Book review: Wheat Country Railroad

By February 13, 2019 Features

By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor

Publishing is an under-appreciated, fundamental part of railway preservation. Thank goodness there’s so much of it. I persist in my strongly held belief that no other industry or technology comes close to generating as many books as railroading–make that the history of railroading. If it hasn’t yet been covered, someone will do it. If it has been covered, there’s a good chance another book on the same subject is on the way.

There are categories within railroad books that range from popular to academic. Most plentiful and accessible are photo books. Thanks largely to Morning Sun Press, there are hundreds of titles (576 to date by Morning Sun) that have converted private color slide collections into an amazingly comprehensive coverage of railroading from the 1940s onward. Arcadia’s Images of Rail series has opened the door to a blizzard of small paperbacks (241 so far) filled with photos of highly local subjects. Other smaller publishers have added many more.

Then there’s the art photo book, celebrating the careers of the great rail photographers from O. Winston Link and Phil Hastings onward.

Next come the specialists, meaning those who relate the history of a railroad, a portion of a railroad, or selected rolling stock. These are profusely illustrated and highly technical, extensively describing the rolling stock and physical plant. Include the large subgroup of traction histories here. Thanks to advancements in desktop publishing technology, many are now produced the various technical/historical societies.

Finally there are the scholarly works, heavy on text, light on photos and fully foot-noted. The opposite of popular, easily digested history, they are important nonetheless for presenting fundamental research with academic rigor. Often they go behind the scenes to relate the their subjects’ business and political history.

Such a work is the newly released Wheat Country Railroad: The Northern Pacific’s Spokane & Palouse and Competitors. It’s a product of the Washington State University Press, the 11th regional railroad title from that publisher. It keeps company with such other sponsors of rail history as the University of Indiana Press and the University of Minnesota Press.

At 350 pages, with 52 photos and six maps, it tells the pre-1910 story of how competing railroads colonized the Palouse, the highly productive agricultural region of eastern Washington south of Spokane.

Three transcontinentals, the Northern Pacific, Union Pacific and Great Northern, passed nearby and sent feeders into the region. Three nabobs, to use Beebe’s term–Harriman, Villard and Hill–coveted the prize but feared over-building. They spent considerable effort, thoroughly documented here, to cooperate in order to keep freight rates up. One result was the Camas Prairie railroad, jointly operated by NP and UP. On the other hand, local farmers desired competition to keep the rates down. These countervailing forces, combined with local speculation, boosterism and barge competition, complicated matters considerably.

To a large extent this is a business history. Long before rails were actually laid, companies incorporated that went nowhere. Local builders did start construction and eventually were absorbed by the big three.

The NP built the Spokane & Palouse from the north. It also backed the Columbia & Palouse, which entered from the west. The Oregon Railway & Navigation approached from the southwest, and was leased jointly by NP and UP. All three railroads were forced into receivership by the Panic of 1893. Meanwhile, James J. Hill’s Great Northern completed its transcontinental route from Minnesota to Puget Sound. Hill wanted into the Palouse as well and took advantage of the NP’s weakened condition to purchase interests in the NP and the OR&N. Hill eventually built his own railroad, the Spokane & Inland Empire, into the Palouse. As a final complication, the Milwaukee Road’s Pacific Extension ┬áserved the northern edge of the Palouse.

The author has researched all this extensively and the result is a fine grained account of how all the railroads in the Palouse were planned, funded and constructed. The business dealings, alliance and divorces are Byzantine in their complexity and the author follows every thread. Despite a summary timeline at the beginning of the book, it’s hard to get an overview without reading the entire text. Suffice it to say that the Palouse was a pawn in a 3D chess game among robber barons.

This is not to say that rail fans won’t find content of value. Appendices inventory the physical plants of the Spokane & Palouse and the Columbia & Palouse in great detail.


Leave a Reply