Community News


By Regan Weeks

Here we are starting another Trail Tales season, introducing many locals to Anacortes stories along the Tommy Thompson Trail. One of my questions as a relative newbie to our island was "who was Tommy Thompson?" In finding the answer, I found double trouble. There were two Tommy Thompsons – father and son, and both have fascinating histories. Tommy Thompson (the father) was essentially the first American chemist to devote his major efforts to investigating the chemistry of sea water.

Born in 1888 on Staten Island, and trained as a chemist, he came to the University of Washington with his wife Harriet to pursue a graduate degree after serving in WWI. He stayed on to eventually become a full professor in 1929. He and Harriet had 3 children: Tommy Jr., born 10/3/1923; Jack, born 9/8/1925, and Harriet born 4/30/1931. During the late 1920s, Thompson became increasingly interested in the difficult problems associated with quantitative analysis of sea water, and spent summers working at the Puget Sound Biological Station on San Juan Island. In the days before large research grants were common, Thompson and his wife agreed to budget 10% of his salary to his research, which brought them both satisfaction.

Some additional History: the San Juan Island Puget Sound Biological Station -now UW Friday Harbor Labs- was established in 1903 with the first classes in 1904. Students and teachers lived in tents, washing their own clothes and rowing and sailing to access interesting marine sites. It was a rough life, but students came from all over the world to attend for a few weeks in the summer.

By the mid 1920s the Station had 3 objectives: "First, to instruct grade school teachers in the fundamentals of biology so that they in turn may create and foster interest in biology in the children under them; second, to create an opportunity for those interested to receive instruction in advanced undergraduate studies pertaining to marine biology; third, to make laboratory space and equipment available for investigators who wish to work on marine biological problems." The facility became known as Friday Harbor Labs in 1951.) In 1931, based on a National Academy of Sciences recommendation, the first interdepartmental Oceanographic Department at the UW and the UW Oceanographic Laboratories at Friday Harbor were established.

Thompson was selected as the first director, and was given a $250,000 grant by the Rockefeller Foundation in part for six months' travel to study oceanographic and marine laboratories throughout northern Europe. This visit helped shape the policies and procedures at the UW and probably also helped foster Thompson's hobby of stamp collecting. When Thompson became director, objectives at the UW Oceanographic Laboratories were completely refocused on research, and the one-time primary objective of offering summer classes for teachers was discontinued.

Thompson was director of the UW Oceanographic Department and Oceanography Laboratories for 20 years, from 1931 to 1951. Under Thompson's guidance a small research vessel, the Catalyst, was built for the Laboratories and was put into operation in 1932. Into her 75-foot length were packed accommodations for a crew of three and bunks for thirteen students and professors, together with a laboratory for chemical work and the special gear required for collecting samples at sea. The head was convertible and could serve as a bacteriological laboratory when needed. One of his students later wrote: "The final result was a trifle top-heavy, which accounted for the great amplitude of roll and prevalence of "mal de mer" (sea sickness) among the devoted passengers and crew."

Tommy—sometimes called "The Admiral" under these circumstances—was a man of courage, the first to master his discomfort and to carry on in the face of adverse winds and waves. Seeing him in oilskins on the somewhat perilous platform hanging over the ship's side, superintending the collection of a water sample from the depths was to sense his persistent interest in the mystery of the sea." There was an operational hiatus during WWII, when Thompson, his 2 sons, and other professors joined the war effort and the UW Oceanographic Laboratories shut down to become a training facility for the U.S. Marine Corps. The facility returned to normal operations in 1947. The Catalyst was used by the Marines during the war and was not returned afterward. Remember mention of Thompson's stamp collecting hobby? During WWII, Tommy and Harriet Thompson were able to buy McConnell Island, one of the small Wasp Islands located between Orcas and Shaw Islands, in part by selling some of his valuable stamp collection.

RVThomasGThompsonAfter the war, the family built a stone and driftwood house, and Tommy Jr. put up a 9-inch gauge track around the island for a train. In one of the last summers that Thompson spent at the island, over 700 visitors were recorded in the guestbook, demonstrating his wide-ranging friendships. Three years after his death in 1961, the US Navy built and named a 209-foot research vessel after Thompson (R/V Thomas G Thompson), used by the UW. A newer 274-foot research vessel was built in 1990 which now bears his name. It is occasionally seen in the Dakota Creek shipyard for repairs or upgrades. Thompson won a number of academic awards including the Alexander Agassiz Gold Medal of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) for his original contributions to the science of the ocean, election to the NAS, and the May 25, 1960 presentation of a Certificate for distinguished service to the people of Washington by Governor Albert Rosellini. This is only a short sketch of Tommy Thompson the world-renowned chemist. Additional information can be found in a 1973 National Academy of Sciences Biological Memoir in the bibliography.

So who was our Tommy Thompson, the son? Thomas G. Thompson, Jr., the eldest child of Thomas Sr. and Harriett Thompson, was interested in trains and steam engines from an early age. At 16, he worked shoveling sawdust at a steam-powered sawmill on San Juan Island; after high school he worked for the Northern Pacific Railway in Seattle. During WWII, he spent 2 years in Iran as an engineer on a state railroad. When the war ended, he went to school at the UW to become a mechanical engineer. By the mid-1950s Tommy moved to Anacortes and went to work at the newly opened Shell Oil Refinery to run and maintain the steam turbines and pumps. He and his family moved to a home on the north side of Campbell Lake and he bought several steam engines, restored others, and helped restore the Seattle City Light steam locomotive which ran between Sedro Woolley and Concrete.

Tommy Thompson was a man of steam engine vision, and from the 1960s right up to his death in 1999, he dreamed of a steam engine locomotive and rail cars operating here in Anacortes. He worked hard to develop the train himself and at the same time enthuse others. I liked a quote of Tommy's from the July 1992 Fidalgo Magazine: So many people miss out on wonderful experiences when they flop on the couch and watch TV when they get home from work. I would make a deal with myself every day to give 10 minutes to my interest and if I was bored or too tired after that time I would stop and go in the house. Usually my wife Anne would end up having to drag me to bed. In 1961, Tommy proposed to build and run a 16-inch gauge railway on vacated railway beds at his own expense from the State ferry dock to Sunset Beach in Washington Park, but this vision was shot down by property owners along the route. The setback didn't slow him down for long. It was in 1965 that Tommy heard about the closing of the Homestake Mining Company in Lead, SD. They were apparently getting rid of their mine equipment, and after visiting it on a family vacation, Tommy was able to buy a compressed air locomotive (#22, built in 1909 by the HK Porter Company) with a ton of spare parts, all to be delivered by rail. It would take a lot of work to transform an old mine locomotive into the swan that Tommy had in mind, and he built an oil-fired foundry in his back yard so he could do all his brass castings himself. Tommy figured that including the time to make the patterns, it took him about 1700 hours over a 5 year period to complete the Fourney (superstructure on top of the original #22 locomotive). The locomotive was originally fired with coal; Tommy rigged it to fire on a cleaner, cheaper, and sweeter-smelling fuel – Douglas fir bark.

Over the years, Tommy proposed several different short railway routes on unused railroad rights–of-way, but he could either not get property permissions or the plans did not gel. After the 1961 plan to run from the State ferry dock to Washington Park was shot down, Tommy proposed a route from the State ferry dock to downtown. A different route proposed in 1975 was down Q Avenue from 7th Street to the Thrifty Mart Shopping Center (1500 block between Commercial and Q avenues).

In 1982, Tommy proposed a one mile railway to operate between J Avenue and Dakota Avenue; Burlington Northern and other property owners did not give permission to use the unused railroad right-of-way. In 1985, Tommy proposed a railway from the Depot to 3rd Street, then west to N Avenue; this plan also was not realized. As our Trail Tales group learned about the Anacortes Parks Foundation work to establish the Guemes Channel Trail, getting property permissions for public access can be a difficult task! The locomotive finally ran in Anacortes for the first time in 1979 during the August Arts & Crafts Festival. Temporary 18-inch gauge track (meaning they were laid 18 inches apart; standard track is more than 4 ½ feet wide) was laid on Commercial Avenue from 4th Street to the Port Dock, and rides were provided during the fair. They were a tremendous hit, and the train ran annually during the fair from 1979 through 1982.

TommyThompsontrainDuring the 1980s, Tommy continued to work on his train, building three finely crafted passenger cars, each of which could hold 4 people. Details on the cars included buttoned and tufted red velvet upholstery, vases that held fresh flowers, cherry wood raised paneling, plush carpeting, and in addition, the parlor car was furnished with crystal lamps, a library, and an Italian marble fireplace! The cars were named Anacopper Road, Cap Sante, and Magic City. From 1986 to 1988, the Anacortes Railway ran from the W.T. Preston north to 5th Street on special occasions. From 1989 to 1999, Tommy, Anne, his sons and friends ran the Anacortes Railway from the Depot south to 9th Street, then west to Commercial Avenue during summer weekends and holidays. 9th Street was unpaved before the railway was built by Tommy and his kids with the help of community volunteers. There were matching turnarounds at each end of the route. One turnaround is in the sidewalk outside the Calico Café; this was paved over in 2012.

In the late 1990s, Tommy proposed to run his train from the Depot to March Point using the unused railway bed to Weaverling Spit, on the trestle over Fidalgo Bay.  It was a wonderful vision, but not to be.  On January 23, 1999, Tommy Thompson died of leukemia, and on May 1 of that year, his family ran the train for the last time. From 2000 to 2012, Tommy's train was stored in the Georgetown Steam Plant in Seattle.  In 2012, Anne Thompson very generously gifted the train to the City of Anacortes.  The train played a starring role in the 2012 Anacortes Fourth of July Parade (on the back of a truck), and until an appropriate display venue is developed, the train is stored in the railway building in Anacortes.  For those of us who missed seeing Tommy's train in action, there is a YouTube video that shows the train and Tommy himself at the helm, uploaded by Tom Thompson (no relation).  You can view it here and a second short video.

The name Tommy Thompson is well known in Anacortes, and no wonder!  The father and son both made substantial contributions to our area. Tommy Thompson the father helped us understand and value our marine environment, and set the UW Friday Harbor Labs on the path it's on today.  Tommy Thompson the son promoted Anacortes' small town character, and by focusing public attention on the trestle over Fidalgo Bay, perhaps he also helped save the very walking trail that our Trail Tales group relies on for our interpretive walks.

Reprinted from Friends of Skagit Beaches Friends Notes.


Thomas Gordon Thompson 1888—1961, A Biographical Memoir by Alfred C. Redfield, Clifford A. Barnes and Francis A. Richards, Copyright 1973, national academy of sciences, washington d.c. (

New interest emerges in building railroad for downtown area, 12/17/1975, Anacortes American

Tommy Thompson and his Train, timeline compiled by Terry Slotemaker, 2013, Source Anacortes Museum Files

Anacortes Railway steams into season, July 1992, Fidalgo Magazine

"All Aboard!"  Thompson's dream turned into a railroad, July 1992, Fidalgo Magazine

Tommy Thompson's train coming back home to Anacortes, 6/27/2012, Anacortes American

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