The population of Oregon was burgeoning at the turn of the 20th century – nearly doubling every 20 years. The need and desire for transportation other than horse-drawn wagons in the mud, particularly in urban areas, spurred several groups of enterprising businessmen into action. The resulting interurban electric transit system drew worldwide acclaim; a 1913 story in The Times of London reported that ”Portland would soon have the third most extensive electric railway system in America.”
Oregon’s electric railroad roots were planted in 1891 with the formation of the Portland Railway, Light and Power Company. Considered the first true interurban line in the nation, it accommodated passengers, baggage, freight and mail between Portland and Oregon City. It was also the first to regularly interchange freight with mainline railroads.
Although the name and routes changed throughout the years, this railway was in use until 1958. Known as the Portland and Terminal Division of the Portland Traction Company when it abruptly ceased operations, it was the most enduring electric railway in Oregon.
With the backing of East Coast investors, the Oregon Electric Railway (OE) was capitalized in 1906 and began service in 1908. It expanded significantly in the next handful of years, with service reaching Eugene in 1912, yet never reaching its original goal of Roseburg as the southernmost terminus. One factor that led to the rapid expansion was the acquisition of the OE by James J. Hill’s railroad empire in 1910. Hill also controlled the giant Burlington Northern rail system.
As the railway was expanding, the decision was made to upgrade from 600- to 1200-volt operation. Due to voltage drop in the overhead lines, power substations were required at 18- to 20-mile intervals. At least four of these abandoned substations are still extant: Tonquin and Waconda north of Salem, and Pirtle and Cartney between Albany and Harrisburg. The latter stations are unique – the faces of each building have an ”O” and ”E” cast into the concrete at the front corners of the buildings, no doubt indicating ownership by the OE Railway.
The Oregon Electric Station restaurant in Eugene was exactly that, the Eugene station for the railway. The former Springfield Southern Pacific station, currently a museum, was leased to the OE for a short time. The Albany station is currently a pizza parlor. Two buildings of the North Bank Depot in Portland were the northern terminus of the OE and were preserved and converted into condominiums in the 1990s.
In its peak year of 1920 the OE ran dozens of daily trains on numerous routes in the Portland urban area and four or five trains daily to Eugene. Despite declining income throughout the 1920s, the OE continued passenger service until May 13, 1933. Electric locomotives propelled freight shipments on the line until July 1945 and the OE survived as a diesel freight rail line into the 1990s.
United Railways (UR) was also incorporated in 1906, offering service to the west of the Portland metro area. James J. Hill acquired the UR in 1909, which soon began sharing facilities and trackage with the OE. The southern branch of the UR extended to Forest Grove and the northern route, although originally planned to reach Tillamook, ended at Banks.
Plummeting ridership forced the UR to cut back its schedule, leading to the elimination of electric passenger service in January 1923. The company’s passenger cars were transferred to the OE and steam locomotives took over the freight hauling duties. In 1943, UR was absorbed into the Spokane Portland and Seattle Railway, another company in the Hill railroad kingdom.
The railroad empire of Edward H. Harriman took control of the Southern Pacific (SP) railroad in 1901. To compete with Hill’s Oregon operations, Harriman’s SP railroad began to convert some of its operations to electric power. Initially the electric rail operations were operated under the banner of another Harriman acquisition, the Portland, Eugene and Eastern Railway (PE&E).
The PE&E operated city streetcar systems in Salem, Albany, Eugene and West Linn and planned an electric line connecting to Portland. In 1912 the SP added their Westside and Yamhill branches to the PE&E and began electrification. The PE&E name was replaced with Southern Pacific Lines in 1915.
In addition to the Yamhill Loop which ran southwest of Portland, the SP completed the line on the west side of the Willamette River to Corvallis in 1917, never reaching the planned destination of Eugene. Stories are told about bitter college rivalries on the tracks: The OE had a branch line into Corvallis, but animosity from University of Oregon students who frequented the OE made travel difficult for any Oregon Agricultural College (now OSU) students riding on the OE.
By 1920, the SP was operating 64 trains daily on its electrified tracks. Revenues declined steadily as the 1920s progressed, leading to abandonment in October 1929.
The SP electric system, dubbed the Red Electrics due to the distinctive bright red color of its cars, was one of the last interurban railways built and one of the first to be terminated. The McMinnville and Hillsboro depots are still in operation, and the Forest Grove depot still stands and is used for storage by a grass seed broker.
Other remnants of the Red Electrics are two power substations – one in Dundee and the other at McCoy. The concrete structure in McCoy, several miles west of Salem, has ”1916” cast into the exterior wall facing the tracks, likely indicating the date of construction.
Relatively speaking, the electric rails were friendly to the environment. Most of the power that electrified the local rails was generated by hydroelectric facilities. In comparison to the belching diesels that powered the subsequent generation of rail operations, the electrics left a much smaller footprint on their surroundings.
Despite the inexpensive fares, smooth and quiet ride and amenities offered by the competing railways, several factors led to their demise. Perhaps the most significant was the blossoming love affair with automobiles. The increased popularity of auto travel led to improved and newly constructed highways. Although not as prevalent in the 1920s, eventually trucks took a great deal of freight customers from the railroad companies. The Great Depression led to drastically fewer passengers and freight shipments.
In a Federal Court lawsuit filed in the 1940s, General Motors, Firestone Tire and Rubber and Standard Oil Company of California were found guilty of conspiring to purchase and dismantle streetcars (also known as trams or trolleys) and electric trains in cities across the United States and replace them with bus service. General Motors was a leading producer of transit buses; Firestone was a leading producer of tires, including bus tires; and Standard Oil was a leading refiner of gasoline and diesel fuel.
There is no doubt that these factors all contributed to the demise of the electric railways in Oregon. It’s interesting to note that Portland’s major public transportation system, the Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) operated by TriMet, is a light rail system powered by the latest technological evolution of the timeless electric train.
In this instance, the old tried and true adage seems to ring true: Look to the past to see the future.