The Heartbeat of the Gorge
By D. C. Jesse Burkhardt
There are so many obvious treasures in the Columbia River Gorge region of Oregon and Washington: the wonderful Columbia River and the many adjoining creeks and waterfalls; hiking trails along moss-covered rocky cliffs; the fresh snow that clings wetly to the distant trees; coyotes yodeling wildly in the evening. At dusk, you can see the icy flanks of Oregon’s Mount Hood shining with a rosy sunset hue, and then you can turn and look northward and see Washington’s equally magnificent Mount Adams glowing in the dimming daylight.
Yet there is something else unique to the Columbia River Gorge, and a lot of people miss it: the links to the history all around. Most striking, perhaps, is the heritage of the transportation network of the Gorge area. It is remarkable and impressive.
As it has for many decades, the Gorge landscape literally hums with the energy of people and goods in transit. East and west, tugs and barges on the Columbia River constantly move woodchips and grain and containers filled with a variety of freight. East and west, trucks and automobiles ply the always-busy highways. And east and west, two major railroad companies, Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe, move a mixture of merchandise ~ everything from scrap steel and coal to automobiles and grain and fresh fruit ~ around the clock, every day of the year.
The railroads in particular seem to carry a magic all their own, and the trains seem to connect in a spiritual way with the land. It’s as if the trains have always been there: blasting out of raw, rocky-faced tunnels; gliding along under various bridges; snaking along the edges of towns and along the big river; always coming and going somewhere distant, symbolic of our national connectedness.
On the Washington side of the Columbia River, trains operate on a route that opened in 1908. At its inception, the railroad doing the building was called the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway, and its slogan later became: “The Northwest’s Own Railway.” On the Oregon side, the tracks were laid down even earlier. In 1882, the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company began moving goods and people on a Columbia River Gorge route from Portland to Wallula, a railroad junction on the Washington side of the river.
Yes, the roots of history are deep in the Gorge, and there is a subtle romance in the steady passage of trains along the shores of the Columba River. The names on the multi-colored freight cars passing by call out with poignant and sometimes mystical images of the wonders of North American geography. Just take a look: Montana Rail Link. Canadian Pacific. Soo Line. Golden West Service. Kansas City Southern. Wisconsin Central. Pacific Fruit Express. Cotton Belt. Saskatchewan Grain. Santa Fe. Denver & Rio Grande Western. Dakota, Minnesota & Eastern.
In 2016, approximately 30 times a day, trains race other trains on both sides of the river: BNSF on the Washington shore; UP on the Oregon shore. From Portland to Pasco, the rail lines run essentially parallel, separated only by the wide river and the demands of competition.
It’s somewhat rare these days when two different railroads operate basically side by side. Line abandonments and rail company mergers have sharply reduced the once-common proliferation of parallel trackage, but that has not been the case in the Columbia River Gorge.
UP and BNSF are the major players here, but even Oregon’s obscure and diminutive Mount Hood Railroad, which operates between Hood River and Parkdale ~ a distance of just 21 miles ~ is an important carrier. The Mount Hood serves lumber customers and a propane dealer, but hauling tourists on a variety of popular scenic excursions are the primary reason for the shortline railroad’s continued viability.
And for the long-haul traveler, Amtrak dutifully serves the Columbia River Gorge with its daily Empire Builder train between Portland and Chicago. The Empire Builder rolls through the Gorge via Bingen-White Salmon and Wishram on the Washington side of the river.
The tracks in the Gorge run like bloodlines, tracing our heritage; creating the foundation from which many of our cities would come from as communities sprang up because the railroad went there. The Columbia River Gorge is forever framed with the movement of trains east and west, as if the entire nation was waiting on the goods and passengers rolling through.
It’s the heartbeat of the Gorge.
Burkhardt is the author of Columbia River Gorge Railroads (published by Arcadia in 2016). He lives in Snowden, Washington, in the heart of the Gorge region.