly before being torn down in the 1940s. The site is now part of Depot Market Square, which gets its name in reverence to the old train station.


The Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad, better known as “The Milwaukee Road,” had a significant and influential role in local transportation for more than 65 years.

The Milwaukee Road’s story in Whatcom County began in 1883 with the incorporation of the Bellingham Bay & British Columbia Railroad (BB&BC), which looked to build a 56-mile line from Sehome to Burrard Inlet in British Columbia.

Backed by San Francisco businessman Pierre Cornwall and New York capitalist D.O. Mills, the fledgling railroad held the lofty goal of enticing the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway to establish its Pacific terminal on Bellingham Bay.

The BB&BC Railroad’s first locomotive was delivered by ship in 1888. That same year, it was decided to change the northern terminus from Burrard Inlet to Sumas and soon track-laying began in earnest. A roundhouse was built at the west end of Laurel Street.

The BB&BC main line ran up the middle of Railroad Avenue and through what’s now the Sunnyland neighborhood, eventually reaching Dewey Valley and proceeding north and east through Wahl, Goshen, Strandell, Everson, Hampton and Clearbrook toward Sumas. There was some resentment when Lynden was bypassed.

An ornate passenger station and hotel were erected on the east side of Railroad Avenue, between Maple and Chestnut streets, for the traffic that was expected to develop as a result of the new rail service.

The border at Sumas was reached in 1891. The Canadian Pacific then built a branch south from Mission to meet BB&BC rails in Huntingdon, B.C., just across the border from Sumas. The first through-train off the Canadian Pacific rolled south into New Whatcom on May 28, 1891, setting off the infamous “water fight.” Competing local fire brigades, trying to create an arch of water on Railroad Avenue to welcome the arriving train, instead sprayed the train’s coaches with enough force to break numerous windows and soak the dignitaries. There was also an ugly disagreement over the relative positioning of Canadian and United States’ flags at the event.

In spite of such mishaps, by 1894 it was possible to board a sleeping car in Bellingham and travel through to Minneapolis-St. Paul by going up the BB&BC, onto the Canadian Pacific to cross western Canada, and then south into Minnesota.


Photo by Jack Carver, Whatcom Museum of History & Art.

Milwaukee Road employees pose with a diesel engine in the early 1950s at the south end of Cornwall Ave., where freight cars arrived and departed by rail barge.


BB&BC officials realized they weren’t going to lure the Canadian Pacific away from Vancouver and implemented strategies to allow the railroad to survive on its own. Fortunately, the early 1900s saw logging and agricultural activity in Whatcom County develop rapidly, providing a much needed local traffic base.

A main line extension from Sumas east to Glacier through Maple Falls was completed in 1900 and, three years later, a branch was finally built from Hampton into Lynden.

In 1910, tracks were laid along the waterfront and up Squalicum Creek to a connection with the former main line near the present-day Sunset Square. This route allowed trains to avoid running on city streets, as well as reducing grades.

At the end of the first decade of the 20th century, the Midwestern-based Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad began building a “Puget Sound Extension” to compete with the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads. Seeing potential in linking with existing lines, the Milwaukee Road incorporated a subsidiary company, the Bellingham & Northern, to purchase and operate the BB&BC.

Since there was no physical connection between the Bellingham & Northern and Milwaukee rails in Seattle, a barge service was established, operating off a pier at the south end of Dock Street (now Cornwall Avenue) to float railcars between the two points.

By 1916, the Bellingham & Northern offered Whatcom County passengers a daily roundtrip from Bellingham to Glacier, along with three daily round trips to Sumas, with connecting service to Lynden. Several of these were handled by a self-powered McKeen rail-passenger car, though it would later be wrecked in a collision at Hampton and retired by 1922.

More expansion came in 1916 as rails were laid from Goshen east to Kulshan and from Squalicum Junction over Alabama Hill to the lumber and shingle mills on Lake Whatcom.

The Bellingham & Northern was absorbed into the Milwaukee Road in 1918, becoming its Bellingham Division. With passenger traffic declining, the Railroad Avenue station was demolished in 1942. The Milwaukee Road then operated out of smaller offices at 200 E. Chestnut St., a building that is now home to La Fiamma Wood Fire Pizza. The Goshen-to-Kulshan line was abandoned in 1943, while passenger runs continued between Bellingham and Glacier in “mixed” passenger and freight trains until 1951.

In 1952, dramatic change arrived with the introduction of two of the Milwaukee Road’s new orange and black diesel locomotives to replace the railroad’s traditional steam-powered engines. That year the Milwaukee barge service, known as Bellingham’s “Railroad That Went To Sea,” moved more tonnage over the local docks than all other local shippers combined — 854,000 tons.

Up to 15 cars a day were being barged to Seattle, carrying lumber and farm products, along with some Canadian exports. Increased business soon required a third diesel locomotive. Locally, the Milwaukee had 65 employees and depots were staffed in Bellingham, Lynden and Sumas.

In June 1956, after 48 years, the barge service to Seattle was dropped in favor of hauling the railcars via the Great Northern Railroad. With the merger of the Great Northern into the Burlington Northern in 1970, the Milwaukee gained rights to operate its own trains over the BN tracks between Bellingham and its Tacoma yards.

As timber reserves declined, tracks to Glacier were abandoned in 1960 and the line cut back to Maple Falls. Shortly after, the line was shortened even farther to Limestone Junction. Lake Whatcom service ended with the demise of the mills.

Until 1980, the Milwaukee Road offered Whatcom County freight service with a round-trip Bellingham-Lynden-Sumas run on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Several times a week, a special “rock train” carried limestone from the quarry at Limestone Junction, about eight miles east of Sumas, to the Columbia Cement Co. in Bellingham. A small diesel switching engine still served waterfront and city-based freight customers daily.

The Milwaukee Road’s local service ended when the company, bankrupt for several years, abandoned its entire Puget Sound Extension in favor of a Midwestern “core” system. The familiar orange and black engines powered the last Bellingham-to-Sumas train on Feb. 29, 1980.

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