Willapa Hills Trail

Washington

At a Glance

Name: Willapa Hills Trail
Length: 56 Miles
Trail activites: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Horseback Riding, Mountain Biking, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Lewis, Pacific
Surfaces: Asphalt, Ballast, Crushed Stone, Grass, Gravel
State: Washington

A Brief History

The Willapa Hills Trail uses the former corridor of the Northern Pacific Railway’s South Bend Branch, or Willapa Harbor Line, from Chehalis to South Bend along the banks of Willapa Bay. The branch was built during the late 19th century to serve what was hoped to be the growing port town of South Bend. After it was completed, however, the railroad saw most of its profits from the region’s timber industry. The Northern Pacific would come to operate several secondary lines in southwestern Washington State, which for years provided it with steady freight. As the years passed, this traffic was lost to trucks when Interstate highways and roads moved in. The line survived until 1990 when Burlington Northern elected to abandon the route.

The Northern Pacific (NP) was the first transcontinental railroad to the Pacific Northwest when it opened a route from the Twin Cities to Portland during the summer of 1883. After this time, the company worked to expand its reach throughout the Puget Sound region, eventually opening a main line from Sumas, Washington, near the border with British Columbia to Portland, Oregon. This also included several branch lines to tap the local agriculture and natural resources (notably timber), and served such towns as Olympia, Moclips, Everett, South Bend, Bellingham, and several others. Collectively this section of the NP system was known as its Tacoma Division, which covered more than 1,000 miles (including main lines and branches). Its headquarters and primary servicing facilities were based in Tacoma, and the NP’s route to South Bend was a joint effort with local citizens.

The South Bend area was first settled in the 1860s, and before the decade ended, a sawmill was constructed (one of many throughout the region) to tap the area’s rich forests of hemlock, cedar, and Douglas-fir. Additionally, the Willapa Bay was already well-known for its bountiful seafood such as clams and oysters. As people continued to settle into the area, a small group of men formed the South Bend Land Company, hoping to tap into the rapid growth by buying up land and then reselling it to businesses and anyone wishing to live there. On September 9, 1890, South Bend was incorporated with the hope that it would blossom into a major western port. Some claimed it would become the “Baltimore of the West.” If that was to happen, though, many realized that a railroad would be needed. Earlier that year, on April 18, an agreement had been made with the Northern Pacific to build a line to South Bend. In exchange, the South Bend Land Company provided the NP with roughly half of its needed right-of-way. On May 1, 1890, the company incorporated the Yakima & Pacific Coast Railroad (YP&C) with intentions of building a branch from a connection with the main line near Chehalis (known as Chehalis Junction) to South Bend. By the following year construction of the railroad had begun, and within two years was opened to South Bend, a distance of 56.5 miles.

On April 21, 1898, the Y&PC was formerly merged into the Northern Pacific and the branch became known as the 21st Subdivision of its Tacoma Division. Unfortunately for the town of South Bend, it never grew into a major port city, which was partly the result of the financial Panic of 1893. Still, the new railroad proved of great benefit because it became a vital transportation artery for the town and the other small communities along the route.

During the Willapa Harbor Line’s peak years in the early 20th century, specifically during the 1920s, it hosted two freight and two daily passenger trains (not including specials for various social events, which were relatively common at the time). At one time, passenger trains would make 29 different stops along the line thanks to the large number of online sawmills (located at Littell, Bunker, Dryad, Doty, Walville, Globe, Raymond, and South Bend). Daily freights would serve these facilities along with seafood canneries (salmon and oysters), a gravel pit, logging camps, a cigar factory, box factory, ice manufacturing and bottling works, local agriculture, and other general freight. The Northern Pacific also interchanged with the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (Milwaukee Road) at Raymond, which also had its own line in the area.

The Great Depression hit the area’s lumber industry hard, and while some mills reopened, by 1933 the boom years were over. As the years passed, the South Bend Branch saw its freight and passenger traffic slowly decline when businesses closed. The last sawmill shutdown in 1953 or shifted to trucks and automobiles. Passenger service on the branch ended on March 21, 1954, when the “South Bend Flyer,” a mixed train by then (running both freight and passenger cars), made its final run from Centralia to South Bend. By 1968, remaining freight traffic on the line included petroleum products, wood chips and assorted lumber products, seafood products from South Bend, and aggregates; clients included the Leban Company, Willapa Cedar Company, the Olympic Mill, and Weyerhaeuser. As had been the case with the South Bend Flyer,a daily-except-Sunday local freight would leave Centralia with empty cars and switch customers along the branch before returning.

The Willapa Harbor Line survived into the Burlington Northern era, a railroad created on March 2, 1970, predominantly by the merger of the Northern Pacific; Great Northern; Spokane, Portland & Seattle; and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. During this time it was reclassified as the 23rd Subdivision of the Pacific Division and continued to serve remaining customers until the railroad slated it for abandonment in 1990. Following the Interstate Commerce Commission’s approval for abandonment, rails and ties were removed, and in 1993 the property was transferred to the Washington State Parks for recreational use.

Railroad attractions near the Willapa Hills Trail includes the Bellingham Railway Museum in Bellingham; the Chehalis-Centralia Railroad & Museum in Chehalis; Chelatchie Prairie Railroad in Chelatchie; Lake Whatcom Railway in Wickersham; Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad in Elbe; Northwest Railway Museum in Snoqualmie; and the Tacoma Railroad Heritage Center in Tacoma.

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