In the early morning hours, Ballard residents can sometimes hear the whistle of a train horn from down near Market Street, running alongside Shilshole Avenue N.W.
Trains and Ballard have a long history. The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe rail line ran through industrial Ballard along Shilshole Avenue N.W. near the concrete plants, mill and docks until 1997. After they cancelled service, the local businesses who relied on this railroad spur purchased a 50-year-old locomotive (numbered 98), affectionally named “Li’l Beaver” after the Ballard High School mascot and kept the short line running, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal. There are a few hundred short lines across the United States which are also commonly referred to as the last mile/first mile lines and are commonly used to transport commercial goods. James Forgette, General Manager of the Ballard Terminal Railroad said short lines are also often a more environmentally friendly choice as one rail car can take up to 16 semi-trucks off the road.
The railroad’s locomotive is a ‘40s era EMD SW1 no. 98, retired from the Milwaukee Road, said Forgette. The Milwaukee Road was once a major rail link between the industrial Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. Enthusiasts can see the Milwaukee Road rail yard (emeritus) by heading to Cle Elum but Ballard is proud to own a small piece of the former railroad with engine no. 98.
Since 2008, this one-engine railroad has transported materials (such as cement, fly ash, stucco and mortar) from the tracks near Shilshole Bay Marine to Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel on Shilshole Avenue NW, near the Fremont border. Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel have operated out of their location for the past 110 years and have routinely relied on trains to transport their industrial cargo. On average the rail line transports 4 railcars full of over 200,000 pounds of product from the main BNSF line by Ray's Boathouse to Salmon Bay Sand and Gravel on a weekly basis. They prefer to run Sunday to Thursday evenings to avoid parked cars on the railroad tracks, said Forgette. Each run on the three miles of train track takes about three hours to complete.
The Ballard Terminal Railroad owns its tracks outright but also holds a 30-year-lease on the land the tracks reside on from the city of Seattle. The Ballard Terminal Railroad spur starts with a connection to the BNSF mainline at the Shilshole yard just north of N.W. 68th Street. The railing proceeds along Seaview Avenue N.W. toward Shilshole Ave N.W. which the line parallels until N.W. 45th Street. Then it follows N.W. 45th Street to Leary Way N.W. where the line passes the Bright Street Yard and terminates at N.W. 40th Street and 6th Ave N.W. near the border between the Ballard and Fremont neighborhoods.