The Ballard Terminal Railroad

Reality Compared to the Ballard Southern

Note: This page covers an actual switching run on the BTRR. At the bottom you will find a link to a second page, which is a photographic study of the entire right of way, including buildings. This is provided as a basis for modeling consideration. Because this effort involved roughly 100 photos of track and buildings, it has been divided into sections to ease the strain of downloading. If you like shortline railroads, it will be well worth your effort.

2010 Update: Here is a link to a page of items from miscellaneous sources that give a little peek at the business side of a shortline:

Can a Shortline Prosper in Today's Big Business World?

April 19, 2004

If you have read my railroad pages, you know that I have an almost lifelong fascination with small, point to point industrial railroads. Every now and then, one of the railroad modeling magazines will publish an article on a "Small Railroad You Can Build", i.e. a shortline road that serves one or only a few industries, has only a few switches and not a great length of track. This is the kind of railroad you can model almost in its entirety by simply leaving out lengths of mainline.

A week or two back, I got a post from the management of the Ballard Terminal Railroad, the real one, not mine. They had stumbled on my website and were intrigued. A few exchanges later, I had an invite to go on one of their switching runs with them, thus really experiencing the working of a shortline railroad. Yesterday turned out to be the day we could get together and do this.

I met Kurt Armbruster, Steve Olson, and James Forgette at the BTRR engine spur and watched them power up the "Li'l Beaver", Engine #98, a beautifully restored EMD SW-1 diesel built in 1940. She weighs in at 100 tons and puts out 600 hp. She was obtained from the Milwaukee Road in 1998. When we were organized and the engine warmed up, off we went, bells clanging and horn blowing.

The BTRR serves two primary industries, Western Pioneer Shipping, a frozen fish shipping company, and Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel, which is primarily a cement operation.Western Pioneer receives the frozen fish direct from the processing ships. They are strictly a transfer company handling the fish for the fishermen. They have no frozen storage, so the fish is transferred direct from the ships to the reefers. Salmon Bay Sand & Gravel brings in dry cement in large dry "tanker" cars. They suck this up into their silos to make their cement. BtRR handles the incoming and outgoing cars for both businesses.

There is occassional shipping of other loads. In the past, the BT has handled loads of furniture for North Carolina for Olsen Furniture, one of Ballard's long-tim businesses. There have also been shipments of machinery for factories or ship yards, and smaller boats. I talked with one guy who works in a small plant along the track who said that the vats for Ballard's Red Hook Brewery were brought in on this line, but Steve says that must have been before the current ownership.

There are 3 miles of track. With the exception of maybe 1/3 to 3/4 of a mile, all of their trackage is right along side of or buried in active traffic streets, with lots of varied crossings... busy streets, bike paths, foot paths and spots where folks just kind of amble across the tracks to get from parking areas to the small factories, shipyards, and office buildings where they work, or to restaurants ranging from a small cafe to a major evening dining spot.

The line runs basically from east to slightly west-northwest. The eastern terminus is a short runaround track at Bright Street. I noted it called the" Bright Street Yard" on a note in the engine cab.There is a bit of track beyond that point, up to NW 40th St., but there isn't anything up there. The BTRR owns it's trackage outright, but the city owns the land under it, and the railroad has a 99 year lease on it. From Bright Street, the line runs west along NW 45th St, then curves slightly north to run along Shilshole Ave NW, then cuts through a short area on its own, running parallel to but well separated from NW Market St. Then it joins the route of NW 54th St. to run past the Hiram Chittendon Locks, and curving north again to cross and then parallel Seaview Ave. NW, where the railroad terminates at its Shilshole Yard, or interchange with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe. This morning, they had two pickups to make... a full box car at the fish plant and an empty cement car at the cement plant.

Here are some shots of the engines and engine spur activity before we started:


Ballard Terminal's main engine, a 600 hp NW class






The engine is named "Li'l Beaver" after the Ballard High School mascot. Ballard's teams are the Beavers.The engines color scheme has the same origin. Red and Black are the Ballard High School colors.



Kurt doing checks and bleeding lines. One thing that really impressed me was how clean these guys keep the engine and the engine area.


Kurt closing up the engine compartment after doing the internal checks. Note how the fence curves behind him. The brown wood building, which for years I thought was the railroad headquarters, is actually a taxidermist shop. The BTRR's "headquarters" is exactly where that indicates... in their heads.


Not a shot that appears often in model mags, here is a close up of a really big brake...


This is the electric panel... you don't throw the big switch here, ain't nothin' gonna happen...



The controls... 'nuff said...


Steve... our engineer for the day. This is a really poor picture, but it was the only shot I got of Steve before my camera quit. This was actually shot from across the street, when I took the big picture of the engine, then I enlarged and changed the lighting through the cab window...



Less Steve, above, who held the camera and took this shot, here is our crew... James - Operations Manager; Kurt - Conductor, Brakeman and Communicator; and yours truly, along for the ride.




BTRR found a second SW-1, "Old Yeller" keeps it here on the engine spur. There are no specific plans for it right now. They had intended to use it on their other railroad, but found an ex-Weherhauser SW instead.


OK, now that you've met the engine and crew... let's get to the operations...

#98 left the engine spur and merged into the main street, running right in the pavement of the street and the bike path... again, lots of bells and whistle blowing. We slipped under the Ballard Bridge, which carries one of the busiest major arterial roads in the state, NW 15th Ave., slid along some big warehouse type industrial buildings and came to our siding switch. This was a one switch dead end spur that the BTRR put in after they got the railroad. It serves the fish packing plant, which is not right beside the track, but across the parking lot on the water's edge. The fish come in from Alaska and are processed and frozen here. The plant doesn't have a freezer storage facility, so the product goes straight into a reefer, for the BTRR to pick up and send, via the BNSF interchange, to the east coast. Before the installation of this new siding, the BTRR crew had to spot the fish plant's cars on the mailine, and work all of their switching plans around that.

I should note here that this is true, short line industrial railroading, and it is clearly a rock and roll activity. This is not the shining, geometrically perfect track of a major railroad. This is largely old track, with lots of warp, shift, sink and rise. #98 rocked along through it all with no problem. I wish our models were as forgiving.


Here #98 swings into the switched spur at the fish plant to pick up the reefer ahead. The green building is not the plant... that's off to the right on the water. They load the processed frozen fish from the plant into the reefer because they don't have frozen storage. The BTRR picks up the reefers and gets them started on the way to the east coast. This traffic for the BTRR is seasonal, with the fishing seasons.


This is looking back from where we have just picked up the reefer. You are looking at the Ballard Bridge that we just went under, and will now go back under to take the reefer down to the Bright St. yard for runaround.


I had taken a digital camera with me, and got some pictures, which are included here. However, the camera's memory decided to say it was full when it wasn't, so I didn't get pictures once we were past the fish plant. I plan to go back in a few days by bicycle and get a lot more...probably better,shots of the right of way and businesses than I could have gotten out of the engine cab. This page will be updated when I get those shots.

We connected to the full reefer, a process that was quite educational for me. It's a lot more real work than we go to on our layouts. Kurt was on the ground, walking the engine in and communicating by radio with Steve, the Engineer and Jim, Operations Manager, every foot, literally, of the way. Then Kurt made the brake system connections and those were tested. Finally, when successful hookup was confirmed, we backed out of the siding, back under the Ballard Bridge and past the engine house and the huge Fred Meyer store, all the way to the BTRR's east end of line, a very short passing siding at Bright Street. We spotted the reefer, disconnected, used the runaround to put the engine in front of the reefer, then reconnected and we were off for the second car.


Here we have backed all the way back down the route to the eastern terminus... We have disconnected from the reefer on track one, and Kurt is throwing the ground switch so we can run out on the tail, then down track two to come around in front of the reefer again. Then we'll reconnect with the reefer and run the mainline down to past the gravel yard, and back into another siding to pick up our cement car.



This run duplicated our beginning... back down the line past the Fred Meyer, then past the engine spur, under the Ballard Bridge and past the switch for the fish plant lead and finally further onto the main line. This was where things get hairy on the BTRR. This line was abandoned for many years, I think from some time in the late 50's or early 60's to the mid-1990's. During that time, businesses along the line became used to using the track areas, which both sank a bit and were filled in over time, as parking. Some new businesses were built very close to the line, too. While there is now an active industrial railroad that operates without a set schedule, folks are still inclined to continue parking on the track.

As we came past the fish plant we came to an area of very active boat yards, and the locally famous Salmon Bay Cafe, a popular breakfast/brunch stop for local boatyard workers, fishermen and yachters. The parking areas were full, and sure enough, several cars were parked on the tracks. Kurt walked ahead to the restaurant to roust the drivers out to move their cars, while Steve very, very, very slowly and carefully worked the engine down the line past the cars that were parked between the left hand buildings and the track. If any of us built a model with clearances this close, all the prototype fanatics would be all over us! I think the bell and whistle on Li'l Beaver may be the most important feature of the engine!

Once Kurt had the cars off the track, we proceded on past the Salmon Bay Cafe and approached the Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel yard. This is a pretty big industry locally, and you see their big cement trucks all over town, pumping concrete into various building foundations and such. They get railroad carloads of cemen, in via the BNSF, then the BTRR. I presume this is the dry mix from which they make the actual cement; I should have asked. This morning, we had only one empty car to pick up. The Salmon Bay S & G siding is a very long (for the BTRR) double ended passing siding. The east end switch is just past the Salmon Bay Cafe, and this morning was closed off with "No Parking - Violators will be Towed" signs. However, in this instance, we did not want to go into the siding frontally anyway, since the aim was to put the empty cement car behind the reefer. We ran down past the gravel yard, through a small commercial office park, then past the parking area for the Yankee Diner restaurant, to the opposite end switch. Again, Kurt handled the ground work, throwing the switch and handling the signalling to the locomotive. I should note that all of the switches on the BTRR are ground throws, identical to the very popular model ones I use on my Ballard Southern.

We backed into the passing siding and ran back to the gravel yard, connecting with the empty cement car, then it was forward again, past the office park and the restaurant, then through a very busy little area of small, packed industries that you wouldn't even ever know are there if you only drive through Ballard on the main street. This is a pretty stretch of run, with trees growing right beside the track, and branches whipping the side of the engine, and into the cab windows! I should also note that this whole route runs alongside Shilshole Ave, and across the street were the backs of many businesses we (Ann and I) are familiar with, including our favorite Mexican restaurant, Azteca. Many, if not most, of the businesses along this route are marine oriented, and since we have lived aboard and sailed here since 1972, and Ann is one of the principal marine interior designers in the area, we have done business with many of these firms and boatyards.

With our two car consist now complete, we exited the gravel yard siding and hit the BTRR's real "main line"... a long run on through the businesses described, past another well known restaurant, The Canal, and past the famous Ballard Locks, which connect Lake Union and Lake Washington with Puget Sound. We passed the BNSF's landmark bascule bridge and then ran along the outlet from the Locks to the Sound. This is the longest non-stop run of the route, so here we were "high balling" a whole 10 mph. On our right was the main street connecting Ballard to Shilshole Marina and Golden Gardens Park, and on our left, below us, a long stretch of waterfront homes very cleverly and carefully built right under the rairload right of way and between it and the water's edge. We then accomplished our busiest street crossing, crossing, where NW 34th St curves and becomes Seaview Ave. There are no wooden guard arms at any of the BTRR's crossings, so in each instance, the engineer is relying on his own vision and Kurt's "clear" signals from the front, plus lots of clanging and air horning to get the traffic to stop and stay stopped while we cross. With the busiest and highest speed traffic of the route, this crossing is a challenge.

The BTRR now runs on the right, or opposite, side of the highway from where it started. Between us and the highway are a number of small businesses and apartments, and we almost immediately entered the end of the BTRR's interchange "yard" with the BNSF. This is simply another two track runaround. This area is comparatively new trackage, and was the first area that looked like an active, busy, new railroad, with perfect track, wide clearances and fresh roadbed gravel. The far, or north end, of the runaround curved out of sight and a bit uphill, joining the BNSF line at a level above us on the right. Our crew spotted the consist on one runaround track, disconnected, and spotted the engine on the other. Then came the small railroad's principal activity... waiting.

Plans had been that the BNSF would have the pickups, three cement cars, spotted on the interchange when we got there. However, the best laid plans, etc. Jim called the yardmaster and was told that the cars would be there at 2:15 pm, almost an hour's wait. So, we strolled across the street to the Purple Cow Cafe and had sandwiches and coffee cake. I finally decided, at 2:45, that I would have to part company with the crew, since Ann had some things we had to do in the late afternoon. I called her to come get me at the Purple Cow. Meantime, while I waited for Ann, the BTRR's siding up the hill from the street was still visible. Just as Ann arrived, at 3:00, there came a very grimy old green and black BN SW class switcher, pulling three cement cars. We were able to watch as the BN crew came down the interchange track, spotted the new cars and picked up the ones we had delivered. The BTRR crew picked up the new cars and started back down the route to Ballard. We managed to make ourselves the first car stopped at the crossing, and honked and waved to the crew as they went by.

I would have loved to have been able to finish up the run with Kurt, Steve and Jim, but I can truthfully say that the time I did spend with them on the BTRR's Li'l Beaver was a thrill I will never forget. I'll never be able to operate my railroad as casually as I used to again. Every car movement will be much more meaningful, as I picture Kurt out there guiding the engine in and advising on speed, hooking up and unhooking brake lines, or Steve explaining braking cylinder pressures, or Jim talking about the traffic patterns and business. The BTRR handles 6 to8 cars in an average week, and may make several runs to do so. The guys also own another shortline down in Puyallup, called the Meeker Southern. It's a big railroad... it has 5 miles of track.


Dick Wightman

On Tuesday, April 20, I took my mountain bike down to the Ballard Terminal right-of-way, planning to ride the entire line. The mountain bike could handle riding the ballast, but it couldn't handle all the broken glass. I ended up abandoning it with flat tires at the Salmon Bay Cafe. I walked the rest of the line. This trip resulted in some 100 photos of features and buildings along the right of way. It's going to take me a few days to process all of this, plus additional information I obtained from both the BT folks and people working in businesses along the line. The whole package should make for a real treasure trove of information for anyone wanting to model this short line railroad, in either it's heyday of 1930 to 1950, or as it is now. I got shots of the old spurs... where they went and the businesses they served, as well as everything there now. I'm going to put all of this in an additional web page. The link below is not active yet, but will take your there once I have the page built.

The Ballard Terminal Railroad - a Modeler's View

Right now, the Modeler's View page consists of only some track plan diagrams, but the link is active. I am still processing all of the photos, and will interleave the photos and diagrams to make a virtual walking tour of the railroad as soon as I can get the work done.