Pardon me boys, is this the Chattanooga Choo Choo? No ma’am, you’re on the wrong side of the country. This here’s the Washington, Idaho, Montana lands, our railway is so aptly named for that there reason. Unique, creative, ingenious, surely one-of-a-kind, huh? Yeah, they must have thought so too when they named it!!
Get on board, the train is about to leave the station!! Git in, git yur seat, sit quick or someone might beat you to it. Those with hogs, sheep, cattle and / or chickens, ride in the rear, mother-in-laws, well that’s another story. Hurry, hurry, hurry, women and children first.
That there picture at the top of this page is of Historic Depot, from back in the day. The group in charge of it is the WIMRyHPG, and they’ve been working hard for 15 years to completely rehab the ol’ girl. Yep, there are two, count them, two historical groups in Potlatch, Idaho. The Railway Preservation Group has a website with their own special history, let’s give a shout out to them at: http://www.wimryhpg.com/
Around 1900 a group of Midwestern logging men who had moved west formed the Wisconsin Log and Lumber Company and developed plans to begin large scale logging in the Potlatch Basin of Idaho. In March 1903 this company merged with the Weyerhaeuser interests to form the Potlatch Lumber Company. The officers in this company were William Deary, Henry Turrish, and William Laird. There was much valuable timber near Bovill, Idaho, and in 1905 the lumber company decided to abandon its Palouse, Washington mill and construct a larger one elsewhere.
The place selected as the terminus and mill site, according to John B. Miller in his book The Trees Grew Tall, was Moscow, and the road was to be called the Moscow and Eastern. But, early in the planning, when the men learned they would have to pay inflated prices for land for a right of way, and also, as William Deary so colorfully put it, that “there isn’t enough water in Moscow to baptize a bastard” (Ralph W. Hidy, et al. Timber and Men, p. 256) it was decided to move the mill eighteen miles away. The town of Potlatch was built and construction of the railway begun.
William Deary and Charles Weyerhaeuser asked the Northern Pacific Railroad, one of the major railroads operating in the area, to build its lines into the timber and contract for hauling logs from the Potlatch mill, but after some thought the railroad officials felt the anticipated tonnage would not justify the expense of building the road. This left the lumber company with no alternative but to build the road itself. The attitude of the Northern Pacific officials changed several years later when they learned the Milwaukee Road would be building in northern Idaho. The Milwaukee officials managed to get an agreement from Weyerhaeuser not to sell his now completed railway for ten years. However, in August of 1908, when the president of Northern Pacific, Howard Elliott, called on F. Weyerhaeuser with an offer to buy his road, and was told of the agreement with the Milwaukee Road, he threatened to build a parallel line. Weyerhaeuser called his bluff, but a proposed agreement was drawn up between Weyerhaeuser and Elliott on August 31, in which the cash figure of $2,5OO,OOO was offered for “all rights of way, station grounds, equipment, material on hand, cash and bills receivable without liens or encumbrances of any kind.” Section 12 of this agreement mentions that as part of the purchase price the N.P. “will join with the C.M.&St.P. in a through rate between Palouse and Potlatch and points reached via the C.M.&St.P.” (W.I.&M. papers in the University of Idaho Library, folder 331) Weyerhaeuser was tempted to break the agreement with the Milwaukee Road and sell out to the Northern Pacific but was unable to got the concurrence of the other directors. In a letter to Weyerhaeuser dated August 21, 1908, F.S. Bell, Treasurer of the W.I.&M. said, “I am requested now to say to you that it would be against the judgement of all of us here (Mr. Norton, W.W. Laird, and himself) to make a sale of the road at this time …. We all expected to have to build the road when we bought the timber, and everything has worked out about as we thought it would except that we have built a better road and spent more money on it than we expected to when we began.” As a result of this refusal to sell it was not until 1922 that the Northern Pacific agreed to joint freight rates with the WI&M.
Although the lumber company built the road and took stocks and bonds for their expenditure, there was no other connection between them until 1932 when the Inland Improvement Company, the holding company for the WI&M, was dissolved and its stock sold to Potlatch Forests, Inc., and the railway then became a wholly owned subsidiary of that company.
The carrier was incorporated March 10, 1905 under the general laws of the state of Maine, as the Washington, Idaho and Montana Railway Company. The original directors were Charles A. Weyerhaeuser, F.E. Weyerhaeuser, F.H. Thatcher, C.L. Andrews, and G.R. Hadlock. Andrews and Hadlock were residents of Maine and named directors for the purposes of incorporation; they resigned after the first directors’ meeting and were replaced by O.R. Musser and William Musser. In a letter to F.E. Weyerhaeuser, dated Feb 27, 1905, F.E. Thatcher, president of the railway company, says, “Mr. Bell and I have canvassed this (the name) at considerable length and finally came to the conclusion to recommend Washington, Idaho & Montana Railway Company. We thought we ought to avoid the use of any local name which would suggest an industrial road, or a road connected with the Potlatch Lumber Company…. We incorporated the name Montana into the name because of the prevalent opinion in the West of a Missoula cut-off railway and because this road might be considered as the basis of a road from Missoula… ” This letter also goes into details of the plans for incorporation and the naming of a permanent board of directors. The lawyer assisting the railway company in setting up the incorporation was William E. Borah.
Construction began in 1905 and by the end of the year twenty miles of track had been laid from Lairds, Washington, northwest of Palouse, to Harvard, Idaho. By the end of the following year the line had been completed to Bovill, the occasion for a special excursion train, and in 1908 the line was extended to Purdue, a provisional terminus which served to bring logs from Potlatch’s Camp 8. The estimated cost of construction and equipment for the 46 miles of main line and ten miles of yard and side tracks was $1,147,882.00 for construction and $295,650.00 for equipment; the total actual cost to January 31, 1908 was $1,839,739.28 for construction and $326,439.99 for equipment, hence Bell’s comment that everything had worked out as they thought except they spent more money than they had planned.
The original plans called for a later extension of the railroad eastward through the Clearwater country, across the Bitterroots into Montana, but two events altered these plans. Probably the major reason was the Milwaukee Road’s branch line from St. Maries to Elk River which connected with the WI&M at Bovill. In January 1909 an agreement was drawn up between the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound and the Washington, Idaho & Montana railway companies for joint use of tracks at Bovill and division of rates. Another factor in the abandonment of the Montana extension was a 1910 forest fire along the North Fork of the Clearwater which destroyed much valuable timber.
On April 17, 1914, the railroad paid its first dividend of 3%, the second was paid in June 1914, a third in December 1914, a fourth on July 9, 1916, and the fifth dividend, paid June 13, 1916, was 6%. C.A. Weyerhaeuser, F.E. Weyerhaeuser, William Musser, R.D. Musser, and P.R. Thatcher owned one share each, the remaining 9,995 shares were held by the Inland Improvement Company, O.R. Musser, treasurer.
According to the Interstate Commerce Commission Valuation Docket no.228, 1925, the Washington, Idaho & Montana Railway is described as “a single-track standard gauge steam railroad located in the east-central part of Washington and the northern part of Idaho.” The line extended in a eastwardly direction from Palouse, Washington. From Palouse it ascended along the Palouse River for about twenty-one miles, then, after crossing the Flat Creek Summit at an elevation of 2,871 feet, it followed the valley of the Potlatch River to Purdue, Idaho, a total of 49.336 miles, 3.281 in Washington and 46.055 in Idaho. The road connected with the Northern Pacific Railway Company and the Spokane & Inland Empire Electric Railroad at Palouse, and with the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul at Bovill.
Stations on the line included Wellesley, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Vassar, Cornell, and Purdue, giving rise to the tale that these stations were named by the young college men who surveyed the right of way and supervised the construction of the line. Except for Princeton, which had its name long before the railway was built, the story could well be true. The New Yorker of June 22, 1946 printed a time table (attributed to the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railway) showing these stations and headed the item, “Dept. of Higher Education (Choo-Choo Division)” (Reprinted in John B. Miller. The Trees Grew Tall, p. 62.).
On September 30, 1905, the first passenger car moved over the tracks when the private car of Frederick Weyerhaeuser, who was on his way to make an inspection tour of Potlatch town and mill site, was transferred to the WI&M line at Palouse. On Sunday, November 12, 1905, rail traffic service to Potlatch was formally opened when William Deary, W.W. Laird, and 500 guests took an excursion train from Palouse to Potlatch. The train consisted of one passenger car and three flat cars equipped with seats. The twelve mile trip took 42 minutes. On December 9 the first scheduled daily run, extending to Princeton, began.
In 1933, in order to reduce expenses and yet maintain dependable service, it was decided to replace the regular steam operated passenger service. To this end a Studebaker automobile was purchased from Potlatch Forests, Inc., rebuilt in the railroad shops, put on the tracks, and christened “The Bug.” It made daily trips of about 120 miles carrying passengers, mail, and express until the end of 1937 when it was replaced by another specially built car, the streamlined “Potlatcher. ” In March 1955 the government discontinued the mail contract, and this, coupled with a reduction in passenger traffic, resulted in the discontinuance of passenger train service and the retirement of the “Potlatcher”.
Although the main purpose of the railway was hauling logs for Potlatch Lumber Company, it also provided a market outlet for the farmers of the area and carried a heavy tonnage of grain, vegetables, and livestock. It also renewed interest in the mining potential of the Palouse region. The railway hauled logs to the Potlatch mill, and transported lumber from the mill to the Milwaukee and Northern Pacific lines who transported it to its destination. A picture book put out by the Potlatch Lumber Company in 1907 shows a WI&M train of one hundred and four 41-foot long flat cars carrying 1,100,000 feet of logs.
The excellence of construction and close attention to necessary maintenance and repairs enabled the WI&M to rank with main lines in reliability and service. In 1930, in co-operation with PFI, the railway developed a method of protecting shipments of finished lumber from water and cinder damage by means of a paper tent. This innovation was so successful other railroads soon made inquiries about the method used for making these box car linings. In 1936 fourteen of the seventeen bridges on the line were rebuilt. The equipment at this time included five locomotives, two passenger coaches, fifteen standard box cars, 300 flat cars, a locomotive crane, a Woolery Railway Weed Burner, and other pieces of work equipment. The first diesel was purchased in 1950 and in 1960 equipment consisted of two diesels, sixty log flats, and two cabooses.
When construction of the railway began in 1905 the logging operations were only one mile from the Potlatch town site, but by 1960 they were thirty-seven miles away. On April 18, 1962, the Interstate Commerce Commission authorized acquisition of the Washington, Idaho & Montana Railway Company by the Milwaukee Land Company, a subsidiary of the Milwaukee Road. Under an agreement dated August 14, 1961, the Milwaukee Land Company paid Potlatch Forests, Inc. $460.000 for all WI&M stock. (Moody’s T ransportation Manual, 1966. New York: Moody’s Investment Service, 1966, p. 90.) In spite of the transfer of ownership, the WI&M continued to operate under its own name until 1980. When the Milwaukee Road was sold in 1980 the Burlington Northern Railroad purchased a portion of the road in Washington and Idaho which included the Washington Idaho & Montana line.