Editor’s Note: This is the second of three essays about railroads. It is about how the presence of the railroad helped spur economic development and a town. The final piece next week includes stories of the railroad once it was here.
The dawn of the railroad age at Yelm Prairie began integrating residents into the national economy.
It started with the construction of the railroad. As the crews hammered their way across Thurston County, local farmers supplied produce and meat for workers. Before the railroad there was no formal logging industry beyond clearing out trees for one’s house and fields.
With the arrival of railroads there was a market for railroad ties, bridge-building supplies, telegraph poles, even cord wood for the engines that had not made the transition to coal-fired steam.
By 1900, fledgling mills were beginning to locate in the forests, which rimmed the prairie. They converted trees to lumber, which was then hauled to the railroad by wagon. This economic development changed the face of labor in the area. Farmers spent time in the woods falling trees to supplement their income and a new industrial class appeared, tending and repairing the saws, pulleys and steam boilers housed in lumber operations.
Another impact of the railroad on the area involved shopping. Before the railroad, locals traveled to Olympia to purchase staples and frontier luxuries. That changed with the railroad transiting the prairie.
Sometime between 1874 and 1880, two pairs of budding entrepreneurs, farmers willing to try retail, set up stores where the tracks crossed the east-west road.
There, Moses Metcalf with Charles Treat, built a store. At the same time Philemon Beecher von Trump joined with a Balletti (either Charles or Jacinto, Yelm’s early historians only used the last name) and opened a competing store across the tracks.
Suddenly there was a business district on the prairie. Over the years the residents began referring to their homes, not as being on the Yelm Prairie, but in Yelm or, in a few cases, the more pretentious Yelm Station.
By 1887, Balletti and van Trump sold their store to Robert Longmire who, at 28, was quite likely bankrolled by his father.
James Longmire’s neighbor, Jacob Stone, died that year and his probate file included recent purchases he had made on credit at Robert’s store, which his estate would have to pay off. His shopping list provides an idea of the national marketplace of goods now being accessed close-by, making it less necessary to go into Olympia. There were the staples for cooking: flour, sugar, baking powder, lard and butter. There were some basic commodities: bacon, rice and beans. One could buy exotics, such as a peach or Jamaican ginger.
The store carried clothing for men and women. A man could buy overalls, pants, shirts, socks, gloves, boots and drawers. Women could find shoes, lace, hose, blouses and corsets. There was thread for clothing repairs. Styles, sizes and inventory numbers for products are a matter of guesswork.
Cleaning needs could be satisfied with brooms and buckets, as well as washboards for laundry. Castor oil was a pharmaceutical they stocked. Tin plates, pots, pans, skillets, table settings and oil cloth to cover the table were basic household needs now available on the Yelm Prairie. Decades before electricity made its way to Yelm, one could find all the major forms of illumination: matches, lamps, lanterns, candles and coal oil. In an era when cougars and bears were still sighted regularly and hunting deer for food was a family tradition, the stores made sure to stock powder, salt petre and shot.
With frame houses now replacing cabins, they could be built with milled lumber sold at Longmire’s. You could even buy a wagon to haul it in, as well as axle grease to keep it riding smoothly. Longmire even sold books, titles unknown.
Prairie life was changing. People met at the stores, exchanged news and speculation, and eventually picked up their mail at Mosman’s.
Traffic to the stores encouraged a blacksmith to set up shop nearby. A community was becoming a town. Increasingly this location on the prairie became a destination, not a path to somewhere else. This urbanization brought a new type of crime.
The Washington Standard reported: “Mr. James Longmire, of Yelm, called on the OLYMPIAN, today, and stated that the report published some days ago of the robbery of his son, at that place, was inaccurate in several particulars. The store was entered at night, and the safe opened and $1,000 taken from there. Nobody was assaulted, and the same was opened without violence, although Mr. Robert Longmire is sure that it was locked on combination when the store was closed for the night. Two men, who had been at Yelm that day and who bought tickets for Portland at Media next morning are suspected, but they have not yet been apprehended.”
The railroad increased commerce on the prairie. Ada Woodruff Anderson, who taught at Yelm not long after the railroad arrived, described this transition somewhat wistfully in her novel The Heart of the Red Firs: “To those few remaining pioneers, who knew the Nisqually trail into the great solitudes in times before the logging railroad devastated the Puget Sound hills and the wilderness began to recede before the coming of the townsites.”
Yelm was changing. The railroad linked Yelm Prairie to the outside world and it created more opportunities for entrepreneurs. One of those entrepreneurs would be James Longmire. His interest in Mount Rainier combined with more rapid transportation to write one last major story in his life. He would help make Yelm Prairie a jumping off point for climbers headed for the mountain. Near the mountain he established a hotel at the Longmire Hot Springs. He brought tourism to Rainier.
One newspaper account from The Daily Ledger published July 17, 1910, read:
“Freight cars today hide a part of Yelm from the view of passengers of trains on the Northern Pacific tracks, which run through the place. These cars, forming several trains, were being loaded with telegraph poles, piles, hewed ties and posts. All except the ties were products of the Whitlach mill, Yelm’s main industrial plant, which cuts about 40,000 feet of lumber a day. The poles, piles, ties and posts covered the ground for a block extending from the railroad tracks. They were being shipped to various points in Washington and Oregon.
“The railroad ties are exports hewed from timber that is cut down just outside Yelm and are hauled to the railroad station in big wagons, which are coming and going constantly. The ties are being brought in so fast that there was today a great pile of them awaiting shipment. The piles and telegraph poles are also turned out by the mill workers faster than they can be handled by the railroad men, so that the first view of Yelm that the stranger gets is one that reminds him of a big lumber plant itself.
“Located 24 miles south of Tacoma, Yelm is purely a village, never having been incorporated. It has about 200 people that it calls all its own, but the mill workers, farmers and others in the immediate surrounding country, who make this their trading and shipping point, would more than double that figure. Though it has never taken to expansion through boom methods, it has gone along contentedly, its business people being successful and its troubles being few.
“This section is chiefly noted for cattle raising and dairying, though there is quite a large area of the productive prairie land here devoted to the growing of grain. The wheat runs from 20 to 25 bushels to the acre and oats from 30 to 40 bushels. The dairy interests are the larger and the success of those there is room for a great increase in this district. Only cream is being shipped (by rail)away from here, and some days the shipments go as high as 200 gallons.
“Stock raising is very profitable. Owing to the climatic conditions the cattle graze the year round. During but a few weeks do they require stall feeding, and that is only in exceptionally rainy weather. The stock is of a very high standard, too. Of the numerous stock raisers, L. N. Rice is one of the leaders. He had 400 head of sheep alone in the spring, when he disposed of half of them. ...
“The Northern Pacific depot here is one of the few on the line that has a woman operator. She is Mrs. N. B. Mullin and her hours of work are during the daytime. It is a novel sight to watch this alert woman at her responsible task, and she makes an interesting picture as she darts out of the station and to the tracks, where she places offers in the hands of a train hand as a freight goes by without hardly hesitating.”
Yelm was beginning to look like a town, a center of economic activity with a railroad connecting to the outside world. Soon, an elaborate irrigation system and general prosperity in the nation would help generate a widely shared optimism among the area’s citizenry.
Editor’s Note: Ed Bergh is the longtime history teacher at Yelm High School and creator of the Yelm History Project found at www.yelmhistoryproject.com.