Memories of a Young Railfan:
Ferndale, Washington in the Mid-20th Century
By James E. Lancaster, PhD.
2009. Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by the author and were taken between 1951 and 1952.
Photos may not be used for any purpose without permission.
The following is based on events and memories from almost 60 years ago. Errors are possible. Any help you can provide would be appreciated.
Background: Ferndale is located in the northwest corner of the state of Washington, about 10 miles north of Bellingham. My family moved from Los Angeles to Bellingham in March 1947, then on to Ferndale in April 1948. We lived there until June 1956.
In the middle of the 20th Century, Ferndale was a small city. In 1948 the city limit sign gave the population as 710. By 1956 the population was above 1000. During that same period Bellingham had a population of about 35,000.
As a boy I had an avid interest in trains. This interest began to fade along about the ninth grade as sports and other school activities began to take up my time. The following are some of my railroad memories from primarily the 1948-52 time period when my earlier interest in trains was at its peak.
The watercolor painting at the top of the page showing a southbound International passing through Ferndale in 1950 is by noted railroad artist Ernie Towler.
The Great Northern Railway line from Everett to Vancouver, B.C. ran through Ferndale. The aerial photo of Ferndale, below, was taken in 1950. It is followed by a closer view of the area around the depot. The rail line entered from the southeast, crossed the Nooksack River and then turned due north through a broad curve. The track on both sides of the river was on a fill with street undercrossings on both sides. There were two grade crossings northwest of the river, one on the fill (Railroad Street, later Second Street) and one just south of the GN station (Beckler Avenue, later Washington Street). The highway crossing the Nooksack River at the upper right of the photo is US 99 (today Interstate 5). Numbers on the photos identify key locations described in the text.
There was a small station with a waiting
There was a spur on the west side of
There was a long passing siding and a shorter
There was another spur on the southeast
In 1948 there were three
daily passenger trains and two freight trains in each direction through Ferndale. The
passenger trains were all heavyweights: two Puget Sounders (both ways in the morning
and evening) and a local mail and express train (north in the morning; south in the late
afternoon). Only the local stopped at Ferndale.
The undated photo at the right shows
the Ferndale depot (Location 1) as it appeared in the 1950s, after it was moved a short distance to the north. The nearest corner contained the waiting room. The window on the left with the white paint on the lower panes was probably one of the restrooms (they were at the rear of the waiting room).
The photo was taken by Norm Keyes and is used by permission from the Great Northern Railway Historical Society Archives.
The photo above shows an official car on the rear of the southbound local mail and express train as it leaves the Ferndale. The cars waiting for the train to pass are on Washington Street. Beyond the cars is Pynor Feed Co. (Location 2). At the left center is the loading dock (Location 5). The single sheathed boxcar is on the short siding. In the distance between the train and the loading dock is the Second Street crossing.
Initially H-class Pacifics pulled the passenger trains. Single unit E7s replaced the Pacifics in 1948 or 1949. In June 1950 the Puget Sounders were replaced by streamlined, thrice daily, five-car Internationals. The image below is the cover of a brochure advertising the new trains. The second image shows the interiors of the coaches and the cafe section of a coach-cafe. The third image shows the schedules of the new trains as well as the local train that stopped in Ferndale.
By late 1951 or early 1952 boiler-equipped GP7s had replaced the E7s on the local mail train. The local was discontinued in 1956.
Freight trains were handled by 3200-Class 2-8-2 Mikados until
1952 when new two-unit sets of F7As were assigned.
I had three friends - Jerry Harkleroad, Gary Thompson and Mike Wheeler - who used to hang out around the Ferndale depot with me. We got acquainted with several engineers and would occasionally get a cab ride. One of the engineers was named Horace Parks. He was a passenger train engineer who alternated between Seattle-Portland and Seattle-Vancouver B runs. He wore a white engineer's cap and had a very distinctive way of blowing the horn for grade crossings. He worked both the Internationals and the local, the latter usually every other Friday. Another engineer we knew was named Charlie but I don't recall ever hearing his last name. Before we moved to Ferndale, Horace had given me a ride in the cab of an H-class Pacific from Ferndale to Bellingham. What a thrill that was for a nine year old.
One summertime activity on Fridays was to take a morning bus from Ferndale to Bellingham (the fare was 25 cents). The bus terminated its run at the Greyhound Bus depot on State Street. We would walk less than a block to the corner of State St. and Holly Ave. where there was a hobby shop named the Hobby Hive in the basement. After oogling all the goodies in the hobby shop we would head north along Holly. A half block north of State Street the Northern Pacific line into Bellingham ran along an alley. Another half block brought us to Railroad Avenue, a broad street with a Milwaukee Road track down the center. After a few more blocks we came to the Great Northern depot where we waited for the northbound local, hoping to get a cab ride back to Ferndale with Horace or Charlie. The plan worked several times, mostly when E7s were still on the trains (riding in the cab of a GP7 was not nearly as much fun). If we couldn't get a cab ride the alternative was to buy a ticket and ride to Ferndale in the coach at the rear of the train (I recall the fare being 22 cents!). On one occasion the son of one of my father's coworkers ask if I could get him a cab ride. I arranged with Horace for he and I to get a ride in an E7 on one of the Internationals from Bellingham all the way to Blaine, the next stop. That was to be my only cab ride on an International.
were also passenger extras, such as the one shown in the photo above.
It's late afternoon and the northbound extra (notice the white flags)
is entering the long passing siding for a meet with the southbound
local passenger train. The Ferndale depot is on the right (Location 1) and roof of the wood storage shed (Location 6)
is above the boxcars stored on the siding at the left (and that's my
bike on the platform). The end of Pynor Feed (Location 2) is visible in the distance behind the train order board. One summer the Shriners held their annual
convention in Vancouver, B.C. and a number of passenger specials similar to this train came
through Ferndale before and after the convention, all with
One memorable extra train came through Ferndale in March 1951 to clear the line after a particularly heavy snowfall. Read about it here.
The northbound local mail and express train went through Ferndale about noon. Its normal consist was a mail-baggage car with a 30-foot RPO, three baggage-express cars and a coach. Tom Yanke had a contract with the Post Office to move mail between the train station and the post office, which were about three blocks apart. He would park his Chevy pickup truck at the north end of the platform and, after the mail train stopped, move it to the RPO door to get the first-class mail, usually one pouch. He also gave them a pouch. Then he would move a few feet to the baggage door of the same car to get the sacks of other classes of mail. On a typical day this would mean 6-10 sacks but at Christmas sometimes two to three times that much.
This process was repeated, but in reverse order, in the evening about 6:00 p.m. when the local returned on its southbound run. The outgoing mail load was usually somewhat less than the incoming load.
There was a mail crane at the north end of the station platform. The morning southbound and evening northbound Puget Sounders (and later the Internationals) picked up and dropped off a first-class pouch on the fly.
The photo above shows the mail crane and a passenger extra behind E7 504. The fellow standing near the mail crane in the light shirt is Gary Thompson, one of my railfan friends when we were both in Junior High School. Behind Gary is another of my friends, possibly Jerry Harkleroad. At left of the E7 are the I.O.O.F. hall and Keith's Grocery.
The northbound local mail and express train was usually followed by a northbound freight train (First 712) that handled the bulk of the local work. Before 1950 the freight would often stop on the fill just before the Second Street grade crossing, uncouple behind the cars to be switched, and then move forward toward the station. This left the rest of the train stretched back across the Nooksack River.
Switching usually involved spotting loaded 40-foot boxcars at Pynor Feed and Ferndale Grain and pulling the empties. Periodically Ferndale Builder's Supply would receive a gondola car filled with sand. Every so often a 50-foot automobile car loaded with new Chevrolets would be spotted at the loading dock. Rather than backing down the siding from the north this was done with a flying drop through the facing point switches at the south end of the passing siding. Additional work involved spotting an occasional boxcar of feed at the storage shed. The frozen food plant was built before the introduction of mechanical reefers and photos indicate it had no loading doors or loading dock along the siding. It was expanded after 1950 and subsequently included a loding dock.
In the days of steam, northbound freights could often be heard long before they arrived in town. About halfway between Bellingham and Ferndale was a small, man-made pond now called Clay Pit Pond. The location is shown as Brennan on some maps and the pond is now also known as Brennan Pond. Clay was extracted from the pit and shipped to a cement plant in Bellingham in gondolas. Northbound freights dropped off empty cars and the sound of the steam engine performing the switching could often be heard in Ferndale. On occasion a northbound freight would bring loaded gondolas into Ferndale and leave them on the short siding, often leaking muddy water from the wet clay. They would then be picked up by a southbound freight and taken to Bellingham. Since it happened infrequently, I do not believe this was a normal operating procedure. Normally, southbound freights picked up loaded gondolas at Clay Pit Pond. There was a runaround track on the facing point spur that ran into the pond so the southbound freights could pick up the loaded cars. The pond, the spur off the mainline and the runaround track can be seen in the 1955 composite aerial view below. Note the railroad cars, some possibly gondolas, sitting on the spur (arrow).
With the introduction of the Internationals in June 1950, an afternoon train was added in both directions between Seattle and Vancouver, BC. The added southbound International came through Ferndale about 2:00 p.m. This usually didn't leave sufficient time for the northbound freight to leave its train on the main line while it performed its local work so it usually pulled into the passing siding before cutting off the cars for Ferndale. The crew would often switch the feed and grain companies then tie up for lunch on the same spur while they waited for the southbound International. I had two friends who were also railfans and we became acquainted with one of the freight engineers. He would sometimes let us ride in the cab of a 2-8-2 while they did the switching. On one summer day they tied up for lunch on the siding next to Pynor Feed. After eating, the engineer and fireman took a nap on the floor of the cab while waiting for the southbound International. My two friends and I were also in the cab. When the International went by we were looking out the cab window and standing on the tender steps to watch the train. Unbeknownst to the locomotive crew - or to us - there was a GN official in the observation car that day. Needless to say our engineer friend got an unexpected and unpaid leave and we never got another cab ride from him.
The noon freight train also carried a 40-foot boxcar directly behind the locomotive for local LCL freight shipments. After completing their switching, if there was a shipment for Ferndale, the crew would stop with the boxcar opposite the station's freight room door for unloading. The train crew and the station agent, Warren Tanguy, would do the unloading.
The second northbound freight (Second 712) usually passed through Ferndale in the late afternoon, as did the first southbound freight (First 711). Often the two would meet at Ferndale. Since the southbound local was due around 6:00 p.m. and the southbound evening International about an hour later, a three-way meet was possible with two freight trains on the passing track waiting for one of the passenger trains. On several occasions the combined length of two freights was too long for the passing track and one of the freights would double into the second siding. I recall one occasion when practically every inch of the two tracks was occupied.
Sometimes empty cars would accumulate on the short siding. The first southbound freight would pick up these cars. The second southbound freight (second 711) came through at night so I seldom saw it.
There are many more photos of trains in Ferndale (and Bellingham) in the follwing galleries:
Postscript: Like many small towns Ferndale has changed. The estimated population in 2004 was just under 10,000. Now on the BNSF, it is a center of grain activity. Pynor Feed and the concrete block company are both gone. The entire length of the siding where they were located is now occupied by Ferndale Grain.
The depot, loading dock and the old wood storage shed disappeared years ago. Kelly-Farquahr was abandoned and partially torn down in recent years. Most recently the BNSF made changes in the track layout, moving the entry into the passing siding further north and lengthening the spur into Ferndale Grain.
When I last visited Ferndale, a sign located about where the old mail crane stood now proclaims the location as South Ferndale!
Biographical Information: I graduated from Ferndale High School in June 1956 and my family moved to Seattle within days after my graduation. I attended Seattle Pacific College, graduating in 1961. In 1963 and 1968 I earned graduate degrees from the California Institute of Technology and the University of Washington, respectively. My wife Sharon and I have lived in Southern California since 1968 and have two grown sons. I worked for over 37 years for McDonnell Douglas (and Boeing after the 1997 merger) before retiring in 2005. I still work as a consultant for Boeing.
Ferndale in the 1950s would make a nice small town to model. With the Internationals, local passenger trains, local freight switching, and one or more daily meets, the afternoons and early evenings provided plenty of action, particularly for a young boy.
Although I now model the Southern Pacific, the track plan for one of the towns on my HO layout reflects my memories of Ferndale. It has a passing siding, a shorter siding, spurs, wood loading dock, and a frozen food plant.
Created: April 16, 2009
Updated: September 18, 2011