Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wishram: the true railroader's town/ part I

 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.

29 comments:

Patrick Flynn said...

Blair, some of the BEST work I've seen of yours ever.

Carrie Chinn said...

This is so cool!!! I am from wishram I love this...Maybe this will clear up the question I get from people when I am asked where I am from I say Wishram and they say where is that!!!

Elbee Mckewn said...

I think the Caboose was a dinner....?

Tracy Johnson said...

What a great story and pictures. I too lived in Wishram as small child, and all my family lived there too and also worked on the R/R for Burlington Northern. My Grandmother even worked there at the beanery. Good o'l Wishram!

Brenda Dillard said...

Home Sweet Home will always be Wishram Washington miss those days >>>....

Brenda Dillard said...

Home Sweet Home will always be Wishram Washington miss those days >>>....

Roxanne Carter Ringer said...

Wishram... the picture of the waitress at the Beanery was my great aunt Velma The caboose was a game room ..My whole family was rails. my grandmother moved there when she was 2.a lot of family history for me in that town..all that remains now is a few cousins my brother and mom. kinda miss those days.

Maureen Thiel said...

This has been a great place to raise our children. Both mine and my husbands fathers, were railroaders.
To live in a area so rich in history and beauty, is a pleasure to wake up to every morning. Do miss the Beanery, those were late night dates for me and the hubby Rich Thiel.

Bill Garrett said...

Although I'm not sure it's totally accurate, this story sure does bring back lots of memories of my childhood.

III Ed Woods said...

That last picture. I worked with all three of those guys. The Beanery was great. Yup, remember Velma among others. Sure remember the 4300's, screaming things that they were. Walking through the old "B" units under load was an experience, too.

MIKE WOODS said...

I WORKED FOR THE U.P. at THE DALLES yards ...when it was BEANS ( lunch ) we'd go to WISHRAM ...GOOD FOOD AT THE... BEANERY..

III Ed Woods said...

J. T., Jack and Don.

Rick Rebensdorf said...

My mom got to work at the beanery till it closed and she had a stoke then she helped reopened the caboose as a game room pool hall and ice-cream place for us kids to keep us out of trouble in the 1980's her name was Sherrie Ramirez sincerely Rick Rebensdorf SFC. U.S. Army Ret.

Rick Rebensdorf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
HAZEL WALSH STIFF said...

I GREW UP IN WISHRAM=MY DAD WORKED IN THE ROUNDHOUSE..AS CHILDREN WE HAD SO MUCH FUN PLAYING IN THE BEAUTIFUL PARK..MY MOTHER ALSO TAUGHT SCHOOL IN WISHRAM...MY MADIEN NAME WAS HAZEL WALSH=MY DAD WAS LOUIS AND MOM WAS HAZEL..IAM NOW HAZEL STIFF AND LIVE IN VANCOUVER.WE STILL DRIVE THROUGH MY OLD HOMETOWN SOMETIMES.....

Marlys Graybill McClure said...

The Caboose Cafe was in Wishram during the 50's. My mother, Doris Graybill worked there withy Benny and Ruthie Franklin. Those were wonderful days. I have fond memories. Most of my family worked for the railroad at that time.

byron said...

When the SP&S hired for train service in 1965, they sent the 4 brakemen and 4 firemen to Wishram.
3 of the trainmen made it through to retirement, none of the firemen did. Only 1 stayed in Wishram more than 3 years (1 was killed on the OE). I was accepted as my father had been raised in Wishram, others were pretty estranged except 1 from the Dalles with an Uncle working Wishram. Very few new faces showed in Wishram except for the payday poker games in the 60's.

byron said...

In the 50's, Vancouver boy scouts used to get a 1-day excursion train to Wishram to look for arrowheads on the NW hill above town. Most only found Rattlesnakes and ran back to the train. Was cancelled after a kid stuck his head of the train in a tunnel and was injured.

dianna sanders said...

My grandfather always insisted on taking each of us kids to the Beanery for our birthdays. We lived in Goldendale. However I did work at the Wishram School for many years. Loved it there! Miss everyone there.

Paula Price said...

it was a game place/arcade

Cindy jester macleod said...

My dad was Bob jester. He was a brake man n conductor on the rr. I grew up n graduated from wishram. My sister was an engineer on the rr. Great growing up there. Makes me miss my mom n dad n my sister who died a few years ago, cindy( jester) macleod

Anonymous said...

I spent most of my childhood years in Wishram from 1960-1970. I went from 4-14 Years old. Lots of stories and even more friends & memories. We just celebrated 100 Years of the recording of the townsite on Sept. 20, 2014. Had a Blast. My Father was Phil Wiles and I followed in his footsteps working for the Railroad. I started my Train Service in Wishram, am now in Spokane still working on as an Engineer now. Keith Wiles

Jesse Renno said...

I grew up in Wishram my family still lives there, I have to say no regrets very awesome people. Everyone was your mother, brother, father, and sister we looked out for one another. I'm proud to say I'm from Wishram Washington.

Ladydiana said...

What great memories I have of growing up in Wishram, from 1952-1969....born and raised there. My father Craig Carroll was Conductor/brakeman for 30+yrs.
Memories of fishing, arrowhead hunting, shooting guns at the range above town (with Dad), taking day hikes with my sisters, high above town, with breathtaking views of the Gorge. My dad saved a rattle from arattlesnake he killed, to show us kids what they sound like-so we'd run the opposite way :) We had free reign to explore.... Small town USA back then.

Jennifer said...

-I grew up in Wishram during the 1950s and '60s, graduating in 1969. My father (Wayne Rhue) retired from BN in 1975 as an engineer. My mother (Elnora Rhue) owned The Caboose Cafe from about 1959 'til '65 or '66.
-Such a great place to grow up, so many places to hike. We may not have had the amenities of the cities but we had something that the cities didn't...a whole town that watched over their children. You could go to almost anyone's house if you were hurt, thirsty or scared. We had the "best candy counter" on the planet at Delaney's Store. It was a town where "everyone knew your name".
-Let's hope it hasn't changed too much over the years.

Anonymous said...

Wow
What a great bunch of Remarks and so awesome photos. Those photos remind me of being on those tracks. I spent 39 years working on the Railroad. Probably 27 out of Wishram. I graduated from the high school there and within 6 months was a brakeman. My family 2 brothers 2 sisters and myself couldn't have been raised in a better place. My dad (Fred Thiel) worked there for ever and for everyone who's interested he is 89 and living in Pasco with mom (89). Those Photos are so real and bring back many memories. I remember jumping off that bridge right into the river as we'd swim for hours around there. Other times we'd fish close to the bridge and if we got called the crew caller would call the bridge attendant and he'd call us on our boat marine radio and inform us of what time to be at the depot. And of course I cant count the many times I was on those long rides across that bridge. Theres an old railroad song that goes like this, ----Called one morning at a quarter to 4--kissed my wife goodbye at the kitchen door---I said ah honey don't you worry and don't you fear I can handle it I'm a good engineer----to the yard office I did stride cause i knew it was the hotshot I was to ride, the train rolled in it was 30 minutes late had alot of power but not much fright, I got on and we started to roll the block was clear and i knew we go, conductor said as we was leaving town, he said, puttem in 8 and don't slow em down, broke over the grade doing 75 the brakeman said " I HOPE WE MAKE IT ALIVE" I said don't you worry and don't you fear I can handle it I'm a good engineer. As we got to the other end of the line that ole train it was right on time. the conductor said thank God were here, I said "I told you I was a good engineer. Doug T

Sheldon Perry said...

I was fortunate enough to have lunch once at the Beanery. It was the spring of 1985. Shortly after that, it closed and was torn down along with the depot.

Anonymous said...

Hello I just had to leave a comment,I lived in wishram and went to school with Roxanne ,Brenda Dillard and my little sister went to school with Carrie chinn,Carrie had a twin brother I think.i have often wondered what happened to you all.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother treated her two young grandaughters to lunch at the Beanery some time in the 1970s. I enjoyed my toasted cheese sandwich perched on a stool at the counter. We must have been fishing at Draino, and doing a day trip.