Railroading In The Lower Willamette Valley (1979)

Horner Museum Tour Guide Series

Railroading in the Lower Willamette Valley

By Robert Lowry, Kenneth Munford, and Harriet Moore

(Originally published in the Horner Museum Tour Guide Series, 1979)

In the past 100 years, dozens of companies have set out to build railroads in the Willamette Valley. Some never drove a spike; others went broke after laying a few miles or more of track. Others survived, becoming part of a larger system.

Today, the two rail giants, the Southern Pacific (SP) and the Burlington Northern (BN) operate most of the lines still in use. SP owns what once were the Oregon & California (O&C), the Corvallis & Eastern (C&E), the Oregonian Railway, Ltd., and several shorter lines.

BN owns what once were the Oregon Electric (OE) and the Spokane, Portland & Seattle (SP&S). Portland Traction Co. (PTC) still provides limited freight service over what once were lucrative passenger runs.

On this tour we take a look at some of these lines in the lower Willamette Valley--as they were decades ago and as they are now--and get a glimpse into their early and continuing influence.

Corvallis has had four railroads, in addition to a horse-drawn streetcar line. The latter ran from the depot on 9th Street down Washington, along 2nd Street to Monroe, thence to 7th Street, and west on Harrison to car barns at 18th Street and Kings Road. The streetcar ended its service as a taxi service from the depot to the Occidental Hotel on 2nd Street and Madison. (See photo in Culp, p. 228.)

The first railroad in Corvallis was the Western Oregon RR, a subsidiary of the O&C, from Portland. (See 1880 schedule in Culp, p. 41.) This line survives as the SP on 6th Street.

The railroad from Corvallis to Yaquina Bay started earlier (1874) and received its first locomotive, the Corvallis, in 1879, but it did not begin through service until 1885. Its promoters were Col. T. Egenton Hogg, his brother William Hoag, and Wallis Nash. It went through many reorganizations, being known successively as the Willamette Valley & Coast RR, the Oregon Pacific, the Oregon Central & Eastern, and the Corvallis & Eastern.

From its western terminus at Yaquina Bay between Newport and Toledo, it wound its way over trestles, through tunnels, and over mountains through Elk City, Eddyville, Nashville, Summit, Blodgett, Wren, and Philomath to Corvallis. Continuing their ambitious plan to extend the line across central Oregon to Idaho, the builders ran rails north along 8th Street, then veering east to cross the Willamette at Albany. It got as far as Idanha in the Cascades before bankruptcy ended the ambitious dream. It now provides a prosperous branch for the SP from Albany to Toledo. Some other sections are still in use. (See Culp, chapter 9.)

A third line, the Corvallis & Alsea Railway Co., built south from 6th and B Streets in 1908. (See Culp, chapter 19.) It bridged the Marys River and went south as far as Monroe, Alpine, and Glenbrook. It did not realize its intention of crossing the Coast Range to the mouth of the Alsea River. It is now owned by SP, which provides freight service to Monroe and Dawson.

Station buildings in Corvallis have been moved around a bit as SP realigned its tracks. The cement block depot, which replaced an earlier wooden structure at 9th Street and Washington, was moved to 6th Street between Madison and Monroe. The large yellow freight depot on 7th Street near Washington originally stood between 5th and 6th Streets at B Street.

The Oregon Electric (OE) built a fully electrified line on the east side of the Willamette in the early 1900s. (See Culp, chapter 26.) From Portland it crossed the Willamette at Wilsonville and continued south paralleling the main line of SP 122 miles to Eugene. East of Corvallis it ran a branch line from a station called Gray to the foot of the new Van Buren Avenue bridge. One of the station buildings is now used by the OSU Women's Crew.

Not to be outdone by a rival railroad, the SP electrified its west-side line to Corvallis and equipped it with handsome steel cars painted a smart red. We follow the route of the Red Electrics on our way home from Portland.

In the 1920s several electric trains a day ran each way between Corvallis and Portland on both the OE and SP. Improved roads, more automobiles, and depressed economic conditions by 1930 combined to discourage rail travel. The OE tore up the tracks to Gray. The SP de-electrified and went back to steam power, later converting to diesel.

Albany has also had four railroads: the O&C, the C&E, the Albany & Lebanon RR, and the OE, and also a streetcar line for a while. From the highway bridges over the Willamette the railroad bridge (C&E/SP) is a half mile downstream. The BN (former OE) tracks lie under the south ramps of the highway bridges. The OE originally came through Albany on 5th Street and the old depot, now used as a Veterans Building, still stands.

The SP depot, like the one in Corvallis, is made of cement block shaped to resemble stone. The O&C from Portland reached Albany in December 1870. Amtrak now stops here twice a day.

The long warehouses now used by the Pacific Motor Trucking Co., an SP subsidiary, were built in at least three sections. On the inside of a door in the center section the whitewash has worn off, revealing a bit of historic graffiti: "Charles Wilson, M.C., Sept 18, 1872," indicating the date on which the master carpenter completed his work 107 years ago.

The 12-mile-long Albany & Lebanon RR was built in 1880 and is still in use.

The BN yard adjacent to the Simpson Timber Co. plywood mill on Waverly Drive has a turntable that was made by the American Bridge Co. of New York in 1908, but don't let that date fool you. The turntable did not arrive at this spot until about 1930, when OE built a line up the South Santiam to Sweet Home, Foster, and Dollar. That line was not electrified and used steam locomotives out of Albany, hence the need for a turntable. Note post office car (ca. 1900), now a storehouse.


The O&C arrived in 1870 and the OE about 1911, giving this area an attractive location for industry, two major railroads, a state highway, and a nearby river to dump waste into.

The U.S. Bureau of Mines at its laboratory on the former campus of Albany College, developed technology for handling such rare metals as zirconium. Wah Chang (now owned by Teledyne) and other industries came to benefit from this expertise and cheap electrical power from Bonneville. Willamette Industries owns the Duroflake particle-board plant and Western Kraft paper mill. Boise Cascade and Plywood Components have plants here. The Georgia Pacific adhesives plant supplies glue for plywood plants in the west. The tank farm north of Western Kraft is part of SP's pipeline system between Portland and Eugene.

Beyond Millersburg we pass under I-5 and a half mile east, in the gap between Hale Butte and Hardscrabble Hill, we cross the wagon road blazed by land-seeking settlers in 1846, the Territorial Road to Brownsville.


Conser's Ferry (1848) was selected as the place for the O&C to cross the Santiam in 1870. The Pacific Highway paralleled the railroad in the 1920s. OE crosses several miles west, beyond I-5.

Marion and Turner

O&C planned a station on Mill Creek to be named for Marion County. When materials to build the depot were erroneously unloaded seven miles south, officials decided to build the Marion station there rather than reloading and moving materials back to Mill Creek. The station on Mill Creek was named for Henry L. Turner, early resident. (See Culp, p. 26; Atlas, p. 12.)

Turner Road into Salem parallels Mill Creek and the SP main line, passing the State Penitentiary Annex, and McNary Field, Salem?s airport.


This depot site in 1871, Salemites thought, was way out in the country "beyond the most remote suburb." (Culp, p. 22.) In its heyday, the present depot was a bustling place, serving nearby Willamette University, the Capitol, and the city of Salem. SP offices are now moving out, leaving it to Amtrak.

OE ran its passenger line through downtown Salem. The existing BN line on the river front is the freight bypass. It follows on the contours of the Willamette south almost to the crossing of the Santiam.


When the Indian school moved here from Forest Grove in 1885, it built on both sides of the O&C. This seemed a good idea at the time, but eventually trains running through the campus day and night created inconvenience and hazard. The new campus now being built, for a grand opening on the school's Centennial in March 1980,is half a mile east, well away from the tracks.

French Prairie Towns

Angling across the rich, productive prairie between Lake Labish and the Pudding River, O&C established stations three or four miles apart. Although four towns--Brooks, Gervais, Woodburn, and Hubbard--got started at the same time in similar locations on the same railroad serving the same French Prairie settlers, they have turned out quite different.


Named for Linus Brooks, 1850 settler, this community had 135 residents by 1878 and a town of 30 blocks had been laid out along the tracks. It grew hardly at all and never incorporated.


The first passenger train schedule for the O&C (September 1870) shows Waconda as the southern terminus of the 40-mile run from East Portland. A town of 18 blocks was laid out. It had a brewery in 1878, but attracted few residents. It was a half mile from the tracks. Nothing of it remains today.


The new station was built a mile north, where the Salem-Butteville road crossed the O&C. It was on property owned by Samuel Brown, a Pennsylvanian who had come west to California in 1846 and had done well in the gold rush. He came to Oregon in 1850 with $20,000. He took a 644-acre Donation Land Claim in September 1850 and bought others. For a town on the O&C he set aside 160 acres of the Peter Depot DLC. West of the tracks he reserved four blocks for depot, rail yard, and post office and platted 38 blocks for residences and Catholic church. Forty blocks on the east side included space for a Baptist church and a Masonic Lodge.

Brown's minister, Neill Johnson, at nearby Belle Passi, suggested that the new town be named for Joseph Gervais, the French-Canadian who had settled several miles to the west near the Willamette. Brown agreed, possibly because there was already a Brownsville in Linn County.

Gervais was the first French Prairie town to be incorporated (1878). Population in 1880 was 202. After a flurry of activity around the turn of the century, Gervais languished, with fewer than 300 people by 1940. It now has 870, but only four times its population of 100 years ago. The town is still fairly well confined to the 160 acres (1/4 mile square) originally platted for it.

Sam Brown House. (1858) "Being in close proximity to Gervais," says the 1878 Atlas (p. 50), "he [Brown] enjoys the advantages of both town and county." Brown had 12 children who reached maturity; several attended Willamette or Pacific university. He was a state senator for eight years. A son (or grandson) also named Sam was a state senator, sponsor of the popular $5 auto license fee, and ran for governor in 1936. The Brown house was a stage stop at one time; it is sometimes open to visitors.

Belle Passi

Remember Rev. Neill Johnson, the Cumberland Presbyterian minister who got caught in the argument over slavery between J.A. Cornwall and Bro. Small? This is where he built his church, school, and cemetery and grafted fruit trees in his nursery. Brown was a member of this church for more than 25 years and was a Sunday School superintendent at one time.

If the O&C right-of-way had been a mile east, this already established community would probably have been the station instead of Gervais or Woodburn.


This O&C station on the J.H. Settlemire property (Atlas, p. 38) was laid out on a more modest scale than Gervais. It had only four blocks on the west side of the tracks but had space for a Presbyterian church, post office, depot, and blacksmith shop. Woodburn was not incorporated until 1889, 12 years later than Gervais. By 1890, however, it had 405 people and doubled in the next decade. (Culp, p. 20.)

Woodburn spurted ahead of other French Prairie towns partly because it was the crossing and transfer point between the O&C and the Oregonian Railway's eastside line. The OR, financed by the Earl of Airlie and other Scots investors, had a narrow-gauge line on the west side from Dayton to Airlie. It also built an eastside narrow-gauge line from a ferry on the Willamette through St. Paul, Woodburn, Mt. Angel, Silverton, Crabtree, and Brownsville to Coburg. (Culp, pp. 65-68.) Parts of this line, as here in Woodburn, long ago converted to standard gauge are still operated by SP.

The OE missed Woodburn by two miles but ran a branch line in from West Woodburn.

"Old town" Woodburn has not changed much, but the "new town" surrounding it spreads over four square miles with a population of nearly 11,000, 26 times what it had in 1890. Gervais has nearly 4 times and Hubbard 10 times as many people as a century ago.

The post-war boom at Woodburn, from 1,982 in 1940 to 7,496 in 1970, is due in part to new industries and expanding trade but largely to the new retirement-home complexes and services for the elderly.

The road to Hubbard along the SP was once the Pacific Highway but became too congested. A new 99E was built farther east. It too became too congested and the I-5 freeway was built to the west. Now the old original highway is the least congested of all.

Note the markers along the railroad:

  • 70-60 indicates speed limits: 70 mph for passenger trains and 60 mph for freight.
  • 738 indicates mileage from San Francisco.
  • Searchlight signals with a single lamp and filters to give green, yellow, and red signals to the train crews. They replaced the more picturesque semaphore signals still used on the old main line between Cottage Grove and Ashland. The term green board is still used by trainmen, a carryover from the boards, or arms, of the semaphores.

Look sharp to the left and see the last of the Red Electrics. When SP de-electrified in Oregon in 1929, the usable cars were moved to Los Angeles, where they continued in use until the 1950s.


Charles Hubbard brought his family to Oregon in 1847. He visited Thomas Hunt, a squatter in a heavily wooded section of French Prairie. Hunt induced Hubbard to rent the property while he (Hunt) went to California to seek gold. Hunt was never heard from again. Hubbard bought squatter's rights from Hunt's widow and proved up a 639-acre DLC. In 1870 he laid out a town of 12 blocks. Later additions brought the total town plat to 37 blocks in 1878.

Another land claimer nearby in 1847 was Augustus R. Dimmick. Other Dimmicks settled in this vicinity. A member of this clan, Roland "Prof" Dimmick, founder of the Fisheries and Wildlife Department at OSU, was born in a house still standing on the east side of town.

Hubbard grew to 300 people by the time it was incorporated in 1915. It outpaced Gervais somewhat but still has only about 1,500 residents.

Wilsonville Cut-Off

The old Territorial Road that became 99E, like the O&C, stays on the east side of the Willamette to east Portland, which in the early days was a municipality separate from westside Portland. Pre-railroad travelers heading for downtown westside Portland could take the Boones Ferry Road, which we have been paralleling, cross the Willamette on Boone's ferry at present Wilsonville, and continue on N. Boones Ferry Road.


The 500 or so Germans who formed Dr. Keil's communal colony became famous in stage-coach days for the meals served to passengers when drivers stopped to change horses. Before trains had dining cars, railroad passengers and crews also enjoyed the bounteous tables of "Dutch Town."


On the right: William and Martha Ann Barlow's Italianate mansion and avenue of black walnut trees, probably the first in Oregon. On the left: the town founded by William Barlow, son of Sam Barlow, builder of the Barlow Toll Road. William Barlow, who helped build this section of the O&C on a $100,000 contract with Ben Holladay, founded the town. It was incorporated in 1903. It had a population of 69 in 1910, 85 by 1960, and 110 today. Growth has not been rapid.


Incorporated in 1893, Canby laid out extensive rail yards and prospered more than Barlow. (Culp, p. 18.) Daffodil, iris, other bulbs and flowers and shrub nurseries helped it become the service and shipping center for the area. A free ferry across the Willamette operates just north of here. Population now 7,100.

The overpass on the east end of town has historic significance. It was the first such private road built for logging trucks in the late 1930s and marks a transition point as trucks began to replace rails as the principal means of hauling logs.

New Era (Culp, p. 18)

Coalca (Rock Island)

Photogenic rock formation on cliffs. Shingle mill. Canemah, portage point for the Falls of the Willamette, was near here.

Oregon City

From an observation point, one views the setting for a great deal of early Oregon drama.


(Culp, p. 16) A church group still uses the grounds that were the site of Chautauqua's largest auditorium in Oregon in the early decades of this century. The program of summer lectures, classes, and entertainment known as Chautauqua throughout the country brought thousands of people to Gladstone every day for weeks at a time, many commuting by rail, others coming to camp for the educational series.

Jennings Lodge

Portland Traction Company's Oregon City-Portland trolley line that crossed the highway here was opened in 1893. One of the very first inter-urban lines in America, it operated longer (65 years) than any other. Rails from Oregon City to Golf Junction near Sellwood were torn up after 1958 but the right-of-way is still visible in places.


Founded (1847) by Lot Whitcomb, a builder of the first steamboat on the Willamette (1850). The Lewelling brothers started nurseries. Overpass on north city limits is PTC route to Gresham, now a freight line.


Park on left has ponds for sailing model boats and fly-casting. Beyond Eastmoreland Golf Course on the right is Reed College, endowed by railroad backer Simeon Reed.

Brooklyn Yards

In this maze of tracks is the spot where the Oregon Central East-Side line got its start on April 16, 1868. (Munford, p. 5.) Now principal SP yard in Portland area; main SP yards for the state are in Eugene.

Fourth Street

Route of the Red Electrics on their way to the Willamette Valley. Despite urban renewal, some landmarks of the 1920s remain: the bronze elk in Elk Park, City Hall, County Courthouse, Chinatown. Downtown ticket office and waiting room were at 4th Street and Stark.

Union Station

Built in 1893-94 by a Northern Pacific subsidiary to handle all Portland passenger traffic. Van Brunt & Howe of Boston were architects. At one time in 1922, it handled 52 steam trains and 38 electric trains a day, with trains moving out every 11 minutes between 6:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. (Culp, p. 9.) Note details of architecture and excellent care the building is receiving. The tower clock was built by the same man who installed the Benton County Courthouse clock.

Hoyt Street Yard

BN engine yard, turntable, and repair facilities, formerly a service station for steam locomotives. #4449 that hauled the Freedom Train was overhauled here.

Red Electrics

The SP's electrified line to Corvallis ran up 4th Street from Union Station. One branch turned left on Jefferson to the river front and went south through Oswego, Sherwood, Newberg, and Dundee to St. Joseph. The other, the one we follow, followed the grade that is now Barbur Boulevard to Capitol Highway and went west through Bertha, Glencullen, and Raleigh to the Tualatin Plains and then south to St. Joseph.

Woods Street

Duniway Park, where 4th Avenue becomes Barbur Boulevard, was originally a deep gulley that had to be bridged with a long trestle. Grading for the Oregon Central West-Side line started on the south side of the gulley near Woods Street on April 15, 1868, one day ahead of the East-Side line. (Munford, p. 5.)


The OE as well as SP had an electrified line through Beaverton to Forest Grove. BN and SP still operate freights through here. The post-war boom in Beaverton as an industrial city and Portland suburb has created much highway traffic, frequently jammed by long freight trains. City fathers wrestling with the problem have come up with a possible solution: Dig a tunnel a mile long under the city for rails.

     St. Marys of the Valley. Catholic school for girls on left; for boys a mile west on right.

Huber (1910)


Aloha (1912)


Reedville (1877)

One of the places where Simeon Reed raised pure-bred stock. Avenue of Lombardy poplars on left led to house on Reed Farm.

Witch Hazel

Named for a shrub or a racehorse?


Building on left, now Washington County offices, was built for the county poor farm.


Shute Park, long-time site of county fair and 4th of July celebrations; now city library and historical center. Branch line of SP that crosses Base Line Highway at west end of city takes off to the north to Tillamook. Built early 1900s. (Culp, chapter 12.)


Founded when the railroad came this way 1871. Once served by both OE and SP electrics.

Forest Grove (1850)

Terminus for this OE branch.


Joseph Gaston, lawyer, journalist, and promoter of Oregon Central West-Side line (Munford, p. 3), founded this town beside Wapato Lake. He foresaw the agricultural potential of the lake once it was drained. He built a house and sometimes lived here, perhaps while writing his monumental Centennial History of Oregon (1912).

Cove Orchard

Promoted for fruit growing in early 1900s.


North Yam Hill, settled in 1850s, antedates the railroad. It was the connecting point for the Trask River wagon and stage-coach route to Tillamook.


Grew up around the 1874 railroad station. Portland bankers, Ladd & Reed, had a stock farm nearby and hired a manager from Sweden. Friends followed him to "the rolling hills, woods, and pastures" and became known as the "Swedes of Yamhill." (Oregon Historical Quarterly, March 1975.) SP depot ornately trimmed by skilled carpenters. (Culp, p. 241.)

St. Joseph

(Culp, p. 40.) Ben Holladay's town site where the two branches of the Red Electrics merged is now only a siding, about a half mile east of where we join 99W.


(Culp, p. 42.) Old 99W through the city crossed SP track twice. Newer route avoids them.


Trestle is one of the longer wooden ones left on SP. The sheathed bents at intervals are to prevent fire from spreading, even though they are made of wood. Piling and ties are treated with preservatives.

The narrow-gauge Dayton, Sheridan, & Willamina used to cross SP here. Still operated from Y at this point.


Well established long before railroad.


Electric lines had to have sub-stations every 20 miles or so where the AC current from the power lines was stepped down to DC for the trolley motors. A Red Electrics sub-station building can still be seen at McCoy.


On Senator James Nesmith's farm adjacent to Rickreall, the station was named for the Nesmith ancestral homes in New Hampshire and Ireland.


A mile south of Derry, the SP tracks cross the rail line to Dallas. The station there was named for lumberman Louis Gerlinger, who promoted the Salem, Falls City & Western Rail Road, then turned it over to SP to operate. (Culp, chapter 21.)


The Red Electrics swung southeast through Independence. Another line connected with Monmouth and Airlie. It was not electrified but had a steam locomotive built to look like a passenger car, a steam-powered inter-urban that ran down the streets of both towns. The narrow-gauge Oregonian Railway also ran through Monmouth on its way between Dallas and Airlie. (Culp, p. 158.)


The Valley & Siletz, now a Boise Cascade line, is still operating to Pedee west of here, but the tracks to Valsetz are being torn up. It now owns more box cars than ever before, about 200! It will continue as a switching property in the Independence area. (Culp, pp. 172-177.)


SP station is a mile east.

Wellsdale (or Wells)

A mile and a half east of the Adair marker. It was the rail station and yard for Camp Adair, 1942-1945.

Mt. View

Station at Lewisburg.


In 1881 the West Side Division of the O&C ran daily trains both ways between Portland and Corvallis along the route we have come. The one from Portland left at 8:00 a.m., and if it was on time and did not lose too much time at the 24 stations along the way, reached Hillsboro at 9:40, McMinnville at 11:50, and Corvallis at 3:00 p.m.

Oregon Electric trains cut this time somewhat, making the run from Portland to Albany in 2 hours and 10 minutes, to Corvallis in 2 hours and 40 minutes, and to Eugene in 3 hours and 16 minutes.

Re-establishing inter-urban rail travel through the Willamette Valley faces many problems, but it does remain a possibility.

To appreciate fully this journey into the past, tourists should make use of three other publications:

Edwin D. Culp, Stations West.

The 1878 Atlas of Marion and Linn Counties.

Kenneth Munford, The Oregon and California Railroad.