Monday, February 28, 2011

Skykomish, ever again?

Few places speak to my heart as Skykomish. A very small town less than two hours from Seattle. In the Cascades’ green and wet mountains. So, what’s so special about this community? My answer will be as short as honest: nothing, when viewed from a distance. But you should look at it from the inside, and that’s how it charmed me. But Skykomish might not be Skykomish anymore.

In the summer of 1995 I paid my first visit to Skykomish. I’m not sure anymore if it was a planned visit, or just a stop to spend the night. It was probably planned, because I was travelling with a railroad enthusiast and Skykomish does have a name, albeit not too big, in the circles of trainspotters. The town’s existence can be attributed to the railroad. During the days of steam locomotives, the Great Northern railroad had an important yard here. Electric locomotives were added to help the trains over Stevens Pass and through the Cascade Tunnel. But like many communities that depended on the railroad, things went downhill after steam and electric locomotives were replaced by diesel engines, requiring far little support and labour as the old impressive locomotives did. So the Great Northern left Skykomish, and only a few diesel locomotives were stationed in Skykomish to help the trains over the steep tracks of Stevens Pass. Great Northern became Burlington Northern, and after the merge with Santa Fe, the locomotives show the logos of the BNSF.

The beige building is stove store, the historic Skykomish Hotel at right. The hotel suffered inside damage after the rebuild because of too high water pressure.Photo by Cornelius Koelewijn.

After that first visit, a few more followed. Because Skykomish is for some reason a great place to stay a few days. Is it the crisp mountain air? Maybe. But there are more places to go if you want to breathe air so pure. And the Cascades can be gloomy – rains are frequent, and clouds will hang low, giving the area a Twin Peaks mood. And actually, David Lynch shot his cult series not that far away from Skykomish. There are many names here that make this area special, for several reasons. Fox River Bridge, Scenic Hot Springs, Tye. You´ll find Tye after some looking around. You can hear the buzz of this once important town at the base of the old Cascade Tunnel through the sound of the wind in the trees. March 1, 1910 an avalanche swept away an entire train here, killing 97. To this day one of America’s worst railroad accidents. Some claim that the cries of the victims can still be heard. Later the tunnel closed, when it was replaced by a new one and the town died, and what is left are only the fundaments of its structures. 

Snowsheds at Tye protected trains against avalanches near the entrance of the old and defunct Cascade Tunnel.

But I suppose that the easy pace life takes here plays as a role that defines Skykomish for me. The great Sky River Inn, where you walk out of your room before breakfast through the glass sliding doors and you stand with your feet in the moist grass alongside the Skykomish River, is just a fine place to relax a few days. During the night you’d hear the rumbling of the diesel engines of the locomotives waiting for trains that need extra horsepower. Walk to Main Street, that follows the BNSF tracks, and it is not hard to imagine that little has changed the 1920s. But Skykomish still has its importance for services to many people living in the area. There is a large school, and a small library. And a vintage stove and oil lamp store caters for the nostalgic needs of Seattle yuppies. The lady who owns the store when I visited, did not express too much friendliness though, as if helping clients who bought some old postcards were an annoying disruptance of her quiet afternoon.

For railroad buffs there is enough to find between Skykomish and Stevens Pass tunnel. However, not being a trainspotter myself, there is something else that makes this part of the Cascades interesting for me. The mountains and forests around the town offer a labyrinth of gravel roads that just beg to be explored. I remember that during a weekend along those roads you’d see many people camping out with RVs or tents. You need to have a permit though, but where to obtain one is something I never understood when reading the notices. But so far, those forests and mountains did not really deliver what I always hoped for. Even though a man who was camping nearby told me that he saw a mountain lion just a day before, I have not seen any wildlife there – safe for a marmot. No bears, not even lynxes, let alone that mountain lion.

 The Sky River Inn, not seen from its best angle here, will open again in 2012. Photo by Cornelius Koelwijn.

I have not travelled to Skykomish for many years now. I wanted to, but there is little point going through the trouble right now. Skykomish is and is not. Its involvement with the railroad left a deep scar under the surface. Massive oil spill, when servicing and fuelling locomotives was done with little regard to environmental consequences. Since 2006 street by street buildings have been relocated to a field outside of town. Even the historic hotel on Main Street. The Sky River Inn closed its door when it too had to be removed. Its website - tells us it will reopen again in 2012. But what will be left of the heart and character of Skykomish? Trees gone. Branches gone. New pavement. New sidewalks. New lawns. A new town with old buildings.
Will I feel the wet grass under my feet alongside the Skykomish River again?


  1. To me the greatest attractions of Sky are the interesting history, the trains and the quiet small town atmosphere. I remember long summer evenings sitting on a bench near the railroad tracks just to watch the trains go by. And, as Martin says, Sky is an excellent starting point for trips to Stevens Pass and the many photo locations to shoot trains.
    In 1995 there was a restaurant at Sky - well sort of. They served some greasy stuff that was hardly edible. A few years later this restaurant had gone out of business. Last time I visited, a new restaurant had opened on highway 2. Food actually was quite good there. I suppose they did good business serving the work crews during the cleanup.
    The Skykomish cleanup should be finished early next year. Personally I'd love to go back as soon as possible. Who knows...

  2. Martin, your account of Skykomish is a recognizable story throughout all of Northern Ontario. But a small town Northwest of here can relate to what Skykomish has been experiencing. Hornepayne is a definite must see for any trainspotter. Or at least it was...

    A wiki link re: Hornepayne.,_Ontario

    I once tried to spend a night on a nearby lake but the mosquitos and humidity chased us back to town. We sought refuge in the hotel here. At the time it was fairly new. But its gone now and alot of it has been replaced by trailers...

  3. Hi Martin,
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blogs about Skykomish to share on our site and I came across your post...If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you soon!