Found the letter I wrote to Mr. Downing and have updated the original posting to include it:
A Letter To Robert Downing
A few years before he passed away, I wrote a letter to Mr. Downing. First, a bit about who he was:
Downing, Robert W.
Executive Vice-President, Burlington Northern.
Office: 176 East Fifth Street, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Born: Sewickley, Pennsylvania, September 18, 1913.
Son of: James A. and Hattie O. (Wragg) Downing.
Married: Mary Matthews, August 7, 1937.
Children: Nancy, Robert, Susan.
Education: Yale University, Bachelor's of Science in Civil Engineering, 1935.
Military service: U.S. Navy, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and U.S.S. Remey
(DD-688), World War Two.
Career: With Pennsylvania, 1935 to 1938, Maintenance-of-Way Department; with
Great Northern, September to December, 1938, assistant to superintendent,
Kalispell Division, Whitefish, Montana; December, 1938, to July, 1941, district
roadmaster; 1941 to 1945, U.S. Navy; November, 1945, to 1946, district
roadmaster, Butte Division, Great Falls, Montana; May, 1946, to May, 1947,
trainmaster, same division; June, 1947, to December, 1949, trainmaster, Glasgow, Montana; January, 1950, to May, 1951, trainmaster, Spokane Division; May, 1951, to March, 1954, trainmaster, Mesabi Division, Kelly Lake, Minnesota; April, 1954, to September, 1956, superintendent, Minot Division, Minot, North Dakota; October, 1956, to July, 1958, assistant to president, St. Paul, Minnesota;
August, 1958, to March, 1967, vice-president, Executive Department; March, 1967, to March, 1970, executive vice-president; 1970—, executive vice-president,
Home address: 1396 Sextant Avenue, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Source: _Who's Who in Railroading_, 1972 edition, p. 115.
Progressive Railroading wrote of him:
Robert Downing, the former president of the Burlington Northern Railroad (BN) and driving force behind a merger that forged the Class I, died Aug. 2. He was 96.
Downing began his railroad career in 1935 at the Pennsylvania Railroad after graduating from Yale University with a civil engineering degree. He joined BN predecessor the Great Northern Railroad (GN) in 1938 as assistant to the superintendent at Whitefish, Mont., and worked his way up before and after a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II. By the time he retired from BN in 1976, Downing had served as president and chief operating officer from 1971 to 1973, and vice chairman and COO from 1973 to 1976.
He was instrumental in the 1970 merger of the GN; Northern Pacific; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; and Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway that formed BN, a BNSF Railway Co. predecessor, according to an item posted on the “BNSF News” web page.
“Many historians have suggested that without Downing's diplomatic skills, the merger might never have come to fruition,” the news item states.
As COO, Downing suggested to BN’s board that the railroad build a line between Gillette, Wyo., and Orin Junction in the Powder River Basin to serve proposed low-sulfur coal mines — a line that became a key coal route for BNSF.
Although Downing stepped down from BN’s board in 1979, he remained active in rail historical societies and frequently advised BNSF executives, according to BNSF.
“I was honored to have called Bob a friend, and on numerous occasions I sought his counsel,” said BNSF Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Matt Rose. “Bob's contributions to our railroad and the industry are immeasurable. He truly had a hand in shaping our company as we know it today. He was a great leader and a wonderful mentor, and we will miss him.”
A road on BNSF’s Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters campus is named after Downing.
My letter to him:
My name is Dan Bolyard, and I have been doing some research on the railroad lines in the Coulee City area. I was speaking with Dave Sprau about some questions I had, when he suggested that I write you and ask my questions. He provided me with your address.
I grew up in the Coulee City area in the 1970s and found out about the Seattle, Lake Shore, & Eastern building out that way, in addition to the branch the NP built. I heard that the GN used the Lake Shore bridge in Spokane over the Spokane River until their own was built. Is this true? In addition, west of Coulee City, there are railroad grades climbing the Grand Coulee in the general direction of Waterville. The way they crisscross each other, I would conclude that 2 railroads were building up there, being the Lake Shore and the NP, but no tracks having been laid beyond Coulee City. I am aware of the Adrian cutoff, now abandoned, but that heads south from Coulee City. Nor am I speaking of the abandoned line headed north to Grand Coulee Dam. Do you have any ideas on this?
I have found the history of Central Washington to be quite fascinating, but there are areas of little information. I would appreciate any help you may choose to provide.
2102 S. Forest Estates Dr. Spokane, WA 99223 November 30, 2006
Mr. Dan Bolyard 3519 Rd. 14 NW Ephrata, WA 98823
I have your letter of Nov. 27th inquiring about railroad lines in Eastern Washington. This is an interesting subject about early railroad history in our part of the state.
The Northern Pacific main line was the first. It built into Spokane in 1881 from Ainsworth near Pasco. It was not until 1882 that through transcontinental service was established when the last spike was driven in Montana. The next arrival was the Oregon Railway & Navigation Co. (now Union Pacific) which built into Spokane in 1886. The OR&N came from Oregon headed for the mines in the Wallace Idaho area and decided to build a branch into Spokane from Tekoa, WA via Dishman in the Spokane Valley. Their station in Spokane was at Washington St. on the north side of the Spokane River.
In those days before highways and trucks were around farmers had to take their grain to the nearest railroad by wagon. Therefore there was an immediate need for branch railroad lines. The NP sponsored the Central Washington Railroad which built from Cheney to what is now Coulee City. This was in the mid 1880s.
Meanwhile the NP made it clear that their terminal on Puget Sound was to be Tacoma and by 1887 had built the Stampede Pass line over the Cascades. This aroused a lot of anxiety in Seattle and a group of business men there decided to build their own railroad to connect with the Northern Pacific in Spokane. Accordingly the Seattle, Lake Shore & Eastern was born. It started east from Seattle in 1887 heading for Snoqualmie Pass and a crossing of the Columbia River at Rock Island. Construction on the Spokane end began early in 1888. The Lake Shore shared with the 0 R & N a Union Station at Washington St. in Spokane and ran northwesterly to cross the Spokane River near what is now Spokane Falls Community College at Fort Wright.
The NP saw what was going on and decided to get control of the Lake Shore. They did this in 1890 by which time the Lake Shore had run out of money and the two segments of line had stopped at a point near North Bend on the West Side and a point about 5 miles south of Davenport on the East Side. The town of Davenport was so anxious to get another railroad that the townspeople got together and built the five miles of grade and persuaded the Lake Shore to lay the track on it. If you look at an older railroad map you will see a 90 degree turn north into Davenport which explains the reason for the peculiar change in direction to the north toward Davenport indicated on the map. In any case I am sure that any grades you have observed west of Coulee City did not involve the Lake Shore. They might have been done by the C.W. but I think that no track was ever laid west of Coulee City. However, in 1909 the Great Northern built a 60 mile long branch from Columbia River to Mansfield to serve the Douglas County wheat country. There was also a short line from Douglas to Waterville. Both of these were abandoned some time ago which may account for some of the grades you can see west of Coulee City.
During construction of Grand Coulee Dam the U.S. Government built a line from Odair just east of Coulee City up to the dam to handle the enormous quantities of material for the dam project. Toward the end of construction this track was removed because it would be flooded by the rising water of Banks Lake.
Prior to the BN merger in 1970 the NP had abandoned the branch line from Adrian to Odair and after the merger the track from Wheeler (near Moses Lake) to Adrian was also abandoned. As to the Lake Shore the track from Spokane to Eleanor was abandoned in pieces before 1910 as soon as the Lake Shore was fully integrated into the NP system. The only vestige of this line that I know of is on the north side of Medical Lake where there is a small yellow house which is unmistakably the Lake Shore's Medical Lake depot. The Davenport-Eleanor branch was not abandoned until the 1970s after the BN merger.
You asked about Great Northern use of the Lake Shore in Spokane. Yes, when the GN came to Spokane in 1892 they connected with the OR & N at Mission Ave. near Gonzaga University and ran into the joint Lake Shore-O R & N Union Station at Washington St. The GN then used the Lake Shore to the west end of the bridge over the Spokane River at Fort Wright where it joined its own line toward Seattle. The GN continued use of the Lake Shore until its own station on Havermale Island and the line from Mission Ave. to Fort Wright were completed in 1902.
I agree that the history of the railroads in Central Washington is fascinating and we have not seen the last of it yet. It is a bit confusing but if you have questions please give me a call. My phone number is 509-534-7127 and if you are going to be in Spokane, perhaps we could have lunch together.
Robert W. Downing
P.S. One other abandoned railroad grade you may have noticed is on the south side of 1-90 west of Ritzville. This was part of an NP project to build a cut-off from Ritzville to Ellensburg to avoid going through Pasco. This was started about 1912 but the project was abandoned about 1914 when the railroad had second thoughts. Only the part between Bassett Jet.on the Connell Northern branch, and Schrag was built, but you can see the grade east of Schrag from the Interstate. I have never been able to find out where this line was supposed to cross the Columbia River. I have understood that the NP had second thoughts about spending the money on this shorter line when they began to worry about competition with the newly completed Milwaukee and also competition from intercoastal ships that would be moving soon through the Panama Canal which was then nearing completion.
Just read this for the first time. Very fascinating letter he worte. I wish he was still alive to pick his brain. He was a big wig back in the day it sounds like.
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