A Brief History
Idaho’s Wood River Trails follows the northern periphery of what was once a railroad grade owned by the Union Pacific. The line skirted the banks of the Big Wood River much of the way. It was originally built in the early 1880s to serve the booming mining industry sweeping across the Western states. While this industry largely collapsed before the turn of the 20th century, the branch found other sources of traffic for several decades following. During the 1930s, the railroad developed the popular Sun Valley Resort, sparking a resurgence of the line until the 1960s. As the years passed and traffic dried up, Union Pacific found little remaining use for the branch, downgrading its status until it was finally abandoned during the mid-1980s.
A rail line running through the heart of Idaho’s Wood River Valley followed the discovery of silver and lead (and to some extent, gold) during May 1879. Prospector David Ketchum was the first to find small deposits of these metals near Galena Summit, according to Idaho Museum of Natural History. Within a few years, small hamlets such as Hailey, Ketchum, and Bellevue witnessed a population explosion of prospectors hoping to strike it rich, while financial backers and investors constructed smelters at Hailey and Ketchum for large-scale production. For such processes to reap great profits, however, trains were needed to transport the finished product out and funnel in men and materiel. On April 14, 1881, the Oregon Short Line Railway (OSL), a subsidiary of Union Pacific, was incorporated in the state of Wyoming to run from a connection with its parent at Granger and extend westward into Oregon via southern Idaho. Construction of the OSL began officially on July 11 that year, as it struck out west from Granger with the primary intent of providing UP access to the Pacific Northwest at Portland. With the mining boom in the Wood River Valley, however, the OSL decided to build into that region and serve this growing economy. It had reached Shoshone, Idaho, on March 10, 1883, at which time the so-called Wood River Branch was already under construction. The line to Hailey was opened that year (57 miles), and by 1894, the route was completed to Sun Valley/Ketchum (69 miles).
The OSL also opened its line to Huntington, Oregon, in 1894 and later merged with several UP subsidiaries to form the Oregon Short Line & Utah Northern Railway on July 27, 1889. UP would enter receivership in 1893, losing control of this property, and others, which then became the Oregon Short Line Railroad in 1897. However, the reorganized Union Pacific Railroad reacquired its interest just a year later in 1898, thus cementing its access into the Pacific Northwest.
Silver production in Idaho and other Western states began to decline as overproduction yielded a deflation of its value. This was subsequently followed by the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 to prop up the value. This move was one factor leading to the severe financial Panic of 1893, which caused the bankruptcy of Union Pacific and other railroads. While the boom was over, resulting in thousands leaving the Wood River Valley, mining in the area still remained to a lesser degree and included the extraction of zinc and lead. Additionally, the Ketchum Branch, as the line was also known, provided Union Pacific with other types of freight, including agriculture, lumber, and various less-than-carload movements. The railroad also operated an additional branch, diverging near Richfield and running westerly to Hill City (roughly 58 miles long).
The Sun Valley line saw a resurgence of activity during the 1930s. Many railroads throughout the West operated their own resorts as a means of luring passengers to their trains, even though these facilities often lost money. For instance, the Santa Fe owned a resort at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, while the Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and Milwaukee Road all served the national parks of Montana. The Union Pacific wanted its own such attraction and set about scouting out locations in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. After nearly giving up on the endeavor, they found a gorgeous location near Ketchum in the winter of 1935. Austrian sportsman Count Felix Schaffgotsch was on the scene there, and efforts were soon underway to build a premier resort for those interested in winter sports. At the time, UP had just embarked upon introducing the glamorous streamliners (the railroad pioneered the concept when it unveiled the M-10000 during February of 1934) and likewise hoped a western getaway would further enhance travelers’ appeal to use its trains. The all new Sun Valley Resort began construction in April 1936 and opened in December that year. While it became a popular attraction, the resort was also historically noteworthy in featuring the world’s first chairlifts, developed by Union Pacific mechanical engineer Jim Curran.
Following World War II, the railroad grew increasingly disinterested in Sun Valley; it had been closed during the conflict and needed an extensive overhaul after the war. Additionally, despite UP’s efforts to continually offer first-class service, the public was leaving passenger trains in favor of other modes of transportation. In October 1964, the railroad decided to sell its resort and the transaction was made official on November 15. From this time forward, the Ketchum Branch relied solely on freight movements, which dwindled when mines and other businesses in the valley continued to close. During the 1980s, the line was seeing little use; in 1985, the branch to Hill City was removed followed by the route to Ketchum in 1987.
The state of Idaho is home to only a few railroad attractions, including the Canyon County Historical Museum at Nampa (located in the restored UP depot), Northern Pacific Depot Railroad Museum at Wallace, Silverwood Central Railway in Athol, and the Thunder Mountain Line excursion at Horseshoe Bend.Do you have Historical Photos of the Wood River Trail?
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