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.)

Geeky Swedes

The founders of My Ballard

28 thoughts to “Whistles from the Ballard Terminal Railroad”

  1. 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).

  2. 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.

  3. 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

    1. That INDUSTRY is important and was there 100 years before you! Your stupid little bike trail can go elsewhere where it doesn’t kill history!

  4. 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, http://28yazity2rf1ct4rc2d8vddw.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/cement-menu-thumbnail.jpg )

    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) and 10 (f) https://www.seattle.gov/Documents/Departments/SDOT/BikeProgram/BGT/BTRR%20Operating%20Agmt%20(09-14-1997).pdf)
    The current 90% + design of the trail, formulated over the past 9 months by SDOT, the Design Advisory Committee (including adjacent business owners, president of the NSIA, trail advocates, community leaders like the chair of the Ballard Alliance) involved a driveway by driveway and foot by foot analysis and iterative process for how the trail would work adjacent to the rail line (the BTRR declined to participate in the ongoing design process, though they provided input to the project team)
    In one small section (near the Ballard Bridge up to just west of CSR Marine), BTRR tracks will need to be relocated. This anticipated condition is also specifically covered in the Franchise Agreement.
    There is no expectation or anticipation that the completed trail will curtail the operations of the BTRR and their current customer, SBSG.

    Some of these dates may be off slightly (I’d welcome any corrections); but these are the facts. Hope this helps inform the discussion. And here’s hoping for a thriving Ballard business community AND trail construction of the Missing Link in 2018!

  5. 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.

    1. You have no respect for history! All you bike idiots care about is your stupid trails! you build them where it DOESNT affect the railroad!

      1. It’s always nice when some drunk discovers MyBallard in the middle of the night and starts rage posting on ancient threads.

  6. 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!!

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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 formation of the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe in 1996 and now known as the BNSF. The formation of the Ballard Terminal Railroad was delayed by the merger and formation of the the Burlington Northern & Santa Fe.

    Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel formed in 1907 and was in place when Salmon Bay was still a bay that was tidal to the Puget Sound. This is why Seattle and Montana Railway had a main line in front of Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel and is likely why the Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel is where it is today. Only after the building of the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks did the water level change and you can see what you see today.


    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.

  10. @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.

  11. “…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 Chamber of Commerce is going to love the trail.

  12. 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.

  13. 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?

    1. 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. :)

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