Lester was a small town near Stampede Pass, just south of Snoqualmie Pass in King County, founded in 1892 by the Northern Pacific Railway (now the BNSF Railway). Lester is located along what is currently National Forest Development Road 54.
Guard house, Gas and oil shack, and Warehouse in Lester Washington
|Elevation||1,634 ft (498 m)|
In their 1892 Annual Report, the Northern Pacific wrote: "A new yard has been constructed at Lester, on the Cascade Division, at the foot of the maximum grade, with brick roundhouse, turntable, suitable coal chute, and combination station."
In 1902, a series of railway-related fires burned more than 30,000 acres (120 km2) of timber, significantly hindering ongoing logging in the area.
It is one of the few ghost towns in the U.S. state of Washington. History states that the town was originally named Deans after the Dean's Lumber Co., but after the establishment of a large depot, roundhouse, coal dock and other steam locomotive support facilities, was renamed "Lester" after Lester Hansaker (September 24, 1870 to September 14, 1939), a telegraph operator with the Northern Pacific. While the origin of both names is unclear, the Northern Pacific's telegraph call for Lester was "DM," which lends credence to the Dean's Mill theory.
Per NP documents at the Washington State Historical Society, the NP's company hotel at Lester began life as a section house circa 1907. It grew to include a lobby, two parlors, a billiards room, living room kitchen, bath and two bedrooms of the first floor, and sixteen bedrooms on the second floor (fire escapes from second floor rooms were rope ladders to be thrown out the windows and clambered down in case of fire).
According to King County directories, the town grew to a population of 250 around 1908. Mrs. J. A. Smith kept a hotel, Anderson and Nelson a dairy business, and Elmer G. Morgan ran the Morgan Lumber Company, a general store, and served as Postmaster. Morgan, a Seattle businessman, is best remembered for a mill town located just west of Lester, named, in his honor, backwards -- Nagrom, Washington.
Around 1910 the original coal dock (pictured in Charles Wood's book Northern Pacific) was replaced with an improved version. The first design had required all the coal to be transferred from hopper cars to bin by hand. Also, rather than using a hoist system to move cars up the ramp and above the bin, cars were pushed up with locomotives. According to Northern Pacific documents, Lester handled 36,294 tons of coal in 1909, at .14 cents a ton.
Lester began to decline in importance as a helper station between 1944-45 as dieselization got underway on the Northern Pacific. Electrification of Stampede was deemed too costly, and running new steam locomotives (4-6-6-4 Challengers) was too dangerous (cab temperatures in tests soared well above 120 degrees, and the bulk of big locomotives in the tight confines of the tunnel left engine crews little room to escape). While Southern Pacific Railroad-like cab forwards were in the design stage, the arrival of the Northern Pacific’s first EMD FT diesel locomotives from the service in Montana gave the railway the long sought answer to the clearance and ventilation problems of Stampede Tunnel.
By the latter half of the 1950s power would be running past the boarded-up Lester roundhouse. The run-through of helper power meant that many Lester's residents would be moving down below, to the end of the line in Auburn. Dieselization marked Lester's decline, and a change in the population base from professional railroaders to transitory loggers.
The logging industry in the area remained for many years, starting with Dean's Lumber Co. In 1948, Soundview Pulp Co. established a logging camp at Lester, and later Soundview was merged into the Scott Paper Company. The Scott camp was one of the last in King County, closing in 1978.
The town itself lasted until 1984, when mothballing of the rail line across Stampede Pass and legislation sponsored by the City of Tacoma, Washington, killed off the town. The rail line over Stampede Pass was reopened in 1996 by the BNSF Railway and is still in use.
The area is now in the Tacoma watershed and is gated off, now only open to foot traffic though most of the buildings in the area have long since been burned. Nearby is Stampede Tunnel, at one time the largest tunnel in the country. It was built between 1886 and 1888 and is 1.89 miles (3.04 km) long.
- N.P. Ry. A Short History of Lester and Stampede Pass Article on the history of Lester and the area around Stampede Pass, and the relationship with the Northern Pacific Railway and BNSF Railway.
- N.P. Ry. Spelled in Reverse: E.G. Morgan and a Town called Nagrom Article on the history of Nagrom, Washington and other areas around Stampede Pass including Lester.
- N.P. Ry. Stampede Pass: A Virtual Tour, Auburn to Ellensburg Milepost listing of the Northern Pacific Railway/BNSF Railway line which goes through Lester and Stampede Pass.
- Lester, Washington is at coordinates .
- White River Valley Museum Journal: Lester - In the Shadow of Stampede Pass An excellent article on the history of Lester and Stampede Pass.