YACOLT — Wearing a fuzzy brown trapper hat, eyeglasses and a warm winter jacket with an assortment of decorative pins but no gloves, Jerry Jacobus tapped an attendance clicker as the passengers filtered onto the train. The clicker read: 164.
As the train departed toward Moulton Falls, Jacobus, the conductor, chatted easily with the passengers perched on the benches of an open Battle Ground, Yacolt & Chelatchie Prairie Railroad car — the railroad name is abbreviated as BYCX — operating on the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.
The car — with only a roof and no walls — lurched and rattled like an airplane going through a slight patch of turbulence. Most passengers sat or grabbed the edge of the car for support.
Jacobus never flinched. The 86-year-old is one of roughly 15 regular BYCX volunteers. He was steady on his feet and intent on his purpose: to provide the riders with a special experience, a “Polar Express”-like moment, and to teach them about how the railroads built and grew Clark County.
The all-volunteer railroad runs a few weekends a month from Mother’s Day through the weekend before Christmas. Through it all — rain or shine, heat or cold — Jacobus is aboard nearly every time.
The 1941 diesel locomotive departed from the station in Yacolt, traveling south at about 10 mph toward Moulton Falls. The train passes homes where neighbors wave warm greetings before it disappears into the forest.
Construction of a railroad connecting Vancouver to Yakima started in 1888 and was funded by a group of investors led by early Vancouver pioneer L.M. Hidden. The effort went bankrupt by 1897, making it only as far as Brush Prairie. The railroad was sold, extended to Yacolt and sold again. In the early part of the 20th century, it was used for daily passenger service and for hauling timber.
Clark County purchased the line in the 1980s and now leases it to various organizations, including the BYCX.
The train passes through a short tunnel. Everything goes dark, and the diesel exhaust makes your nostrils tingle. It’s the same tunnel in which a few people sheltered to try to escape the Yacolt Burn of 1902, Jacobus said. The burn claimed 38 lives and more than 350 square miles of forest.
After about 45 minutes, the train rolls to a stop at the Moulton Falls station, where giddy kids rush to line up 30 deep to tell Santa what presents they want. Meanwhile, adults stretch their legs, many recharging for the return trip with a cup of coffee or cocoa.
The whole ride takes about two hours.
The train typically runs four times a weekend, a few weekends a month, but around Christmas, it runs six times a weekend. Reserve tickets cost about $20 and often sell out online, but passengers can purchase day-of tickets for seats in one of the unheated cars.
Longtime riders may remember purchasing a Christmas tree at the Moulton Falls station and hauling it back on the train, a practice discontinued about three years ago after tree prices skyrocketed and the work of loading the trees onto the train became too much, Jacobus said.
Restoration and rehabilitation
The BYCX season is over now, but that doesn’t mean the volunteers stop working. Instead of taking passengers toward Moulton Falls, volunteers will focus on restoring the 1929 steam engine that’s become synonymous with the railroad.
The Federal Railroad Administration requires that a steam locomotive’s boiler be inspected every 15 years. The BYCX locomotive’s license expired three years ago, and the normally slow and expensive boiler-recertification process got delayed even longer because of COVID-19. So the 70-year-old diesel has been in use.
Doug Auburg, the station master and treasurer, said he anticipates the steam locomotive being back on the tracks by Father’s Day in June.
“We’re trying to provide people with an enjoyable experience riding on a railroad, which is getting to be rare these days,” Auburg said.
The Chelatchie Prairie Railroad received $4.7 million from Washington state transportation funds to rehabilitate the line. The 12-mile stretch of track between Battle Ground and Yacolt is scheduled to receive $2.7 million for tie and ballast replacements and bridge repairs. That money will be helpful to the BYCX, which operates on the northern portion of this line.
Jacobus has ridden trains all over the United States, recently riding eight of them in Colorado. In his experience, the best trains have one thing in common:
“What makes it is the people.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.