Call it greed or “manifest destiny,” but in the 1800’s, when our nation looked west, it saw its future. The western territories held the promise of indescribable treasures – minerals, timber, land – and the railroads were the key.
But Idaho’s geology was a railroad baron’s nightmare, with peaks and valleys everywhere, and few straight lines.
And yet to get to Seattle and Portland and Tacoma from Chicago and places east, trains eventually had to cross through Idaho. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t cheap.
But by 1916, four railroads had succeeded in traversing Idaho east and west: the Northern Pacific; the Oregon Short Line, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific; the Great Northern; and the Chicago,Milwaukee and St. Paul.
In fact, early in this century, Idaho and the Pacific Northwest was a jumble of competing railroads, with close to 3,000 miles of track in the State.
North Idaho’s virgin forests helped defray the costs of building the railroad through Idaho. In fact, the U.S. Congress offered railroads land along the tracks, much of it timbered land, to encourage transcontinental railroads. The Northern Pacific Railroad received the largest land grant of all.
The railroads themselves were one of the biggest customers for timber. It took 2600 railroad ties for each mile of track. Railroads also needed big timbers for their bridges and trestles.
But the railroads did more than carry goods like timber and grain to distant markets. They also brought emigrants seeking their fortune into the West. Before trains, it could take six months to get from Omaha, Nebraska to Portland, Oregon, via wagon train. After 1884 the journey could be completed in less than six days!
In 1883, a train brought the first tourists to northern Idaho. The tourists had a lovely boat trip around Lake Pend Oreille, and the reporters of the day wrote glowing accounts of the tourist potential around Idaho’s largest lake.
Railroads quickly realized the value of tourism to their business; they created an image of the West as a land of opportunity, and thousands of easterners headed to the land of milk and honey.
Whenever possible, railroads entered the frontier alongside the banks of waterways, because it was almost always the least costly route. However, some of Idaho’s rivers proved too much, even for the railroad barons.
The sheer ruggedness of the Snake River in Hells Canyon, along the Idaho-Oregon border, kept a north-south route through Idaho a mere dream. And the river that turned back Lewis and Clark, central Idaho’s Salmon River, kept railroad builders at bay as well.
Even today, there are no railroads that connect Idaho north and south.
It is hard for us to imagine the power that railroads exerted on the American psyche. Before, trains, each city had its own concept of time, and a journey across America required a person to adjust his watch at least twenty times. “They come and go with such regularity and precision,” noted Henry David Thoreau, “and their whistle can be heard so far off, that farmers set their clocks by them, and thus one well-regulated institution regulates the whole country.”