Train-based history of Oregon and Washington

Yesterday I had the pleasure of riding the Coast Starlight train north from Albany, OR, to Olympia, WA. As always, I was entranced by the stunning views, the vast comfortable ease of travel, and what interesting things there were to learn and see. From Portland north to Seattle, the train has volunteers from the National Park Service who sit in the observation car and offer interesting bits of history or explanations about what you’re seeing outside those huge picture windows. This is brilliant! I learned a variety of interesting tidbits:

  • Portland got its name as the result of a coin flip. The two founders, Asa Lovejoy and Francis Pettygrove, each wanted to name it after their favorite back-East city, respectively Boston and Portland (Maine). They flipped a coin and Pettygrove won. (Speaking of names, ever wonder how Oregon got its name? The wikipedia article on this is disappointingly inconclusive, but the various hypotheses are interesting.
  • A Columbia River drawbridge was open when we arrived, so we had to wait for it to finish letting some ship through. The Columbia has been dredged multiple times to permit the passage of deep-sea ships up it.
  • The Coast Starlight’s running speed is 75-79 mph. (It doesn’t feel that fast because it’s so smooth and quiet on the inside!) That speed limit is dictated not by the trains but by the track system, which was designed to accommodate the (much slower) freight trains. Apparently if the CS ran any faster, it would outpace the signaling system (e.g., the triggers prior to an intersection that sound the bells and lower the gates).
  • Wheat grown in Washington is soft/winter wheat, mainly used for noodles and doughnuts. 90% of it is shipped to the East. Wheat from Montana is harder (heartier?).
  • As a southbound train went by, full of grain cars, our guide commented that each train car holds 100 tons of grain; there are 110 cars in 1 train; and the contents of 6.5 trains fill 1 ocean carrier.
  • We passed several artificial mounds and hills as we passed through Washington, which are formed from clearing ash from the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption. Ash had to be scraped off of hundreds of miles of roads and tracks.

Now I’m in Olympia, where more things to learn await. :)

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