The second decade of the 20th century can be characterized as the “Golden Age” of railroad history. Nationally, track mileage peaked in 1916 at 254,000 miles, and both goods and passengers regularly traveled by train. Here in Grant County, laid track also peaked, and numerous small towns had sprung up in the high desert because of the easy access afforded by rail.
The 1920s began the decline of the railroad, both locally and nationally, for many reasons. Changes in modes of transportation, government intervention and World War I, and local weather and economic issues all played a part in railroad history in Grant County.
In June of 1914, the first world war began, eventually drawing the country into the conflict half a world away. As war resources began to be shipped from production locations to the battlefront, the government pushed for greater speed and efficiency in transport. Manufacturers had previously sent their goods along their favorite railroad lines, no matter how inefficient. Under the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), the route of travel, efficient or not, shared the same rate for the total service; in order for a railroad to gain any profit, a manufacturer must send their goods along that line and thus grant it a piece of the shipping pie. For the moment, individual railroads were making money, but goods weren’t traveling fast enough, and a shortage of cars was beginning to hamper both normal business traffic and government war efforts.
A few months later, in August of 1914, the new Panama Canal opened for business hundreds of miles away from the Basin. It wasn’t long, though, until its effects were felt here, limiting the business transported across the county in favor of a water route to the east coast. Ironically enough, the original engineer for the canal was John F. Stevens, the former chief surveyor for the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba (SPMM) who located Stevens Pass in 1890, and would eventually act as a consultant on the project to construct a second Cascade tunnel, which has benefited the State of Washington for the last sixty years.
In reaction to the chaos ensuing in the industry, the railroads had come under government control at the very end of 1917 to improve traffic flow throughout the United States during war time. Shipments were now required to be sent along the most efficient path, so the payment of rates went to the line with the most direct route from point A to point B. Smaller and more remote lines naturally earned less profit, relying more on local agriculture and business.
During this time period, though, loads of freight declined too, as the drought of 1917 to 1924 hit Columbia Basin farmers hard. Many moved away after crops failed to produce the amount grown in previous years. Fewer people buying what was left meant fewer shipments to towns. Fewer and smaller crops meant less grain to move to market by rail. The picture was bleak, despite the prosperous war economy elsewhere.
On November 11, 1918, the war ended. The railroads, though, were far from safe and continued to struggle under ICC oversight, government ownership, and economic hardship. The Chicago Milwaukee & St. Paul (CMSP) completed the electrification of its mainline between Othello and Tacoma in 1919, the only line in Grant County to do so. This gave it the ability to use electrically-powered locomotives to move its trains, rather than the inefficient steam locomotives of the past. The cost of this venture was substantial, and paired with the loss of an impressive amount of business to the Panama Canal, bankruptcy was a dire possibility. The war had sustained the CMSP, which now discovered that they only carried 1/10 of the potential of their new line. Demand for rail service had crashed, leaving several railroad lines in financial straits.
On March 1, 1920, by order of President Wilson, the government control finally ended American railroad's 26 months of nationalization. The control had allowed the government to run all the railroads as one big system, instead of the many individual companies. While this allowed for direct routings of freight, it also meant that unneeded passenger services were dropped in favor of the automobile.
Still, larger railroad companies continued to plan for expansion. The Northern Pacific (NP) did many cost studies on the use of the CMSP between Lind and Ellensburg in the early 1920s. During 1922, the NP was still considering this option, which would shorten its mileage across the state, in the hope of speeding transcontinental freight runs. One of the many things the NP considered included whether they would be fully responsible for any costs associated with fueling and maintaining steam locomotives, since the CMSP was electrified through most of this section. They were also very concerned for the grades involved in getting up the west bank of the Columbia River. A second option used the CMPS to the Beverly area too, before turning south and crossing the Columbia in the vicinity of Priest Rapids by way of a newly-built line in their own name. Heavy grading between this crossing point and the Yakima area kept this option from being considered further either.
Another part of the industry’s decline was due to regulations placed on the railroads by the government, via the ICC. While general and maintenance costs rose dramatically during the war, railroads were not given permission to increase their rates to match inflation and thus recoup these losses. As the public began abandoning old-fashioned rail travel and took to the automobile, and as road quality continued to increase over time to the benefit of truck service, railroads found it harder to maintain branchline and mail service to every remote place. Mail continued to be delivered by rail, but to fewer places than once served. One cutback was the discontinuance of Central Washington’s train between Adrian and Coulee City on June 28, 1925.
A few months earlier, in March, the CMSP finally succumbed to bankruptcy, and finally reorganized as the Chicago Milwaukee St. Paul & Pacific on January 13, 1927. This was just one of the many changes made on Grant County railroads in the 1920s.
Krupp, a small community on the Great Northern line had originally been named by railroad officials trying to flatter a local German immigrant farmer. A prominent and centuries-old German dynasty by that name manufactured armaments for American foes in World War I, prompting a demand for a renaming of the town amid anti-German sentiment after the war. A suggestion had been Crab Creek, but this was a duplicate of a town in Lincoln County. The name of Marlin was finally adopted in September of 1918, as a reference to another early settler, John Marlin. The depot in Marlin burned down on May 18, 1925. A year later, a 24’x48’ depot was moved from Downs (east of Odessa in Lincoln County) to the same location, and it survived there for ten years.
Coulee Junction’s name was likewise deemed to be too similar to another railroad town, this time to Coulee City. The new namesake was a W.H. Adair, who owned a ranch near the junction and operated a restaurant in Coulee City. This name, too, needed to be changed because it was too similar to Adrian, the junction fifteen miles to the south. On June 1, 1922, it was renamed Odair by the NP.
For reasons now lost to history, the Trinidad depot was also moved from its original location to a point about 1/3 of a mile east “to better serve the needs of the people there.”
The Great Northern station at Wilson Creek was established as an intermediate terminal in 1892 and was situated with a roundhouse and a large coaling dock. The terminal itself was moved to Wenatchee in 1925, at the same time that the Leavenworth terminal was closed. These two changes coincided with a related project on the Great Northern line over Stevens Pass, which abandoned a 2.6-mile tunnel and bored a new 7.8-mile tunnel.
Coulee City, though, remained a viable intermediate terminal through this decade, but in a different form than is seen today. In 1926, the following railroad items were to be found there: a two-story passenger and freight depot; a stock yard; a large ice house; a two-stall roundhouse; a 56-foot, bridge-style turntable; a sand and oil house; an ash pit; and a coal dock and shed with 254-foot loading trestle and 206-foot approach trestle. This was typical for an end-of-branchline station, or intermediate terminal. Only the depot remains, though not in its former location, and the occasional remnant of a foundation.
The last significant railroad event in Grant County in the 1920s occurred on February 1, 1927, when the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern filed application with Interstate Commerce Commission for their third attempt at uniting the two companies. This was similar to the second planned merger back in 1903 that caused the building of the branch from Coulee City on the NP to the mainline station on the GN at Adrian. The unification did not happen at this time, due to restrictions placed on the two railroads that they did not want to keep. The ICC, under a mandate to set up regional railroads to replace the multiple private rail companies within each region, had demanded that the two companies sell a mutual subsidiary line which ran to Chicago from St. Paul. Both companies declined.
As the second decade of Grant County’s existence drew to a close, the rail industry faced difficult and desperate times. The next decade, though, brought another federal stimulus to the region, sustaining the railroads for another decade.