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Ben Burr helped build rail lines in Wash., Idaho and Mont.

Thu., March 31, 2011

Clouds cover Mount Spokane as a hiker moves south on the Ben Burr trail on the Moran Prairie last October. (Christopher Anderson)
Clouds cover Mount Spokane as a hiker moves south on the Ben Burr trail on the Moran Prairie last October. (Christopher Anderson)

A while back a reader wrote: “I would like to know who is Ben Burr and what exactly is his claim to fame. There are streets and parks and things named for him, and no one I know knows anything about him … [though] I gather he was into trains.”

Oh, yes, Benjamin E. Burr was most definitely into trains. As engineering chief for the Spokane Division of the Great Northern Railway (he retired in 1953 after 48 years of service), his fingerprints are all over Spokane’s railroading history.

Today there are several sites that bear his name. There is Ben Burr Park, an 8-acre mini-park at 43rd Avenue and Havana Street in the southeast quadrant of the city. There are some railroading decorations at the park as well as a historic sign that tells a bit about the man.

And there’s Ben Burr Boulevard, a short stretch of roadway in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood on an abandoned railroad right-of-way that crosses Freya Street between 14th and 15th avenues. According to a newspaper story from 1955, Burr was quite surprised that the boulevard was named for him and said he was in fact “quite thunderstruck.” However, he had been instrumental in having the railroad turn over the land, which it had abandoned in 1953, to the city and county for the purpose of building a road, and the city council chose to name that road for him.

One of the better known named sites is the Ben Burr Trail, a mile-long path that stretches from Underhill Park to Liberty Park in the east central section of the city. This trail – on which people walk and jog, ride their bikes and walk their dogs – parallels, at a bit of a distance, Interstate 90, and is also constructed along abandoned railroad right-of-way. As the trail crosses Altamont Boulevard, it does so over an old railroad trestle, which preserves much of its old railroad heritage. And, as with Ben Burr Boulevard, the former engineering chief was a prime mover in helping the transfer of the land, this time to the Parks Department.

The trail is a part of the old Spokane and Inland Empire Railroad Co. interurban passenger line, created in the first decade of the 20th century, which transported people to such Palouse towns as Colfax, Fairfield and Garfield. That same company also operated an interurban line that took people to recreational areas such as Liberty, Hayden and Coeur d’Alene lakes. These electric rail lines, which are much written about, facilitated the expansion of the population in the region and operated until about 1928.

And there are other Ben Burr-named locations in the area as well.

Ben Burr the man was born in Stevens Point, Wis., in 1886, and moved to this area in 1905 as a chainman for Great Northern, becoming a construction engineer and surveyor in the building of a number of rail lines through Eastern Washington, North Idaho and western Montana. He also helped build the company’s first snow sheds.

During World War I he served with the Army Corps of Engineers in France and then came back to the railroad in Havre, Mont. Named district engineer, he came to Spokane in 1929. He was involved in a number of organizations in the city, including the Shrine Masonic Lodge, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Emergency Officers of WWI and the St. Andrews Brotherhood at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist.

Although there were certainly dangers associated with railroading, interestingly, Ben Burr died at age 78 in 1965 of injuries sustained in an automobile accident in downtown Spokane.

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