The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 8, Numbers 2-3, Pages 39-48
Spring-Summer, 1983

Railroads of the Camus Prairie

by Dan Butler

Dan Butler is Chairman, Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Westark Community College, Fort Smith, Arkansas. His Ph.D. is from the University of Idaho, where he wrote a doctoral dissertation on "The Corporate History of the Camus Prairie Railroad, 1909-1979."

Northcentral Idaho possesses some of the most rugged terrain in the United States. The gently rolling hills of the Columbia River basin and Palouse region give way to the mountains that form the Rocky Mountain chain. The numerous rivers of the region carve deep river valleys, narrow canyons, and high, isolated plateaus as they work their way to the sea. One such area is the Camas Prairie.

Bordered by the Clearwater River Valley to the north, the region is dominated by the city of Lewiston, located at the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers. After early gold rush activity, the city rapidly declined into a marginal regional trading center. The area was further handicapped by lack of rail transportation.

Rail lines seemingly avoided Lewiston, penetrating Moscow, Idaho, to the north in 1885 and reaching Genessee near the northern rim of the Clearwater Valley by 1890. As close as Genessee was, the 2,000-foot ascent from Lewiston presented a problem. Transportation costs remained high. It was not until 1898 that the Northern Pacific built west from Pullman, Washington, to Moscow, then extended down the Palouse River Valley to Lewiston.

Lewiston Freight Yard, 1915

Once in Lewiston the Northern Pacific initiated construction of branch lines along the narrow valleys that radiated from the Clearwater Valley. One such line ran up Lapwai Creek to the town of Culdesac, Idaho. By 1900, the Northern Pacific elected to continue the Culdesac branch up the steep canyon walls to the rich lands of the Camas Prairie and then southeasterly across the Prairie to Grangeville, the largest city between Lewiston and Boise. Construction was costly, with three percent grades, numerous tunnels and bridges, plus one of the highest steel trestles in the world. Combined, these features severely taxed the Clearwater Short line, a Northern Pacific subsidiary established to construct and operate the line.

Shortly before the Northern Pacific reached Grangeville, the Union Pacific entered Lewiston from the west. Building along the Snake River from Riperia, Washington, the line offered competition to the Northern Pacific's ten-year monopoly. The Union Pacific also had plans to build onto the Camas Prairie. However, before construction could begin, the two rail giants came to an agreement by which they would jointly operate the line known as the Camas Pacific Railroad. As a jointly owned company, it could operate the lines between Riperia and Grangeville for the benefit of both proprietors. The line would own no rolling stock or locomotives and would function much like an operating subdivision of a major railroad.

From its inception the Camas Prairie intended to dominate area traffic with its single mainline that reached the northern end of the Prairie near the town of Ruebens. From here the line moved in a southeasterly direction serving most of the major towns of the area. The parent companies didn't plan to extend costly branch lines which would generate only seasonal traffic and be expensive to mantain.(1) This being the case, two small lines developed on the northern part of the Prairie: the Craig Mountain and the Nezperce. The three companies, plus the short-lived and the ill-conceived Lewiston, Nezperce and Eastern were the only lines on the Prairie or constructed with a clear goal of reaching the area.

The Craig Mountain Railroad, owned and operated by the Craig Mountain Lumber Company, generally functioned like other logging roads of the Northwest. But since it passed through Indian lands of the Nezperce Reservation and carried goods for third parties, namely the merchants of Winchester, Idaho, the line was required to list as a common carrier.(2) The line had been incorporated in March 1909 and the route laid out that summer, less than a year after Northern Pacific had completed its line. A contract for construction was let in September 1909 and the railroad was completed a year later, though operations began as early as July.(3) The line connected with the Camas Prairie at Craig Junction near the town of Ruebens.

When the Camas Prairie was organized, the second short line was an unfinished spur projected to connect Nezperce with the Camas Prairie at Craigmont. Line owner, Z. A. Johnson was interested in selling the line to the Northern Pacific.(4) Once rebuffed by the larger company the Nezperce began to project itself as a major rival to the Camas Prairie. Johnson hoped to continue his short line beyond Craigmont to the rich timber lands near Winchester, perhaps extending it all the way to Lewiston.

Always short of cash, Johnson attempted to raise funds from farmers in the Nezperce region. Failing in this venture, he devised a new plan. If he constructed his line to Lewiston he might then be able to sell it to a transcontinental rival of either the Union Pacific or the Northern Pacific. The plan was logical given the fact that the Milwaukee Road had conducted a route survey down the Palouse River into the Clearwater Valley and had only recently completed its western extension. Since the Milwaukee possessed few branch lines in the region, a line onto the Prairie via Lewiston would be a valuable addition.

The transaction never took place primarily because of the precarious financial condition of both lines involved. The Milwaukee experienced less than robust economic health after its line was completed and Johnson, as always, was suffering a serious cash flow problem. By 1912 the Nezperce president was forced to enter a series of lease agreements with the Camas Prairie by which he leased rails to continue his construction.(5)

Armed with several lease agreements for rails and other materials from the Camas Prairie, Johnson began construction of his second line, the Lewiston, Nezperce and Eastern, in 1914. The line was projected to extend from Lewiston to Waha and eventually link up with the Nezperce somewhere near Craigmont. While Johnson had convinced the Camas Prairie proprietors that he had every intention of operating his line, he was keenly aware that his only realistic chance of profiting from his holdings was to sell them to the Camas Prairie.(6) Selling the lines clearly took precedent over construction. By May 1914, Johnson had finished less than five miles of track and had graded only as far as the Tammony Gulch area. It was not until March 1915, that the line reached the lower end of Tammony Valley where wheat would give the line its first real source of revenue. Even then the line reached the area on track that was leased and on a grade only sixty percent complete.

By 1917, Johnson again brushed against financial collapse as the rent on his leased rails was past due. He was still willing to sell his lines to the Camas Prairie, but they were adamant in their refusal to increase their trackage in the area.(7) Johnson was determined to extend the Lewiston, Nezperce and Eastern and to that end he sold the Nezperce to a group of local businessmen in 1917. This provided the necessary cash to hold off the demise of his new venture.(8) In 1919, storms caused Johnson more trouble with his line, and he had to suspend operation for many weeks due to washouts.(9) By this time the proprietors of the Camas Prairie were eager to call in their lease agreements as they were all long past due. However, the local management also realized that any overt action against Johnson might result in substantial public hostility, as Johnson remained a popular local figure.(10)

By the spring of 1919 Johnson acquired the necessary capital to pay his lease agreements and to extend the line further toward Waha. Most of the new wealth came from lumber interests eager to see the line progress.(11) If Johnson could expand, he might return a profit. However, even these chances for profitability were slim. As a result Camas Prairie management decided against entering into any more lease agreements.(12) By 1922 the Lewiston, Nezperce and Eastern had exhausted its credit with the Camas Prairie and it had little hope of generating new lines of credit elsewhere. While Johnson appealed the decision, repossession by the Camas Prairie and an adverse ruling by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission sealed the line's fate.(13) By early September 1922 the last of the rails had been removed.(14) Johnson's dreams of a rail empire had come to an end.

The 1920's was a period of relative prosperity nationwide. On the Camas Prairie, however, it was a period of only surface prosperity. Agriculture entered a decline at the start of the decade, and the rail lines' success closely paralleled this trend.

Passenger service was the first to feel the effects of the economic slowdown. The Camas Prairie never offered more than coach, express, and mail service. In 1920 the train to Grangeville often carried upwards of 400 passengers per trip. The economic slump caused a sharp decline in ridership. Except for normal seasonal upswings the number of boardings continued to decline because of poor economic conditions and highway competition. However, even as late as 1926 the Camas Prairie estimated that seventy-five percent of all year-round travel and sixty percent of summer travel still went by rail.(15)

When the Camas Prairie began operating the Northern Pacific branches to Stites and Headquarters via Orofino in 1928 these lines soon surpassed the Grangeville trains in ridership. By the end of the decade a single gas electric car accommodated the passenger loads generated while four-car trains had often been the rule ten years earlier.

The period also saw a shift in where revenues were generated. At the beginning of the decade grain produced substantial amounts of revenue. While production levels remained constant, timber hauling became the major commodity handled. The take-over of the line to Headquarters only increased the importance of timber products to the Camas Prairie ledger books.

The Great Depression proved to be the most severe test of the railroads of the Camas Prairie. The red ink flowed on both the passenger and freight ledgers. Passenger service, as always, was the most vulnerable. Schedule changes slowed the losses but did not stop them. The proprietors contemplated suspension of all Sunday services as a way to cut costs.(16) When this proved impossible due to lack of information, the parent companies decided to eliminate the Lewiston-Riperia local, a plan which was accomplished in June 1931.(17)

The proprietors then attempted to convert the remaining passenger service to mixed trains in order to save even more money. Though opposition was substantial, the change was made on the Stites branch. The Grangeville branch generated more opposition because of delays in mail service that would result from the proposed changes.(18) The new schedule went into effect in July 1932 but proved less than successful from either a financial or public relations perspective. The first noticeable casualty was the termination of all passenger service by the Craig Mountain Railroad effective November 1932.(19) The mixed train experiment lasted little more than two years and ended when the proprietors realized the savings were much less than expected.(20)

Freight service, the major revenue provider of the line, reached its nadir in the late winter and early spring of 1933. Revenue remained low until 1936 when increased harvests on the Prairie and an upswing in the lumber industry gradually began to improve the balance sheet. However, it was not until October 1938 that the first signs of real prosperity began to return to the region.(21)

Both the Craig Mountain and the Nezperce struggled to survive in this difficult environment. The Craig Mountain was in the most precarious position as it had leased extensive amounts of rail from the Camas Prairie to expand its logging operation during the late 1920s. With the decline of the housing industry, the railroad found it could not make its payments. In 1934 and again in 1937 the lumbering line fell far behind in its payments and requested credit extensions.(22) The proprietors were sympathetic as they realized that a healthy lumber company could be valuable to their own interests. Consequently, they decided not to press for repayment under the present conditions.(23)

The war years finally returned prosperity to the Prairie and the rest of the nation. This, however, was not true with the two smaller lines of the area. The Craig Mountain continued to press the Camas Prairie for the end of its rental agreement for rails. The goal was to reach some sort of cash settlement to end its ordeal. America's active involvement in World War II ended the discussion. The end of the war served to increase the need for lumber and the Craig Mountain was able to payoff its debt and settle its other outstanding problems with the Camas Prairie. In 1949 the lumber company was sold and the new owners asked the Camas Prairie to operate the line, but true to its previous position, the Camas Prairie Railroad hesitated to extend its trackage.(24)

The depression had so weakened the Nezperce that by 1943 the track had deteriorated to the point that delays and derailments were frequent. The line's owner, unable to rehabilitate the line, asked the city of Nez Perce to purchase the railroad. Failing in this request, he suggested that the line be abandoned.(25) The abandonment hearings were unpleasant for all concerned. The Camas Prairie refused to be forced into a position requiring it to manage the line. The citizens of Nez Perce maintained that the line had been allowed to deteriorate needlessly and that the Nezperce management simply wanted to sell the used rail at the high wartime scrap prices.(26) The Idaho Public Utilities Commission ruled that the line would be abandoned in October 1944. Prior to that date, though. a buyer was found and the line was saved.(27)

Three percent grade with tresselsnear Culdesac, Idaho.

Courtesy of Ed Stepanek

The Camas Prairie Railroad enjoyed the renewed prosperity engendered by the war. Both passenger and freight loadings increased, with freight traffic far in excess of what even the most optimistic had projected. The end of the war, however, did not result in an economic downturn as pent-up demand for home construction assured even more revenues to the line's freight business.

The region experienced the return of prosperity during the 1940s and the new decade finally would see substantial changes on the Camas Prairie Railroad. The line rapidly was becoming a modern branch line operation and that required extensive changes. One important change was the termination of all line passenger service in 1955. By 1950 the proprietors made it clear that they had no intention of upgrading Camas Prairie passenger service.(28) Passenger loads slumped dramatically and only the mail contracts kept the trains running. By January 1955 the parent companies began to compile information toward ending the mail contract and then all passenger service. Train mail service ended on March 1, 1955, and in August of that year the Camas Prairie terminated all passenger service.(29)

As passenger service was ending, the Camas Prairie began converting to diesel equipment. Diesel engines already had made an appearance in Lewiston in 1953. The trend continued and by the end of 1954 almost 80 percent of all traffic was handled by diesels.(30)

In the meantime, stations continued to close at a greater rate. The end of passenger service and the decline of intraline shipments made small town agencies costly redundancies. During the decade facilities shut down at Spalding, Fenn, Stites, and Ferdinand. With the exception of Ferdinand, no protests were heard.(31)

The Craig Mountain Lumber Company changed ownership during the early 1960s. The new owners, Boise Cascade, intended to end all service on the line, and in May of 1965 the lumber company petitioned to end that phase of operations. Since the Camas Prairie Railroad and local shippers expressed no opposition to the decision,(32) the small lumber carrier succeeded in ending all operations as of August 3, 1965. The Nezperce continued to operate, generally on a demand basis, hauling wheat to the Camas Prairie interchange at Craigmont.

Traffic on the Camas Prairie changed. Lumber was the key product and the line to Headquarters was far more important now to the line's balance sheet than was the original line to Grangeville. Only log shipments were still handled in large measure intraline. Lumber products were shipped out of Lewiston to various points around the nation. Except during the harvest season, grain had become a second commodity.(33)

The rivers of the region soon were dotted by a series of dam projects. The construction of the Dworshak Dam in the upper Clearwater Valley required the Camas Prairie to handle all log shipments. This greatly increased the intraline traffic handled by the railroad. These facilities provided an added bonus in that they allowed barge traffic to travel up the Columbia River system into Lewiston. Track was relocated along the line between Riperia and Lewiston and the Clearwater railroad bridge was raised approximately nine feet with the two fixed spans replaced by a vertical left span. Work on the projects began in April 1973.(34) The project was to be completed by February 1975.

The arrival of barge traffic gave the shippers of bulk commodities alternative transportation. Serious consideration was given to the fact that the Nezperce Railroad might cease operations since almost all its traffic was grain, the commodity most vulnerable to barge competition. The fear of such a move was confirmed in a meeting between the Camas Prairie Management and Nezperce President Joe Lux.(35) Since the small carrier contributed more than 1,200 cars per year to the Camas Prairie, the possibility of its termination would affect the larger carriers.(36) While some grain moved to the barges, the line continued to operate.

Freight trends on the Camas Prairie followed the pattern set during the postwar years. Lumber products continued to dominate and, if anything, they increased their position visa-vis grain products.(37) The number of cars handled during the period declined gradually, due partly to the use of larger cars; but essentially it was the weakened economy that spurred the reductions.(38)

After 70 years railroads still play an important role in the economy of the Camas Prairie region. The main line, in reality only an operating company, continues to dominate. Only one of the short lines which sprang up remains and it is in precarious economic health. Despite the checkered history of the lines. the area could not have developed and prospered without them.

Footnotes

1. Letter Howard Elliott (Northern Pacific) to Fredrick Finch, Superintendent of the Camas Prairie Railroad, September 15, 1909.

2. Letter Fredrick Finch to Railway Equipment & Publishing Company, April 2, 1910.

3. Letter Finch to Blanchard, Northern Pacific, no date.

4. Letter Elliott to Finch, September 15, 1909.

5, Letter Finch to Blanchard, December 27, 1912.

6, Letter Farrell to Finch, February 8, 1914,

7. Letter Farrell to Finch, May 29, 1917.

8. Letter Finch to Blanchard, July 16, 1917.

9. Letter Finch to J. Cochran, Assistant General Attorney, Union Pacific, May 1, 1918.

10. Letter Finch to FarrelL June 28, 1918.

11. Letter R.E. Hanrahan, Manager Camas Prairie 1918-1947, to Fredrick Finch, Union Pacific. Finch was now working in Portland for one of the parent companies.

12. Letter to Hanrahan to Hanneford, Northern Pacific, July 15, 1919.

13. Telegram Public Utilities Commission of Idaho to Camas Prairie Railroad, July 26, 1922.

14. Letter Hanrahan to O'Brian (Union Pacific) September 5, 1922.

15. Letter Hanrahan to A. Shirley, Northern Pacific Agent, Lewiston, January 29, 1926.

16. Letter Landry (Northern Pacific) to Hanrahan, April 10, 1930.

17. Telegram, Hanrahan to O'Brian (Union Pacific) July 5, 1931.

18. Letter Cottonwood, Idaho, Commercial Club to Idaho Public Utilities Commission, April 19, 1932.

19. Circular to all agents of Camas Prairie Railroad, October 31, 1932.

20. Special Report, Camas Prairie Railroad to Northern Pacific and Union Pacific, September 1, 1934.

21. Union Pacific Agent reports January 1933 to December 1939.

22. Letters president of Craig Mountain Railroad to Hanrahan, October 4, 1934, and December 6, 1937.

23. Letter Hanrahan to Northern Pacific, February 9, 1938.

24. Letter Lagerquist, Manager Camas Prairie, 1948-1953 to Albright, Union Pacific, March 26, 1949.

25. Letter Hanrahan to Finch, July 9, 1943.

26. Letter Hanrahan to Finch, October 2, 1943.

27. Telegram, Hanrahan to Agent, Craigmont, September 1944.

28. Letter J.F. Alsip to I.M. Lagerquist (Manager Camas Prairie) December 28, 1950.

29. Public Notice, August 3, 1955.

30. Statement of Hours and Miles worked by Steam and Diesel Locomotives in Lewiston Yard Service. June-December 1954; January 1955.

31. Telegram O.A. Hanson, Manager Camas to December 1939. Prairie to Union Pacific and Northern Pacific, November 23, 1959.

32. Letter, J.H. Harwood, Manager of Camas Prairie to J.H. Baker, Union Pacific, May 5, 1965.

33. Report of Average Car Loading for years 1967-1971. Press reports were issued at ten-day intervals.

34. Letter R.E. Hanks to R.M. Brown, Union Pacific, Omaha and G.H. Baker, Burlington Northern, Portland, December 11, 1972.

35. Letter Hammond to President, Camas Prairie Railroad, May 13, 1975.

36. Letter Hammond to L.P. Rogers, January 19, 1975

37. Average Car Loading, January 1970 to December 1923.

38. Ibid.