A Vision For Darrington -- From Logging Line To Hiking Trail -- Timber Town Residents Spurring Effort To Give Branch Line New Life

DARRINGTON - Today the old roadbed is damaged in places, and it's sprouting weeds here and there.

But in an earlier era that 27 miles of railroad line that glides out of the timbered mountainsides at Darrington and curls along the river to Arlington, was a gleaming artery that pulsed with the beat of a lusty economy.

Time was, says John Hillis, "when you could see locomotives pulling trains of 100 cars down that line, all loaded with logs" - all heading to the mills that produced the shingles and lumber.

"I know," adds Hillis, 65. "As a kid, I stood and counted the cars."

Beginning in 1901, the Arlington-Darrington branch line was built to provide access to the expected mineral riches of the mountains - especially the coal. The mineral riches didn't pan out. But the great timber stands of the North Cascades were there.

Timber - and the rail line along the Stillaguamish River - created jobs and communities. Now all has changed. Much of the old growth and regrowth timber is no longer available for the logging crews. Jobs have disappeared.

Darrington has shed its old, roughneck logging-town image and has become a homey, likable little community at the end of the line. It's stable. The population - just over 1,000 - doesn't change much. But, like other timber towns, it worries about its economic tomorrows.

And, for many, that old rail line today looms as a symbol of both uncertainty and hope.

In mid-September, a group of men and women from Darrington, Arlington and other parts of Snohomish County gathered around the table at the Arlington City Hall to discuss the future of the line.

They talked about how Burlington Northern, the owner, is planning to abandon the rail line. Its tracks have had less and less use in recent years. And the severe floods of a year ago caused major damage in places.

Summit Timber Co., the biggest employer in Darrington (about 380 workers), has escaped being a victim of the public-policy noose that's been tightening on the timber industry. About a decade ago Summit invested $20 million in a quality, high-tech mill then, year after year, saw most of the available federal forest stands locked up in wilderness areas or other management zones where there can be no harvest.

Now Summit has to buy and transport logs from as far away as forests in Chelan and Okanogan counties, east of the Cascades, or south of Olympia. Logs arrive by truck. Lumber and other finished products move out by truck. The rail line is left quiet.

Brent Lambert, a planner for Snohomish County, explained to the gathering of townspeople that a $30,000 grant from the state Department of Community Development - part of the assistance being given hard-hit timber communities - had funded a study of the Arlington-Darrington branch line and the process by which BN will probably soon abandon the line.

Around the table, the men and women talked about what might be done. As Kathy Kerkvliet, Darrington economic development coordinator, scribbled minutes, some voices argued that the historic rail line must be saved - somehow: It's the most visible item of economic infrastructure they have.

Perhaps, one suggested, the Port of Everett could take it over and operate it as a short-line railroad: Maybe that would encourage new businesses - jobs - to develop in Darrington, as they've sprouted around the Arlington airport.

What about using it for a scenic passenger railroad operation with excursions? Vacationers travel across the United States looking for that kind of fun experience, said Hills.

Or how about a dinner train that could attract the urbanites from Seattle and other places seeking novel settings and experiences?

And why not create a historic railroad museum as a tourist attraction?

The economic-development report produced by O'Neill & Co. of Seattle was rich in research and analysis. But it didn't offer much encouragement to most of those ideas. For example, it noted that improved highways and other improvements offer more hope for generating new business than rehabilitating the rail line.

Then came talk about a "lineal park" - converting the rail roadbed to a recreation trail for hiking, bicycling and horseback riding.

Mike Parman, a parks planner for Snohomish County, using slides and maps, described the so-called Centennial Trail that's taking shape across Snohomish County. It's had help, explained Parman, in the form of people help from the hundreds who formed the Snohomish-Arlington Trails Coalition; and financial help from state recreation funds matched by county money.

Parman explained that, "when it all happens," the Centennial Trail will be 44 miles in length - an imaginative, scenic recreation preserve for hikers, bicyclists and horseback riders.

Phase I, said Parman, is a stretch from Snohomish to Arlington - along 17 miles of abandoned railway that once was the Northern Pacific main line. Later phases would extend the trail northward to the Skagit County line and southward to the King County line.

The obvious implication: The Arlington-Darrington rail line could become a gorgeous extension - into the scenic North Cascades - of that trail.

Across the United States, noted the economic report, several such recreation trails have been developed: They're getting heavy usage and stimulating local economies that serve a rising population of trail lovers.

The Centennial Trail has an attractive design - within a corridor that's mostly 100 feet wide, there's a 12-foot wide paved pathway - usually raised, like the rail bed - for walkers and cyclists. That's flanked by strips of vegetation, sometimes enhanced, protected wetlands. And paralleling that is a crushed gravel equestrian pathway.

At places along the route will be trail heads and rest facilities.

"This entire corridor is a habitat area," said Parman - a mix of native trees and plants and wildlife, "including black bear, bald eagles, osprey, polecats. . . ."

"Any spotted owls?" The question from a logger got a laugh.

And the talk around the table lapsed into, as someone put it, "rails vs. trails." At times emotions bristled. Railroad enthusiasts fenced with the trails enthusiasts.

Franklin Goforth, a man who's worked for years in lumber mills as a saw sharpener, offered some statesmanlike counsel:

"In my heart, I would like very much to see a train on the tracks. My head tells me something else. We're not going to reactivate the line. . . .

"There are acquaintances in this room that need to be made friends. The need is to keep heart and head in balance . . . and work together."

From Snohomish County Councilman Ross Kane came some strategic advice: If the railroad right of way is to be preserved for public enjoyment, "we've got to nail down the land" - i.e., have an agreed-on strategy and plan.

Last week some of the same people sat down together again as the "Arlington-Darrington Railroad Committee," with Dale Duskin, Arlington pharmacist, as the volunteer chairman. There were a few more verbal skirmishes, but gradually the debate shifted from rails-vs.-trails to rails-with-trails.

The outcome: A resolution will be drafted and circulated among townspeople in the next two or three weeks - a declaration for the county council to adopt, identifying the Darrington-Arlington rail corridor as a logical extension of the county's trails system and, probably, asking the rail line be kept, too.

"We've got to act now to preserve the corridor," said Duskin.

As I sat and watched the caring people of this timber region grapple with their future, I was reminded of a similar scene in Seattle three years ago. Seattleites then worried about too much economic growth and the possibility of a fragile recreation corridor being overrun. They fought to protect the Burke-Gilman trail. That paid off. Today the Burke-Gilman hiking and biking trail exists - or is in planning - all the way across Seattle's North End to the Ballard Locks and Shilshole Bay.

I began to contemplate:

Does this not all connect? The Burke Gilman trail, from the saltwater bay of Seattle, across the city, past Gas Works Park and the dazzling urban skyline . . . north past the University of Washington. . . .

Along Lake Washington, to the north end of the lake, thence northward to the county line. . . . And at Snohomish County, connect with this remarkable new trail system of Snohomish County . . . north through Monroe, Snohomish, Lake Stevens . . . to Arlington.

And, if it works, from Arlington, this new trail, perhaps along a historic railroad, rising with the river to Darrington and the peaks of the North Cascades and the high mountain lakes. . . .

A stunning opportunity for the human eye and soul - a preserved corridor for recreation and scenery that would begin with the saltwater bay, with its salt air, salmon and the sea lions, pass through a city, then miles and miles of lake, forest and farmland, rising to the high mountains and eagles.

There'd be nothing like that anywhere else in the nation.

And I wondered if, possibly, today's struggle of the caring people in the timber country around Darrington and Arlington - trying to improve the future for their children - might yield a payoff far beyond themselves.