Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway

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Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway
Logo of the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway.png
SP^S 801 Lv PDX July 1970cr - Flickr - drewj1946.jpg
EMD F3 #801 departing Union Station in Portland, Oregon, 1970
Reporting mark SPS
Locale Oregon
Dates of operation 1905–1970
Successor Burlington Northern Railroad
Track gauge 4 ft 8 12 in (1,435 mm) standard gauge
Length 922 miles (1,484 kilometres)
Headquarters Portland, Oregon
Preserved SP&S "Northern" locomotive (2008)

The Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway (SP&S) (reporting mark SPS) was a United States-based railroad incorporated in 1905. It was a joint venture by the Great Northern Railway and the Northern Pacific Railway to build a railroad along the north bank of the Columbia River. Remnants of the line are currently operated by BNSF Railway.



The wheat farmers, lumbermen and others who wanted better transportation in the area had long pleaded for a railroad but were ignored by E. H. Harriman.[1] James J. Hill stepped into the breach and announced in 1905 that he intended to build a railroad along the north bank of the Columbia River, partly to block the Milwaukee Road from doing the same and partly to invade Oregon, territory that belonged almost exclusively to E.H. Harriman's Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads.[2][3]

The Portland & Seattle Railway was incorporated in 1905, and in 1908 Spokane was added to its name. 1906 saw construction between Vancouver and Portland, including work on three major new bridges, crossing the Columbia River, the Oregon Slough and the Willamette River.[4] The northernmost of these was the first bridge of any kind to be built across the lower Columbia.[5] The railroad was completed during 1908 from Pasco, Washington to Portland, Oregon, along the north bank of the Columbia River, and in 1909 the line was opened from Spokane to Pasco.[4] Jointly financing the construction of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway (SP&S) were Great Northern (GN) and Northern Pacific (NP), both under Hill's control.[6][3]

Advertisement for "steamer train" from Portland to Great Northern and Northern Pacific for San Francisoc.

Hill had already acquired a line along the south bank of the lower part of the Columbia River west of Portland; that plus NP's line from Portland to Goble, Oregon formed a route to Portland to Astoria, where a connection was made with Hill's steamships Great Northern and Northern Pacific to San Francisco.[7]


SP&S also had three subsidiaries:

Oregon Electric Railway[edit]

SP&S acquired Oregon Electric (OE) in 1910, two years after it had been opened between Portland and Salem, Oregon. The main line was extended south to Eugene in 1912; among the several branches was a freight-only line to a logging area on the western slope of the Cascades. The last passenger service was discontinued in 1933, and the railroad was dieselized in 1945.[8] Like many other parts of Hill's railroad empire, the OE was characterized by head-on competition with Harriman, in this case with SP's electric lines in the Willamette Valley.[7]

Oregon Trunk Railway[edit]

The Oregon Trunk was incorporated in 1909 and opened in 1911 between Wishram, Washington, on the Columbia River, and Bend, practically the center of Oregon, 152 miles (245 kilometres). Both Oregon Trunk and the Oregon & Washington Railway & Navigation Company built south up the canyon of the Deschutes River. The two railroads, backed by Hill and Harriman, respectively, fought over occupancy of the canyon and eventually came to terms — trackage rights over portions of each other's line and abandonment of duplicate track. Oregon Trunk's bridge over the Crooked River north of Bend is tied with SP's Pecos River bridge for the honor of highest common-carrier railroad bridge in the U.S.[7]

United Railways[edit]

In 1906 the United Railways Company was incorporated and purchased the properties of the Oregon Traction Company, which had a line from Linnton to Keasey, Oregon, a length of 54 miles (87 kilometres). The line was operated primarily as a steam railroad and was notable for a 4,100 feet (1,200 m) tunnel west of Portland.[8] SP&S absorbed the company in 1943.[7]

Later years[edit]

SP&S also operated the Ocean Shore Limited, shown here at Seaside, Oregon
Dining car of the North Bank Limited

During World War II the SP&S carried war materials to the Pacific Theatre; new industries located along the Columbia River, taking advantage of cheap electricity from hydroelectric dams on the river. New industries served by SP&S included aluminum plants, sawmills, chemical factories and grain elevators.[9]

In 1954 an SP&S train derailed after hitting a rockslide on the route to Bend. Part of the train landed in the Deschutes River, including a boxcar, which landed in a rapid that was later named Boxcar Rapids; all crew members perished in the wreck.[10]

For most of its life the SP&S functioned as an obscure extension of its two parents. Its steam locomotives for the most part were acquired secondhand from GN and NP. The railroad acquired a distinct identity during the diesel era with its heavy reliance on Alco power and a new slogan, "The Northwest's Own Railway."[7]

SP&S was merged into the Burlington Northern Railroad (BN), along with its parents, Northern Pacific and Great Northern, and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy on March 2, 1970.[7] Because of outstanding bonds, the merger was not completed until November 1, 1979.[11] BN continued to operate it until 1987, when it abandoned the Snake River Junction (near Ice Harbor Dam)-Cheney section. The Washington State Parks system acquired the former roadbed in 1991 and established the Columbia Plateau Trail State Park.[12]

The surviving Portland-Pasco section is used by BN successor BNSF Railway and enjoys heavy traffic because of its low-grade and slight curvature crossing of the Cascades.

Passenger trains[edit]

The SP&S's passenger operations mostly involved hosting connections with parents' trains, such as the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited, which were combined to form the Streamliner (#1/#2). Oriental Limited, Mainstreeter, and Western Star connected with (#3/#4).[citation needed] However, some of these SP&S trains were named. The Inland Empire Express (daytime) and North Bank Limited (overnight) provided daily, through service between Portland (Union Station) and Spokane.[13] The Columbia River Express (#5/#6) operated between Portland and Pasco, connecting at Pasco with Northern Pacific #5/#6 for service to/from Spokane.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wood, Charles and Wood, Dorothy, "Spokane, Portland and Seattle Ry.: The Northwest's Own Railway," 1974, Superior Publishing.
  2. ^ "The Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway, The Northwest’s Own Railway". American-Rails.com. Retrieved 25 April 2010. 
  3. ^ a b Gillman, L. C. (1923). "The Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad Company". The Washington Historical Quarterly (University Station, Seattle: The Washington State University State Historical Society) 14 (January): 14—20. Retrieved 2 January 2015. 
  4. ^ a b "Greatest Year for Railroad Construction: Building in Territory Tributary to Portland During 1906 Breaks All Records—City Now Strategic Point in Struggle of Giants". (January 1, 1907). The Morning Oregonian (Portland), section 2, p. 20.
  5. ^ "Finish Bridge Over Columbia; Steel Structure of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroad [sic] Completed—Last Bolt In Yesterday". (June 26, 1908). The Morning Oregonian, p. 11. Retrieved 2014-06-21.
  6. ^ The History of BNSF: A legacy for the 21st century. Railway: The Employee Magazine of Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation, 27. Retrieved from http://www.bnsf.com/about-bnsf/our-railroad/company-history/pdf/hist_overview.pdf
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Drury, George H. (1994). The Historical Guide to North American Railroads: Histories, Figures, and Features of more than 160 Railroads Abandoned or Merged since 1930. Waukesha, Wisconsin: Kalmbach Publishing. pp. 310–312. ISBN 0-89024-072-8. 
  8. ^ a b Schafer, Mike (2003). Classic American Railroads, Volume III. Saint Paul, MN: MBI. ISBN 076031649X. OCLC 768623553. 
  9. ^ "HISTORY". SP&S Railway Historical Society Railroad. 2004. Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  10. ^ "S.P.&S. Engine wrecked near Maupin". Wasco County History Site. Retrieved 27 April 2010. 
  11. ^ Gaertner, John T. (1990). North Bank Road. Washington State University Press. p. 204. ISBN 978-0-87422-070-4. 
  12. ^ Columbia Plateau Trail State Park
  13. ^ "Mountain, River and Canyon Scenery to Spokane" (SP&S advertisement). (February 28, 1922). The Morning Oregonian (Portland), p. 7.

Further reading[edit]

Gaertner, John T. (1990). North Bank Road. Washington State University Press. ISBN 978-0-87422-070-4.  Grande, Walt (1997). The Northwest's Own Railway, Spokane Portland & Seattle Railway and its Subsidiaries. 

External links[edit]