The first segment of what would become a railroad line between Portland and Astoria was actually part of the Northern Pacific's original route to Seattle. The two bridges that now span the Willamette & Columbia rivers on the BNSF line north from Portland to Vancouver and beyond were not built until 1910. Long before these were built, Northern Pacific laid track on the west side of the Columbia River between Portland and Goble. A ferry, actually a floating railyard, completed the connection across the Columbia river by carrying the loaded railcars across the Columbia between landings at Goble and Kalama. Once on the east side of the Columbia, in what is now Washington State, the trip could be completed north on the line to Puget Sound. All of this was in operation by around 1883.
At the time, Astoria was an important metropolis in Oregon. However, despite the efforts of local civic leaders, Astoria had no railroad connection with the outside world. Many early attempts to build a railroad connection never got beyond the stage of incorporation. Then, in 1888, the Astoria & South Coast Railway was incorporated for constructing a railroad southward to Tillamook County, and by 1891 the line was operating between Skipanon (on Young's Bay opposite and somewhat south of Astoria) and Seaside, a distance of about 15 miles.
Then, work was shifted to link Seaside with Hillsboro via a route over the coast range mountains following the Lewis & Clark River and the Nehalem River. Throughout 1891 and 1892 work alternately started and stopped on the projected 71-mile line, including a 1,500 foot tunnel near Saddle Mountain.
Interspersed with the efforts to build the line to Hillsboro, efforts to build from Astoria to a connection with the Northern Pacific at Goble materialized, then stalled under the same financial pressures and multiple changes in ownership that plagued the route to Hillsboro. In 1893, the operating line was sold to a new company: the Seashore Road Company.
In 1895, the Astoria & Columbia River Railroad was incorporated for construction with a connection between Astoria and the Northern Pacific. Northwest Construction Company was contracted to perform construction, and despite the fact that A&CR did not own the Seashore Road Company, the contractor invested in improvements to the line, including work on a new bridge to connect the existing railroad with Astoria, and a line northward on the west side of Young's Bay to Fort Stevens and the area that would eventually become known as Warrenton.
In 1896, the Seashore Road Company started operating trains over a new bridge across Young's Bay, connecting Astoria to Seaside directly.
In 1897, the owners of the Astoria & Columbia River Railroad purchased the Seashore Road Company.
A ceremony celebrating the opening of the link between Astoria and the Northern Pacific was held on April 4, 1898, but the first train from Portland did not operate over the line until May 16. Some 700 people rode the train to celebrate the completion.
A 99-year lease was signed with the Northern Pacific to allow the A&CR trains to use the Northern Pacific line into Portland Union Station (at the time referred to as "Portland Grand Central").
In 1899, the last stage of the lines northwest from Astoria were completed, and the line was able to operate all the way to Fort Stevens.
In 1907, a short branch was built south of Seaside to Holladay. Here, a wye was built for turning the trains, and a connection to a logging railroad was also eventually made.
In 1907, James Hill, owner of the Great Northern Railway, purchased the A&CR.
In 1908, the Spokane Portland & Seattle Railway completed the bridge over the Columbia River between North Portland and Vancouver. The line in Washington State then started serving as the primary main line, and the ferry between Goble and Kalama was terminated. NP continued to own the line between Portland and Goble, but the primary use then became local traffic.
In 1911, the operation of the Astoria line was slowly converted to operation under the Spokane Portland & Seattle name (also controlled by Hill interests). The name did not disappear at once, but was simply slowly dropped from paperwork and other documents, as well as rolling stock.
In 1970, the entire line was combined into the Burlington Northern merger, which combined all of the stray paper companies (such as the A&CR), plus the Spokane Portland & Seattle, the Great Northern, the Northern Pacific, the Chicago Burlington & Quincy, and other companies.
In 1978, the line to Seaside was abandoned. The bridge over Young's Bay was decaying, and by the late 1980's all track west of Astoria had been removed.
In the early 1990's, the Burlington Northern wanted to get rid of the line into Astoria due to high property taxes and little traffic. Astoria wanted the line retained. Therefore, the city obtained the line, and today operates its city streetcar over the line.
In 1997, the line between Willbridge (the Willamette River Bridge) and Tongue Point was sold to the Portland & Western, a short line company.
Starting in 2003, the State of Oregon, in conjunction with The Portland & Western and Amtrak began operation of regularly scheduled passenger service from Linnton (just west of Portland) to Astoria using RDCs. This service, known as the Lewis & Clark Explorer, was intended to tap into the increased volume of tourism anticipated in conjunction with the bicentennial of the famed Lewis & Clark Expedition. While it now seems that the actual increase in tourism during this period was below many hopeful projections, the Lewis & Clark Explorer trains preoved to be widely popular, with some trains being sold-out weeks in advance. Despite this popularity, the service was never intended to be permanaent, and in fact, the purchase of the former BC Rail RDC's was only made possible by the temporary "borrowing" of funds within the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) budget, necessitating the eventual sale of the equipment to repay the funds. The last public train of the L&C Explorer ran in October 2005.
For more information, see:
The Northwest's Own Railway Vol. II- Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway
and its Subsidiaries; Walter R. Grande, © 1997, published by Grande
Press. ISBN 0-9634128-1-7.
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The PNWC also has much of the original reference material within its extensive archives.
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