When Percy Achre and Bob Downing were young, the world passed through Hillyard on the rails of the Great Northern.
Now standing on the vacant land - near where the Queen of Romania once stood - Achre and Downing remember the era of the steam engine locomotive.
“Hillyard was a beehive of activity in those days,” Achre said.
Only a single railroad track runs through Hillyard today, but many longtime residents remain devoted to their community’s railroad heritage.
Last month’s fire that destroyed half of the old Western Pacific ice house, N5704 Market, stirred memories of Hillyard’s remarkable past.
The Great Northern Railroad yard’s landmark buildings are gone. Many of the people who worked in the yard from 1890 to 1980 are gone, too. But local history buffs say the memories of Hillyard’s golden days as a railroad town must be kept alive.
Last August, the Hillyard Heritage Museum, E3202 Queen, opened in a caboose and box car, donated by Burlington Northern, at the end of Queen Avenue, one block east of Market. Display cases inside the cars hold tools of the trade for longtime railroad men like Downing and Achre.
“I think railroads have a romance that just gets in people’s blood,” Achre said.
Behind the museum lies a three-mile-long expanse where the Great Northern Railroad yards were.
In 1892, the Great Northern rails were laid to Wild Horse Prairie. Critics called the Great Northern Jim Hill’s Folly in honor of the railroad’s risk-taking founder. But Hill was hero to the people who named their town, Hillyard, after him.
Soon after the Great Northern arrived, Hillyard was chosen as the site for the railroad’s biggest service facility west of St. Paul.
At its peak 6,000 workers made their livings on the Hillyard yard. Two other major railroads - the Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific - passed through downtown Spokane.
Hillyard was important to the Great Northern because it was the point at which the railroad’s lines from Seattle and Portland met with a single line heading east from there. Workers in Hillyard would connect the eastbound cars into long trains. They also sorted westbound cars according to their destination.
Passenger cars also traveled on the Great Northern Railroad. Conductors carried red lanterns filled with candy for children. Radios, in some eras, played the Hit Parade.
“The workers considered the railroad as their own,” said Iris Little, a Hillyard resident whose father worked for the Great Northern. “They took pride in it.”
The Great Northern rewarded Hillyard with a sense of importance - witnessed by events like the Queen of Romania’s quick stop at the Hillyard’s depot in 1924, Little said.
In the roundhouse, workers repaired and even hand made enormous steam-powered locomotives. For a brief time in the 1920s, Hillyard workers made the longest, most powerful locomotive, but it was quickly surpassed in size and power by one made elsewhere.
“They weren’t built like automobiles where one comes off the assembly line every 20 minutes,” Downing said. “They would build a batch of locomotives over a 1 1/2-year period of time.”
After World War II, steam engines began to be replaced by dieselpowered locomotives. The Hillyard shop was converted to a diesel repair shop - although it never again had the status it had in steam locomotive days.
At quitting time, the shops along Market Street were flooded with workers making their way home.
“It was a romantic era that has vanished,” Achre said. “Romantic - let’s see - it was a job. It was considered to be a good job if you had seniority.”
Achre started as a switchman on the railroad in 1940. He wore wool socks over his shoes and rubber galoshes over them to keep warm as he walked atop the cars.
“Hillyard was on a descending grade. Every car had a handbrake with a switchman attending it so the cars wouldn’t hit too hard,” he said.
“Many of these were hazardous jobs. The cars were running through the yard with people hanging onto them. Too many died to talk about. Some lost legs. It was easy to slip, especially in the wintertime.”
In time, Achre was promoted to yard master, and eventually terminal superintendent for the whole Spokane area.
In 1950 Achre got to know a young Pennsylvanian named Bob Downing, who had worked his way up from district road manager in Whitefish, Mont., to junior train master in Spokane.
“He would come sit in my tower and ask questions,” Achre said. “Bob Downing is a natural historian. I just love to sit, and keep my mouth closed and my ears open, when Robert Downing talks.”
Downing, who now is retired in Spokane, was transferred to Great Northern’s headquarters in St. Paul, Minn. He helped mastermind the 1970s merger of the three railroad giants - Great Northern, the Northern Pacific and the Burlington Lines - and became chief executive officer of the Burlington Northern Railroad.
The deal kept alive the railroads - which at the time were losing business to airlines and truck lines. But it also brought an end to Hillyard’s active rail days, because the new Burlington Northern lines didn’t include Hillyard.
Downing said he knew of many reasons why Burlington Northern planners decided to bypass Hillyard.
The old steam locomotive shop was too antiquated to serve the new engines. Hillyard forced trains to cross many city streets - while the tracks that run through the Spokane Valley and downtown Spokane are mostly elevated on overpasses.
By 1980, Hillyard lacked the industry that had been its reason for existence.
“There’s old people in Hillyard who almost cry when they think of the railroad leaving,” Achre said. “Some people have resentment that they took the track out.”
Burlington Northern removed the railyard buildings hoping that other types of industry would buy the land. Plans to build an industrial park are still talked about 20 years later.
“The only sign that’s left is the vacant fields and that old black water tower,” said Tom Heckler, a Spokane firefighter who is in charge of the Hillyard Heritage Museum.
But the story doesn’t end with the railroad.
Railroad historians from all over the country still come to Hillyard to do research.
The Hillyard Heritage Museum was put together by the Greater Hillyard Business Association. Heckler, Iris Little and others are collecting railroad memorabilia for the museum. They also are working on recording interviews with people who remember the golden days of Hillyard’s railroad.
MEMO: The Hillyard Heritage Museum does not keep regular hours. It is seeking donations, which can be sent to the Spokane Firefighters Credit Union, N2004 Hamilton. To see the museum, write to the Greater Hillyard Business Association at P.O. Box 6357, Spokane 99207.