Happy faces greet familar friends as a train of Boeing aircraft fuselage sections changes crews in front of the old depot and beanery in February 1979.
Given the pivotal role railroads played in the opening of the western United States, calling a place a "railroad town" really isn't too difficult to do. Many of the west's larger towns were, to some extent, created by the railroad. Quite a few were crucial to the development of the railroads, serving as terminals, major junctions, or locations of shops and repair facilities.
In time, these towns got larger. Some became cities, commercial and retail centers, their populations supporting new industries, banks, shopping areas, and maybe in time, suburbs. To call these places "railroad towns" anymore wouldn't be accurate. Maybe they were "of" the railroad, but not "for" the railroad.
In 2014, there aren't too many true railroad towns left. Replacement of steam locomotives by the diesel since World War II killed many off. Greater operating efficiencies have found freight trains traveling longer distances between servicing or crew changes, or avoiding the need for reblocking or switching of trains. Like the Interstate highway system that bypassed vibrant small towns and hastened their demise, so too has modern railroading killed off many railroad towns.
One that still hangs in there is Wishram, Washington, about 100 miles east of Vancouver, wedged into a wide spot between the basalt cliffs and the North Bank of the Columbia River.
When platted by the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway in 1907, Wishram was called Fallbridge, a name it kept until 1926. Space along the river was at a premium across from the mouth of the Deschutes River, where a trunk line towards Bend would depart from the new rail line connecting Spokane and Portland on a large steel bridge. But here, near the Celilo Falls where Native Americans used spears to fish, was room to wedge in a roundhouse, freight yard, resting facilities for livestock moving by rail, and a community to support it all.
Wishram was an important point on the SP&S. Traffic to and from the "Oregon Trunk" to Bend (and eventually California) was switched in and out of trains traveling along the Columbia River line. Locomotives were swapped out and serviced. Trains not needed in Portland or Vancouver were staged for later arrival. And trains swapped crews on the long trip between Vancouver and Pasco. So important was Wishram to the SP&S that the "shortland" telegraph designation of the places was simply "X"--as in, the crossroads, or "x marks the spot."
Led by a burly Century 636 Alco once owned by SP&S, BN Train #139 takes the turn south across the Columbia River bridge at Wishram, en route to California. February 18, 1978.
Wishram was still a rip-roaring railroad town in 1978 when I made these photographs. The SP&S had been merged into the new Burlington Northern eight years earlier, but operations hadn't changed too much. The railroad still changed crews here, trains still switched, locomotives were added and subtracted to trains, and a large number of railroaders--clerks, train order operators, trainmen and engineers, mechanics and carmen, and the workers who maintained the tracks--made up the majority of the population.
The mayor of the town was a railroader. The town's largest property owner was a railroader. The volunteer fire department--railroaders. Wishram's small population--hardly ever over 1000--was overwhelmingly railroaders, at least until an aluminum smelter was opened a few miles east of town in the 1950s. When the smelter shut down in the late 1990s, the population contracted. But the railroaders remained.
The social center of Wishram, the 24-hour, 7-day a week Burlington Northern Lunch Room--known simply as "the beanery."
Though located along Washington Highway 14, the town wasn't THAT easy to get to. Until a wide, gently-graded road from the highway was built in from the east relatively recently, residents negotiated a steep, narrow, switchback along the cliffs that hid the town from view. If you needed gasoline, you had to go up by the highway--a wide spot called "Wishram Heights." There were a couple of bars, a church, and sporadically a general store. Most of the rest of the shopping was done in Goldendale, a couple dozen miles over the hills to the north, or across the river in The Dalles.
The railroad, though--the depot and 24-hour a day restaurant referred to simply as "the beanery"--was the social center of the town. Residents were a tight clique outsiders had a tough time breaking through to join. Newcomers were regarded with suspicion. Railroaders sent to this remote outpost discovered that housing was hard to come by. If you had a friend who'd let you bunk in his place, you were lucky. Otherwise, well, you could join those not so fortunate who inhabited one of the cardboard and lumber shacks burrowed into the hillside. You didn't have running water or a toilet or a telephone, of course--back then, when it was time to go to work, the railroad would send a "Caller" to wake you up and motivate you to get thee to the rail yard. You could shower in the yard office, and grab a bit to eat at the beanery.
Of course, even progress had to come to Wishram. In the early 1980s, Burlington Northern's bean-counters took aim at Wishram. A good portion of the freight yard was ripped out, the roundhouse closed, and the railroad-owned beanery closed down. Bulldozers came in and removed the beanery and the old wood depot, replaced by a modern metal building with air conditioning and toilets that didn't leak. Crews were on their own for a place to eat. By then, there was only the Pastime Tavern to eat at. And drink. And there wasn't much else to do in Wishram than eat and drink. Or railroad. And even that became a bit tougher to do in 1995 when BN eliminated the crew change in Wishram, running through between Vancouver and Pasco. Most of the crews and their families based in Wishram moved toward Vancouver. Clerks were cut off, operators found redundant, and maintenance crews reduced.
But really, it wasn't anything that hadn't occurred a hundred times over elsewhere in the west, as the true railroad town slipped further and further into the past.
Next: Nighttime at Wishram, in the yards, the depot and the beanery.
Visitors to Wishram were greeted by a folk-art display in front of Edith Horne's place up on the road on the east side of town.
Drinking and railroading were overriding themes of Wishram; one abandoned tavern was evidently called "The Caboose."
Past its heyday, but still a bustling railroad town: Wishram, seen in 1978. The stock pens are in foreground center; the locomotive house is just to the right of the water tank.
An eastbound train arrives in Wishram, pulling up the mainline for a crew change while other locomotives await assignment at the engine house. Both are products of builder Alco, and share lineage with Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway. By April 1978, Alcos were becoming scarce in the United States, and Burlington Northern assigned their fleet of Alcos to Vancouver, where former SP&S shopmen were familar with their idiocyncracies.
Outside the engine house at Wishram, EMD and Alco power awaits assignment. . .
. . .an a former Northern Pacific RS11 pokes its nose into the old wooden structure. April, 1978
And outbound train crew relaxes outside the depot, awaiting their eastbound train. No hurries, no worries. And a belly full of lunch from the lunchroom next door.