North Bank Railroad Centennial


            Our story begins with Lewis and Clark, and their Corps of Discovery Expedition, which purpose was to explore the recently made Louisiana Purchase. The chronicles of their 2-year trek told of many previously unknown flora and fauna, the native population they encountered, the wildlife they discovered, the many hardships encountered, and especially the rugged and beautiful countryside they traversed. The amount of new knowledge acquired about the West, specifically the Pacific Northwest, resulted in an increased interest to settle the new lands.

By the 1830s, the route of the Oregon Trail was becoming regularly used by missionaries, military expeditions, and fur traders. In 1839 the first emigrant wagon trains crossed to Oregon and California on the Oregon Trail. The trip to the West often took 6 months of steady travel. Many emigrants died on the trail of disease, starvation, from being killed by Indians, and from the hardships of the travel itself. In the years that followed, an estimated 300,000 new settlers arrived by the overland routes to settle in the Western territory, while many others arrived on sailing ships at western seaports such as Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.

Other immigrants who didn’t move to the West settled on the Western frontier. As the border of the United States moved west, an increased demand for better transportation methods grew. Long before the invention of the automobile, the railroads helped to fill this need. As an incentive for the railroads to expand their lines westward, the US government deeded them vast areas of land. The railroads could sell this land to the new settlers to help pay the construction costs.   

As early as 1836 the need for a trans-continental railroad line was acknowledged, however it wasn’t until the Pacific Railway Act of 1862 that the US government actually authorized it.  The Union Pacific Railroad and the Central Pacific Railroad jointly constructed the first trans-continental railroad line between Council Bluffs, Iowa to Sacramento, California, completing it on November 6, 1869.

In 1845 it was suggested that another trans-continental railroad line be built, this line from Lake Superior to Puget Sound, to facilitate the growing trade with China. In 1853 funds were approved by Congress for surveys. Five routes were surveyed, but due to the resulting deadlock, in deciding which route to choose, it wasn’t until 1864 that Congress chartered the Northern Pacific Railroad. Because of the high cost of the Civil War, the government was not able to provide a cash subsidy toward rail construction. Instead, Congress provided the Northern Pacific a land grant of 60 million acres from Lake Superior to the Pacific, also requiring the railroad to be completed by July 4, 1876. Since the Northern Pacific was unable to meet this deadline, much of the land was returned to the government. The ceremonial completion of Northern Pacific’s northern route was on September 8, 1883, although the rails didn’t reach Puget Sound until 1888.

During the heyday of the Oregon Trail many settlers arrived at The Dalles, and then had to make a decision on what route or method of travel they would choose to get to their final destination, usually the Willamette Valley. Those who chose the river route would often load their wagon and belongings onto a log raft and float downstream. When they reached The Cascades, which were not navigable, they would be forced to unload their belongings and portage around the obstacle. River steamers offered service on both sides of The Cascades and found it to be a lucrative trade.

The first railroad in what later became Washington State was built in 1851 on the Washington side of the Columbia River, between what are now Stevenson and North Bonneville. Originally it was simply a mule-drawn cart on a wooden track. Hardin Chenowith operated this portage to move freight and passengers around the Cascades rapids, which made passage through the Columbia River Gorge easier for settlers arriving from the East. He charged 75¢ per hundred pounds. He later sold to Daniel and P.T. Bradford, who extended the line to six miles long. After being damaged by the 1861 flood, the Bradford Brothers decided to rebuild their line with iron rails, and used two steam engines, the “Ann” and "Betsy."  Daniel Bradford also operated two steam boats, the Hassalo and Mary, on the Upper and Lower river, coordinating their schedules. Portions of the original rail bed can be viewed at the Fort Cascades Historic Site.

Also beginning in 1851, Joseph Ruckle operated a portage road on the Oregon side of the river. Soon joined by Harrison Olmstead, they first used wagons pulled by donkeys, but found the wet weather caused the road to be muddy too often. They planked over the road, and flanged the wagon wheels, and extended their road from Cascade Locks to Eagle Creek - a distance of 4.5 miles.  After gold was discovered in eastern Oregon, eastern Washington and Idaho business increased rapidly, as steamboats were the only way to get up the river, and portage roads were necessary to get around the rapids. In 1862 Mr. Ruckle bought a small steam locomotive, the “Oregon Pony”, to power his portage railroad. At that time this was the only locomotive operating north of San Francisco and west of the Missouri river. It is now on display at the Cascade Locks Marine Park. The Cascade Locks were completed in 1896, which soon made both portage railroads obsolete as riverboats could then make the trip past the Cascades unimpeded.

In 1863 a portage railroad was completed from The Dalles upstream past Celilo Falls, to assist in transporting freight and passengers. Originally built as portage conveyances, many railroads were also built to connect steamboat landings to cities, and from cities to the rest of the country.

In 1881 a spur of the Northern Pacific was completed from Spokane to Pasco, to connect with riverboat traffic to Portland. In 1882, the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company completed a rail line between Wallula and Celilo, to connect with an existing line from Portland.

In 1902 the Columbia River & Northern Railway was organized and soon constructed a rail line from Goldendale down the Swale Creek Canyon and Klickitat River to Lyle. This 43-mile railway connected with ferryboats on the Columbia River, to give Goldendale valley merchants, ranchers and wheat farmers a better outlet for their products. This railroad was acquired by the Northern Pacific in 1905, transferred to the SP&S in 1908, and carried freight and passengers until the late 1980s. 

As more and more rail lines were constructed, the competition between railroad companies for business increased. The journey, which took several months by covered wagons over the Oregon Trail, could now be completed in a week or so. Railroads would often release promotional brochures about the West, with their publicity staffs working hard to entice people to travel to the Northwest, settle in cities and on farms and, of course, to rely on railroads for goods and services. Many communities formed Development Leagues to attract new settlers by promoting the economic opportunities of their area. Real estate agents used the same methods to attract new settlers. Because of these efforts the railroads’ business increased.  

In the Northwest two men emerged as leading contenders for railroad supremacy.  One was Edward Harriman who owned the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads which included the rail line on the south bank of the Columbia River. The other was James J. Hill, who was in control of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific interests. Both knew that the Inland Empire was an untapped market with great potential. Both men knew that the Hill lines were not able to share greatly in that business because of his rail connections having no easy access to the Portland markets. Harriman had once offered Hill the use of his rail line down the south bank of the Columbia River, in exchange for Harriman’s use of the Northern Pacific’s line from Portland to Puget Sound. Neither offer was acceptable, so Hill decided he would build his own rail line to Portland on the only available route, down the North Bank of the Columbia. This begins the history of the North Bank Railroad.

The first right-of-way for the new North Bank Road was purchased sometime before 1903. Surveys along the north bank were quietly made when land agents, secretly working for the Hill interests, began to acquire land and right-of-way for tracks and stations before the Harriman people realized who was actually behind the new activity. Tight secrecy was maintained in order to prevent landowners from asking exorbitant prices for their lands, once they discovered who was making the purchase. In 1905 it was admitted that the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railroad companies had organized, and jointly owned, the “Portland and Seattle Railway Company” and would promptly begin construction on a rail line down the North Bank of the Columbia River from Pasco to Portland. The railroad’s name was changed to Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway Company on January 31, 1908. 

Harriman spent over $300,000 in his attempt to stop Hill from building the new rail line, which included buying strategic lands, physical violence, legal injunctions, and in other efforts to make it appear he also was determined to construct a rail line on the North Bank. Harriman even purchased the portage railroad from the Warren Fish Co., to claim he already had a railroad on the North Bank. This fight lasted a year and a half, but eventually the courts decided that the Harriman efforts were merely a movement to harass and hamper the Hill line. In the spring of 1907 the Harriman interests gave up their fight, and Hill was able to proceed.

The 230-mile long Portland and Seattle Railway was built to connect Pasco, Washington and Portland, Oregon. The railway followed the North Bank of the Columbia River to Vancouver, and then crossed both the Columbia and Willamette Rivers before entering Portland. Due to this route it soon acquired the commonly used name of the North Bank Railroad.

Originally announced to cost about $8,000,000, the total expense involved in the project is said to have reached nearly $45,000,000.  Maintaining a grade just ten feet above the high-water mark of the 1894 flood, the incline of the entire line is just two tenths of one per cent per mile, and no curve on the line exceeds three degrees. In the grading work, 18,000,000 cubic yards of material, about one-third rock, was moved. A total of five miles of solid rock was cut through. There were originally thirteen tunnels, varying in length from 150 feet to 2,350 feet. For a time 7,000 men, among which were Hungarians, Scandinavians, Chinese, Hindus, and Greeks, were employed on the work, which took 2½ years to complete. The chief engineer of the construction was N.D. Miller. 

Construction commenced from both ends of the line. The first track of the new line was laid at Kennewick on January 7, 1907. Working west the track-laying crews reached Roosevelt in September, Lyle on October 15, White Salmon on November 13, the mouth of the White Salmon River on November 15, and Wind Mountain on January 16, 1908. Passenger and freight service began operating from Pasco to Lyle on January 15, 1908. Working east from Vancouver, track laying began on September 27, 1907, and reached Camas on October 18, Washougal on November 6, completed through the Cape Horn tunnel by November 15, Butler on December 8, and Cascades on January 7, 1908. The east and west crews met at Sheridan’s Point on February 22, 1908, where the Golden Spike ceremony was held on March 11, 1908. A decorated train carrying distinguished guests, celebrities, and citizens made the trip from Vancouver, stopping at several towns on the route where it was greeted by the local citizens who were excited to view the new wonder. This train traveled as far as Lyle, before returning to Vancouver where a large banquet was held that evening. Regular rail service began the following week. 

The river crossing between Vancouver and Portland was very costly. Two double-track bridges and a long concrete viaduct had to be built. The bridge over the Columbia was nearly 3,000 feet long, and included a 446-foot draw-span – the longest in the world at that time. The pivot-pier was actually built over eighteen years before, for the Union Pacific Railroad, when that road was planning a line from Portland to the Puget Sound (a project that never got beyond a start). Shaw’s Island (now Hayden Island) was crossed by a 2,135-foot long 26-span steel viaduct, the Columbia River slough bridge was 1,466 feet long, and finally the 1,762-foot long Willamette River bridge, with a draw-span 521 feet in length – which was also the largest in the world at that time.

Every community along the rail line wanted their own railroad station, both for convenience and for status. In this area, one was located at Underwood. Another was to be near the White Salmon boat landing; however the railroad choose a location on land which was donated by Theodore Suksdorf. Since the area was then still part of the White Salmon community, the station was named White Salmon. It wasn't until 1924, when Bingen was incorporated as a city that problems arose. Bingen, now wanting recognition, and as the station was now physically located in Bingen, insisted that the railroad rename the station Bingen. However, the SP&S Railroad was reluctant to do this, especially after White Salmon businessmen threatened to take their shipping business to Hood River. Bingen filed lawsuits, which eventually went before the Washington State Supreme Court. This issue spent many years in the courts, and it wasn't until after 1930 that a judgment was made. Even though Bingen won the court case, the railroad had the ultimate decision in naming stations, and renamed the station, this time to Bingen-White Salmon, which is what it remains today.

When the North Bank line first opened there were 43 regular stops for trains, besides numerous flag stops. Beginning at Vancouver and heading eastward the list of stations were: Image, Fisher, Bourne, Seal, Cruzatt, Butler, Cascades, Stevenson, Ash, Collins, Cooks, Hood, Bingen, Villa, Lyle, Skadat, Grandalles, Spedis, Avery, Timms, Columbus, Cliffs, Towal, Harbin, Fountain, Sanda,  Roosevelt, Moonax, McCredie, Carley, Luzon, Sage, Patterson, Coolidge, Gravel, Plymouth, Colbia, Mottinger, Tomar, Yellepit, Hover and Finley. A “flag stop” meant that someone would “flag” the train to stop if there were passengers needing to ride.   

The berry growers and orchardists were among the first to see the benefit of using the railroad to ship their products to market. Refrigerated warehouses and railroad cars would ensure that their produce would still be fresh weeks after harvest. Where Portland was the far-away market when using the river steamer for transport, now Denver, Chicago, New York and even Europe were the new markets for this areas apples, pears, strawberries and other orchard fruits.

In 1938, after years of running second-hand equipment, the SP&S was finally allowed to purchase its first new locomotives, which were three E-1 class Baldwin 4-8-4 locomotives (No.’s 700, 701, and 702).  The 700 and 702 were placed in service pulling overnight passenger trains from Vancouver and Spokane, with the 701 providing backup and pulling freight. During the 1940s diesel engines were being added to the fleet, and by 1954 they had completely replaced steam locomotives for passenger service. Steam locomotives were still used, mostly to pull freight trains.

On May 20, 1956, the 700 pulled its last passenger train. The Farewell to Steam run had a total of 21 cars and carried 1,400 passengers from Portland to Wishram and back again. No. 700 was soon sent to the scrap line, but was rescued when the Union Pacific Railroad offered it to the City of Portland who placed it on display in Oaks Park. In 1990, after years of restoration, No. 700 was again in like-new condition, and is now used only for limited excursions. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on January 25, 2006, and currently resides at the Brooklyn Roundhouse in Portland. The 700 is the third largest and second most powerful steam locomotive operating in the world today. It is over 110 feet long, almost 17 feet tall, and at 440 tons weighs more than a Boeing 747 jetliner! 

Another locomotive famous to our area is the Great Northern 2507. This Baldwin steam locomotive was built in 1923, and was used for passenger train service until diesels took over. The 2507 was retired in December 1957 and was kept in storage in Minnesota for many years. The SP&S had promised Klickitat County a steam engine to display at Maryhill State Park, however they had just donated the last two they owned (No. 539 and No. 700) earlier that year. So, the SP&S purchased the 2507 from its parent company, the Great Northern. The engine was repainted and given full SP&S lettering before being taken to Maryhill. It remained on display for nearly 30 years, before being taken to Pasco on the promise of being fully restored to service. After nearly a decade of no activity, Klickitat County realized the engine was not going to be restored and plans were made for the 2507’s return to Klickitat County. However, track realignments made it impossible to return it to Maryhill State Park, so Wishram was chosen as the new home. A new 110-foot long building, fenced and lighted, now protects this example of our rail history. The 2507 was moved to its new home in July 2003.

The end of the line for the SP&S came March 2, 1970, when the SP&S, the Northern Pacific, the Great Northern, and the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy merged to form the Burlington Northern Railroad. Passenger train service in the Gorge continued until April 30, 1971, after which Amtrak took over the nation’s passenger rail service. This ended all passenger rail service in the Columbia River Gorge until it was resumed on the Oregon side in 1977. Passenger rail service was resumed on the Washington side of the Gorge in October 1981, and continues today. 

In March 1983 a re-enactment of the Golden Spike Ceremony was held at Sheridan’s Point. A special excursion train, similar to what was used 75 years before, brought more than 150 railroad historians, Burlington Northern veterans, and civic and political leaders up the Gorge. N.S. “Jim” Westergard, the last general manager of the SP&S, had the honor of driving the Golden Spike in this ceremony, which was sponsored by the Northwest Chapter, National Railway Historical Society; the Burlington Northern Veterans Association; the Burlington Northern Railroad; and the Skamania County Historical Society.



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