The history of the route that is now a part of the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes is both fascinating and a bit confusing. Just after the Civil War, gold and silver were discovered in Idaho’s Northern Panhandle, leading to an explosion of folks flocking to the region hoping to strike it rich. While gold deposits turned out to be only sporadic, silver, zinc, and lead were found in large enough quantities for widespread mining operations; nearly 45% of all silver mined in the United States still comes from Idaho. Naturally, an efficient mode of transportation was needed to haul the ore, which eventually led to railroads. The two notable lines were the Coeur d’Alene Railway & Navigation Company (CR&N) and the Washington & Idaho Railroad. The former would become a subsidiary of the vast Northern Pacific (NP) system, while the latter was later acquired by the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific (UP) system. After more than 100 years of service, UP elected to abandon its farthest reaching northern branch and worked with the EPA, Idaho, and Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council to create the 72-mile trail known today.
The Union Pacific Railroad was an integral part of helping complete the important Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory, Utah, on May 10, 1869, in conjunction with the Central Pacific. In the following years of the 19th century, the railroad continued to expand throughout the West and Pacific Northwest. To understand the history of what is now the trail corridor, it is important to learn how the UP achieved such a massive presence throughout Idaho, western Wyoming, southwestern Montana, northern Oregon, and parts of Washington. The earliest predecessor of the UP here began with the Oregon Railway & Navigation (ORy&N), a 219-mile property built in the early 1880s by Henry Villard and connecting Portland, Oregon, and Wallula, Washington. Unfortunately, Villard’s massive debt situation resulted in his losing the railroad, which was leased by the UP in 1886 through its subsidiary Oregon Short Line (OSL).
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The OSL branched from UP’s main line at Granger, Wyoming, and reached Huntington, Oregon, near the Idaho border, where a connection was made with the ORy&N to give UP access to Portland (the reason for its initial interest in the property). In July 1889, the OSL merged with the Utah & Northern Railway (a system throughout parts of Idaho, Utah, and southern Montana) to form the Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern Railway. From this point, the history of the system becomes a bit complicated, so the below is a brief summary.
During October 1893, the UP and its subsidiaries fell into receivership, losing the parent company control of its Northwest properties. To allow competition to Portland, the line was reorganized as the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company (ORR&N) in 1896 and was jointly owned by UP, NP, and Great Northern (GN). Following reorganization, the ORR&N assumed control of the Washington & Idaho Railroad (W&I) on August 17, 1896, the very route that now makes up nearly the entire Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes. The W&I was a 154-mile system first conceived by Isaac Cooper, Julius Galland, Warren Sayre, Horace Stratton, and George Truax in 1886 to build a main line (excluding branches) from Tekoa, Washington, to Mullan, Idaho, and tap the lucrative silver and other deposits found within the Coeur d’Alene Mining District. The W&I, however, only reached Burke, Idaho (just west of Wallace), where it established a connection with the NP. At that time Mullan was already served by the Northern Pacific. The W&I operated independently until its 1896 takeover by the ORR&N. By the summer of 1899, the ORR&N was again under the control of the Union Pacific. In late 1910, UP created the Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation Company (O-WRR&N), which included the original system plus 16 additional smaller lines in the Northwest region. Altogether, the O-WRR&N had nearly 1,150 miles of railroad throughout the western states mentioned above. As for the W&I route, it later became known simply as UP’s Wallace Branch.
Aside from silver, zinc, and lead, the Wallace Branch sustained itself with other means of freight traffic after the turn of the 20th century, notably various timber and associated products. In 1909, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (CMStP&P, or a.k.a., the Milwaukee Road) completed its Pacific Coast Extension between Chicago and Seattle. This new route included an interchange with the UP at Plummer, Idaho, near the Washington state border. Soon, the Milwaukee Road built a branch line into its timber holdings in northern Idaho that eventually reached Elk River, with a spur stretching westward to Palouse, Washington. Since the CMStP&P was a fierce competitor of the Northern Pacific, Union Pacific received most of the available interchange traffic at Plummer.
During 1981, NP successor Burlington Northern sold its line between Wallace and Mullan to UP and abandoned much of the rest. By this time, however, traffic was already in steep decline. Operations over the Wallace Branch continued for roughly 10 more years until UP received permission in February 1992 from the Interstate Commerce Commission to abandon the entire route. A new company, the Utah Western Railroad, showed interest in operating the property but the proposal fell through. Because the railroad had built its bed from mining waste rock and tailings, the property was heavily contaminated. The Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council, whose ancestors had called the region home for generations, filed a lawsuit to have the land cleaned up. Working together, the council, Environmental Protection Agency, state of Idaho, and Union Pacific oversaw the cleanup of the former rail bed. The railroad, for its part, poured $30 million into the project.
Today’s trail runs 72 miles along virtually the entire Wallace Branch between Plummer and Mullan, passing the Coeur d’Alene Lake, skirting the Coeur d’Alene River, and running through the beautiful Silver Valley. The trail is overseen by the tribe (14.5 miles from Plummer to Harrison) and the state, which manages the rest of the route to Mullan.
Because of northern Idaho’s remoteness, few railroad museums are nearby the trail. However, the Northern Pacific Depot Railroad Museum in Wallace is home to the NP’s beautifully restored depot, which houses historic exhibits and artifacts. Additionally, if you are willing to drive a few hours, other nearby attractions include the historic Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, Montana, built by the Great Northern Railroad as a hotel for employees. In Missoula, you’ll find some railroad artifacts at Fort Missoula. In Washington, the Yakima Valley Trolleys operate in Yakima, the Northern Pacific Railway Museum is in Toppenish, and the Dayton Historic Depot is in Dayton.