A Brief History
Today’s Astoria Riverwalk trail was created during the mid-1990s using primarily the former right-of-way of the Burlington Northern. The corridor runs along the waterfront of the Columbia River nearly its entire length, allowing for incredibly scenic views of the channel and into Washington State. The property has a history that dates to the late 19th century, when railroads were just starting to enter the region between Puget Sound and the Columbia River. Eventually, it became part of the Northern Pacific, and later Spokane, Portland & Seattle (and then Burlington Northern), during the early 20th century. At this time trains moved a variety of freight but primarily relied on timber. The traffic slowly dried up over the years and little remained by the early 1990s. Today, rails still reach Astoria, but freight trains currently no longer serve the city.
By late summer 1883, the Northern Pacific (NP) had completed a route to Portland, Oregon, and was the first railroad to open the Pacific Northwest to transcontinental trade. The Great Northern and Milwaukee Road would follow later with their own lines. Without a bridge across the Columbia River at the time, the NP used car ferry service between Kalama, Washington, and Goble, Oregon, to access Portland. The first saw trains arrived in autumn 1883. Curiously, despite Astoria’s status as an important port town near the mouth of the Columbia and Pacific Ocean, and only 50 miles from Goble, the NP made no attempt to lay tracks there. Desperately wanting rail service to their town, the city formed the Astoria & South Coast Railway (A&SC) in August 1888. The new railroad was chartered to run south along the coast and then turn southeasterly to Hillsboro.
By summer 1890, the A&SC was completed to Seaside, 15 miles south, which opened for service the following summer. However, the company fell into bankruptcy in February 1892 and was reorganized as the Astoria & Portland Railway (A&P). This new system was also projected to reach Hillsboro but via slightly a different route that would pass through the rugged Coast Range. Ultimately, this idea fell through due to lack of funding, and so the railroad remained stuck with its original 15-mile line and no solid plans to complete an outside connection. During May 1893, the A&P was sold to the newly formed Seashore Road Company; 2 years later it was renamed as the Astoria & Columbia River Railroad (A&CR). This new company, under the direction of A.B. Hammond, abandoned the proposal to reach Hillsboro and instead looked eastward to build a line along the Columbia River and a connection with the Northern Pacific at Goble.
In 1897, the A&CR acquired the Seashore Road assets, and by spring 1898, had finished its long-sought connection with the outside world when the first train operated over the line on May 16. Since the AC&R also had friendly business dealings with the NP, it was allowed to use its route to directly serve Portland and the city’s busy Union Station. By 1907, the railroad had opened additional branch lines west of Astoria to Hammond/Fort Stevens as well as a short spur running south of Seaside to Holladay. The former gave it additional waterway access and the latter offered it interchange with the local logging railroads. In all, the AC&R operated 118 miles of main line from Portland to Seaside and an additional 2.7 miles along its spur to Hammond. Freight traffic predominantly consisted of timber products (logs and finished lumber) as well as canned fish and seafood products from the port.
Perhaps most fascinating was the road’s once busy passenger traffic. Beginning in the late 1870s with the construction of the resort hotel Seaside House, and through the early 20th century, the town of Seaside was a popular destination that saw thousands of vacationers during the summer. Tapping into this, the railroad promoted the route with pamphlets claiming “The Oregon Coast: From Portland to Summer Paradise in Four Hours.” Over the years, however, as roadways improved, passenger traffic declined. By 1952, the railroad had ended all such services, focusing solely on its remaining freight. By that time, the property was part of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway (SP&S), a jointly controlled subsidiary of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific. In 1907, the NP purchased the AC&R and slowly transferred ownership and operations to its subsidiary.
While the SP&S predominantly functioned as a conduit and gateway for the NP and GN along its main line running between Spokane and Portland, it also had a presence in northwestern Oregon by acquiring several smaller feeder railroads, such as the Oregon Electric Railway and United Railway. The traffic here consisted mostly of timber, lumber, and related freight (both were once interurbans). For the next 6 decades, the SP&S continued to operate the former AC&R lines until everything became the Burlington Northern in 1970, a merger of the SP&S; NP; GN; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; and a myriad of other, smaller “paper” railroads, such as the AC&R. The BN used the line until 1978 when much of the route to Seaside was abandoned. By the late 1980s, everything west of Astoria had been removed. By the early 1990s, BN wanted out of Astoria altogether due to lack of freight, which set the stage in creating today’s Astoria Riverwalk.
For railroad attractions near the trail, visit the Canby Depot Museum in Canby (which uses the town’s restored Southern Pacific depot); Mt Hood Railroad in Hood River; Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad in Garibaldi; Oregon Rail Heritage Center in Portland (home to large steam locomotives like Southern Pacific #4449 and Spokane, Portland & Seattle #700); and the Willamette Shore Trolley in Lake Oswego. Across the Columbia River in Washington you’ll find the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad & Museum in Chehalis; Chelatchie Prairie Railroad in Chelatchie; and the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad in Elbe.Do you have Historical Photos of the Astoria Riverwalk?
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