A Brief History
The Banks-Vernonia State Trail, named for the two towns it links, has an interesting history as a railroad corridor. During its earliest years, the property was part of an interurban network known as the United Railways (UR), which attempted to connect the city of Portland with points to the west and south. After fewer than 10 years of service, the UR was acquired by James J. Hill’s Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway (jointly owned by the larger Northern Pacific and Great Northern), which ran between Spokane, Washington, to Portland along the Columbia River. Under SP&S ownership, the UR was extended farther west from Portland, where it eventually reached Keasey and served the region’s booming timber industry. This freight always constituted the bulk of the line’s profits, and when the logging industry began drying up after World War II, the line became mostly redundant. The SP&S continued using the branch through the 1960s to serve remaining customers, and for a short time an excursion train even used the corridor. Before the decade ended, no freight remained, and the line was ripped up during the early 1970s. Soon after, the state purchased the line and nearly 20 years later converted it into today’s Banks-Vernonia State Trail.
The corridor between Banks and Vernonia dates back to an interurban, a type of railroad system that was electrically powered and provided commuter service as well as some freight between two or more towns. The interurban was originally called the West Side & Suburban (WS&S) before it was renamed as the Oregon Traction in 1904. The road attempted to connect Portland with Hillsboro and then turn south (grand plans hoped to reach San Francisco), but financial problems and the inability to get needed franchises through suburban areas stalled most construction attempts. During 1906, the newly incorporated United Railways took over the WS&S and began construction in 1908. On April 18, 1909, the UR opened its first line between Portland’s 2nd Street and Stark Street and Burlington (via Linnton) to the northwest, a distance of 12 miles. Following the completion of this route, construction continued rapidly to the west.
On April 16, 1911, the UR had 27.5 miles of railroad open between Portland and Banks via Wilkesboro. This also included an impressive 4,100-foot tunnel under Cornelius Pass. The line also featured several trestles, both were an uncommon feature for interurbans, which tended to avoid both whenever possible to keep construction costs down. By 1909, the UR had already been acquired by the Spokane, Portland & Seattle, which helped fund the construction of the route to Banks. The SP&S hoped to push its new acquisition, which it converted into a standard freight line, to the port town of Tillamook along the Pacific Coast. However, these plans were never realized. Despite this, the line’s fortunes turned for the better.
In 1919, interests from Utah acquired considerable land around Vernonia, Oregon, and incorporated the Portland, Astoria & Pacific Railroad to move logs to the mill planned there. In addition they had plans to build a connection to the UR at Banks from which to ship finished lumber. The PA&P’s eventual plan was to purchase the UR outright and ship timber products directly into Portland itself. However, financing became an issue and construction stalled. In 1921, the PA&P and the timber tracts were sold to interests from Kansas, and the railroad was finished from Banks to Keasey via Vernonia by 1922. The line featured an impressive array of high sweeping wooden trestles and sharp curves, with stunning vistas of the Pacific Northwest backcountry. The entire PA&P was roughly 31 miles long. Interestingly, the new owners, known as the Oregon-American Company, were not particularly interested in running a railroad, so it was acquired by the UR, which agreed to operate it if a large sawmill was established near Vernonia. By 1924, the PA&P was absorbed into the UR, which itself disappeared into the SP&S by 1944. Aside from the finished lumber shipped from the mill the Vernonia Branch—as it came to be known on the SP&S—the rail also moved raw logs from several small logging railroads that connected to the end of the line at Keasey.
Freight traffic on the line ebbed and flowed over the years, and it was hard hit by the Great Depression. Although it recovered during the war years of the early 1940s, business declined after World War II. The sawmill shut down in 1957, and the line north of Vernonia was abandoned soon after, leaving just 48.5 miles of the branch still in service. In 1961, a group started a steam excursion known as the Vernonia, South Park & Sunset Steam Railroad, which used the line in conjunction with the SP&S that continued to serve remaining freight customers. With no shippers remaining by the end of the decade, in 1969 the railroad had had enough and was granted permission to abandon the entire branch. In 1973, the tracks were removed and a year later the corridor was purchased by the Oregon Department of Transportation, which held on to the right-of-way until the Banks-Vernonia State Trail was opened in 1991.
Nearby attractions include the Canby Depot Museum in Canby; Mt. Hood Railroad in Hood River; and the Oregon Coast Scenic Railroad in Garibaldi.Do you have Historical Photos of the Banks-Vernonia State Trail?
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