by Ed Mattison
This story takes place on a dry summer day, yes they do happen. I arrived early to learn about getting the train running for the day. Vance was getting ready to move the Shay out of the engine house when I pedaled in on my bike. I was in good shape back then and often took the bike to places around town.
Once the train was out of the shed it was my job to clean things up. I swept off the rider car, it’s amazing how many fir needles can acuminate on a car with a roof. Also I cleaned out the caboose. Once I finished there I headed up to the locomotive to see what else I could help with.
That is when I spotted him. He was high up in a tree sitting on a dead branch just across the road from Camp 6. It was a bald eagle. This was the first bald eagle I had seen in the wild. I started to move much more slowly, not wanting to scare him away. When I made my way up to Vance, who was lubricating the locomotive, I pointed out the bald eagle. Vance turned looked at the eagle and said, “Oh him.”
I had a confused look on my face with his response. He then told me that there is an eagle there fairly often in the mornings watching the train. He also told me that this was the smaller one. This is how I now know it was a male bald eagle as the females are much larger than the males.
He was sitting on the top of an old snag or dead tree, watching us get the train ready for the day. Vance told me that seemed to be a favorite spot for the eagles to look us over in the mornings.
That part of the park, where the eagle was sitting, was under the care of the Sierra Club, if my memory is right. They were protecting that area as there were two or three bald eagle nests there. The Sierra Club was not pleased with a loud and smoky steam locomotive running next to these nests. They were sure that the noise was disturbing to the birds.
“Nonsense” is what Vance said when I asked him about this. He told me he invited the Sierra Club to come out and watch what the bald eagles did while we got the train running. It appeared they actually liked the train.
I asked if the whistle would scare him off. Vance replied, “Nope” as he climbed into the cab. He then said, “Watch this” and pulled the lever back on the whistle. The only thing you could hear up until then was the oil burning in the fire box and the sound of water boiling. That is until he pulled back on that lever and an extremely loud scream came out of the whistle. Actually it was a loud toot but with the silence it sounded like a scream. He let the whistle blow at full volume and the only thing the eagle did was to turn its head quickly and stare at the locomotive. I jumped more than the bird did.
I later found out the eagles liked to sit in the tree and wait for the train to move, hoping that we would scare any rodents on the track. As these startled rodents would run the eagle would see them, swoop down and get a quick snack.
That bald eagle stayed sitting on that old dead tree until the park opened and cars started to go by. He watched the first few go by and then one with its radio blasting went by. The eagle watched it and I swear I saw it shake its head a couple times before it flew off to another part of the park.
I’ve seen several wild bald eagles at Point Defiance Park over the years but I’ll never forget my first sighting. I just wish I would have asked him his name.
Ed Mattison is a beloved volunteer for Tacoma Historical Society. With his wife and fellow volunteer Rose, he was awarded the inaugural Ronald E. Magden Award, recognizing exceptional and continuing service by a volunteer on behalf of the Tacoma Historical Society and its aims of preserving, presenting and promoting Tacoma history.