In 1811, the town of Astoria, Oregon Territory was founded at the mouth of the Columbia River. Because of its location, many of the town’s civic and business leaders thought Astoria would become a key port. However, once ships entered the Columbia River, the majority of them continued upriver to Portland.
While Astoria was founded in a beautiful area on the Oregon coast, it was isolated from much of the rest of the territory (and later the state). Since the town would not become a thriving port, its leaders then sought a rail line. They believed a railroad could help transform Astoria into a center of commerce for the Pacific Northwest. They began to lobby the Oregon territorial legislature in 1853 for a railroad charter. Five years later, in 1858, the legislature issued a charter for a railroad to connect Astoria to Eugene. However, the railroad was never built.
Hopes for a link to the transcontinental railroad
Last week was the 153rd anniversary of the first transcontinental railroad. (See these FreightWaves Classics articles here and here for more information.) In the following years, other railroads were built in the western United States to connect with the Midwest and East. In the 1870s and 1880s, the people of Astoria assumed that a branch of one of those railroads would connect it to the rest of the nation. They later believed that the Northern Pacific Railroad’s route through many of the states and territories that bounded Canada would end in Astoria. However, the Northern Pacific reached Portland, and then pushed 58 miles further west to Goble. By then, however, the railroad was financially overextended, and the railroad’s western terminus was effectively Portland. Astoria was still isolated.
The first segment of what would finally become a rail link between Portland and Astoria was a segment of the Northern Pacific’s first route to Seattle. In the early 1880s Northern Pacific laid track on the Oregon side of the Columbia River between Portland and Goble. A ferry that was a floating railyard carried railcars across the Columbia River between landings at Goble and Kalama. Once on the Washington side of the Columbia, a trip was completed on the rail line to Puget Sound.
Financial incentives to build a railroad
With the closest rail line still some 60 miles away in Goble, Astoria created incentives to attract an individual or company that would build a railroad. Among other inducements, the town offered a cash bonus for railroad construction. William Reid began grading a railbed from Astoria south along the coast. He sought to connect to the Oregon & California Railroad (O&C) at Hillsboro. By the mid-1880s, the O&C ran south from Portland to Roseburg, and would soon reach the California border near the town of Klamath Falls.
Reid’s Astoria & South Coast Railway was incorporated in 1888 to build a railroad southward to Tillamook County, and by 1891 the line was operating between Skipanon (on Young’s Bay opposite and somewhat south of Astoria) and Seaside, a distance of about 15 miles.
But Reid’s efforts ultimately failed. He was being helped financially by railroad tycoon C.P. Huntington, but the deal came apart when Astoria attempted to substitute Huntington for Reid. As noted above, before the deal fell through, Reid had finished the rail line from Astoria to Seaside. Although it was in a state of financial limbo, the line ran up the Nehalem River to Portland and down the coast, connecting with the Oregon Pacific railroad line that was being built between Corvallis and Newport.
Therefore, during the 1890s, Astoria continued to offer subsidies for a railroad; it offered thousands of acres of real estate as well as $300,000 (over $9.5 million now) for a rail line connecting the city to Portland.
There were six attempts between 1892 and 1894; however, none of them were able to secure enough capital to build a railroad. These attempts generally never progressed beyond the incorporation stage. However, in December 1894, city leaders of Astoria accepted a proposal from a Montana businessman named Andrew B. Hammond. He had the construction experience as well as the financial backing to complete the job. Hammond’s choice of route for the railroad was to follow the Columbia River to Goble.
The Salem (Oregon) Statesman Journal reported, “The capital stock is fixed at $2,000,000, with A.B. Hammond, Hon. Chas. W. Fulton, of political and legal fame, and Edwin Stone, an expert accountant, and railroad man, as incorporators.”
A rail line is finally built
After more than 50 years of waiting, Hammond’s Astoria and Columbia River Railroad (A&CR) was finished in May 1898.
Goble was approximately 60 miles east of Astoria. The A&CR linked Astoria and Goble, where the rail line then continued to Portland (a further 40 miles to the east). The A&CR was completed three years to the day that its incorporation papers were filed. The railroad’s last spike was driven at 4:30 that afternoon in the city of Clatskanie. The Salem-based Daily Capital Journal summed up the situation when it proclaimed, “Astoria is now connected by rail with the outside world.”
The first train from Portland did not arrive in Astoria until May 16. More than 700 people rode the train to celebrate the opening of the rail line. A 99-year lease was signed with the Northern Pacific. It allowed A&CR trains to use the Northern Pacific tracks into Portland’s Union Station.
The A&CR hauled a great deal of freight for the timber industry. It carried equipment from Portland and points east that was used in the forests and lumber mills that were built, and carried lumber and logs eastward. Once the A&CR was completed the timber industry grew significantly in that region of Oregon because the A&CR provided access to the forests of the Oregon Coast Range.
According to the (Portland) Oregonian, the range had been “shut off by an impenetrable wall of rugged mountains and twisting river valleys.” By 1910, Astoria’s population had increased to 15,000 people; but perhaps more significantly, its lumber mills were running 24 hours per day. They generated more than 263 million board feet of lumber annually. In addition, the presence of the A&CR and logging operations caused neighboring Columbia County’s population “to nearly double, from 6,237 in 1900 to 10,580 ten years later.”
And while the A&CR reduced Astoria’s isolation and over time increased its population, it also had an unintended consequence. Planned originally as primarily a freight railroad, the A&CR became a passenger conveyance, primarily for many Portland residents to travel to the resorts that had been established along the Oregon coast.
In fact, special weekend rail service provided by A&CR became known as the “Daddy Train.” Portland businessmen were able to leave the city on Saturday mornings, enjoy time with their families on the coast and then head back to work early on Monday mornings. Over a six-year period, the population of Seaside tripled, thanks in large part to the railroad.
A financial windfall
The A&CR was posting annual profits, and Hammond began negotiations with both E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific and James J. Hill of the Northern Pacific. He played them against each other while also repeatedly announcing expansion plans for the A&CR that threatened their dominance in the Oregon market. Hammond set the price to buy the railroad at $5 million in 1907 ($1 in 1907 is worth more than $3,500 today). Despite the steep price, Hill purchased the A&CR. In 1908, Hill’s Northern Pacific finished a subsidiary railroad (the Spokane Portland & Seattle Railway, whose reporting mark was the SP&S).
That same year the SP&S completed a bridge over the Columbia River between North Portland and Vancouver. Then the rail line in Washington State began serving as the primary main line, and the ferry to carry railcars across the Columbia River was shut down. Although the Northern Pacific continued to own the rail line between Portland and Goble (and from Goble to Astoria), its primary use became local traffic.
SP&S brochures promoted the scenery along the A&CR line, including views of Mount St. Helens, solid rock tunnels and the wide sandy beaches around Seaside. In 1911, the A&CR was merged into the SP&S. The A&CR name did not disappear, but was slowly dropped from paperwork and other documents, as well as on rolling stock.
In 1970, the Burlington Northern merger occurred. This event combined all of the “paper” companies (such as the A&CR), as well as the SP&S, the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, the Chicago Burlington & Quincy, and other companies.
This was followed by the abandonment of the rail line to Seaside in 1978. The bridge that had been built decades before over Young’s Bay was in disrepair; by the late 1980s all track west of Astoria had been removed.
Then in the early 1990s, Burlington Northern sought to abandon its rail line into Astoria, citing high property taxes and low traffic volume. However, Astoria obtained the rail line, and began operating its city streetcar line on the former railroad tracks.
In 1997, Burlington Northern sold the rail line between the Willamette River Bridge and Tongue Point to the Portland & Western, a short line railroad.
New life in the early 2000s
In 2003, the state of Oregon, working with the Portland & Western and Amtrak, began operating regularly scheduled passenger service using rail diesel cars, or RDCs, from Linnton (a western suburb of Portland) to Astoria. RDCs are self-propelled railcars originally designed and introduced by the Budd Company in the late 1940s. (You can read more about the Budd Company in a three-part FreightWaves article here, here and here.)
The service from Linnton to Astoria was known as the Lewis & Clark Explorer, and was intended to take advantage of the increased tourism anticipated due to the bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
The Lewis & Clark Explorer trains were very popular, with some trains sold-out weeks in advance. Despite the train’s popularity, the service was not intended to be permanent. The last Lewis & Clark Explorer ran in October 2005.
Although Astoria no longer has regular rail service, it is not the isolated community of the 1800s.