Scenes from the Rails: How the SP&S Railway Transformed the Pacific Northwest

May 25, 2021

By Ilana Sol

Crowds gather in front of a locomotive on the Oregon Trunk Railway on February 15, 1911. The locomotive pulls a train under an arch that reads, "Welcome: Madras the Gateway to Central Oregon." Photograph by John Olof Hedlund, OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 4, folder 9, 015.

In 1905, James J. Hill set his ambitions on building a railroad that would travel from Spokane, Washington, to Portland, Oregon. He already owned the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads, and connecting the two would allow him to capitalize on the Pacific Northwest’s lucrative lumber trade. In 1906, construction began on Hill’s new railroad as crews laid track through the Columbia River Gorge. This was the beginning of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway (SP&S).

The SP&S Railway became a fixture in the Pacific Northwest as the company offered lines connecting the region’s largest cities. It also offered travel to more rural areas, including on the Oregon Trunk Line from Wishram, Washington, to Bend, Oregon, and the Oregon Electric Railway from Portland to Eugene. The new railroad lines transformed rural communities in Oregon and Washington, promoting a rapid expansion in timber and agricultural industries.

From the early 1900s through 1970, SP&S commissioned local photographers to document all aspects of its operations and the economic and recreational potential of the destinations along its routes. During a recent project, the library digitization team selected over 650 photographs from the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, which are now available online on OHS Digital Collections. The selections include subjects as varied as railroad construction, locomotive engines, train wrecks, and promotional materials. They also include scenes of life and transformation in the towns and agricultural communities of the Pacific Northwest that bordered the railroads. Below are just a few of the images to be found in the SP&S Railway photographs: 

Hedrich-Blessing photographers, OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, Box 1, folder 2, 003.

A fishing boat crew prepares to unload a barrel of black cod from a boat onto a pier in Astoria, Oregon. A Great Northern refrigerated railcar sits on the pier in the background.

Hedrich-Blessing photographers, OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 1, folder 2, 003.

OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 4, folder 9, 002.

An explosion sends debris into the air on the Washington side of the Columbia River Gorge on June 13, 1906, as crews cleared the way for railroad construction of the new rail line between Portland, Oregon, and Spokane, Washington.

OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 4, folder 9, 002.

Kiser Photo Co., OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 3, folder 4, 001.

R.H. Crozier, an official with the SP&S Railway, stands on a rock outcropping (upper left) looking down on the newly constructed Oregon Trunk Railway along the Deschutes River near Tuskan, in Wasco County, Oregon.

Photograph by Kiser Photo Co., OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 78, box 3, folder 4, 001.

OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 1, folder 13, 001.

Streetcar tracks run down the middle of busy Willamette Avenue in Eugene, Oregon. Banners hanging above the street advertise Kit Carson’s Buffalo Ranch Wild West show.

OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 1, folder 13, 001.

George Lindsay, OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 3, folder 6, 018.

On January 31, 1954, a train traveling on the Oregon Trunk Railway near Maupin, Oregon, rounded a corner and collided with rocks from a recent landslide. The accident derailed three locomotives and twelve boxcars, sending some tumbling into the Deschutes River below. The river’s turbulent water complicated recovery efforts and today the site is known as the Box Car Rapids in remembrance of the event.

Photograph by George Lindsay, OHS Research Library, Org. Lot 78, box 3, folder 6, 018.

OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 5, folder 7, 040.

Over twenty horses were required to pull this Holt Side-Hill Combined Harvester across the steep hills of eastern Oregon and Washington.

OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 5, folder 7, 040.

Kiser Photo Co., OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 5, folder 7, 010.

In 1911, SP&S Railway hired the Kiser Photo Company to take a series of photographs promoting Central Oregon’s landscape and agricultural potential as part of its promotion of the new Oregon Trunk Railway. The new railway connected the formerly isolated region with the major rail markets of the West Coast. In this photograph, a man stands dwarfed by large stacks of alfalfa and wild hay in a field near Prineville, Oregon.

Kiser Photo Co., OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 5, folder 7, 010.

OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 3, folder 1, 007.

By 1944, the SP&S Railroad’s roundhouse and turntable in Portland, Oregon, was a hub for regional rail shipping and transportation.

OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 3, folder 1, 007.

Carl E. Vermilya, OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 3, folder 1, 007.

An SP&S diesel locomotive pulls a train past parked cards along Main Street in Rainier, Oregon, on September 18, 1951.

Photograph by Carl E. Vermilya, OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 3, folder 1, 007.

Frank W. Woodfield, OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 4, folder 9, 015.

Crowds of people stand on a platform next to a train in Astoria, Oregon, on May 16, 1898. This was the first train to Portland from the Astoria Railroad Depot.

Photograph by Frank W. Woodfield, OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 4, folder 9, 015.

Carl E. Vermilya, OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 4, folder 9, 015.

Conductor Dan McDougall (left), fireman John Carroll (center), and engineer Ben Anderson (right) stand beside a train and compare watches in Warrenton, Oregon, on September 18, 1951.

Photograph by Carl E. Vermilya, OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 4, folder 9, 015.

Les T. Ordeman, OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 4, folder 9, 015.

On June 29, 1945, passengers on the United Nations Victory Special Train stopped for a break at the Bonneville Station in the Columbia River Gorge. The train carried delegates from their United Nations conference held in San Francisco from April 25 to June 26, 1945.

Photograph by Les T. Ordeman, OHS Research Library, Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway photographs, Org. Lot 78, box 4, folder 9, 015.

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