Waterville Railway construction begins on October 14, 1909.

  • By Laura Arksey
  • Posted 4/12/2010
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9380

On October 14, 1909, construction begins on the Waterville Railway running from the town of Waterville to Douglas, a hamlet five miles east. There it will connect with the Mansfield branch of the Great Northern. This little standard gauge railroad, 4.5 miles long, is claimed at the time to be the shortest in the United States. Whether or not this is true, it is certainly one of the shortest in the state of Washington. It proves essential to relieving the isolation of Waterville, the county seat of Douglas County, and to getting the area's wheat crops to distant markets. Of amazing duration and never in debt, the railroad will operate from 1910 until 1948, when bridges and part of the track are destroyed in the flood of that June.

Building the Missing Link 

Merchants and farmers had long wanted railway service. For Waterville, on the high Columbia plateau rising east of the river, transportation had always been a problem. Road access to Spokane involved various obstacles including the steep sides of Moses Coulee, while access to the Columbia River steamship landings meant negotiating treacherous Corbaley Canyon over a route that followed an old Indian trail. The temporary solution for getting wheat sacks from Waterville down to the river and merchandise up to the plateau had been a tram with large steel buckets that operated from 1902 until the railroad came in 1910. Passengers, mail, and additional freight still had to come by stagecoach and wagon until the arrival of the railroad.

On October 9, 1909, the Great Northern completed a branch leading from Mansfield to Douglas, from which it connected with the main cross-country route via Wenatchee. Of course Waterville leaders had been hoping the Great Northern would continue its spur line from Douglas into their town. When this did not happen, they formed their own company, the Waterville Railway Company, to fill in the missing link, raising $80,000 to do so. A. L. Rogers of Waterville, a former Great Northern employee, did the original engineering of the Waterville Railroad, charging the local company $1. Rogers speculated that the Great Northern had questioned the profitability of building a spur line into Waterville because of the "bad adverse grade" ("Waterville Developed ...") from Douglas to Waterville, which was 275 feet higher.

The railroad was completed in the summer of 1910 with ties, rails, and fastenings on more or less permanent loan from the Great Northern. Depots were built at both Waterville and Douglas for freight and passengers. When the Waterville Railroad had been in operation for six years, Rogers reported: "Every year there has been a small but steady profit, which has been invested in school bonds and stowed away as a reserve fund. Out of this reserve fund the roadbed is maintained, overhead charges paid and emergencies of all sorts provided against" ("Waterville Developed ...").

One such emergency occurred on February 26, 1920. The passenger coach, which five people had already boarded, was waiting by the Waterville depot while the freight cars took on wheat at a siding. Somehow the brakes released and the coach began rolling down the track. It reached the speed of 40 miles per hour and did not stop until crashing into the depot at Douglas and knocking it four feet off its foundation. Miraculously, no one on the coach or in the depot was hurt, but the damage to coach and depot was significant.

Decline of the Line

In 1927, the Great Northern was considering reclaiming the loan of rails and other equipment. The Waterville Railway Company would either have to cease operation, raise money to replace them, or buy them from the Great Northern. The officers of the company sent a long letter to the Great Northern tracing the history of the little railroad and its critical importance not only to Waterville but to all of North Central Washington. They also reminded the Great Norther of a verbal agreement, "That so long as track material was used for the benefit of the community as a whole, and all traffic assembled was turned over to the Great Northern Railroad ..." and that the Waterville Railway did not "pass into other hands that were opposed to the best interest of the Great Northern Railway," the Waterville Railway could continue to use items from the original loan (Beginnings, 24).

The letter acknowledged that the agricultural slump of the 1920s, with poor wheat prices, bank failures, and bad weather, had reduced freight shipments, but assured the Great Northern that the worst of it was over: "Our outgoing and incoming carload tonnage has come back and will justify the maintenance and operation of the road" (Beginnings, 24).

End of the Line 

Passenger demand was also down because of the "disastrous effect of the automotive industry and the craze for private cars, trucks and auto buses," but writers of the letter naively insisted that "the peak of the automotive industry has been reached ..." and when "people will get over their joy riding spree when their bellies are empty and their credit exhausted" (Beginnings, 24), passenger demand would recover. Their arguments must have been persuasive, as the Great Northern withdrew its threat to call in the loan. Freight shipping recovered but the demand for passenger service gradually dwindled.

The great flood in June of 1948 doomed the Waterville Railway, washing out bridges and part of the track through Douglas Creek Canyon. It was never rebuilt, and the tracks were taken up in 1954. In 1985 the Burlington Northern, which by then had acquired the Great Northern, abandoned the Mansfield-Douglas line, leaving that portion of North Central Washington without any rail service whatsoever. The dreaded cars, trucks, and motor coaches had taken over for good.


Sources: Beginnings (Waterville: 1989), 22-25; "Waterville Developed Community Spirit in Days When it Had No Railroad -- Now This Spirit is Bearing Fruit," Spokesman-Review, October 8, 1916, p. M-5.

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