A huge cleanup project has literally uprooted the entire downtown of Skykomish over the past four years.
Charlie Brown stood behind the bar at the dark, dusty Whistling Post Tavern on Wednesday, rag in hand, updating his patrons on the latest local news.
“Did you hear they moved Wheatley’s house today?” he said. “And I heard they’re moving the general store back by Friday.”
Brown pointed in the direction of Fifth Street North, where a huge wooden building from circa 1900, its paint peeling, sat on stilts.
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Welcome to Skykomish, population 214 in 2000, where a huge cleanup project has literally uprooted the entire downtown over the past four years. On West Railroad Avenue, century-old buildings on new, state-of-the-art foundations sit above the ground, waiting to be put back in their original positions along the main street. The general store, which once sat on the corner of West Railroad Avenue and Fifth Street North, will return to its rightful place in a few days.
The cleanup project is the legacy of the early 20th century in Skykomish. Then, the town served as a switching station for trains traveling across the state. The trains frequently would stop there for engine repair or more fuel, which in those days was “a heavy sort of oil,” according to Larry Altose, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology. Some of the oil, along with some heavy metals, leached into the ground, spreading throughout the entire downtown and even seeping into the Skykomish River.
The contamination was discovered in the late 1980s and the rail company, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, immediately took responsibility and began plans for removing it with the Department of Ecology, according to BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas.
In 2006, the oil was sucked out of the river, the entire levy was rebuilt and a natural habitat was built on the banks, and since 2007, the town’s businesses, residences and historic buildings have been lifted up and carted off so BNSF workers could excavate the oil and contaminated dirt below their foundations. Three buildings out of 18 that have been moved are still waiting to be placed back on the ground, and the school, which can’t be moved, has to be excavated by digging beneath the structure.
Brad Petrovich, the cleanup project’s public-involvement coordinator, said the contamination was hard to miss by the 2000s. The oil had emerged from the ground in some places, and at the local school building, “you would have literally stepped off the stairs and stepped into a pool of oil,” he said.
Now, things are drastically different. Ecology and BNSF have a plan to continue cleaning up the town even after all the oil is gone. Ecology will pay for a new water and sewage-treatment system. Wetlands near the rail yard will become a park, where the historic Skykomish train depot will sit in the center. There’s talk of an environmental-learning center. Petrovich and many in town hope these new developments will increase tourist traffic, which these days is sparse.
After the cleanup, “I’d like to see some sort of a resurgence of people and businesses,” Skykomish schools Superintendent Jeff Long said.
In its heyday, most of the town’s business came from railroad employees who lived there or passed through. But when BNSF ceased its operations in Skykomish, “there wasn’t a big employment base,” Altose said.
If the town returns to its pre-cleanup anonymity, “I think people would look at the town and go, ‘There’s a good place to not come back to,’ ” Long said.
Luckily, Skykomish Mayor Fred Black “is starting to say, ‘We’ve got to start talking about post-cleanup and attracting new people and more citizens,’ ” Petrovich said. “When it started it was a little less optimistic; you couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Melonas said BNSF and the Ecology Department have teamed up to help Skykomish attract passers-by after cleanup by highlighting its rich railroad history.
“We’re so grateful to have been a part of this project,” Melonas said. “We love that we’ve had a hand in helping Skykomish get back on its feet.”
By the end of the cleanup, which is estimated to wrap up in 2012, the project will have cost BNSF more than $100 million.
Brown, the co-owner of the Whistling Post, said he enjoyed seeing his beloved tavern get carted off during cleanup. But now that the tavern is back, “I just want it all to be done. I don’t want to live a life disrupted by dump trucks and backhoes.”
Jill Kimball: 206-464-2136 or firstname.lastname@example.org