Camas Prairie Railroad
Submitted by Nancy Foster Renk on October 17, 2012, 8:28 am
I love railroad trestles. They have enough angles and diagonals to make me think that my 10th grade geometry class may have had more relevance that I realized at the time. Some of the best trestles in Idaho are found on the Camas Prairie Railroad, easily seen from U.S. Highway 95 when driving between Lapwai and Grangeville. And if you take a short detour through Ferdinand along Old Highway 95, you can drive right through Bridge 40, which crosses the road more than 120 feet above the pavement. (Bridge numbers match mile numbers; when there is more than one bridge in a one-mile segment, they are numbered consecutively with decimals, such as Bridge 21.1, 21.2, etc.)
Click to enlarge photos.
While few people outside the Inland Northwest have heard of the Camas Prairie Railroad, nearly every railroad historian knows of this small regional line because of the ingenious engineering through very difficult terrain. Probably the best known part of the railroad is the Second Subdivision that runs from Spalding, on the Clearwater River, to Grangeville, in the heart of the high Camas Prairie. Over the course of the 66.5 miles, the track climbs from an elevation of approximately 800 feet by the river to a high point on the prairie of more than 3,700 feet at Craigmont. In fact, in the approximately twelve miles between Culdesac and the top of the grade at the edge of the prairie, the railroad climbs close to 2,000 feet. This famous stretch includes six tunnels and eighteen trestles that enable the track to wind up one side of Lapwai Canyon, switch back on itself, and continue up the hill to the top.
Construction on this difficult segment of the railroad began in March 1906 and the grading crew did not reach the top until the end of the year. Three different subcontractors worked on the seven tunnels; one of these has since been removed, or "daylighted." The 882-foot Tunnel 1, with one portal visible just above Highway 95, was the most difficult and dangerous to build. If you enter, you'll quickly see that the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel" is not visible because the tracks make a full horseshoe bend inside the mountain, allowing the trains to start their climb up the hillside.
Bridge construction did not start until the spring of 1907 because the bridge crews had to follow the graders. The first major trestle was Bridge 17, constructed over Rock Creek. Located along Highway 95 south of Culdesac, it is 99 feet tall and 483 feet long. The bridge carpenters worked their way up the grade and finished the last bridge in the canyon section around November 1907. Many of the bridge timbers were cut on the prairie, hauled to the canyon rim, and then skidded to the work site; others were brought up the railroad from Culdesac. The most famous of these hillside trestles is the much-photographed Half Moon trestle that curves in a graceful arc for 684 feet, 141 feet above the ground.
The large number of bridges delayed track laying, but the steel gang reached Tunnel 4 by the end of October 1907 and then picked up the pace. The tracks reached Vollmer (now Craigmont) on December 15 where the townspeople gave the crew an enthusiastic welcome.
While the Lapwai Canyon stretch had been difficult, another challenge loomed ahead. Lawyers Canyon, with its steep and rocky sides, was the widest and deepest of any that the railroad crossed on its way to Grangeville. The American Bridge Company designed a steel viaduct to run 1,520 feet across the canyon, with a maximum height of 280 feet. Before the bridge could be built, however, the contractors had to get the steel girders to the site from the rail yard at Culdesac. Most of them fit onto an ordinary flat car, but the 80-foot girders took two flat cars while the 100-foot ones took three. These girders obviously were heavy and had to pass over the newly-built trestles, providing a good test of their strength. The more difficult challenge, however, was Tunnel 1, with its horseshoe bend. When the first 100-foot girder squeaked around that curve, with just inches to spare, I'm sure that everyone breathed a sigh of relief. Crews finished the bridge in August 1908, enabling the track laying to proceed rapidly across the flat prairie where grading and bridges were already completed. The first passenger train pulled into Grangeville on December 9, 1908. Two hundred people made the return trip to Lewiston, eager to take part in the historic occasion.
For many years, the Camas Prairie Railroad hauled grain and lumber products from the prairie to distant markets. Such shipments reached their peak in 1956 and then began a gradual decline. This drop accelerated following the completion in 1975 of Lower Granite Dam on the Snake River. This was the last in a group of dams that brought slack water to Lewiston and turned the city into a busy inland seaport. Farmers on the prairie began hauling grain to the port, bypassing the railroad. By 2000, the railroad was hauling less than half of the grain grown on the prairie. That year, the Surface Transportation Board approved the company's request to abandon the rail line between Lapwai and Grangeville. There was no crowd waving goodbye when the last train left the Camas Prairie on November 28, 2000, hauling just four cars of canola and three empty tankers.
I was lucky to be part of a team from Northwest Archaeological Associates, Inc., out of Seattle, that surveyed and recorded historic sites all along the Second Subdivision in the summer of 2001. This included walking the Lapwai Canyon stretch across those high trestles and through the tunnels. It was an experience that I won't forget. This blog post incorporates information from the project report.
Since then the tracks have been removed along much of the line. From time to time there has been talk of turning it into a Rails-to-Trails project, but this dream was made more challenging after a wildfire in early September 2011 burned Bridge 21.3 on the hillside section. (For photos of the fire and its aftermath, along with other photos of the railroad, see "Tribute to 2nd Sub").
The Second Subdivision of the Camas Prairie Railroad has been featured in at least one movie, the 1975 Breakheart Pass that starred Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland. According to local residents, the freight car that derailed in the movie was sent off the end of Half Moon trestle.
Perhaps a more enjoyable way to experience the railroad vicariously is to read the children's book, Mailing May, by Michael O. Tunnell. It is the delightful—and true—story of a little girl who takes a rather unusual train ride on the Camas Prairie Railroad to visit her grandmother in Lewiston.
For additional photos, do a Google Images search.