Spirit of Washington Dinner Train
In October 1986, the Burlington Northern Railroad sold off part of the old Northern Pacific mainline over Stampede Pass, from Cle Elum all the way to Pasco. Nick Temple purchased 350 miles of BN track and started up the Washington Central Railroad Corp (WCRC).
Over the Labor Day weekend in 1988, the Washington Central Railroad ran a dinner train from Yakima to Ellensburg in conjunction with the Kittitas County Fair and Ellensburg Rodeo. The WCRC ran three evening trips, one each night over the long weekend. The train was only three cars long; the three cars were leased from the Canadian Historical Society. Each trip was sold out just days after the tickets went on sale. There were so many people on the waiting list, it ran the following weekend as well. What was supposed to be a one-weekend excursion, turned into a two-month long excursion; it wasn’t ticket sales that stopped the train, it was the cold temperatures. The three passenger cars were not equipped with heaters, if they had been, the dinner trains would have ran all winter. The three cars were returned to the Canadian Historical Society and the WCRC began looking for their own passenger cars to use.
In May 1989, the official start of the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train was underway. The train started out with three dining coaches and would eventually grow to a five-car train. Pacific Standard Car Repair of Yakima did all of the restoration. Two CF7 locomotives, WCRC 401 and 402, were assigned to pull the trains. Eric Temple, the son of WCRC owner Nick Temple, was in charge of the dinner trains.
The Spirit of Washington started off with three trips each weekend; a dinner train on Friday and Saturday evening, and a brunch train Sunday morning between Yakima and Ellensburg. Brunch and dinner was served going north (railroad west) to Ellensburg. At Ellensburg the power ran around the train while patrons were allowed to detrain for a few minutes to stretch their legs or have a smoke. On the return trip, dessert was served. The only drawback to this trip was that there was nothing for the passengers to do at Ellensburg. There was no “wow factor”.
Beginning in June 1989, a change was made. The Friday evening dinner train ran from Kennewick to Hogue Cellars in Prosser; this train operated from April to September only. On this trip the passengers were treated to wine tasting at the Hogue Cellars Winery in Prosser. This proved to be a big “wow factor”. The Saturday evening and Sunday morning trains still ran out of Yakima year-round.
In 1989, Washington State celebrated its 100th birthday and one of the events that took place that year was the Yakima Centennial Railfest. The headlining guest for the event was the ex-Southern Pacific 4449 steam locomotive. In November 1989, the 4449 ran excursion trips from Yakima to Cle Elum using its own equipment and the cars from the dinner train. Each excursion was sold out. The event also featured the grand opening of the old Northern Pacific depot in Yakima which was completely rebuilt on the inside. The depot was now the headquarters for the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train. Organizers who put the event together were thrilled with the results, and began making plans for next year.
Then in May 1990, the WCRC added two more cars to the dinner train, making it a 5-car train. The consist was now: coach/open platform “Prosser”, coach/kitchen “Kennewick”, lounge/coach “Yakima”, dome car “Spirit of Washington”, and round-end observation car “Ellensburg”.
In October 1990, the WCRC held their first annual, “SteamFest ‘90”. This year both of Portland’s steam locomotives would be there. On Friday October 12th, the 4449 ran two trips from Kennewick to Prosser and back. The first trip was at 10:00am, the second was at 2:00pm. At 5:30pm the 4449 made a trip from Kennewick to Yakima; passengers were bussed back to Kennewick and the train spent the night in Yakima. On the 13th, the 4449 made a 10:00am and 5:00pm Yakima to Ellensburg trip. Then on Sunday the 14th the 4449 made a Yakima to Cle Elum round trip.
The following weekend the SP&S 700 made the exact same trips. This was the first time the 700 ran trips open to the public. Prior to this their trips were for PRPA members only. Both weekends were a big hit, every trip was sold out. The event however, would never happen again.
In 1991, ticket sales for the dinner train began to taper off. The “new-car-smell” for the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train was wearing off; everyone in the Yakima Valley had “been-there-done-that”. Starting in the winter of 1990, the WCRC only operated the Sunday brunch train. From late autumn to early spring the evening trip was not vary scenic because it got dark so early. The beauty of the Yakima River Canyon was hidden in the dark. The only excitement for the train was when it got mooned by campers as it went by one of the campgrounds in the canyon. It was Big Pines campground if I remember right.
Another change came in July 1991, the dinner train became a 6-car train after a second dome car was added, the “Mt. Rainier”. This was former Union Pacific dome-diner, #8000, which came from Amtrak’s Auto Train. Ridership was great during the summer months, but once again tapered off in the fall of 1991.
Mr. Temple wanted to reach a larger market, and he knew exactly where that larger market was—Seattle. To reach that market he would have to move his train to the west side of the Cascades.
Then in January 1992, the WCRC announced the dinner train would be moving to Renton. The last run was expected to be the first part of April 1992. By the end of February, all of the remaining trips for March and the first part of April, out of Yakima, were sold out.