of the West

train depot

At 4 cents a mile, you could cross 1889 America in little more than a week. The country’s second transcontinental railroad—completed in 1883— carried scores of travelers from the banks of Lake Superior to the shores of Puget Sound. Washington Territory, once a distant frontier, enticed many with its temperate rains, majestic mountains and thriving boomtowns.

Elia Peattie, influential journalist of the Gilded Age, boarded the Northern Pacific in the fall of 1889 when a lumberman promptly warned she’d catch the Western Fever. The outspoken Peattie had a penchant for cigars and a fear of boredom. She’d clinched a book deal to document Western life along the route of the new railroad.

One clear day she visited Seattle.

“The shining peaks of Mounts Tacoma, Baker, Adams, and St. Helens pierced the bright sky. I added to all this visible beauty the knowledge that I had of the country adjacent, of the mountain of iron, of the Snoqualmie Valley, which produces excellent hops, of the forests so dense that the country within a radius of forty miles of Seattle sends out one-half as much lumber annually as the States of Wisconsin and Michigan combined, and I concluded that this was a city any man might be proud to live in.”

Peattie’s travels are noted in Journey through Wonderland, a travel guide published in 1890. Peattie—one of the first female journalists in Chicago— died in 1935 of heart failure.

Elia Peattie and daughter

Peattie’s body of work is comprised of dozens of books, more than 50 short stories and hundreds of editorials and columns. The trailblazer for women shouldered immense responsibility at home, caring for three children, her mother and mother-in-law. She had no room of her own, or even a locked door, to work.

Chinese riots

One year before the completion of the Northern Pacific mainline in 1883, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The federal exclusion law prohibited Chinese immigration in an attempt to prevent Chinese laborers from entering the United States. Many white laborers resented Chinese workers and relations reached a boiling point. In 1886, a mob entered the Chinese quarter in Seattle. Occupants were driven from their homes and onto a waiting steamer. The incident led to deadly violence on the Seattle waterfront.


The foreign-born labor force of the Northern Pacific Railroad included Irish, Scandinavian and Chinese workers, who were particularly prevalent out West. Above, Chinese laborers plow through deep snow on the switchback, near the summit of the Cascades. Earning approximately $1 a day, employees endured frigid temperatures and grueling work to lay and clear tracks.

Stampede Tunnel

A Great Tunnel

Laying tracks of the Northern Pacific Railroad proved harrowing work that demanded the grit of more than 20,000 laborers and cost some of them their lives. One of the most perilous stretches required men to haul machines and material across mostly road-less terrain. They crossed streams, climbed steep grades and blasted with dynamite.

The harshest winter anyone could remember in a half-century came in 1886, when crews began tunneling their way through Washington’s formidable mountain range. For more than two years, workers blasted through the heart of the Cascades, working from both ends of the two-mile tunnel until they met in the middle. The railroad tunnel through Stampede Pass would eliminate cumbersome switchbacks that forced trains to zigzag at higher elevations. But the strenuous work came at a price. Employees walked off the job so often one contractor griped that he continually had three crews, “One coming, one drilling, and one quitting.”

The project finished a week early and cost approximately $2 million. At nearly 10,000 feet long and 16 feet wide, the tunnel through Stampede Pass ranked among the longest in the country when it opened in the spring of ’88. Washington’s Pacific Coast now had its direct link east.