The rise and fall of railroads and railroad depots mirror the rise and fall of towns in the western United States. The town of Harrington, Washington was one of the many beneficiaries of the Great Northern Railway's success. The Great Northern Railway stretches from Saint Paul, Minnesota to Seattle, Washington. In 1889 railroad tycoon James Hill, who was appropriately nicknamed the Empire Builder, purchased a small railroad company in Saint Paul and started his dream project of building a transcontinental railroad line to the Pacific Ocean. Four relatively short years later, his dream became a reality and Hill's railroad became the first privately funded transcontinental railroad in United States history stretching more than 1,700 miles when completed on January 6th 1893. Because Hill's expenditure was privately financed, he looked to cut costs by using cheap immigrant labor, primarily Chinese men, to construct the rail line. The building of the Great Northern Railway is one of the great stories in railroad history, and this rail line became the catalyst for the economic expansion of small towns across the upper half of the country including Harrington.
During the construction of the railroad, Harrington was a classic wild west town. The year was 1892 and with hundreds of workers being forced to spend time in the area until the completion of the railroad, the town of Harrington sprang up with boarding houses, restaurants, saloons, dance halls, and gambling halls to support not only the workers, but also the eventual passenger trains that would be making its way through the depot. These passenger trains not only made it possible for farmers to escape their daily lives and take their family on a much needed weekend vacation after the wheat harvest, but it also made it possible for vacationers to stop in a quintessential Northwest wheat town and experience all the amenities that a town like Harrington supplies. Upon the railroad's completion at Harrington in November of 1892, wheat solidified itself as the backbone of the local economy as farmers used the benefits of the railroad to make their fortunes.
Harrington, a town founded predominately on wheat production, was instantly able to reap the financial rewards of having a train depot in their town. No longer did the farmers of this area have to transport their product to Sprague, Walla Walla, or Spokane to find a market. The railroad made sending wheat to a port, such as the one in Seattle a reality; Harrington wheat was shipped across the Pacific to foreign markets. The depot in Harrington also served as a watering and coaling station for every train that passed through the area whether it was freight or passenger trains.
When the depot located within this town was closed in the 1960s, Harrington, regrettably, became the victim of the decline that results when a railroad is removed from a hamlet such as this. There was already a decline in the population of Harrington due to the invention of farming machinery that reduced the need for manual labor, and with the depot closing, the town lost not only its passenger service, but it lost a profitable way to transport Harrington's main cash crop. For years the depot stood as an unsettling reminder of the glory years of American westward expansion, then in the 1980s, this monument to American innovation and willpower was torn down. The depot for the Great Northern Railway was the reason Harrington was able to achieve success because it created the economic factors that a farming city needs to be great.