The COLUMBIA SOUTHERN RAILROAD
By Jerry Tanquist, PNWC contributor; with contributions by Ron McCoy February 7, 2014
The route of this railroad was through Sherman County and on to Shaniko, Oregon. It was 69 miles long.
Construction began in 1897 at Biggs, Oregon, a point on the Columbia River about 100 miles east of Portland, Oregon. The stations along the line going south were: Wasco, Moro, Grass Valley, Kent and Shaniko. The ultimate destination was Prineville, in central Oregon, but Shaniko, which was reached in 1900, was as far as it got.
E.E. Lytle was a strong promoter in building the line, and the Union Pacific encouraged its building; but its exact founders are in doubt. The Union Pacific had taken control of the railroad by 1905.
Shaniko was established as a rail hub; the town thrived for its first ten years as a shipping center for all points south of it, including Antelope and Prineville. Wool was the prime commodity being shipped, and for that decade it claimed to be the wool shipping capital of the United States.
The decline of the Columbia Southern Railroad began in 1911 when James Hill completed his Oregon Trunk railroad along the Deschutes River to Bend, Oregon. Hill’s railroad drew much of the shipping business from central Oregon and the economic incentive to build beyond Shaniko disappeared. The Columbia Southern then became dependent on Sherman County as its reason for existence. The market for wool changed, and wheat soon became its main commodity.
By the 1940’s the railroad was losing money and Union Pacific tried to close this branch. The farmers of Sherman County valiantly fought to save it, but the line was cut-back in several step over the following decades. The rails from Kent to the end of the line at Shaniko were abandoned in 1943, and later they were further abandoned beyond Grass Valley. The entire railroad finally closed in 1964, when a major flood washed out a large portion of the track between Biggs and Wasco.
For more information, see:
The book “ROADS AND RAILS SOUTH OF THE COLUMBIA” by Due and Rush.