The Ant that could
March 2, 2012
By Christina Lords
First steam engine made the Newcastle-to-Seattle coal run more efficient
The successful export of coal and the early success of this town called Newcastle are, quite simply, inexorably linked.
But exactly how the coal was extracted from deep within the coal seams of Newcastle and transported to the awaiting economic lifeline of Seattle’s shores — especially as full mine operations started in Newcastle in September 1871— was far from easy. The loads were transferred a whopping 11 times from start to finish.
The coal from Newcastle was generally San Francisco bound after being loaded onto ships in Seattle, but the Puget Sound area would get something in return from the Bay area — its first steam railroad system.
The Ant, brought up from San Francisco in the winter of 1871 to enable the transfer of coal from Lake Union to the Elliot Bay area, would be a major improvement to further Newcastle’s ability to export coal, local train expert Russ Segner said.
Until the addition of the first edition, coal was transported by a series of various modes of transportation, including hauls by mules, horses, trams and flatboats.
“Mules were the sole motive power underground,” writes Richard K. McDonald and Lucile McDonald in “The Coals of Newcastle: A Hundred Years of Hidden History.”
“Most of the animals’ lives were spent there in darkness hauling out mine cars. Horses then pulled the larger tram cars to the incline above the landing where the bulk coal was loaded onto a scow.”
While the Ant was a relatively small locomotive (it was called the Ant for a reason) that could only pull eight loaded cars, or about five tons worth of coal, it was a serious improvement to the system, Segner said.
“This was much more efficient as the loads got heavier,” he said. “It also meant they needed less people to operate the trains than you needed for horses … the whole venture was probably pretty good sized by Seattle standards at the time.”
The addition of the Ant was only the second steam railroad in the state, according to “The Coals of Newcastle.”
But within four short years, the George C. Bode, a slightly larger engine, replaced the Ant on the Seattle leg of the coal route. Three years later, it would be put into service in the Seattle & Walla Walla Railroad in 1875.
In Kurt E. Armbruster’s “Orphan Road: The Railroad Comes to Seattle,” Armbruster describes Seattle’s first run at the steam engine railroad as it looked to improve and expand the lines in the future.
“Since 1872 the little city had listened to the daily tootings and chuffings of the tiny engines Ant and Geo. C. Bode of the Seattle Coal & Transportation Co. as they lugged cars of Newcastle coal from Lake Union along Pike Street to the waterfront.”
While the Ant would be put out of commission from the coal route, it would find a home until the 1940s hauling new loads for a logging company in Oregon, Segner said.
But the engine, a critical piece of railroading history in the Puget Sound and to the successful coal mining of Newcastle, would be lost to history forever after it was mistakenly collected for a World War II scrap drive.
“It’s just one of those things where things get lost,” Segner said.