Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Following the Columbia Southern Railroad

Once upon a time, the central Oregon town of Shaniko billed itself “The Wool Capital of the World,” but today, its slogan is, “Oregon’s Best Known Ghost Town.” The intervening one-hundred years tell a tale of the drop in demand for wool after WWI, the rise of competition from other wool growing areas such as Australia and New Zealand, the development of new synthetic fibers, and, most importantly, the demise of the Columbia Southern Railroad.
This branch of the Union Pacific began in 1897 with the goal of connecting Biggs Junction on the Columbia River with central Oregon. Eventually, it reached the town of Shaniko, about 60 miles south of Biggs, but the terrain beyond was too rugged to continue construction to Prineville as originally planned. The trains moved people, wool, wheat, and heavy farm equipment to and from the vast expanse of central Oregon until a rival railway through the Deschutes River canyon to Bend ultimately put the line out of business.
Today, U.S.Highway 97 follows the approximate abandoned train route from Biggs Junction, about 20 miles east of The Dalles, south to Shaniko. The road climbs steeply from the Columbia River to a wide, rolling plateau dominated by wheat fields, wind turbines, and views of Mount Hood looming on the western horizon. The first town after Biggs is Wasco, where the train depot on the south side is about all that remains of the Columbia Southern Railroad. The building, with its mileage sign and name intact, is listed on the National Historic Register and is home to a retired, restored caboose.
Shaniko Hotel
Next on the train’s scheduled stops was Moro, the largest city (today’s population 340) and the county seat of Sherman County. In addition to a charming 1899 courthouse, the town is home to the national award-winning Sherman County Historical Museum, an outstanding regional museum. Its 16,000 artifacts tell the story of rural life in central Oregon, dry land wheat farming, Oregon Trail migration, Native Americans, and wartime patriotism. Especially interesting and touching, are a series of large, flip-through panels assigned to Sherman County families. Like scrapbook pages, longtime residents share their old and new family photos, mementos, news clippings, and other personal memorabilia. In a county with a population of only1800, over 100 folks volunteer at this museum and 400 belong to the historical society.
The road continues through the farming communities of Grass Valley and Kent to Shaniko. The town’s unusual name is a mispronunciation of the original postmaster’s German name, August Scherneckau. As the terminus of the railroad, Shaniko became the transportation and economic hub for an area of 20,000 square miles of Oregon outback dedicated to sheep, cattle, and wheat production.
In its heyday between 1900 when the first passenger train arrived and 1911, Shaniko shipped millions of bushels of wheat. In 1903 alone, wool sales exceeded $5 million and the town could briefly brag about being the busiest wool shipping center in the world. Population soared to over 300 and there was a bank, blacksmith shops, city hall and several hotels.
Restored Shaniko School
While the town was enjoying its new prosperity, a rival line, the Oregon Trunk Railroad, was built connecting the Columbia River to Bend and, from there, on to southern Oregon and California. When it was completed in 1911, most of the through traffic was diverted to the new railroad, leaving Shaniko as the terminus of a dead-end track. The town fell on hard times and languished for years. The 2000 census reported a population of only 26.
Around this time, wealthy Portland business man, Robert Pamplin, Jr., took an active interest in reviving the community and purchased a number of buildings including the century-old hotel and café whose striking brick façade and wrap-around porch are the focal points of the center of town. After spending thousands of dollars in renovations and digging a new well, Mr. Pamplin became embroiled in a dispute with the City Council over water rights  and responded by closing the hotel and café, capping the well, and putting up “for sale” signs. Now, for a reported $3.1 million, anyone can buy a slice of Oregon history.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for all the info - I've long planned to visit Shaniko and this might motivate me to get a move on! I love old ghosty towns.
    Ellen Pullen