If you’ve driven down SW 153rd Street in Burien, you may have noticed an unassuming brown building with a white sign that reads “Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive.” 

What you won’t see from the building’s modest exterior is the piles of carefully catalogued history that fill the building to the brim, preserving the impact of railways on the development of the Pacific Northwest.

The Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive (PNRA) is a consortium of several historical railroad organizations that pooled their broad collections sitting in basements, garages, and storage units. In 2010, at a former plumbing supply store on SW 153rd Street in Burien, The Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive was born.

“It turns out [the building] is amazingly well-suited for the purpose of archival storage,” said Mike Bergman, local author and volunteer at the Archive. “A number of improvements have been made to maintain constant temperature and humidity in the archival section, to guard against flooding, and you know, nasty things that can happen.”  

Jonathan Fischer, Executive Director of the Archive, gives a tour of the building’s expansive interior, winding through a labyrinth of stairways and doorframes, surrounded by boxes, filing drawers, computers, and bookcases. In every room volunteers are hard at work sorting, analyzing, scanning and cataloging the Archive’s vast resources, with more coming in every day.

Downstairs, an anteroom of sorts is stacked floor to ceiling with boxes, padded envelopes, and cardboard tubes.

“This is our latest collection,” Fischer explains. “We’ve just been calling it the Phillips collection.”

Poking around the mountain of archival ephemera, Bergman and Fischer introduce Rich, Chief Archivist and sorter extraordinaire.

“Rich’s role is to say, ‘where do I start with this thing?’ and it is complete entropy. But there’s no entropy when he’s done with it,” Fischer said admiringly. 

The anteroom housing the new collection opens to vast, temperature-controlled columns of moveable bookcases which, according to the Archive’s Librarian, Bill, can house 440 banker’s boxes on each side. Though at first glance it may appear that the basement is at capacity, there is a good deal of space left to expand.

“We’ve got room to grow. We’ve got some empty space in here,” Fischer said while squeezing through the narrow space between bookcases. 

The majority of the digitized archive can be found on the Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive’s website.

“We have a constant production of digital materials that are being posted online,” Bergman said. “That’s part of our public benefit,” Fischer chimes in, “we share [the archive] with the community, the residents of King County, and we do all of it for free.” 

With the exception of some small grant support, the Archive is completely self-funded. Due to a generous donation from James J. Hill III – great-grandson of the Great Northern Railway founder of the same name – the Archive will own their building outright in the next couple of years. 

“The archive has grown significantly with new donations and materials coming in almost continuously,” Bergman said. “It’s an ongoing project. I don’t know that we’ll ever be completely done.”

How to Help the PNRA

The PNRA is holding its annual fundraising campaign through May 4, 2023.

You can donate online now with a secure digital donation or send a check to:

Pacific Northwest Railroad Archive
425 SW 153rd Street
Burien, WA 98166

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Alia Sinclair is a writer residing in SeaTac. She is passionate about the arts and connecting people through the written word, and is the founder and editor-in-chief of Patchwork Mosaic magazine for creatives.