After moving with his small family from a farm in Iowa to Washington State in the late 1920s, my grandpa began working for the railroad. The railroad had been pretty good to Leavenworth, at least for awhile. The Great Northern Railroad (now called Burlington Northern) ran its first line through Leavenworth in 1892, complete with division headquarters and a switching yard. Because of heavy winter snows and treacherous mountain conditions, the railroad employed some 1,800 men to build a 7.8 mile tunnel through the Cascade Mountains. Upon completion, this tunnel was for awhile the longest railroad tunnel in North America (I’ve been through the tunnel via Amtrak’s Empire Builder train, and believe me, it’s long!)
The railroad also had a lot to do with development of hydroelectric projects in the area. Operating steam trains through the Cascade Tunnel was difficult and dangerous; soot and condensation made the tracks slippery, and the heat in the cab of the locomotive sometimes hit 200 degrees Fahrenheit. A hydroelectric plant built on the Wenatchee River in Tumwater Canyon meant that by 1909 electric locomotives replaced steam engines on the route.
But by the mid 1920s, Great Northern had shifted its headquarters 21 miles to the east, to the town of Wenatchee, and Leavenworth’s decline began.
These days of course, Leavenworth has become a popular tourist attraction; a New York Times article from December 2001 cites crowds of 30,000 at the annual Village Lighting Festival. There are plenty of other ways to get in and out of the area besides by train (and one of these days, I’ll share the story of our 1996 train journey to Leavenworth that took us from one end of Washington State to the other).
(Historical information sourced from Spirit of Leavenworth Visitors Guide, 1996-1997 Edition.)