A segment of today’s Boise River Greenbelt follows a former railroad right-of-way that belonged to the Union Pacific. This large, Class I railroad is still in business and currently operates more than 32,000 route-miles serving almost every state west of the Mississippi River. It was born through an act of Congress in 1862 and slowly grew over the years in part by acquiring or taking over smaller railroads, which is how it arrived in Boise. Unfortunately, the city never generated a great deal of freight and/or passenger business. However, officials and local citizens were eventually successful in seeing railroad service reach their city, and an upgraded line was added during the early 20th century. The branch now part of today’s trail remained within UP’s system until the early 1980s when it was removed to make way for redevelopment efforts.
The Union Pacific Railroad (UP) was born on July 1, 1862, through the Pacific Railroad Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. The company famously completed the eastern leg of the Transcontinental Railroad, in conjunction with Central Pacific, amid a grand ceremony held on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah. Thus, the West was open to trade and commerce. Following the completion of this line, UP worked vigorously to expand its network across the Midwest, reaching Denver, Kansas City, and later Los Angeles. Its expansion into the Pacific Northwest came through a collection of properties that were eventually known as the Oregon Short Line (OSL), providing access from southwestern Wyoming into northern Utah, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington. According to Thorton Waite’s article “Boise: On The Main Line At Last,” from Union Pacific Historical Society’s publication The Streamliner (Volume 11, Issue 1), when the OSL began building their main line across southern Idaho between 1882 and 1883, it chose to bypass Boise because of the difficult topography.
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The city’s officials remained determined that trains would reach their community. Their wish finally came true a few years later when the Idaho Central Railway was incorporated on June 26, 1886. The project was largely financed by Union Pacific; it was completed between the main line at Nampa, and about a mile from downtown Boise, in September 1887. For direct service into the city, another company was formed on March 20, 1893, known as the Boise City Railroad & Terminal Company (BCR&T). The right-of-way it built now contains part of the Boise River Greenbelt.
The BCR&T was essentially a paper corporation owned by the Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern Railway (which later became the Oregon Shore Line). It ran from a connection with the Idaho Central (at a location known as Boise Junction), passed through downtown Boise, crossed the Boise River, and snaked its way southward along the waterway’s east bank to Vernon. Construction of the new line began on April 25, 1893, and was completed a few months later in August, a distance of 6.3 miles. As part of the project a small yard, engine terminal, and roundhouse were located in the downtown area.
The BCR&T would eventually stretch beyond Vernon to Barber, 2.1 miles, although more than a decade would pass before this extension was completed in 1905 to serve a lumber mill located there. Despite now having direct rail service, city officials yearned for the OSL’s main line to pass much closer to the downtown area. In response, Union Pacific stipulated such a route could be built if the city provided $350,000 to help fund the project. The money was ultimately raised, and the 27.5-mile corridor, known as the Boise Main Line (referred to as the Boise Cut-Off by Union Pacific), was constructed from Orchard, along the OSL main line, to Perkins along the Boise Branch. It was officially completed on July 15, 1924, at a cost of $3.25 million, providing through-service to Boise and eliminating the need for trains to navigate the Boise Branch back and forth from Nampa. In 1925, Boise’s beautiful new Spanish-style depot opened on the city’s eastside.
Interestingly, when Union Pacific completed the Boise Cut-Off, it stated the new route provided no significant means of passenger and/or freight revenue. Despite this, the line remains in use today, although not entirely owned by Union Pacific, which has since sold a segment to a short line railroad for continued freight service. Boise lost direct passenger service during 1997 when Amtrak dropped its tri-weekly “Pioneer” from its schedule, a transcontinental train that once operated between Chicago and Seattle. As for the former BCR&T trackage running through the city’s downtown area, it carried on for several years to serve local freight customers. By the early 1980s, there was little remaining business on the so-called “Barber Spur.” As a result, and with the city looking to redevelop the property, Union Pacific petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1983 to abandon about 7 miles of the branch, a move that was granted in April the following year.
Idaho is home to only a handful of railroad-related attractions, including the Canyon County Historical Museum located at Nampa inside the town’s beautifully preserved Union Pacific depot, the Northern Pacific Depot Railroad Museum in Wallace, the Silverwood Theme Park’s Central Railroad in Athol, and the Thunder Mountain Line Railroad excursion train in Horseshoe Bend.