Firloch

Firloch is the region north of today’s NE 116th Street to the Kirkland-Woodinville city limits. The LWBL runs close to the south side of Totem Lake, on which centered the area’s early industrial activity: shake and shingle production. The name “Firloch” is derived from the Firloch Mill, which operated on the lake in the early 20th century.

By Matt McCauley and Kent Sullivan

The area’s first settlers were Jesse and Sarah Spray, who purchased 80 acres in 1877 and added another 80 acres via the Homestead Act. Jesse was born in Kentucky in 1811 and Sarah in Indiana in 1825—so they were older than most of the neighbors scattered around them on 80-acre parcels. They came to the Washington Territory via Iowa and there is not record of them in the territory until 1877—the same year several other Juanita homesteaders filed claims, including the Forbes, Langdon and Dunlap families.

The Spray’s farm was located on the west side of section 28, from Totem Lake to just west of today’s I-405. Jesse died in 1881 and the land was sold to a family named Wittenmyer, headed by George W., a carpenter, born 1831, and Annie, born 1841. The two married in 1857 and first appear in public records as residents of Seattle in 1880, having come from Wisconsin. The two had several children, including Walter, who became Kirkland’s first town clerk after its 1905 incorporation and George G., who went on to become King county Treasurer and was the center of a notorious scandal in 1934 when he vanished after about $35,000 of county funds were discovered to be missing. After giving assurances that he would clear the matter up, he was not seen again.

In this 1907 Anderson map snippet, the red oval is the approximate location of Totem Lake and the green square is the 160-acre Spray Homestead, later owned by George W. and Annie Wittenmyer (Courtesy Matt McCauley)
Today’s Totem Lake, circa 1930. It has been known by several other names, including Mud Lake and Lake Wittenmyer (after the Wittenmyer family, who lived on it in the late 1800’s). The Firloch Mill, a shingle mill, was located on its southern shore. (courtesy Kirkland Heritage Society)

While today’s Totem Lake had several names prior to being legally changed to Totem Lake in about 1971, it was known for probably the longest period of time as Lake Wittenmyer.


J. D. Jones Spur

J. D. Jones, a Seattle-based attorney who specialized in maritime and admiralty concerns, contacted the NP in February, 1903 about shipping “a large quantity of timber, to-wit, several hundred thousand feet of logs, several thousand cords of shingle bolts, besides a large quantity of cord wood”. How Mr. Jones came by this large quantity of wood products is not currently known. In any case, he asked the NP for a spur on the circa-1891 Kirkland Branch, but was denied, because the railroad knew that the 1891 line would soon be taken up, replaced by the Lake Washington Belt Line.

While the Kirkland Branch is not the subject of this current work, suffice to say that it followed the route of today’s Slater Ave south of NE 124th St. And, to make the situation a little more complicated, it was originally known as the Lake Washington Belt Line, and was intended to serve the same function that the 1905 line eventually fulfilled. A variety of factors conspired to keep the line from being completed. It ran no further south than the unfinished steel mill atop Rose Hill.

Mr. Jones kept in contact with the NP and filed a formal application for a spur in late May, 1904. Even at that late date, NP correspondence indicates that rails for the main track of the new Belt Line were about six weeks away from being laid, and, further, no spur tracks would be able to be considered until after the completed line was turned over to the Operating Department. By early October, Mr. Jones was quite desperate to ship his product. Fortunately, the NP wrote him on October 31 that they, at last, had an operational line. However, unbeknownst to the parties of this conversation, officials higher up in the NP decided to delay opening the Belt Line for traffic until sometime in the Spring of 1905. Fortunately, this final delay was shorter than expected, because approval for the spur came on February 22 and it was ready for use on April 1 (an appropriate day for the long-suffering Jones).

The spur was 300 feet long, capable of holding five cars, and was located a bit west of where the LWBL crosses Slater Avenue today. A Mr.Christensen was apparently the operator for Mr. Jones, and he requested, just two weeks later, that the spur be lengthened to handle 15 cars instead of 5. The ever-helpful NP replied that the projected long-term business did not justify the expense. As a side note, NP records also document the discussion and approval of removing a per-car switching charge of $1.00 for Mr. Jones, deemed appropriate given how long Mr. Jones had to wait for the spur to be installed. It was noted that the “new” Jones spur was the heaviest shipper on the Belt Line at that time.

Note: As discussed in the History and Context of the LWBL section, the northern 17 (or so) miles of the Belt Line were in use as of June, 1905 (as documented in NP Seattle Division employee time table 25) and possibly somewhat earlier.

In December 1912, NP personnel requested authority to remove the spur, saying it had not been used in three years and that other shippers in the area were using the “Firloch spur” (James Neel / Woodland Shingle Co. spur, below), about ¼ mile east. Authority to do so was granted in March, 1913 and it is presumed the track was taken up shortly thereafter. These dates nicely illustrate how rapidly a logging operation could exhaust the supply in a given area – four years or so in this case.

J. D. Jones letterhead from February, 1903 correspondence with the NP (courtesy NPRHA)

Robert Ficken, in his classic book on Pacific Northwest logging and lumber industry The Forested Land, observed on pp. 60-61, “From the beginning, shingle manufacturing displayed some significant characteristics. Only a small amount of capital was required and the industry tended to attract farmers, lawyers, and others whose desire for profit often exceeded their expertise.” Whether Mr. Jones is an example of this archetype is not presently known.


Firloch / James Neel / Woodland Shingle Company spur

Right on the heels of J. D. Jones was James Neel and his Woodland Shingle Co. Not as much paperwork survives for this spur as compared to the Jones spur, but it is known that a formal proposal was submitted in June, 1905, approved in July, and the spur was put into service in September. Less is known about Mr. Neel than Mr. Jones, although the former also had a downtown Seattle business address. The original location of the spur caused it to cross what is today’s Totem Lake Blvd. just north of today’s NE 124th St.

In January 1913, Neel petitioned the NP to move the entire spur 261 feet west, to remove the road crossing, and also to move away from a trackside gully. The request also entailed reversing the direction the track pointed. Because Neel was a high-volume shipper (5 cars of logs per day, to log dumps in Kenmore and Everett) and because he offered to pay the cost, the NP approved the request, in April. The NP decided, at some point, to create a station (named point) on the line called Firloch at this location, undoubtedly related to the Firloch mill. It is not known at this time if that is a later name for the Neel / Woodland enterprise or a separate venture.

In June, 1921, NP officials in Tacoma asked local officials whether the spur was still in use, and the reply was “there is occasionally a car of wood or hay shipped”. It is currently unknown when this spur was removed.


Bridge 19

To speed the opening of a new piece of track, the NP would often construct wooden trestle-type bridges over low-lying areas during initial construction, filling them in later, with tons of dirt and ballast, after the line was operational. In some cases, the filling could not even wait until the line was open. Bridge 19, J. D. Jones and Neel / Woodland Shingle Co. spurs. The NP filed paperwork to partially fill it in January, 1912, because “this portion of Bridge 15 is in such condition that, in order to safely carry the track, the bridge should either be soon renewed or the opening filled” and noted that the “bridge was partially filled during October and November 1904” which is well before the Belt Line opened for regular service. The paperwork also stated that the work was practically finished already, having proceeded under emergency authority of the General Manager. Other paperwork in the file confirms that the work was finished in February, before being formally approved in March.

Note: In this paperwork, the bridge is numbered 15, which is a sequential count from the beginning of the line south of Renton, instead of 19, the system adopted later of numbering based on the nearest milepost. Also, a portion of the bridge remained after this work. It is not currently known when it was completely filled in.

NE 116th Street overpass, I-405 overpass, and crossing safety Improvements

In March, 1958, the NP issued a proposal to cover incidental work in support of King County constructing a bridge over the railroad at NE 116th Street, replacing an at-grade crossing. Paperwork shows that this project had been in the works since at least mid-1956.

In July, 1968 the NP approved a proposal to complete railroad bridge work in support of the State constructing an overhead bridge for I-405 over the railroad.

The NP installed flashing crossing signals at 132nd Avenue NE in 1964 and NE 124th Street in 1965. For more information, see the Collisions between Trains and Automobiles and Resulting Safety Improvements section.


Simpson Building Supply Co. spur

Decades after logging activity ceased in Totem Lake, Simpson Building Supply Co., a division of Simpson Timber Co., announced in February, 1967 that it intended to construct a new wholesale distribution warehouse at 12249 NE 124th Street, also known as the “Five Corners” area, to be managed by Orville Pearson, previously in charge of Simpson’s Wichita, Kansas branch. President C. H. Bacon Jr. credited “rapid truck transportation over new freeways” with Simpson’s decision to become a major lumber supplier in the Seattle area. Simpson intended the facility to link “lumber, plywood, softboard, and door plants in Shelton and McCleary with Seattle area building materials dealers”. More details were revealed in May, including that the facility would replace the recently-purchased Spokane Street warehouse in Seattle of Elliott Bay Lumber Co.

In early May, during construction of the building, Simpson requested a spur be installed. The NP approved the proposal that same month and the spur went in service on July 1, the same day that the warehouse opened. The spur was approximately 500 feet long and was very near the long-since-removed Neel / Woodland Shingle Co. spur, but on the opposite side of the main track. The former Simpson spur survived until the end of active railroad use and the building exists in 2018 as Public Storage.

Business expanded for Simpson soon after opening. In March, 1969, the firm added equipment to pre-stain lumber and plywood. Two years later, in March, 1971, the firm announced that the Kirkland location, under the direction of Ken Pottenger, would manage all of the firm’s Washington distribution centers, in Kirkland, Everett, Moses Lake, and Shelton.

The primary sources of information that informed this work stop in the mid-1970’s. If you can help tell the history from 1975 – 2009, please contact us!

View looking south along the NP main track to Simpson Building Supply Co. in July, 1967 (courtesy King County Library System)
View looking southwest to Simpson Building Supply Co.—note box car on spur at right side of building—in August, 1967 (courtesy Washington State Archives)
View looking north to Simpson Building Supply Co.—note box car on spur at left side of building—in August, 1967 (courtesy Washington State Archives)