PULLMAN, Wash. — Many Washington State University students live in the Seattle-Tacoma and Spokane areas. They all have to get to campus in Pullman to settle in and begin classes. That’s been true for many years. However, how they get here has changed.
Today the automobile is the primary way to get from home to WSU and back. For many years it was the passenger train.
Downtown Pullman has vestiges of passenger rail travel. The former Union Pacific station is now the WSU Cougar Depot, home of the WSU Visitor Center and the university’s athletic ticket office. The Pufferbelly Depot, home of DRA Real Estate and other businesses, formerly was the Northern Pacific station.
A Northern Pacific brochure hails the “Cougar Special,” also called the “Students’ Special Train,” to what was then Washington State College for the opening of fall classes on Sept. 16, 1935.
“Riding the train to college was an important part of college life for the students. Getting to Pullman from home in the 1930s and 1940s was not only a means to get from home to school and back, it was also a social occasion,” said Ken Vogel of the Palouse Empire Railroad Society. Railroad memorabilia he has on display in Ken Vogel Clothing in downtown Pullman includes one of the brochures.
The Cougar Special, the brochure said, “performs the important function of providing returning students with the opportunity for renewing old friendships and making new acquaintances before becoming associated with the classroom.”
To be specific, the train was not just for students. The brochure said, “The Cougar Specials are popular. They are an accepted part of the College. Only Washington State College faculty and students are allowed as passengers. Chaperones are provided and friends may arrange to be in the same car. All sorts of fun for everybody!”
The brochure shows Cougar Specials leaving both Seattle and Tacoma at 9 p.m. Sept. 14 and arriving in Pullman at 11 a.m. the next morning. The trip from Spokane was quicker. Leave at 8:40 a.m. on Sept. 15 and arrive at 11:30 that morning. The cost? From Seattle or Tacoma, $11.99 first class or $7.70 coach-tourist. No Spokane fare is listed.
“Taking the train is a very social way to travel,” said Vogel, whose grandfather started with Northern Pacific in 1907 as a fireman and retired as an engineer. He regrets he never traveled by train to school. “I graduated from Auburn High School in 1963. There still was a passenger railroad, but the Cougar Special no longer existed. Unfortunately, when I was studying elementary education at WSU, my trips were by car.”
The brochure indicates he missed enjoyable events. It said, “Why not get together with your friends who are coming back to college and make up your own little group to travel together on the Cougar Special! Start the school year with the old spirit!”