Whistles from the Ballard Terminal Railroad

For many in Ballard, the early-morning train whistles are just part of the sonic fabric of the neighborhood, echoing through the fog. For a few others, they’re a bit of a surprise — there’s a railroad in Ballard? — and sometimes they can wake you up.

Several members of the My Ballard Facebook Group said the whistles from the Ballard Terminal Railroad seemed a little louder than usual a couple mornings ago. In our experience over the years, it’s usually a function of the colder weather and inversion layers, which tend to focus sound waves more horizontally, amplifying their distance.

Newer Ballard residents are often surprised to learn about the Ballard Terminal Railroad Company, a working one-engine railroad that transports materials from the tracks near Shilshole Bay Marina — where it connects with the BNSF mainline — to Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel on Shilshole Ave. The company has operated out of that location for the last 110 years, stretching back to the era when trains filled Ballard tracks.

Now there’s just one locomotive, numbered 98 and named “Li’l Beaver” after the Ballard High Beavers. Sometimes people think the engine is a static museum piece; since Ballard Terminal Railroad tends to operate before first light, the Li’L Beaver is rarely seen at work.

If you’re as fascinated as we are with the railroad, you can learn more about the Ballard Terminal Railroad Company here and here. (Thank you to @artemis618 for permission to use the photo.)

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Pork Pie
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Pork Pie

I hope Lil’ Beaver and Lil’ Biker can stay safely apart on the BG extension (taking license here to assume it’s going up Shilshole).

Donna Larson
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Donna Larson

Thanks for this article. I was awake in the wee hours several days ago and heard the whistle. I was so surprised that there’s an active railroad in Ballard, where I live, and I wondered what it was doing at that hour.! I’ve lived here since 2009 and have a vague recollection of hearing it off in the distance a couple times. It was definitely more identifiable this week.

Erik
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Erik

According to Wikipedia the company has only been in existence since 1997, when BNSF stopped running service on those rails.

Wanda
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Wanda

Is this the fake train that Ricky Schroeder rides around that was put in place to further obstruct the Burke Gilman ‘Missing Link’ (which was approved to go down that very stretch 20 years ago)?

I guess that’s some sort of bragging toot to show the bikers and pedestrians that industry still controls things

Pork Pie
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Pork Pie

@Wanda – How many living wage jobs are you generating when you bike or walk down the BG?

Kevin in Ballard
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Kevin in Ballard

Geek Alert – some factoids about the relation between the BTRR, Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel, and the Burke-Gilman Trail…the devil is ALWAYS in the details. Read on.. BTRR was started by the owner of Salmon Bay S & G primarily in 1997. His signature is the on the Franchise Agreement with the City of Seattle as the sole representative of BTRR. Primary and sole customer at the time that BNSF ‘abandonded’ the spur (for economic reasons) in 1996 was Western Pioneer, which transshipped fish brought down from Alaska by boat, to rail cars. From the time of BNSF abandonment till operations of the BTRR began, approximately 18 months, there was no rail service. Western Pioneer eventually closed their Ballard operation (or out of business entirely?) and the BTRR had no regular customers. During this time and for decades prior, Salmon Bay S & G shipped dry cement, fly ash, etc. by truck. (here’s what those trucks look like, ) BTRR and the Burke-Gilman Trail Encoded within the Franchise Agreement between the City and BTRR/SBSG is language that explicitly states the City’s intent to design/construct the ‘missing link’, within the rail corridor, acknowledged by the signatories (see Section 10 (i)… Read more »

Kat.
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Kat.

I, myself actually have no problem with it. I heard it. It’s life!! In my opinion it brings some kind of classic feel to Ballard. Eventhough there is a Old Ballard section.. so nostalgic: Especially coming from the big city.

Andrew Daisuke
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Andrew Daisuke

@wanda

Yup, that’s it’s purpose. Hopefully the new Burke Gilman connection puts it out of business.

Chet
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Chet

Wow. This is super cool. I’ve lived in Ballard for over 25 years and often noted how loud the train whistles seemed in the wee hours. Now I know it wasn’t a train like the other trains!!

Lynsey
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Lynsey

Why does every single comment section on social media devolve into some kind of snark fest?

Vitameatavegemin
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Vitameatavegemin

@Lynsey – The vast political polarization of our society; the smugness of the majority; internet anonymity; millennials. Not neccessarily in that order. :)

Access Holllywood
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Access Holllywood

Trains, ships, and birds are beautiful sounds.
Can we talk about the legions of early morning leaf blowers chasing single pieces of garbage or a few leaves with their gas powered nuisance machines? These stupid things are now a noise polluting plague.

Ban them and use a broom, idiots.

james
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james

What if the railroad offered rides to the public?

Lance
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Lance

I am always happy to see Ballard working! Long live the 98 and the Ballard Terminal Railroad!

Nat
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Nat

The rail line in this location has been in place since 1890 when the Seattle and Montana Railway made the connection from Seattle going north through Ballard connecting with the New Westminster and Southern Railway in Burlington Washington. Service did not begin until after the railroads connected in 1891. The names sake of the Burke Gilman trail was the Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern and never existed in this section of the corridor. The Seattle Lake Shore and eastern made the crossing of the valley near Fremont before the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks were built between 1911 – 1917. In 1891 Northern Pacific took over operation of the Seattle Lake Shore & Eastern that was owed by Burke and Gilman. After the Ballard Locks were built the section between the newly built Great Northern drawbridge and the Northern Pacific Drawbridge, that was located between 40th and 42nd street, was known as the Ballard Terminal. The section at the time was jointly operated by Northern Pacific and the Great Northern. The Northern Pacific draw bridge was removed when Northern Pacific and Great Northern merged to form the Burlington Northern. This section did not change hands again until after the merger and… Read more »

JW2001
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JW2001

It’s really cool that Ballard has maintained this tiny corridor of its industrial past considering all the development.

N.D.
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N.D.

@ANDREW DIASUKE

And put good honest people out of a job and take away from long time business carriers in the area because of a trail that will make absolutely ZERO dollars? Seems backwards to me. There are plenty other of good trails in the area.

Truth
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Truth

@N.D.: I’m gonna be Frank (don’t worry, you can still be Garth). If a multi use trail is enough to put a long time company out of business, that business has a terrible model and was probably not long for this world anyways.

Damon
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Damon

“…a trail that will make absolutely ZERO dollars?” If you’re Salmon Bay Cafe, and your clientele over the last gazillion years has been mostly employees of industrial businesses… you’ve got to be salivating over the prospect of this trail running right outside your doors, and getting ready for a totally different set of customers to discover you. If you’re a Ballard Farmer’s Market vendor and cars are already thick as bees around the market every Sunday and you wish there were some way to get more people in… you can’t wait for this trail. If you’re KISS Cafe / Portage Bay / Red Mill and you’re stranded out west away from the center of things, you’ve got to know this trail’s going to help. If you’re Card Kingdom… oh, man, enough said. If you’re a bar or coffee shop or boutique in Central Ballard, and parking’s a mess, you’ve probably got a pretty good idea that this trail is going to be a better way for a lot of customers to get to you, even if a couple more parking spots go missing in the process. Parking spots will never keep up with demand, anyway. Please. 90% of the Ballard… Read more »

Boatgeek
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Boatgeek

I also have to point out that running a shipyard or a concrete plant is totally possible next to a bike trail. How do we know? Because we can look just down the trail. SBSG has a yard down by Fred Meyer where you have to cross the trail to get in or out. Lakeside Industries runs a paving/gravel plant in the same area. Western Towboat, Trident Seafoods, Union Bay Fabrication, and Kvichak Marine all run shipyards where access is across the existing B-G. Are these successful businesses really that much smarter than Seaview, Pacific Fishermen, or the other division of Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel?

The trail will probably be inconvenient for some neighboring businesses. But it won’t put them out of business.

Lacey
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Lacey

Speaking of horns/whistles at odd hours, what’s with the Sunday evening sound fest at 10:00-11:00 pm about? Every darn Sunday! Not complaining, Just curious. It’s my alarm sound that reminds me to go to bed on a school night after a fun weekend but I always picture a bunch of workers drinking beer and pulling the cord on the choo-choo train. Is it the railroad or ships? Anyone know?

N.D.
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N.D.

The railroad legally has to blow their horn for each road crossing on their line. And they have typically been running on Sunday evenings because there are less parked vehicles to tow off their tracks down near Salmon Bay Cafe. :)