Puget Sound and the Northern Pacific Railroad by Edmund T. Coleman

Originally republished in our 2015 Snoqualmie Valley History Magazine, we have since found the original publication at the University of Toronto featuring more information including additional text and images, please check the original out here! In this blog we are republishing the condensed version of the text but adding the new images. Please check out the original version for the full text.

Congress passed the Northern Pacific Railroad Act in in 1864, with the goal of building a transcontinental railroad from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound. The Act fulfilled a promise in Abraham Lincoln’s election platform of 1860, but progress was delayed by the continuing Civil War. The eastern terminus of the line was set at St. Paul, Minnesota, but at the time that actual construction of the railroad began in 1870, the western terminus and the route across the Cascade Mountains in Washington Territory were uncertain.

Early speculation focused on Snoqualmie Pass, and this prompted British travel writer and artist Edmond T. Coleman to travel to Puget Sound to look over the prospects. Later, in a London travel publication, he wrote, “The belief that Seattle would be chosen as the site of the terminus of the North Pacific Railroad was founded on the fact that the Snoqualmie Valley in the neighborhood, affords the lowest known practicable pass across the Cascade Range.” Part of Coleman’s original text was reprinted in the Washington Historical Quarterly in October of 1932. Here we republish the portion of his account as he traveled from Seattle to Renton, to Squawk (then the name of Issaquah), to the Snoqualmie Prairie and to the summit. The Washington Historical Quarterly in October of 1932 is available online here. The original full text was printed in the Illustrated Travels magazine in four articles with an additional fifth article about Coleman’s trip home to London. The section about his visit to the Snoqualmie Valley in Part II. The full set may be found here.

I was desirous of visiting the pass, so Mr. Denny was kind enough to arrange a party for that purpose, as well as to accompany it himself. We were joined by Professor Hall, of the University, and Dr. Wheeler, of Seattle, and started on the 25th of July. Mr. Denny was our leader. He carried an axe to clear away obstructions, for we heard that there was a good deal of fallen timber, owing to the bush fires which were all over the country, so he looked like a fireman at the head of a May-day procession. The pack animal came next, then followed Professor Hall. Just before starting, he had been coaxed into buying a small box of cigars for the benefit of the party. It was too late to be inserted in the pack, consequently he was obliged to carry it; but the box proved to be useful, for the pack-animal was lazy, so, in the absence of a whip, the professor having first pocketed his dignity, made use of the sharp corners of the box to goad the animal with, much to our amusement, as he had to lean forward in an awkward sort of way every time to reach the offender. Next came the writer, who was artist and historiographer to the expedition. He was equipped with a note-book, and a black-lead pencil, ready to take off everything and anybody. The rear was brought up by Dr. Wheeler, surgeon to the forces.

Image from Illustrated Travels: Puget Sound and the Northern Pacific Railroad by Edmund T. Coleman Part II.

He was armed with a lancet, a bottle of “pain-killer,” and a box of pills, wherewith to succour the distressed, and alleviate suffering humanity. The doctor was not able to start with us, but overtook the party on the road. He had been delayed, taking in freight in the shape of a stock of combustibles to keep his pipe alight, being a great smoker. Indeed, he had such a large cargo, that on entering the house where we stopped for the night, and going into the room where he had placed his pack, I was under the impression that I had got into a lucifer match manufactury, so strong was the smell of brimstone.

The road for the first twelve miles was level, and lay through fir forests. The wild pea, which abounded, was fading, but its tints of raw sienna agreeably diversified the monotonous greenery of the forest. Before reaching our destination, we crossed over Black River, which flows from Washington Lake, and is of some width at this point; then, passing by another stream, called Cedar River, which has its origin in the pass of that name, we came to a large clearing surrounded by alders. In the centre there was a neatly-built farmhouse, belonging to Mr. W. P. Smith, who made our party welcome, and invited us to pass the night.

Image from Illustrated Travels: Puget Sound and the Northern Pacific Railroad by Edmund T. Coleman Part II.

Next morning, on awaking, we were alarmed at the appearance of Professor Hall, for his face was of a blueblack, and we imagined he must be very bad. But it speedily turned out, that the colour of his complexion was owing to a pair of new blankets of blue colour, the indigo dye having rubbed off on to his face; thus he appeared as a devil in a Christmas pantomime. This little interlude was repeated every morning, and furnished an unfailing source of merriment to the party. On leaving Mr. Smith’s, the road passed under some over-arching maples of large size, leading to the forest, which abounds at this spot with fine cedars. We passed through a level country, and by a good road, to a settlement called Squawk, twelve miles from Mr. Smith’s; but, owing to the smoke caused by the bush fires, it was very gloomy travelling. We made a lunch, and cut some green oats for our horses, and bought some shelled oats, not being certain whether we should reach a proposed camping place this night.

After leaving Squawk, we began to meet with the obstructions which we had all along dreaded – a great fire had just passed over our track, and the trail was covered with fallen timber, which was smouldering, so the axe had to be brought into use. Every Western man knows how to handle this mainstay of the pioneer, and Mr. Denny plied it with vigour and skill, but we had some difficulty in getting our horses through, as the flames frightened them. Singular effects are produced by these fires; the scorched trees assume rich red and yellow tints, exactly as if in autumn season; but in other places the charred and blackened trunks, the hideous stumps, leaves curled up to cinders, the earth strewn with ashes, and the light of the sun obscured, present a sad and melancholy spectacle. About the middle of the day, the road opened out into a beautiful and park-like country, but we had to surmount three steep hills before camping. At length the tall firs began to dwindle, and the forest opened out, showing glimpses of the sky. Presently there was the welcome sight of the tops of some cotton-wood trees, always an indication of bottom-lands and of water. We stopped about five o’clock, at a Mr. Boorst’s, on the outskirts of Snoqualmie prairie, about forty miles from Seattle, having only made 300 feet of elevation since leaving Squawk. We camped in a beautiful orchard, which, with the farm-buildings, strongly reminded me of those comfortable and substantial-looking homesteads which are met in the valley of St. Gervais, on the Italian side of Mont Blanc – homesteads that suggest peace and plenty –a land flowing with milk and honey. The ranch adjoins the river Snoqualmie, which runs at the rear of the house; and after the heat and dust of the journey, we enjoyed a refreshing bath in its cold waters.

Jeremiah Borst. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection.

Snoqualmie Falls. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection.

Next morning, three of the party started to visit the Falls of the Snoqualmie. The river is about fifty yards broad, and presents the usual characteristics pertaining to the lower portions of streams in this territory; viz., long reaches of firs, sprinkled with cedar and maple, alternating with cotton-wood and alder; the banks are occasionally covered with a dense growth of willows and underwood, while at every sharp bend of the stream there are piles of logs and driftwood, brought down by the spring freshets, and every now and then snags obstruct the way. After proceeding down the river about three miles, we came to the top of the falls, and crossed to the other side. We then made a steep descent, through forest as usual, till we gained the river again, and walking up it along the banks, over smooth and slippery boulders, came to a point where the spectacle was superb. An immense amphitheatre of perpendicular cliffs bounds the view. These are apparently of trap rock, with seams of quartz and sandstone, the latter uppermost. The river plunges in one leap of 275 feet over the centre, with a loud roar. Clouds of mist and spray rise up from the basin beneath, and a beautiful effect is produced by the waters in their descent. They resemble immense icicles, constantly elongating till broken, then reforming, and ever renewed. When one reflects that this immense volume of water pours forth from day to day, from age to age, throughout the rolling centuries, with its deep tone of music, its everlasting anthem, it gives one a grand image of Almighty power, of the majesty of the Creator. I thought of certain grandseaux at Versailles, much vaunted in their day, and reflected how feeble are man’s best works, compared with those of God! People who have seen the falls earlier in the season say that the month of June is the best time for visiting them, as there is then a still larger volume of water.

We resumed our journey on the following morning. Mr. Boorst joined us; we were also accompanied by an Indian woman, who went by the name of the “Widow,” together with her young husband – this being her third –as he was to guide us to a reported lead of plumbago near the pass which we were desirous of examining. On leaving Mr. Boorst’s, a fine view of the Cascade Range presented itself. Shortly after, we entered upon the Snoqualmie prairie, which is about four miles long, and from one and a half to two miles wide. It was unenclosed, and reminded me of an English common, in the absence of trees, besides being perfectly level, and covered with fern. There were blackberries, as well as a quantity of strawberries, and many plants of the same species as those found on open lands in England. Eight settlers live here. They have all large farms, averaging from 100 to 200 acres. The principal produce is hogs. They also raise cattle, and cure bacon, which finds a ready market at Seattle. Nearly all the open land hereabouts is taken up. We stopped at a ranch, and bought some hay, not being quite certain where we should camp at night. After crossing a considerable portion of the prairie we came to the river, and left the road, which continues on to the Cedar River Pass.

The timber growing on the banks comprises fir and cedar; it is of a very fine quality, being suitable for lumber. Salmon run up in the winter, and up the Yakima or Cedar River in the early spring. Fording it, we crossed a couple of good-sized prairies, from one and a half to two miles across, divided by belts of timber, and about eleven o’clock came to a very steep ridge, called “Perkins’ backbone,” as Mr. Perkins before mentioned first blazed the trail. It is about one mile in the ascent, and divides the middle and south forks of the Snoqualmie, the latter being the one we had hitherto followed. The ridge is very narrow, in one part not more than ten feet across.

Alice Borst’s Grandmother or Great Grandmother Ki-ya. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection.

According to In the Valley of the Moon by Peggy Corliss, Jeremiah Borst was married three times. Very little is known of his first wife Sally other than she was of Native descent. His second wife Mina was the daughter of “the Widow”. “The Widow” was the daughter of Betsay’oos, a chief of the Snoqualmie tribe, half Snoqualmie and half Yakama. She kept house for Spencer Kellogg (another settler on the Snoqualmie Prairie). Mina’s mother, “The Widow,” was known as “kiya” (which means Grandmother) to the Borst children. According to Ada Hill in A History of Snoqualmie Valley Ki-ya was the Borst children’s great grandmother, rather than grandmother.

Below, at a depth of perhaps 500 feet, we could just discern the middle fork of the river, winding in a semicircle; for the day was obscured with smoke, which spoilt the views. We now entered thick timber. After travelling some distance, one of the party feeling very unwell, we were obliged to camp early in the afternoon, at a spot in the middle of the forest, where there was no grass. This mattered but little to those of our animals which were of the Cayoosh, or native breed. They would eat anything – fern, bramble, willow, and all kinds of plants, even the prickly “devil’s club:” nothing seemed to disagree with their digestions. Next morning, we continued our path through the forest, crossing several gullies, in which a kind of blue sandstone predominated, and we passed by a number of magnificent cedars in a hollow which was favorable to their growth.

Many of these were twelve feet in diameter. As the afternoon came on, the sun broke out, partly perhaps owing to our elevation – for we had been gradually ascending all the morning, and were now above the smoke of the bush fires. We crossed the river several times in the course of this day’s journey. About five miles before reaching the summit, the old Indian trail before mentioned strikes off to the right, or south-east, and follows a ridge leading to Lake Kitchelas on the eastern side.

Image from Illustrated Travels: Puget Sound and the Northern Pacific Railroad by Edmund T. Coleman Part II.

About this spot Mr. Boorst drew my attention to some cedars which had been stripped of their bark, and informed me that it had been done by the Indians in the days before blankets were introduced by the Hudson Bay Company. They first stripped off large sheets of it, then laid them out on a flat stone or piece of wood, beating the strips out with a stick into fine threads; after which they worked them up into clothing. About two and a half miles below the summit of the pass, I noticed a large mass of granite in situ, cropping out of the mountain side.

The ascent now became comparatively steep. The trees began to dwindle and thin out, affording in their openings glimpses of pine-clad heights, and bold escarpments of rock, together with precipices strewn at their feet with debris, exhibiting, in fact, all the features of a mountain country, for we were now in the heart of the Cascade Range. Towards four o’clock we emerged into an open tract of turfy, marshy, meadow land, about a couple of acres in extent, and affording plenty of grass, with here and there pools, bearing waterlilies, all hemmed in by the common red fir. We had gained the summit of the pass. It is surrounded on three sides by lofty peaks bearing patches of snow. They have received the names of Mount Gregory Smith, after the chairman of the board of directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad, Mount Annie, after a lady on Puget Sound, and Mount Edwin F. Johnson, after the late engineer-in-chief to the railroad company. One of the company’s surveying parties, the summer before last, determined the height of the pass to be 3,010 feet above the sea. A party sent to report on the greatest depth of snow, found it to be seventeen feet on the 1st of March, and there was none whatever ten miles on the western side of the pass; also that there was no drifting of snow, and not a single slide, thus obviating any necessity for the erection of snow sheds, and showing that snow ploughs will be entirely adequate to keep the line in running order. We noticed heather, but it was not in bloom; also the mountain ash, and other plants peculiar to high elevations. There were quantities of berries, which were of finer flavor and larger size than those growing on the lowlands. This is attributed to the drier atmosphere. Another indication of our altitude was the squeak of the ground hog. A little further on, we found a wagon with a family in camp. They had come from Utah, and had passed through Idaho and Montana. One of the party informed us that he had walked 1,500 miles by the side of the wagon since leaving home. They had run out of flour, and were very glad to get some from us.

-Puget Sound and the Northern Pacific Railroad by Edmund T. Coleman

Image from Illustrated Travels: Puget Sound and the Northern Pacific Railroad by Edmund T. Coleman Part II.
Image from Illustrated Travels: Puget Sound and the Northern Pacific Railroad by Edmund T. Coleman Part II. Not mentioned in the 1932 version of the article, Chief Saniwa is mentioned in the original version. This is the only known image of Chief Saniwa of the Snoqualmie Tribe that the Museum is aware of. An important figure in the region in the mid-1800s, Chief Saniwa was a very influential figure in the mid to late 1800s Snoqualmie Valley.
Mount Gregory Smith, now known as Denny Mountain. Snoqualmie Valley Museum Collection PO.304.0010.

Postscript: In spite of Coleman’s favorable account of Snoqualmie Pass, in 1873 the directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad announced that their line would cross the Cascades through Stampede Pass and reach Puget Sound at Tacoma, the self-styled “City of Destiny.” It was not until March 29, 1909, that the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railway completed its tracks through Snoqualmie Pass, and Cedar Falls became a stop on a transcontinental railroad.


Edmund Thomas Coleman was born in 1824 in Leicestershire, England to Rev. John Sherard Coleman and Henrietta Charlotte Lucy Mangeon Coleman. Prior to her marriage, Henrietta was a singer and actress, performing on stage at The Drury Lane theatre 1816. While pregnant with their seventh child in 1829 John Sherrard Coleman passed. In his will John left most of his possessions to his oldest son Henry Sherard Coleman and his widow. Edmund’s mother remarried to Charles Walker in April 1832. They then had five more children.

In 1841, 17 year old Edmund was living with a Thomas and Elizabeth Lincoln along with his older brother Frederick and older sister Fanny. Frederick was listed as living of Independent Means while Edmund is listed as an Artist. In 1849, Edmund exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. In 1851 Edmund was still living with his brother Frederick (now a wine merchant), sister-in-law Elizabeth, and their other brother John S. Coleman.

From 1855-1858, Edmund traveled to Mont Blanc and around Charmonix and St. Gervais Routes. In 1859, Edmund published Scenes from the Snow-Fields: Being Illustrations of the Upper Ice-World of Mont Blanc.

In 1862, Edmund journeyed to Vancouver Island.  In 1865, Edmund was chosen for the position of Librarian of Mechanics’ Literary Institute in Victoria. In 1866, he attempted to climb Mount Baker and then in 1868 ascended Mount Baker. In 1869 he published an account of the expedition. That same year he traveled throughout Washington Territory.  In 1870 he attempted to ascend Mount Rainier. Edmund then moved to Portland, Oregon. 

In 1873 he exhibited his sketches of British Columbia at the Alpine Club and set out for the east coast to begin the return home to England.

Edmund died in May 1892 at Charing Cross Hospital, London. It was reported in Victoria in 1895 that he had committed suicide.

Special thanks to Chris Erlich for helping us learn more about Edmund Coleman.