Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail
Length: 236.46 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Adams, Grant, King, Kittitas, Spokane, Whitman
Surfaces: Ballast, Concrete, Crushed Stone, Sand
State: Washington

A Brief History

The Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail, formerly known as the John Wayne Pioneer Trail, is one of several rail trails created after the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad (a.k.a., the “Milwaukee Road”) abandoned its Pacific Coast Extension in 1980. The trail uses much of the former rail bed, from the Idaho state line to the Columbia River at Othello. If you would like to see the beauty of eastern Washington while passing over trestles, through large cuts and valleys, and the darkness of two tunnels, this trail should most certainly be on your list! Today, the state owns nearly all of the former Milwaukee Road right-of-way from Idaho to Seattle. While the property currently supports trails like the Palouse to Cascades, it is designated as rail-banked, meaning rails could return if economic conditions warrant. This status is held for good reason; the Milwaukee Road corridor was the best engineered rail line serving the Pacific Northwest.

The Milwaukee Road, which grew into a 10,000+ mile railroad by the 20th century, began humbly as the Milwaukee & Waukesha of 1847, which was soon renamed as the Milwaukee & Mississippi. By 1874, the property was known as the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (CM&StP) when it opened rail lines serving all three cities. From there, the CM&StP expanded rapidly throughout the Midwest by purchasing smaller lines and building its own. By the turn of the 20th century, the railroad reached into Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska, Kansas, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While the company had grown into a powerful granger system (i.e., it relied heavily on agricultural freight) serving America’s breadbasket, its top management felt that to effectively compete and ensure long-term survival, it needed its own direct route to the Pacific Northwest, similar to the Northern Pacific and Great Northern.

Initial estimates stated that the 1,400-mile Pacific Coast Extension would cost the railroad some $45 million, building West from its then end-of-track at the hamlet of MoBridge, South Dakota. Surveying of the line began in 1901; the section now making up the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail was surveyed in October 1905. A year later, actual construction of the new corridor began, and the work proceeded quickly, with crews building from both the east and west. Incredibly, within three years the entire Pacific Extension was completed with a Golden Spike ceremony held at Garrison, Montana, on May 19, 1909. After the railroad electrified the line in two places (between Harlowton, MT, and Avery, ID and between Othello, WA, and Puget Sound), the final cost of the extension ballooned to $257 million—more than four times the readjusted 1905 cost of $60 million. This exorbitant price tag forced the CM&StP into bankruptcy in 1925 and precluded it from ever closing the gap on its electrification, the very section that now supports the trail.

In 1927, the company emerged as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific and officially adopted its nickname as the Milwaukee Road. As the years progressed, the Pacific Extension became an increasingly important corridor, hosting noted passenger trains like the “Olympian” and streamlined “Olympian Hiawatha,” as well as expedited freights (e.g., the “Thunderhawk” and “XL Special”). Such service really expanded during the 1960s. At this time the Milwaukee Road transported commodities such as automobiles, grain, trailer-on-flat-car (TOFC) service, lumber and forest products, and numerous other types of general freight. The railroad had such a foothold on the port, that it moved nearly 80% of its originating traffic and held roughly 50% of the total container traffic from the Pacific Northwest.

Unfortunately, management of the railroad became increasingly questionable throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s. Then-owner, the Chicago Milwaukee Corporation (a paper company that owned the assets of the railroad, valuable timber tracts in the West, and many other non-rail businesses), wanted out of the railroad industry. Their tactics included deferring maintenance on track and infrastructure and artificially inflating profits, scrapping the western electrification, and the worst of all, abandoning the Pacific Coast Extension in 1980 after the railroad had entered receivership in 1977. Following the loss of the western lines, the Milwaukee Road was left with a core Midwestern system that had some success but was still straddled with a poorly maintained system and loss of profitable long-haul traffic to Seattle. In 1985, the Milwaukee Road was sold to the Soo Line, and today just 3,850 miles of the railroad’s former 10,664 miles (its 1950 network) are still in use (about 36%).

After the Milwaukee Road abandoned its extension, most states—including Washington—purchased the former right-of-way to secure its future. Incredibly, despite the railroad scrapping nearly 1,100 miles of track, much of the right-of-way was preserved except for sections in Montana, which led to the creation of several trails (e.g., the Palouse to Cascades State Park Trail). While enjoying the sights and sounds of today’s trail, you can experience Tunnel #43, at 756 feet long, and Tunnel #44, at 704 feet long, both located near Rock Lake. The tunnels were blasted from solid rock and lined with concrete. The trail includes several trestles you will pass over if you travel the entire length of the corridor.

Railroad-related attractions within a few hours’ drive of the trail include the Dayton Historic Depot in Dayton (houses historic artifacts in the former Union Pacific depot there); Northern Pacific Railway Museum in Toppenish; and Yakima Valley Trolleys in Yakima.

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