Mount Rainier Railroad will resume scenic tours of the mountain

You can expect to ride the historic tracks around 2025.

The historic Mt. Rainier Railroad is coming back thanks to the work of the revived nonprofit that started it in the first place.

The operation is a heritage railroad, or a scenic railway that operates on a real historical railroad line. It’s run for decades between the communities of Elbe and Mineral on the southwest foothills of the mountain.

The railway had been out of operation for about two years but will soon return thanks to the Western Forest Industries Museum (WFIM), which founded the scenic railroad line in 1980.

It’ll take time to rebuild the museum and train depot and restore the locomotives and rail track to service, so “realistically it’s probably going to be 2025” for re-opening, WFIM Executive Director Bethan Maher said in an interview.

“We’re fairly optimistic,” Maher said. “It’s an impressive timeline but we believe that it’s doable.”

Construction on the local part of the railroad began in the 1890s, Maher said, when there was a lot of money to be made prospecting and felling trees. It fell out of industrial use in the second half of the 20th century.

Since 1980, the Mt. Rainier Railroad and Logging Museum ran several locomotives on journeys between the towns of Elbe and Mineral through the forests south of Mount Rainier. It also ran a gift shop in Elbe. The railroad was bought in 2016 by American Heritage Railways, but the company ceased operation of the railroad and museum in May 2020, citing financial losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The WFIM was legally active but essentially dormant when American Heritage was running the show, Maher said. It had no staff to run the railroad, but would hold occasional school group tours and provide assistance to American Heritage. (Maher was the Chief Operating Officer of the railroad during American Heritage’s management.)

This year, the town of Eatonville — just a few miles up the road from the railway — elected a new mayor, Dave Baublits, who was interested in revitalizing the railroad as an economic and tourism driver for the area. He reached out to American Heritage and helped make the transition back to the WFIM happen, Maher said.

The museum reformed in August this year with a new board of directors and management team. American Heritage Railways has agreed to transfer the railroad and museum assets back in a reconveyance agreement, Maher said.

WFIM will build a new train depot in Eatonville and restore several steam locomotives to service. Eatonville was founded on the railroad, and it’s an important piece of living history for the families that reside there, Maher said.

The re-launch will even add “railbikes” to the track, Maher said; those are human-powered pedal carts that give the user a bit of exercise.

“The geography, the territory that the railroad passes through … is absolutely stunning,” Maher said. “You go over an 80-foot-high bridge and trestle, you (see) the views of Mount Rainier. It’ll be a really special trip.

As part of the re-launch, WFIM plans to construct a new museum with a more nuanced history of the people that lived and worked near the railway.

“The focus has been on equipment and the engineering,” Maher said. “I would like to personalize the museum. The reason the railroad is there is because prospectors for the Northern Pacific railway worked with the Nisqually people when they were prospecting the line. I don’t think it’s right to pick and choose which parts of history we’re telling. There was a huge Japanese-American presence at logging camps. … And a huge Japanese-American community in Eatonville … and they were interned at the start of World War II. … It’s important that we tell the whole story.”