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History of the Spokane Portland and Seattle Railway

Updated on October 4, 2016

Northwest's Own Railway

The Northwest's own Railway was literally a pawn in the railroad game in the very early 1900s. James J Hill and E H Herriman (owner of the Union Pacific Railroad) were in a bitter feud in the Northwest. Hill had gained control of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the Depression of 1893, and thus he had a monopoly in the Pacific Northwest. Herriman intended to build a line from Salt Lake City to Portland and then paralleling the Northern Pacific to Seattle. Hill didn't want that to happen so the Spokane Portland and Seattle was built.

Starting from Vancouver Washington (with trackage rights into portland over the Northern Pacific) the SP&S built east along the Columbia River from Vancouver to Pasco. This author has railfanned and has take a number of trips through the Columbia River gorge, which is very beautiful. Anyway, at Pasco, the line turns North east and follows the Snake River a tributary of the Columbia to south of Kahlous Wash. At this point it heads inland to the third largest city in Washington, Spokane.

The SP&S operated its first train over the entire railroad in 1909, opening a direct link for its parents the Great Northern and Northern Pacific a direct link to Portland. At a little town of Wishram, the SP&S built a spectacular bridge that wyed on the north end so trains coming from the south could head east or west. This line was built south to Bend Oregon. Timber lands as well as a connection with the Western Pacific Railroad was the catalyst for building the Oregon Trunk, a wholly own subsidiary of the SP&S. Hill had always dreamed of getting to California, and in 1931 he made it, from Bend though Klamath Falls the Great Northern built again and on over the syskiyous to a town called Bieber California. It was at this town that the Western Pacifi c built to, from Keddie California A distance of 112 miles to meet the Great Northern and have a direct connection to the Northwest.

The SP&S didn't stop the Union Pacific from reaching the Northwest. They bought the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company (OR&N) which had built a line on the south side of the Columbia River. This railroad linked with the UP in Salt Lake City.

The SP&S operated as a separate railroad but was under the direction of the Parent roads, as each had members on the SP&S Board of directors. They tacked on to parent locomotive orders, and that is how they gained the 700 class of Northerns that look identical to the Northern Pacific's 4-8-4s. They alternated every ten years the use of the GN and NP rail yards in Spokane and thus kept costs down.

The line itself was so well built with slight grade that it can handle anything. James J Hill believed it was to well built, however it stands in testimony today as one of the heaviest used BNSF routes in the Pacific Northwest, with export grain and coal loads trans-versing it daily, along with intermodal trains. It is one of three crossings of the cascades and has proven itself useful day in and day out.

In 1970 the SP&S joined it's parents Great Northern and Northern Pacific merged with the Chicago Burlington & Quincy to create the Burlington Northern Railroad. Today, Amtrak's train 27 and 28 the Portland section of the Empire Builder transverses the line that it has since the 1930s.

Wishram WA Railroad Bridge

Former SP&S Bridge, looking north. Notice how the bridge forms two legs of the wye.
Former SP&S Bridge, looking north. Notice how the bridge forms two legs of the wye. | Source

Passenger Trains

The SP&S had three sets of passenger trains operating over its line in the 40s-60s. These were Trains 1 and 2, the westbound and eastbound Great Northern's Empire Builder, and the Northern Pacific's North Coast Limited. Trains 3 and 4 were the Great Northern's Western Star and the Northern Pacific's Mainstreeter. Trains 5 and 6 were locals operated by the SP$S providing service to the towns that the streamliners skipped.

Trains 1 and 2 were numbered like the parents crack passenger trains until they changed in 1952. The SP&S kept those numbers until the very end (and that goes for 3 and 4 as well). The Great Northern, added a Portland section to their Empire Builder (Mid 30s) and Western Star (1952). These trains split in Spokane and would have a consist looking like this:

E7 Locomotive: 750 and occasionally F3 #800 or 801

SPS Baggage Car

2 GN Coaches

SPS Diner

2-3 GN Sleeping cars

The break up (westbound) or make up (eastbound) of the Empire Builder took place around midnight on a nightly basis. The Streamliner (#1) as it was known as, would leave while the Builder was being reassembled and by about 3 am, the Streamliner was in Pasco at the Northern Pacific station repeating the ritual with the North Coast Limited. The combined train would follow rthe Columbia River and reach Portland around 9:30 am.

Trains 3 and 4 were the secondary trains of the GN and NP were the work horses of the line, carrying the mail and packages. They had working RPOs and carried passengers. Both of these trains would carry tour groups to the national parks.

Trains 5 and 6 was the workhorse of the SP&S. It was a local that traveled the same lines, as the 1-2,3 and 4 but stopped at every little hamlet along the way.


Freight trains operated from Portland across the Columbia River to Vancouver WA then east to Spokane. At roughly the midway point is Wishram, a small railroad town about 100 east of Portland, from there they diverged to the south over the Inside Gateway or continued east to Spokane where they were then split into other trains heading east, Mostly over the parent roads of the Great Northern or Northern Pacific. In Spokane, the agreement was made that every ten years the SP&S would share the yard of each parent railroad. It is the only agreement that I know of where a railroad changes facilities every few years.

The SP&S primary reason was to forward the freight for the parent roads and to serve the communities along the Columbia River. It also was built to compete with the Union Pacific that was building on the Southern bank of the Columbia River directly to Portland.

Looks like SP&S #2 getting ready in  Portland OR.  This train left portland about 3 pm arriving in Spokane at 11:30.
Looks like SP&S #2 getting ready in Portland OR. This train left portland about 3 pm arriving in Spokane at 11:30. | Source


There are a number of places that you can find information on the Spokane Portland and Seattle:

The North Bank Road: The Spokane Portland and Seattle John T. Gaertner Washington State University Press 1990

The best book I've come across is this one:

SP&S The Spokane Portland and Seattle Railway Ed Austin & Tom Dill Pacific Fast Mail 1996.

This book has Maps, diagrams and history, giving one of the most complete picture of the history of the SP&S Railway


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    • bn9900 profile image

      Clayton Hartford 5 years ago from Alger WA

      Thank you for the kind comments, this line is roughly 300 miles end to end and he Main Cities on the line are Vancouver WA, Wishram, Pasco, and Spokane. Best of Luck with the layout.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 5 years ago from Orange County, CA

      Nice to meet another railroad buff here on Hubpages. I was not aware of this line and was thinking it might be self-contained enough to model in HO scale. Voting this Up and Useful.