A rail-trail is an abandoned rail bed used as a non-motorized public trail with transportation and recreation in mind. There are over 10,000 miles of rail-trail in the U.S. Some abandoned rail lines have been rail-banked, which keeps the corridor in one ownership. However, to assemble the Foothills Trail, each segment of trail was painstakingly purchased or, in some cases, donated to Pierce County. Federal and state grant funds are used to construct the trial segments into existing and ongoing Foothills Trail.
THE CARBON and WHITE RIVER VALLEYS
A Regional History
The Carbon and White Rivers begin inside Mount Rainier National Park from massive glaciers that reside on the North and West flanks of Mt. Rainier. These rivers eventually join the larger Puyallup River drainage which continues on to the City of Tacoma and empties into Puget Sound. The history of the region is inspiring; its stories wait to be discovered and landscapes explored.
For thousands of years, Puyallup and Muckleshoot tribes occupied the region, thriving on the rich abundance of resources from the mountains to the sea. In the past, permanent villages were located throughout lowland areas, and there were well-established seasonal camps ranging widely through the Cascade Mountains to Mount Rainier and beyond. It is important to understand the Carbon and White River region encompassed uncounted village sites, resource areas, and transportation routes (trails). The river valleys provided access and connectivity between the lowland areas of Puget Sound and the upper elevation forest and sub alpine resource areas of Mount Rainier. It is a vital and thriving culture and this region continues to be of significance to the tribes today.
Through the treaties of Medicine Creek and Point Elliot in 1854 and 1855, Native American lands in the region (and throughout Puget Sound) were ceded to the federal government. It is unlikely, however, that most Native Americans understood the implication of the treaties. Conflicts inevitably grew as settlers increasingly moved into the area. In October 1855, hostilities (referred to as the Puget Sound Indian Wars) began and the Carbon and White River region was the site of some of the period’s most significant conflicts. The opening and closing battles of the war were fought on Connell’s Prairie, six miles west of Buckley, and a temporary militia fort was established for a short while at South Prairie. As hostilities subsided, local tribes and bands gradually relocated to the Puyallup and Muckleshoot reservation lands and continue to retain their treaty rights to hunt, fish, and gather in traditional use areas.
In 1830, only 25 years after Lewis and Clark arrived at the Pacific coast, fur trapper’s working for the Hudson’s Bay trading company built a log cabin about four miles west of the current City of Buckley. Settlement occurred gradually for about 30 years primarily in the lower river valleys where the land was suitable for farming. Then, in the late 1860’s, coal was discovered in the upper Carbon River area and the region was transformed forever.
Coal was vitally important in the late 1800’s, for the purpose such as heating homes, producing steel, and powering steam engines on trains and ships. The Northern Pacific Railroad, (formed in 1864 to construct a transcontinental line from Lake Superior to the Pacific Northwest) played an instrumental role in forming the Tacoma Coal Company to mine the newly discovered coal and build wharves along Commencement Bay to transfer the coal to sailing ships.
The first rail line from Tacoma to Wilkeson was finished in 1877, and soon the Carbon River Valley all the way to near the current national park boundary was dotted with mines, coke ovens, and company towns all linked by the railroad. For many years these rail lines were the main transportation corridor for both train and foot traffic. At its peak, the population of communities in the upper Carbon River valley may have numbered 65,000 residents, compared to today’s population of fewer than 2,000.
Although coal was the primary reason for developing rail access up the Carbon River Valley, there were other resources too, and the trains were soon carrying timber, milled lumber, and the unique Wilkeson sandstone out of the region. Logging and milling soon became as important to the regional economy as mining. Timber towns with extensive logging operation and multiple mills grew up overnight adjacent to the railroad lines. Wilkeson sandstone was a very high grade building material – dense, watertight, and resistant to cracking and discoloration. Early tourist were also drawn to Mount Rainier as soon as train service was available. Outfitters met tourist arriving by train in Wilkeson, and then guided them by pack horse up into the high alpine areas of Mount Rainier.
Coal mining declined in the early 1900’s and many towns began to lose jobs and population. Company towns literally shut their doors and moved away taking whatever they could salvage with them. Many communities in the upper valley literally disappeared with little trace they ever existed (e.g., Fairfax, Melmont, Manley Moore, Spiketon, and others). In the lower valley, the communities of Buckley, South Prairie, and Orting were able to strengthen their economic ties to the growing Puget Sound area and remain viable .
Today, the pace of change in Puget Sound is accelerating the approach of urban development and the communities of the Carbon and White River Valleys are faced with the challenge of responding in a way that stays true to their identity while enhancing the values that community residents feel contribute to their quality of life.
Burlington Northern Railway abandoned the rail bed in 1982. The effort started in 1984, when a Buckley physician and a community visionary organized the Foothills Rails-to-Trails Coalition to assist Pierce County Parks in building the trail. Despite roadblocks, construction of the trail is ongoing and thousands of users are already enjoying its benefits.
Among the early roadblocks was the opposition group Citizens Against the Trail (CAT) which was formed in 1986 as described in the article below.