By Jim Bryant
The marshal stood on the train platform with his shiny badge glistening on his vest. He nodded on my approach and smiled into the camera with a “Howdy.”
Looking around, it was easy to see that this was not going to be an ordinary train ride. A ride on the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad (MSRR) aboard a vintage steam engine is spectacular in itself, but add the Little White Church of Elbe and rail cars loaded with passengers dressed in the manner folks did back in the 1800s, and it is like stepping into another time on tracks that were build in the 1890s when it was know as the Tacoma Eastern Railroad.
In June 1981, MRSR made its debut and has been running ever since. The train departs its tiny depot in Elbe for seasonal tours to Ashford, Mineral Lake and Morton in the foothills of Mount Rainier. Elbe Evangelical Lutheran Church, a tiny 18-by-24-foot church where services and weddings are still held, was built by German immigrants and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, we were all passengers on a train pulled by a 1929 steam-operated locomotive On the platform waiting to board were “Inspector” Fred Aberline, “Fighting Irish Rose” and “Wildman” Williams, traveling as guests of the The Hammer Clan. There were almost 80 of the clan, including many of their close “pardners.” Heading the clan is Elder Jack Hammer, who, with close friends like Wiley Jack Hammer, Union Jack Hammer and Cascade Jack, formed a cowboy action shooting society back in 1995. Looking at them, you might think that they said 1895. Most all of the clan are either retired or semi-retired law enforcement officers or in some way were once involved with law enforcement. There’s a retired Pierce County Sheriff Department deputy, a retired former Puyallup Police chief, and a deputy U.S. marshal once stationed in the Seattle office. The list goes on, but you get the idea.
As the number of the Hammer Clan expanded, so did their names. Instead of using their birth names, each one is proud to bear the name of Hammer. It would have been difficult to tell them apart had they not been appropriately dressed in their old-west. 1800s-period costumes. But mind you, don’t use the word “costume” with these cowboys. Their peace officer stars are as real as the vintage weapons they were carrying.
As part of the shooting society, the clan members often meet for social events, and many of them have known each other for over 20 years. During this meeting on the longest continuously operating steam railroad in the Pacific Northwest, the clan also invited some friends from the Single Action Shooting Society, or SASS, an international organization created to preserve and promote the sport of cowboy action shooting.
Elder Katie is an expert shooter and has won international and national competitions. She and 16 of her family members were traveling on the srailroad by invitation of the clan. Some also participate in the competition shootings, and others were just along for the ride. And what a ride it was. The day may have been cold and overcast, but the holiday spirit on the train was festive as the cowboys and cowgals kept up the lively historical chatter in one of the of the two green rail cars. Elder Katie wasn’t the only well-dressed woman shooter on the train. In her company was Indian Girl, Sassafras Girl, Ink Slinger and Dutchess Belle Hammer. These train passengers did their best to remain in character the entire trip across the Nisqually River and through the forested. Some other notables riding the train were Deputy U.S. Marshal Rooster J. Cogburn from “True Grit” fame, and the Malloman dressed as Paladin from “Have Gun Will Travel.” Their job on the train ride, Cogburn said with a smile, was “to keep all those rowdy Hammers from misbehaving badly.” It was a fun trip and quite possibly the safest I have ever felt with this many armed cowboys on a train ride.