Ghosts of the past come
alive on a magical new trail
Your head nearly swims by the time
you follow the new Lime Kiln Trail into the mossy and mysterious canyon of the
South Fork Stillaguamish River and reach the namesake stone edifice, a
monument to those who toiled, sweated, ate, drank, laughed and cried here more
than 100 years ago.
JIM BRYANT /
Dean of Stanwood passes another hiker on the Lime Kiln Trail. Dean
spearheaded a seven-year-long project to create the newly completed
trail and preserve a part of Washington history.
Who were they? Where did they come
from? How did they build this thing? Did their wives and husbands and children
live here with them? Were the winters long and lonely?
"These are all pieces of the
puzzle," says Steve Dean, standing near the kiln looking at old bricks
and other detritus of history. "But we don't know how it all fits. I know
all the questions, I just don't know all of the answers. Maybe it's better
History whispers along the Lime Kiln
Trail as surely as the nearby river murmurs.
The 3.5-mile trail, built by Dean and
a small army of volunteers, opened last month as the newest link in Snohomish
County's nearly 1,000-acre Robe Canyon Historic Park east of Granite Falls.
The park traces several miles of the long-abandoned Everett & Monte Cristo
Railway, built in 1892 and 1893 to serve the gold, silver and copper mines at
Monte Cristo in eastern Snohomish County.
The new trail is on the south side of
the "Stilly" in the western part of the park. On the north bank and
east section of the park is the equally fascinating Robe Canyon Trail, built
in the 1960s mostly by a local Boy Scout troop. Dean and members of the groups
that have rallied around the park, such as the Stillaguamish Citizens'
Alliance and Volunteers for Outdoor Washington, hope that someday the twain
shall meet and the two trails will be joined.
"That concept has captured the
imagination of dozens of volunteers who helped build this trail," Dean
JIM BRYANT /
lush forest along the new Lime Kiln Trail has the look and feel of a
rain forest. The 3.5-mile trail in Robe Canyon Historic Park near
Granite Falls for the most part follows an old railroad grade, dating
to the 1890s, which served a lime kiln.
But one step at a time.
For now, the new trail may well be
one of the finest year-round paths in the Puget Sound lowlands. It's that
nice, and not only because the remnants of the railroad and the kiln lend a
The river canyon here also is
surprisingly wild and rain-forest wet, lined by sword ferns, big, moss-draped
maples and towering Sitka spruce with great, spreading branches.
If the canyon stretch of the trail is
sublime, however, the first mile or so is not.
From the trailhead outside Granite
Falls, the first mile follows sections of, and crosses, logging roads through
the regrowing clearcuts of a tree farm. But soon the trail skirts a rock
outcrop, passes small Hubbard Lake and enters forest, dropping into a lush
tributary ravine. It then reaches the old railroad grade and canyon at 1.6
This first portion of the trail is
open to bicyclists and horse riders; the rest is open only to those on foot.
About a dozen signs carved into
yellow cedar mark the route and explain some of the history.
These were placed by some of the 325
volunteers who put in more than 10,000 hours of work to build the Lime Kiln
Trail. Except for two bridges built by Snohomish County crews, the trail was
made without heavy equipment.
"There is considerable pride
among some of the volunteers in the fact that it was hand-built," Dean
Once the railroad grade is reached,
the intrigue begins. Here and there you can see flat spaces where sidetracks
or bunkhouses or way stations must have been, and pieces of metal or broken
dishes can be seen now and then.
JIM BRYANT /
moss-draped saw blade is one of the artifacts found along the Lime
"You wonder, what's the story
behind that?" says Dean. "It's easy to imagine the railroad going
through here 100 years ago."
On a bench above the river and
railroad grade is the site where mill machinery once whined and sawdust flew.
Old rusted saw blades begin appearing along the trail, along with more broken
dishes and items such as rusty buckets. The trail crosses a couple of ravines,
rounds a corner and suddenly the kiln looms up through the vegetation, its
interior of firebrick and its exterior made of local stone.
Thirty or more feet high, it is now
festooned with ferns. When it operated, apparently sometime between the 1890s
and 1936, limestone from nearby quarries was loaded though the top from small
cable cars, then heated. The kiln could take in 100 tons of limestone and
produce up to 60 tons of powdered lime a day, according to historical
The lime reportedly was used as a
whitener at a local paper mill and as a fluxing agent at an Everett smelter.
The primitive-looking structure
really fires the imagination. Here recently we encountered an enthralled
Harriet and Ray Olitt of Edmonds. "This is just spectacular; we're just
enjoying the trail so much," said Ray. "We've hiked the other side
(the Robe Canyon Trail) and this is equally spectacular, maybe more so. These
remnants here are just amazing. I hope people leave them here."
That is a concern of many who have
worked and hiked on the trail. Most of the stuff lying around is junk, but it
does breathe historical significance into the place.
JIM BRYANT /
boots probably used by workers constructing a railroad in the 1890's
lie along the Lime Kiln Trail.
"If these things were museum
quality, we'd look for a museum to take them," says Dean. "If people
understand that if they leave it in place, it will tell the story for future
generations. Hopefully they'll do the right thing."
While considerable historical
research has been conducted on the railway, kiln and mining at Monte Cristo,
no formal archaeological investigations have been conducted on the kiln or its
surroundings. Snohomish County officials say there's no money for that.
"We're always concerned about
preserving the historical record," says Louise Lindgren, county
historical preservation specialist. "It's just a matter of providing the
funding. The county budget is fairly strapped at this time."
It is against state law, Lindgren
notes, to disturb cultural resources on public property.
Beyond the kiln, the trail follows
the railway grade on a bench above the river, with glimpses down to its rocky
shore and typically silty flows, before coming to its end at a loop of .2
mile. Here the trail climbs around a rocky knob to a viewpoint across the
Back when the steam whistle wailed
and steel clattered against steel, the railroad here crossed the river on a
trestle before plunging directly into a tunnel cut through the rocky opposite
bank. The tunnel entrance has collapsed, the trestle is gone, but twisted
steel support girders can be seen in the river on the far bank.
The loop then rounds the knob and
drops to a gravel bar on the river, a pretty spot for a respite. "Last
fall we were down here having lunch and saw salmon swimming up the
river," says Dean.
In a short climb the loop is closed
and hikers must retrace their steps back to the trailhead.
JIM BRYANT /
shards scattered along the Lime Kiln Trail.
Those who also have hiked the Robe
Canyon Trail on the opposite bank -- a more rugged reach of the canyon that
passes through two old tunnels -- can't help but envision these two trails
some day joining.
It would create one amazing journey
through the wild river canyon and its vivid history -- truly a world-class
trail -- eight or nine miles straight through.
But it would require a footbridge
across the river, which physically, bureaucratically and financially would be
"That's going to be a very
difficult thing to do," says Pat Kenyon, senior planner for Snohomish
County Parks. "Trying to span the river, there are environmental concerns
to deal with, and then there's the cost. We can't rely completely on
volunteers, and we're in a tight budget situation now. It looks like we're
going to lose three rangers next year."
Another problem, says Dean, is that a
couple of miles of canyon separate the ends of the two trails.
However, Dean and his volunteers are
urging the county to allow them to develop another trail, a middle section, on
the opposite bank. It would start at a trailhead along the Mountain Loop
Highway, not far from the existing Robe Canyon trailhead, and also would be
about 3.5 miles. It would take several years, as the Lime Kiln Trail did. But
if it comes to pass, a footbridge joining it all together would be the next
"We're not asking for a bridge
at this time," Dean says with a smile. "But we reserve the right to
ask for it in the future."
If you go
For information about the Lime Kiln
Trail and the Robe Canyon Historic Trail, see the Web site of the
Stillaguamish Citizens' Alliance at www.robecanyon.org
- The Snohomish County Parks and
Recreation Department has not yet updated its Web site to include the Lime
Kiln Trail, but some information on the Robe Canyon Trail is available at www1.co.snohomish.wa.us/Departments/Parks/
- To reach the Lime Kiln trailhead,
follow state Route 92 east to Granite Falls. In town, turn right on South
Granite Avenue. In three blocks, go left on Pioneer Street, which leaves
the city and becomes Menzel Lake Road. In a few miles, go left on Waite
Mill Road and go past a school bus turnaround to the signed trailhead on
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