Discovery Trail (WA) History


At a Glance

Name: Discovery Trail (WA)
Length: 8.3 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Walking
Counties: Pacific
Surfaces: Asphalt
State: Washington

A Brief History

The former railroad corridor that now makes up much of the Discovery Trail has not seen a train since the era of the Great Depression. However, it was nevertheless a fascinating operation that provided the Long Beach Peninsula with an important source of transportation for more than 40 years before it was finally abandoned in favor of roadways and automobiles. The system was known as the Ilwaco Railroad & Navigation Company (IR&N) and dated to the late 19th century. It struggled early on but later became profitable during the early 20th century, moving passengers, local freight, and interchange traffic with steamships (incredibly, despite having any outside rail connections). The IR&N saw its peak occur after 1910, and traffic slowly faded away after that time. By the late 1920s, the railroad was losing considerable money and was shut down shortly thereafter.

The Pacific Northwest and its coastal communities saw a significant growth in commerce when transcontinental railroads finally reached there, beginning with the Northern Pacific in summer 1883. That same year, on November 23, the Ilwaco, Shoalwater Bay & Grays Harbor Railroad (ISB&GH) had been formed by businessman Lewis Alfred Loomis and several associates, all of whom believed the Long Beach Peninsula needed a transportation artery to serve the local agriculture and seafood industries. Loomis was no stranger to transportation; he had formed the Ilwaco Wharf Company 10 years earlier in 1874, which, along with the Ilwaco Steam Navigation Company (created a year later in 1875), used stagecoaches and steamships to move freight and passengers up and down the Columbia River from Ilwaco to Astoria and Portland. However, this venture saw only meager profits, which led Loomis to switch to railroads instead.

Construction of the ISB&GH began in April 1888 (several years were required to secure enough financial backing), starting in Ilwaco and running northward. Built to narrow-gauge standards (3 feet between the rails instead of 4 feet, 8 ½ inches) to reduce expenses, by July of that year, about 3.5 miles had been completed to Long Beach and slowly continued north. By May 1889, the line was opened to Nahcotta, giving the railroad roughly a 14-mile system. By that time, its name had been changed; in August 1888, Loomis merged the ISB&GH and his other properties into the newly created Ilwaco Railroad & Navigation Company (IR&N). At each end of the system (Nahcotta and Ilwaco) small ports were built to allow interchange with steamships, which transported everything from mail and passengers to logs, cranberries, oysters, and other general freight. The railroad also served a number of canneries.

A fascinating—albeit frustrating—operational situation the IR&N encountered was its port at Ilwaco. Because the waters around the coastal town were too shallow during low tide, the railroad was forced to set its timetable to the tides; steamships were able to reach the dock and interchange freight only during high tide. This led to the IR&N’s nickname—one of many—as “The Railroad that Ran With the Tide.” This operational headache ended after Loomis sold the railroad to the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company in August 1900, earning it another nickname: the “Clamshell Railroad,” coined by an OR&N superintendent who was unimpressed with the newly acquired property. (No actual shells were used in the rail bed.) The OR&N itself became a subsidiary of the much larger Union Pacific, who later renamed the property as the Oregon–Washington Railroad & Navigation Company (OWR&N) after 1910 and operated more than 1,100 miles of track in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. With improved financial backing, the new owners wanted to push the IR&N southeast along the Columbia River to construct a deep-water dock for better steamship service, thus eliminating the need for trains to run by the tides.

By June of 1908, the 12-mile line to Megler was opened, which included a 910-foot tunnel near today’s Station Camp. Owners hoped that the dock here would finally establish an outside rail connection, via car ferry service, through Northern Pacific subsidiary Astoria & Columbia River at Astoria, Oregon. However, the NP ultimately decided against constructing its own dock, which left the IR&N as an orphaned railroad for the rest of its days. When Union Pacific reorganized its properties in 1910, the IR&N name was dissolved to simply become the Ilwaco Division of the OWR&N. The property’s peak rail traffic hit in 1913 when the resorts located on the peninsula and the region’s seafood, agricultural, and logging industries all relied heavily on trains. That slowly changed as the decade progressed, with increasingly more automobiles appearing on the peninsula.

By 1916, Astoria had a fully-paved highway running to Portland. By 1921, automobile ferries began service across the Columbia to the peninsula. This new operation quickly eroded away passenger traffic, as well as freight, when trucks also began using the ferries. Compounding the situation was a general loss of freight business when timber played out along the Willapa Bay. By the late 1920s, the Ilwaco Division was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and the Interstate Commerce Commission granted Union Pacific permission to abandon the property during summer 1930. On September 9, the final train plied the tracks along the Long Beach Peninsula. Within a year, rails were removed.

Railroad attractions within a few hours of the trail include the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad & Museum in Chehalis; Chelatchie Prairie Railroad in Chelatchie; and Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad in Elbe.

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