Pullman's Past Comes Alive
Our History - the Northern Pacific Railroad and Pullman Depot
By the 1880s farmers pushed northward from Walla Walla country into the Palouse but were restricted by the lack of transportation with which to ship their crops. Agricultural development of the Palouse region relied upon the railroad to transport grain to market and to bring manufactured goods to local communities. In addition, railroads provided vital passenger transportation between local communities and the national rail system. The potential for Palouse wheat traffic
had not gone unnoticed by railroad companies including the
Northern Pacific Railroad, which was the first northern
transcontinental railroad completed in 1883, the mainline of
which skirted the northern Palouse west of Spokane, Washington.
The Union Pacific Railway also had a strong interest in the
regional wheat traffic, having extended lines into the Pacific
Northwest and to Portland, Oregon, through its subsidiary
Oregon Railway & Navigation Co. Both railroads were eager
to construct branch lines to increase traffic, and fiercely
competed for territory during the latter two decades of the
The Northern Pacific Railroad came to Pullman in 1887, two years after the arrival of the Union Pacific line. Both railroads served the community with small wooden stations – the Union Pacific on the south side of the Palouse River and the NP on the north – just a block apart. In 1901 the NP depot was relocated a bit closer to the tracks when commuters became tired of walking through the mud to meet the trains. A spot east of Grand Avenue and along the river became its permanent site.
At the end of the railroad construction era in 1910, the Palouse, and Whitman County in particular, had one of the most extensive railway systems of any rural area in the nation: one mile of track for every 4.6 square miles of land area, a ratio higher than any of the Midwestern states. (Washington state average was one mile of track for every twelve square miles). As such, railroad construction significantly transformed the environment of the Palouse, from a handful of prospective towns and homesteads, to a thickly settled agricultural landscape in which railroad sidings were spaced, on average, less than five miles apart.
By 1910, Pullman was being served by six daily passenger trains, two on Union Pacific and four on the Northern Pacific. Whereas the Union Pacific train was a local that operated between Moscow, Idaho, and Ayer, Washington, (where connections were made to Lewiston, Spokane, and Portland) regular passenger service on the Northern Pacific operated from Spokane through Pullman to Lewiston. The four trains included the Palouse and Lewiston Special with a scheduled station stop at 11:00 a.m. eastbound (to Spokane) and 11:55 a.m. westbound. A lunch counter near the depot provided meals. This pattern of service remained for the next four decades.
The Northern Pacific Pullman depot also served as an important hub of local freight operations. A through freight train operated from Spokane to Lewiston daily in each direction. Crews working the Genesee Branch were based out of the Pullman depot, as were crews on the daily except Monday local freight trains operating in each direction between Pullman and Lewiston that provided switching service to the local communities along the route. As a result, Pullman had a coal dock and other servicing facilities for steam locomotives. Local railroad activity, combined with a growing population, placed Pullman at the center of railway operations between Spokane and Lewiston. At the depot, the railroad’s agent and clerical staff handled express packages and other less-than-carload freight shipments of manufactured goods and supplies destined to Pullman. In addition, United States Mail was delivered by the railroad’s Railway Post Office service, which sorted and delivered mail to communities at the depot. The depot also served as the Western Union telegraph office, with the agent delivering telegrams to the community.
Recognizing the importance of the railroad for both the community and the state college, in 1912 local citizens began lobbying the Northern Pacific for a new depot that signified Pullman’s stature. On January 23, 1912, the Pullman Chamber of Commerce wrote Howard Elliott, President of the Northern Pacific, stating, “For some time past there has been a strong sentiment here in Pullman that our railroad depot accommodations were wholly inadequate to meet the demands of our travel.” The following spring, Washington State College (WSC) President Enoch A. Bryan also approached Elliott to encourage the railroad to construct a new depot, noting, “the passenger business at Pullman is quite good and has been for a number of years and is likely to be for all the years to come on account of the college here. I think it would be a great help to have a station here rather better than the ordinary town of this size would have.” Likely summing up popular sentiment, Bryan continued, “It helps to make a better and more attractive town and adds to the prestige of the college community to have it recognized this way by the railways.”
After extensive study, Northern Pacific authorized the construction of a new depot for Pullman in the fall of 1915. Sound Construction and Engineering Company of Seattle, Washington, was awarded the contract for constructing Pullman’s new depot. Before work could begin the existing frame depot was cut in half, with the freight room moved to the northwest corner of the lot and the ticket office relocated to Kamiaken Street, where it would serve temporarily during construction. Ground was broken for the new depot on June 22, 1916. Completed in November 1916 at a total cost of $40,000, an official opening ceremony for the depot was held March 9, 1917. The Pullman Herald reported that a large crowd turned out to celebrate the opening of the Depot.
For the next half-century, the depot served passengers traveling to and from Pullman and Washington State College, as well as normal commuter use. Football specials were very popular, and hundreds of people commonly gathered at the depot to send off the team or welcome them home after road trips; occasionally with entire trains chartered for the team and its fans. On one occasion an estimated 500 people welcomed the team home at the depot, loading them on wagons and pulling them up the hill to campus after a resounding victory at Oregon Agricultural College in Corvallis, Oregon. Special trains continued to be operated to Pullman into the early 1960s, including for the Future Farmers of America, which has a strong tie to the land grant origins of WSC. Hundreds of WSU students arrived on campus via “Cougar Special” trains between 1917 to the 1940s.
The depot continued to be used until the 1960s when passenger service was discontinued. During the final years, a single-engine
diesel train (commonly called the Bug) made daily runs between Spokane and Lewiston. In 1970 Northern Pacific sold the building to Burlington Northern who leased space to the Department of Agriculture for Soil Conservation District offices.
The building was purchased in 1988 by the late Dan Antoni, who named it the Pufferbelly Depot. Antoni turned a portion into his real estate office and rented space to the Spokesman-Review and vehicle licensing department. He added three passenger cars, a locomotive, and Great Northern caboose which he placed on rails next to the building. His daughter Meghan inherited the depot and was seeking a way to preserve it. Contact was made with the Whitman County Historical Society about the possible purchase and discussions followed. The acquisition became possible when loans were secured by the historical society and an anonymous local enthusiast.
The following history is drawn from the depot’s National Register of Historic Places Narrative Statement of Significance by Marc A. Entze.