The Skamania County Pioneer, Stevenson, WA., March 11, 1983,
Golden Spike Anniversary Supplement, page 3
SP&S RAILROAD IS CONSTRUCTED THROUGH COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE
Construction of SP&S Railroad Provided Service Through Gorge
The discovery of the Columbia River in 1792, the purchase of the Louisiana
Territory in 1803, followed by the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the mouth of
the Great River of the west focused the attention of the Atlantic Seaboard
states on the vast territory west of the Mississippi and especially the Oregon
The fur traders and missionaries were followed by settlers on foot and in covered wagons who risked their lives along the Oregon Trail.
Enthusiasm for a railroad to the Pacific Coast developed as early as the 1830s and by that was meant a railroad to the mouth of the Columbia River.
When California was ceded by Mexico to the United States January 24, 1848 and gold was discovered nine days later at Sutter's Mill, the resultant increase in population not only made California a state two years later but also divided the Pacific Railroad proponents into several camps. A charter for a railroad from Council Bluffs to Sacramento, California was granted by Congress in 1862 and as is well known was completed in 1869.
Surveys for a Pacific Railroad had been made in 1853 via various routes by the War Department and in 1864 a charter was granted for construction of a railroad via the Northern Pacific route surveyed by General Isaac I. Stevens, Governor of Washington Territory. This route followed much of the Lewis and Clark trail and provided for a line down in the North Bank of the Columbia.
In 1879 Henry Villard, who represented a great many foreign bondholders, organized the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Co., consolidating the steamboat lines of the Columbia River and the portage railroads around Celilo Falls and the Cascade Rapids. In 1882 the OR&N completed the railroad from Portland to Wallula where connection was made with the Northern Pacific then under construction eastward.
When Mr. Villard obtained control of the Northern Pacific Railway, construction of that line was accelerated and on September 8, 1883 the rails from East and West met at Gold Creek, Montana and the “last spike” was driven with great ceremony.
The first transcontinental trains reached Portland September 11, 1883 and the distinguished crowd of governors, congressmen and stockholders, headed by Henry Villard and Ex-President U.S. Grant, detrained near the east end of the steel bridge.
Northern Pacific traffic continued to move into Portland over the OR&N tracks, now part of the UP system, and similar arrangements were made for James J. Hill for movement of Great Northern traffic when that line reached Spokane, Washington.
The GN reached Seattle in 1893, a year in which the country experienced great financial distress. Many railroads went into receivership. The Great Northern escaped this experience and Jim Hill became the dominant figure in the reorganization of the Northern Pacific.
Although denied control by direct ownership of NP stock by the GN, Mr. Hill's capable leadership was given an opportunity to promote recovery of the NP by the confidence in him of friends who held a controlling interest.
It soon became clear to Mr. Hill that a direct line to Portland down the North Bank of the Columbia was necessary to assure the Hill lines a fair share of traffic originating in Portland and Oregon. In this Howard Elliott, president of the Northern Pacific, heartily agreed.
It was in the early fall of 1905 James J. Hill announced at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland that “he was going to help in the development of Oregon” by building a direct line from Spokane to Portland.
Construction of the SP&S Main line started in November of the same year at Kennewick, Wash., which lies across the Columbia River from Pasco, and followed the river for more than 200 miles to Vancouver, Wash., over a water level grade, staying 10 feet above the high-water mark of 1894, maintaining a maximum grade of 2/10 of one per cent and a maximum curvature of three degrees.
Track laying eastward from Vancouver, Wash., began in October 1907 as the 2350 foot tunnel through Cape Horn, 35 miles east of Portland, neared completion. On March 11, 1908 construction crews from East and West met at Sheridan’s Point, 50 miles east of Portland, and the “last spike” was driven with impressive ceremonies.
On March 19, 1908, regular passenger service commenced between Vancouver and Pasco.
On November 17, 1908 the great double tracked bridges between Portland and Vancouver were completed and trains began operating from Portland to Pasco.
On May 3, 1909 the line was completed from Pasco to Spokane and Portland to Spokane service commenced over SP&S tracks all the way and passenger trains carried through sleeping cars and coaches for St. Paul and Chicago.
In 1907 the Astoria and Columbia River R.R. from Portland to Astoria and Seaside was acquired. With the completion of the SP&S into Portland, there was at last a railroad from Lake Superior and the Mississippi to the mouth of the Columbia as first envisioned by the railroad promoters of the 1830’s.
The Oregon Trunk Railway, a SP&S subsidiary, was completed from the mouth of the Deschutes River, 100 miles east of Portland to Bend in Central Oregon, in 1911 with Ralph Budd as Chief Engineer. On November 1st James J. Hill drove the “last spike.”
In 1931, the Great Northern extension of the line from Bend to Bieber, Calif. to a connection with the Western Pacific was completed, providing the Hill lines access to California at last.
In 1914, however, the Hill lines had reached California by operation of two palatial ocean steamers, the SS Great Northern and the SS Northern Pacific. Fast steamer trains carried passengers from Portland to Flavel, near Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia River, and a quick transfer was made to the ships that carried capacity loads to San Francisco during the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.
Service continued until 1917 when the ships were requisitioned by the United States Government for use as troop ships during the First World War.
Construction of the Bonneville, The Dalles, McNary and Ice Harbor Dams cause the relocation of more than 100 miles of mainline track. Instead of the 7000 laborers employed in the original construction with picks and shovels and horse-drawn scrapers, a mere handful of man with tournapulls and other earth-moving equipment did the relocation job.
The SP&S was leased to Burlington Northern R.R. in 1970.
The beautiful steam boats, which plied the Columbia River in the early days were the major method of transportation along the north bank of the Columbia before the SP&S was built.