Railroading in Vancouver and Southwest Washington

  • By Gregg Herrington
  • Posted 8/04/2008
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8702
See Additional Media

Railroading in the Pacific Northwest was born in July 1851 near present-day Stevenson, Washington, when Francis A. Chenoweth (1819-1899) built a portage railroad around the treacherous Cascades rapids. It was just two to three miles long and it was crude -- a cart pulled by a mule over wooden rails supported by rough-hewn planks. But it was the first railroad in the region and in the early 1860s was replaced with steel rails and steam power. Southwest Washington railroad history also includes construction of the line from Vancouver to Pasco in 1908 and that same year, erection of the longest double-track bridge in the country at the time (the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway bridge spanning the Columbia). And there was the dashed dream of a rail route over the Cascade Mountains from Vancouver to Yakima.

Washington's First Railroad

The operator of the portage railroad on the north bank of the Columbia River, across from Cascade Locks, Oregon, was Francis A. Chenoweth, a storekeeper who had moved west from Wisconsin two years earlier. In partnership with J. A. Bush, who operated a hotel in the area, Chenoweth built the portage railroad in 1851  to get freight and passengers around the rapids where the boats couldn’t go. He charged 75 cents per 100 pounds, freight or passengers. (In some reference works he is identified as Justin Chenoweth or Hardin Chenoweth or F. S. Chenoweth. Some also spell his name Chenowith.)

Of this railroad, historian John B. Horner writes in a 1919 history of Oregon, "the first railroad of any kind built in Oregon (later Washington) was a wooden tramway constructed on the north side of the Columbia River around the Cascades in 1850 by F. A. Chenoweth." 

In 1853, Chenoweth sold his railroad to the local Bradford brothers. Under their ownership the line was extended to six miles. The business benefited considerably with the discovery of gold in Idaho, which was reached primarily via steamer from Portland and then overland. Across the river, on today’s Oregon shore, a horse-drawn portage railroad went into operation in 1855. Before the Civil War ended, small, primitive steam locomotives on steel rails had replaced hoofed power. Railroading was on its way in the Northwest. 

From Minnesota to Wallula (1883)

Thanks largely to establishment of the 2,000-mile Oregon Trail in 1843, which ran  from Missouri to Oregon, Portland and the Willamette Valley were ahead of Puget Sound in connecting to the rest of the nation. Portland also had the early advantage in railroading when, in September 1883, the Northern Pacific linked Portland to the Midwest.

The Northern Pacific completed its line from St. Paul, Minnesota, to present-day Wallula, Washington, where it connected to the Oregon Railway & Navigation Co. tracks down the south side of the Columbia River. Thus, writes Walter R. Grande in The Northwest’s Own Railway, his history of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway, “for the first time Portland and the Pacific Northwest were connected to the rest of the country by railroads, and growth continued at an unprecedented rate” (p. 11).  

It would be another five years before the Northern Pacific would connect Puget Sound at Tacoma by rail to the rest of the country via Stampede Pass in the Cascades. Rail passengers to Portland could continue to Puget Sound via train and ferry to Kalama, Washington, and from there by train to Tacoma.

Historian Carlos A. Schwantes writes, “The new line [to Portland] reduced to five or six days a tiresome journey that once had required several months. For investors and home seekers from distant regions as well as residents of the Pacific Northwest, an era of isolation had ended. Newcomers traveling by rail poured into the region, especially into Washington Territory, at a rate unimaginable only a decade earlier” (Schwantes, 60).  

A year later, in November 1884, the Union Pacific completed its line from Omaha to Portland.  

The Columbia's North Shore

A railroad down the Washington side of the Columbia River did not come for another 24 years, in 1908. Dave Nicandri, director of the Washington State Historical Society, blames a cliff for the relatively late construction of the North Bank Road from Pasco-to-Vancouver.

“The single most important topographic feature, relative to railroads in Vancouver and Vancouver’s railroad history, is Cape Horn,” Nicandri said. That outcropping on the Columbia River 25 miles east of Vancouver “is what stymied [future Governor] I. I. Stevens [1819-1862] in his rail exploration. He realized that the only way a rail connection to the state would be transformative would be to cross the Cascades to Puget Sound. Vancouver would have been able to leapfrog ahead of Seattle and Tacoma” in terms of connections to the east, but Cape Horn was perceived as a major threat to a route down river that would have served Washington.”

If topography was a hurdle to railroad development on the north shore of the Columbia, corporate maneuvers, including complex ownership arrangements, bankruptcies, lawsuits, mergers, and even physical threats created a full-fledged logjam, fed by greed, fear and egos of men such as Henry Villard (1835-1900) of the Northern Pacific, James J. Hill (1838-1916) of the Great Northern, and E. H. Harriman (1848-1909) and Jay Gould (1836-1892) of the Union Pacific. With access to the north bank of the Columbia at stake, legal battles raged for years, with Harriman and the Union Pacific eventually losing out.

The Northern Pacific, which had lost an earlier foothold on the Oregon side of the river, teamed with the Great Northern Railway in 1905 to jointly finance a new railroad, the Portland & Seattle, later to become the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway (SP&S). Shortly after its incorporation on September 5, 1905, ex-Washington Lt. Gov. Thurston Daniels (1858-1926), a Vancouver, Washington, native, said:

“It is a matter of common knowledge that the traffic has so grown in proportions on the Northern Pacific that the tunnel through Stampede Pass is no longer adequate to properly permit the handling of trains. The haul from Tacoma eastbound is a burden that must be lightened, and the road through the Columbia River valley from Vancouver to Pasco will solve the problems ... . The expense of lifting trains up summits of the Cascade Mountains can no longer be indulged in and at the same time compete with lines of easy grade. There is no doubt whatever that with the completion of the new road from Vancouver to Pasco or Wallula, the bulk of the freight going east or west, to or from Puget Sound country, will be hauled over this route” (Walt Grande, pp. 19-21).

Vancouver to Pasco (1908)

On October 1, 1905, construction began on the North Bank Road from Vancouver to Pasco. It was completed on February 22, 1908, but the Golden Spike ceremony at Sheridan’s Point, three miles west of Stevenson, was delayed until March 11. A train from Vancouver carried celebrants for the occasion, including the Fourth Cavalry Band from Fort Vancouver, Vancouver Mayor E. M. Green (1863-1911), and many others. Two coaches displayed banners that said, “Whoop her up, Vancouver, the head of deep water and the grain port of the world” (Walt Grande, p. 115). 

The Columbian, on March 12, reported, “To witness this epoch-making event there were present more than five hundred Vancouver people and their guests, who stood in a circle around the now-historic spot or lined the declivity alongside”

Among the dignitaries who delivered the first blow to the golden spike that day was Charles H. Carey, legal counsel for the Northern Pacific and the SP&S. He had moved to Vancouver from Northern Pacific headquarters in Minnesota to lead the legal effort to build the North Bank Road. A few years later, Carey and another Northern Pacific attorney, James B. Kerr, went into private practice together and continued representing the new line. Their firm eventually morphed into the Stoel Rives law firm, which today has 360-plus attorneys in 11 cities.

A few days after the ceremony at Sheridan’s Point, Vancouver Presbyterian minister H. S. Templeton’s sermon was titled,  “Driving the Golden Spike, its Significance to the Community and the Church.”  As reported by the Columbian, he told his congregants,  “We live in a present of big events and we face an immediate future of unimagined possibilities ... . Loyalty counts in city building as well as in church building. Enthusiasm is contagious in business and in church work  ... As the golden spike was driven down, Vancouver’s golden opportunities rose mountain high” ("Eloquent Address"). 

On March 19, 1908, regular passenger service was launched between Vancouver and Pasco. The Vancouver Columbian reported, “There was a comparatively small crowd at the Northern Pacific station on Second Street this morning to witness the departure of the first passenger train over the new railroad. The crowd, however, to board the train and make the first trip was an unexpectedly large one, there being over fifty passengers.” The schedule called for making the 221-mile trip to Pasco in eight hours, with connections there via Northern Pacific to Spokane and points east.

Advertising for the new route was aimed at tourists as well as immigrants and business travelers. A week before the Golden Spike Ceremony, A. D. Charlton of the Northern Pacific, was quoted in The Vancouver Columbian:  “The Columbia River scenery has never been advertised as it deserves. Our people will exploit it thoroughly and put pictures and reading matter in all our publications. There is no question that this will be one of the most attractive bits of road anywhere in the West” (March 5, 1908).

Vancouver to Yacolt to Yakima 

Three miles north of Vancouver’s present-day (2008) Amtrak depot, the BNSF Railway’s north-south main line passes a point called Vancouver Junction where a spur line takes off on a 33-mile route across Clark County to the northeast. It passes alongside subdivisions and ball fields, through pastures and forests, skirts the eastern edge of the town of Battle Ground and follows the East Fork of the Lewis River before arriving in Yacolt, one of the state’s smallest incorporated towns where logging was king in the early twentieth century. The tracks, now owned by the county, continue a few more miles to the site of a long-vacant International Paper Co. mill in the community of Chelatchie Prairie, just shy of the foothills of the Cascades.

Later to become a Northern Pacific spur hauling logs out of eastern Clark County, it was organized by local businessmen in 1887 as the Vancouver, Klickitat & Yakima Railroad. Initially, it was hoped the route would cross the Cascades to Yakima. Here’s what one advertising flier touting Vancouver as a place to live and invest said at the time: “The railroad building northeastward from it [Vancouver], has already reached a paying traffic, and will shortly open immense mines of coal and iron. Beyond these there are the great wheat fields of Eastern Washington” (Stearns & Hitchcock promotional flier).

Territorial Gov. Isaac I. Stevens dispatched Capt. George B. McClellan (1826-1885) to search for a pass through the Cascades from Vancouver to Yakima, hence the name McClellan Meadows in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Any chance the VK&Y would ever get to Yakima was doused with the Panic of 1893, which drove the owners out of business.

The railroad resumed operations under various names and ownerships over the decades, including the Northern Pacific during logging’s heyday in the early 1900s. Today, a private short-line railroad operates a freight service over the county-owned right of way 

Bridging the Columbia (1908)

On November 5, 1908, a special train carrying Empire Builder James J. Hill and his party rode across the new Willamette and Columbia River bridges, formally inaugurating rail service between Portland and Vancouver. The 2,806-foot-long steel-truss bridge, a product of the era’s famed railroad-bridge designer Ralph Modjeski (1861-1940), was heralded at the time as the longest, double-track railroad bridge in the United States.

A swing span allowed for river traffic. Construction took 26 months. Regular passenger service over the bridges commenced on November 17, 1908, and by the following spring 16 trains a day served Vancouver. There were more to come. In January 1910 the Union Pacific began stopping in Vancouver en route north, followed in June that year by the Great Northern.

The Columbia River bridge, still in use, is located immediately south of the Vancouver Amtrak depot, where trains from Portland turn east along the Columbia River or continue north to Kelso, Centralia, Olympia, Tacoma, and Seattle. 

Even before completion of the North Bank Road and the bridges across the Columbia and Willamette rivers between Portland and Vancouver, the Northern Pacific Railway touted Vancouver in brochures such as one that said:  “With the advantage that nature has bestowed on this locality, the fault rests entirely with the fruit raiser himself if he does not make it one of the greatest fruit-growing sections of the country. It has special advantages -- being on the Columbia River where all products are marketable, and within short distance of Portland, a city of nearly 100,000 population, and within half hour’s drive of Vancouver, the county seat of Clarke County” (Northern Pacific advertising brochure).

Kalama: A Railroad Town

In 1870, the Northern Pacific had established what would become Kalama, Washington, on the Columbia 30 miles north of Vancouver, as an initial staging area for its operations. It bought 1,800 acres and laid out the new town. There, the railroad took delivery of rail, locomotives, rail cars, and other equipment and supplies from the East that were shipped around the Horn. A line between Tacoma and Kalama was finished in January 1874.

But getting from Kalama to Portland required either a boat trip down the Columbia and Willamette rivers or a combination of ferry across the Columbia and train from there to Portland. The loading, crossing and unloading of the Northern Pacific's ferry took 40 minutes, if all went well. But, in late 1908, the Vancouver-Portland bridges ended the need for the ferry and trains rumbled straight through to Portland.

Vancouver at the Crossroads

That completed Vancouver’s railroad positioning at the crossroads of the state’s major north-south line and a transcontinental east-west line, with bridges built, lines in place and ferries out of the picture. The economic impact on Vancouver of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway was immense. For decades, the Vancouver rail yards were home to the main repair and maintenance facility of the SP&S. The railroad was the largest employer in the city limits for much of the twentieth century, peaking at upwards of 800 employees prior to the 1970 merger that created the Burlington Northern Railroad. Many of those employees were track maintenance and train-crew members working between Vancouver and Wishram, about 100 miles east of Vancouver.

The railroads were of particular economic benefit in development of Lower Columbia River ports in Vancouver, Kalama, and Longview, as well as in Portland, Oregon.  Mark Wilson, the Port of Kalama’s development manager said in summer 2008 interview, “I don’t think a lot of people appreciate how important the railroads are to us. We live, breathe and eat rail. Without it, we wouldn’t be here.”  The Port of Kalama itself employs 14 full time, he said, but it sustains about 1,000 jobs.  

Port of Vancouver USA spokeswoman Sue Groth said 60 percent of the wheat it ships out arrives by rail from as far away as Nebraska and Kansas, the rest by Columbia River barge. The port’s United Harvest elevators received 31,515 rail cars of wheat and other grains in 2007. Other port traffic included 2,820 rail cars coming or going form Great Western Malting, 12,800 auto-hauling cars, 545 for Northwest Packing (food processing).

Overall, more than 15,500 workers are employed by more than 50 companies on Port of Vancouver property. For many of these companies, railroads are the lifeblood.

Sources: Walter R. Grande, The Northwest’s Own Railway, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway and its Subsidiaries, Vol. 1 (Portland: Grande Press, 1992) 11, 19-21, 115; Carlos A. Schwantes, Railroad Signatures across the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993), 15, 60; John B. Horner, Oregon: Her History, Her Great Men, Her Literature (Corvalis: Press of the Gazette-Times, 1919), 193; Leslie M. Scott, "The Pioneer Stimulus of Gold," Quarterly of the Oregon Historical Society, Vol. 18 (March-December, 1917), p. 157, footnote 54; Gregg Herrington telephone interview with David Nicandri, executive director, Washington State Historical Museum, July 2008;  “Drive Golden Spike,” Vancouver Columbian, March 12, 1908, p. 1;  “Eloquent Address,” Ibid., March 26, 1908, p. 1; “Railway is Opened,” Ibid., March 19, 1908, p. 1; “Through Trains,” Ibid.,  March 5, 1908, p. 1; “City of Vancouver, Washington,” in advertising flier produced by Stearns & Hitchcock land development company, Vancouver, Washington Territory, ca. 1887-1889, Clark County Historical Museum, Vancouver, Washington; “Fruit Lands Clarke County Wash.,” advertising brochure, Northern Pacific Railway Co., St. Paul, Minn., ca. 1896, Clark County Historical Museum, Vancouver, Washington; “Kalama,” Washington State History Train excursion printed guide (Tacoma: Washington State History Museum, July 9, 1996), p. 8;

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You