The Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation Company

(OR&N) And Related Companies

A brief history by Glenn Laubaugh ; edited by Ron McCoy

Although the name itself has been long gone, what was once the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company (OR&N) and later the Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation company (OWR&N) is now part of the Union Pacific Railroad, and has been for over a century.

In 1878 and 1879, purchase negotiations were held between Captain Ainsworth, who owned the Oregon Steam Navigation Company and its related portage railroad operations, and the newly incorporated Oregon Railway & Navigation Company. By March 31, 1880, all operation was being performed under the OR&N name. Along with it came the Walla Walla & Columbia River Railroad, a line completed in 1875 between the Columbia River and the city of Walla Walla.

In early 1880, the WW&CR constructed an extension between the community of Whitman and a station known as Blue Mountain, in Oregon. The distance of the extension was about 14 miles.

Also in early 1880, the OR&N started construction of a railroad between Wallula and Celilo, Oregon. The Wallula to Umatilla section was opened for traffic in October of that year. By April of 1881 the line from the Dalles to Wallula was completed, and steamboat operations ceased between those points.

In 1880, the company reached an agreement to interchange traffic with the Northern Pacific at Wallula whenever the Northern Pacific should build into the area (surveys had been done, but no construction to that point).

A few branch lines were constructed and reorganized in the early 1880's in the area of Walla Walla.

In mid-1882 the line was completed all the way to Portland.

In mid-1883 the line became part of a transcontinental link, when the Northern Pacific was completed between Wallula and St. Paul, Min., providing the first all-rail link with the rest of the nation's railroad system.

In late 1883, there was a severe change in management at the OR&N. In 1884, the new management decided to evaluate the line and significant problems were found.

In 1883, an agreement was reached between the OR&N and the NP regarding various points relevant to the completion of the Northern Pacific. One of those points was that the UP subsidiary Oregon Short Line was to complete its line west to the Snake River, and the OR&N was to build east to that river, and complete another east-west transcontinental line.

The Oregon Short Line had been working on constructing a railroad through Idaho to Huntington, Oregon. A route all the way to the Columbia River at Umatilla had been surveyed by Union Pacific surveyors many years before. The OR&N built the line from Umatilla to Huntington over a period of several years, completing it in November of 1884. Through service started on December 1, 1884.

In November of 1886, the entire Oregon Railway & Navigation Company was leased by the Union Pacific. In 1887, the OR&N completed a line from Pendleton to Walla Walla.

In the late 1880's a series of finaincial transactions led to the Union Pacific purchasing half of Oregon Railway & Navigation Company shares, owned by a holding company with ties to the Northern Pacific, and the construction of several branch lines in eastern Washington. The first train over a new branch to Spokane arrived in that city in 1889.

Also, sometime prior to 1889, a branch line was built from Willow's Junction to Heppner, Oregon.

There was a failed attempt in 1890 to extend a line from Portland into Tacoma.

Severe financial problems occurred throughout the country in the panic of 1893. The management of the OR&N was passed on to a receiver.

The receivership had a significant impact on the city of Portland, as at the time port freight rates to and from Tacoma were considerably cheaper than from Portland due to Tacoma being easily accessible by ship and by the Northern Pacific constructing a line from Wallula to Tacoma over the Cascade Range. The recievership of the OR&N increased investment in Columbia bar tug service and towboat operation, which allowed for much better international freight service rates for Portland, allowing the city to compete nearly on the level with Tacoma. Other improvements were made by those parties that allowed for increased revenue and freight traffic along the line.

In 1896 the Oregon Railroad and Navigation was incorporated to take over operation of the Oregon Railway and Navigation. The Oregon Railway and Navigation company was forclosed to the new company.

The Union Pacific, under new management after the 1893 the financial disaster, was left with a transcontinental railroad that ended at the Great Salt Lake, where it connected with other railroads. Control of the Oregon Short Line (the line to the Oregon border with Idaho) was re-obtained in 1899. By 1900, the new Oregon Railroad & Navigation was a subsidiary of the Union Pacific.

In 1906 through 1911, the ORR&N and the Oregon Trunk competed a railroad along the Deschutes River into central Oregon. This series of events is a very interesting one, and the subject of many works, both fanciful and factual. Both Grande (volume 2) and Asay have a great deal of information on these lines, and those sources are suggested for those wishing to do further research.

During the early 1900's, several other branch lines south from the Columbia River were constructed. This included Rieth to Pilot Rock (1907); financing the construction of the Columbia Southern from Biggs to Wasco (1897), Moro (1899), Grass Valley (1900) and Shaniko (1900) and eventual control of this company in 1906; and financing the construction of the Columbia River and Oregon Central Railroad from Arlington to Condon (1905), with that company being leased to the ORR&N around 1906.

A branch line from La Grande to Joseph was constructed in stages: Elgin (1890), Wallowa (1908), and Joseph ( late 1908).

In 1910, a line from Ontario to Homestead, Oregon was constructed.

In 1906, the Union Pacific incorporated the Oregon & Washington railroad company to work on construction of a line from Portland to Seattle. The Northern Pacific was already operating a line from Vancouver to Tacoma, and it was thought that the UP could make use of this line for at least part of the way to Puget Sound.

The company abandoned all of its navigation on the Willamette River south of Oregon City around 1907.

Negotiations to allow the company to operate to Seattle were slow, and the agreement forced the UP/O&W to construct new lines in places, and gain additional agreements over the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific. By January of 1910, trains were operating to Seattle.

During this period, the company came to be called the Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation Company. The Union Pacific had adopted the policy of building new railroads by using subsidiary companies, possibly to protect the parent company from possible financial disasters. The Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation Company was incorporated in Oregon in late 1910. In December of that year, the Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation company aquired all the assets, liabilities, and operations of the smaller companies, except two of the smallest companies were kept.

In 1906, the company started getting involved in the process of building railroads in Central Oregon. As the majority of the track there is owned by the Hill lines, and was built by the Oregon Trunk or the Great Northern, with the UP owning intermediate sections, that history is covered in the Oregon Trunk section of the web site.

By 1912, river navigation on the Willamette south of Portland had been completely abandoned by the company.

In 1925, a branch line was completed from Ontario to Burns. Construction had been started in 1913.

In the 1930's, minor abandonments of the company's Oregon lines occurred. This included partial abandonment of the line to Homestead, as well as joint operation with the Spokane, Portland & Seattle of the Oregon Trunk railroad line from the Columbia River south to Bend. Other abandonments during this period were concentrated in Idaho and Washington, and therefore are not recorded here.

From the 1930's through the 1960's, the railroad's main line was rebuilt to accomodate the various river dam projects constructed on the Snake River and Columbia River.

As time went on, the O-WR&N name slowly fell into disuse. Although in later years steam locomotives still carried that name, the tenders of the locomotives had the Union Pacific emblem on them. All diesel locomotives came lettered and painted in Union Pacific colors, and therefore the Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation company name become much less visible as time went on.

Although corporate existence of the O-WR&N would continue afterward, for practical purposes of this brief history, the Union Pacific will be considered to have become the successor to the O-WR&N around 1950.

For more information, see:

Early Oregon Days; Culp, Edwin D.; © 1987 by the author; The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 312 Main Street, Caldwell, Idaho 83605; ISBN 0-87004-314-5

Union Pacific Northwest: The Oregon - Washington Railroad & Navigation Company; Asay, Jeff, © 1991 by Pacific Fast Mail, P.O. Box 57, Edmonds, Washington. ISBN 0-915713-21-7. Covers the entire history of most of the Union Pacific in Oregon, Washington and parts of Idaho.

Encyclopedia of Western Railroad History, Volume III: Oregon, Washington; Robertson, Donald B., © 1995 by the author. Caxton Printers Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho 83605. ISBN (volume 3): 0-8700-4366-8. This is a general history of railroads in Oregon and Washington.

Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest; Schwantes, Carlos A.; © 1993 by the University of Washington Press; Seattle and London. ISBN 0-295-97210-6.

The History of the Northern Pacific Railroad © Louis Tuck Renz, published by Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington. ISBN 0-07770-235-7.

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