The History of the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway

With less than 1000 route miles to its name, the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railroad was very much an underdog of mainline railroads. It was however a critical link for rail operations in the Pacific Northwest. Never intended for a prolonged existence, the railroad was jointly operated by the Great Northern and Northern Pacific for eventual acquisition by the latter. Despite this inauspicious setup, the railroad persisted as an independently classified company for almost 70 years, and proved to be an integral component to the success of future northwestern railroad operations.  

Origins of the Portland and Seattle Railroad

James J. Hill, founder of the Spokane, Portland & Seattle, and an early Portland & Seattle train crossing the massive Columbia River bridge between Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon.  

The railroad was incorporated by transportation magnate James J. Hill in 1905. As the owner of the much older and further reaching Northern Pacific and Great Northern systems, Hill’s primary concern was allowing the two railroads more direct access to Portland from the east, while also taking advantage of Oregon’s lucrative lumber trade. 

The chosen route for the trains would primarily follow the northern banks of the Columbia River – a route which had been eyed by railroad companies for several decades but had, for one reason or another, failed to be utilized. Despite this history, Hill’s decision to use the route was met with controversy, primarily from E.H. Harriman’s Union Pacific Railroad, which was already established on the south bank of the river. 

To counter any attempted challenges to the plan, Hill enlisted the support of both of his existing northwestern railroads to develop a jointly owned company called the Portland and Seattle Railway. Initial railroad construction was focused between Vancouver and Kennewick, Washington, to connect the two southernmost branches of the Northern Pacific, and by the end of 1907 a 122-mile section was placed into operation. 

Becoming the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad

Two acquisitions in the early 20th century were the Oregon Electric Interurban System (left) and the Astoria & Columbia River Railroad (right).  

With construction of the initial segment underway, Hill made the decision to expand the railroad to reach the larger inland community of Spokane, where the connection with further reaching railroads would instead be made. Reflecting this, the railroad’s name was changed to the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle in early 1908. 

In 1909, the SP&S reached Marshall, Washington, where it connected to the Northern Pacific for the remaining distance to Spokane. With the planned trunk route complete, Hill had meanwhile turned his attention west, purchasing several train feeder lines within Oregon, including the Oregon Electric Interurban Railway – featuring several lines in the Portland region and a mainline extending south to Eugene – and the Astoria and Columbia River Railroad – giving the SP&S a direct link to the Pacific Ocean at Seaside, Oregon. 

By 1911 Hill’s expansion of the SP&S would be completed with the acquisition of the Oregon Trunk Railway to Bend, Oregon, which would later become known as the Inside Gateway. This route enabled a direct link to the SP&S and associated roads for the Western Pacific Railroad without having to involve the competing Southern Pacific system. 

Operational Challenges for a “Second-Hand Railroad”

Examples of steam power on the SP&S, including the massive 4-6-6-4 Challenger which was purchased new as part of a Northern Pacific order. 

When initially conceived, the SP&S was intended to be more of a paper company, and the trackage was expected to be turned over to the Northern Pacific once service was underway. This never happened, and the railroad system was plagued by second hand treatment from the Northern Pacific and Great Northern, which continued to control the company after Hill’s death. 

While there was no question that the SP&S provided a vital link to the Portland region for the two railroads, they were reluctant to provide funding for the purchase of much needed train equipment. For the first three decades of operation, the SP&S had to rely on a mix of cascaded locomotives and rolling stock trains from its parent operators or lease equipment from their active rosters.

In 1937 the Northern Pacific placed an order for a new fleet of 4-6-6-4 Challengers. In a somewhat surprising move, an additional six examples were tacked on to the order for the sole use of the SP&S, becoming the first newly purchased locomotives to operate with the railroad. This tradition would continue throughout the following decades, allowing the SP&S to finally build up a reliable and efficient roster of modern equipment more suited to the demands of a vital trunk route.  

Second World War and Post-War Years

A typical SP&S consist from the 1950s and 60s, and the new face of the railroad, upon merging with its parent companies to form the Burlington Northern Railway. 

Business for the railroad grew steadily through World War Two, thanks in-part to its position along the banks of the Columbia River, where many wartime manufacturers sprung up. It also proved to be an important link in getting materials from the east to the Pacific Theatre.  

Although the railroad primarily handled freight, it did operate several of its own passenger train services, and served as an important link to allow cross country trains such as the salubrious Empire Builder access to Portland. 

As mergers began to form in the 1960s, it was clear that the SP&S would likely play a key role in how this would play out in the northwest. In 1970 the Burlington Northern Railway was formed, bringing the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy, Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and consequently the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle, under one new corporate owner.   

The Spokane, Portland and Seattle Today

A BNSF consist on the SP&S main at Wishram, Washington, and SP&S #700 on an excursion run. 

Today the SP&S mainline remains an important link in northern transcontinental rail operations. The Burlington Northern was merged with the Santa Fe Railway in 1996, and under BNSF ownership, the route continues to compete with the Union Pacific across the river. Now under Amtrak ownership, the Empire Builder still serves Portland daily. 

The former Oregon Electric lines were sold to the Portland and Western Railroad in the mid 1990s, and are now operated as a component of the Genessee and Wyoming company. Most secondary SP&S routes remain in place with the majority continuing to serve as active rail corridors. The only major exception being the line between Astoria and Seaside, which was abandoned in 1978. 

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the SP&S can be found at the Oregon Rail Heritage Center in the form of SP&S #700; A magnificent 4-8-4 Northern which was delivered new to the railroad in 1938. She remains mainline certified to this day, thrilling fans on excursions across the northwest, and is in the final stages of being rebuilt for continued operation as of 2021. 

Featuring the SP&S in your Model Railroad

If you find inspiration in the majestic Columbia River Gorge or tall northwestern evergreen trees, the SP&S might just be the railroad for you to model! Check out our collection of SP&S locomotives and rolling stock here, and bring a storied portion of northwestern history to your model train layout!