The Camas Prairie Railroad, located in north central Idaho at Lewiston, hosted its' first ever motorcar event May 26/29, 1999. This was the second leg of Motorcar Operators West's Pacific Northwest Tour 1999. MOW meet coordinator Chris Baldo was able to get permission for the event following last years change in ownership from the UP to Camas Prairie Railnet. Renowned for its' many beautiful trestles and tunnels, the Camas Prairie provided movie location shots for both "Breakheart Pass" (1976) and this summers' hit "Wild Wild West."
Because this was the first ever motorcar run on the line, local citizens were very excited to see our speeders. Several times I saw lawn chairs that had been well used as folks watched and waited along the tracks for our arrival. At Culdesac the elementary school children came out to look us over and were rewarded with American flags from Don Piercy. At Greer we were met with welcome signs, balloons and cheers. In Grangeville local Chamber of Commerce volunteers served us breakfast at the only restaurant in town. The restaurants' regulars came early to occupy the counter seats and casually look us over while drinking their morning coffee.
Our railroad host and lead escort, Chief Engineer Jim Morefield, was quoted on the front page of the "Lewiston Morning Tribune" as "grin[ing] at the sight of twenty-six speeder cars lined up on the trestle over Main Street in Craigmont." In his 36 years on the Camas Prairie "he had never seen anything like it." His welcome was infectious; several of his employees worked on their days off as our escorts. Charity raffle winners got rides; Beryl Grant rode with me Thursday and declared the three tickets for $10 to be "money well spent." A local radio personality spent his whole three-hour show talking about his ride with us. These many warm welcomes provided the background to what must be the preeminent motorcar run this year.
Set-on in the Camas Prairie Railnet East Lewiston yard Tuesday evening was easy using a house track next to the railroad office. The large yard provided ample maneuvering room and parking for our trailers and tow vehicles.
Following the Wednesday May 26th morning safety meeting we depart eastbound at 8:15 AM. Exiting the yard, our first sight is the Potlatch log loading facilities with one of the largest moving cranes anywhere. Soon we're running along the Snake River that is heavy with spring runoff water. The logs in the river look like fast swimming alligators! Canada Geese float by with their hatchlings. At mp 131 the entire rock cliff on the right is covered with the mud nests of Swallows. Across the river the rolling hills are a mixture of browns and greens.
After nine miles we reach the wye at Spalding and take the right leg turning southeast toward Grangeville. The day is warm. We make several pleasant pauses while intermittent cars get repairs. Our first official stop is Culdesac once the end of track, but today a maintenance yard. After photos of an "A" car with a wooden body, we start up the grade to the summit twelve miles away.
On these twelve miles of track is the most spectacular combination of trestles and tunnels in the western United States. From Culdesac the line crosses 11 trestles climbing up the Lapwai Canyon eight miles on a 3 percent grade to tunnel #1. To enter this tunnel we use several high bridges to loop across Hwy 95 and then back to the entrance. Tunnel #1 is an 883-foot long horseshoe. Next we traverse six long bridges to enter tunnel three (563' long) and emerge onto Half-moon Bridge the highest timber bridge (one million board feet) on the Camas Prairie. After crossing the 14-degree reverse curve bridge, we stop to take photos, make several run-bys, and generally gawk. Just one replacement timber or "stick" costs $1000. If you remember "Breakheart Pass" you can tell where the runaway freight car went off the curve here.
And it's not over! In the three remaining miles to the summit we enter four long tunnels and cross seven more trestles. From the summit it's ten miles through farm country to our lunch stop at Craigmont. Chris announces a one-hour lunch and the radio falls silent. We are silent. Engines shut down one by one. No one moves. We sit and absorb the magnificence of the scenery just passed. Saint Peter don't call me, because I can't go. One more time I want to ride Culdesac to Craigmont, Idaho!
The remainder of the afternoon is a smooth two-hour run to the end of the line at Grangeville. We're riding on the Camas Prairie that gives the railroad its' name. This section was built in 1908 for the grain harvested here. The scenery is of farms with cattle viewed from high trestles, people waving at Ferdinand, grain elevators at Cottonwood, and wild flowers so dense that their colors fill the spaces between the rails. At Grangeville a fuel truck meets us along with a bus that takes us to our motels and to the Elks club for dinner. Today's' mileage is 75.3.
On Thursday morning May 27th we depart Grangeville at 8:15 AM for Orofino. At Reubens we go in the hole and wait for a train. When it arrives with some hopper cars for the nearby grain elevator, we depart downhill. From the ridge my passenger points out that the hillsides around here were logged three months ago using helicopters. Below along the road a backhoe is cleaning up one of five landing zones where the logs were loaded onto trucks. This area won't be logged again in our lifetimes.
We arrive at Spalding, back through the wye and tie up for lunch at the Nez Perce National Historical Park. The visitor center is just a short walk over the hill. The nearby grassy park is the site of the 1836 Presbyterian Indian mission where Henry Spalding built a sawmill and gristmill. Later the site was used by the Indian Agency to administer the reservation forced on Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce.
Leaving Spalding eastbound the track follows the middle fork of the Clearwater River now just two feet below flood stage. The rail snakes along the river on a rock shelf cut on the north bank; Hwy 12 is on the south bank. The track and roadbed here are in good condition. The afternoon is warm and sunny. The group spreads out nicely and settles into a steady 25 to 28 mph. The view of the river, rocks and mountains is a mobile progression of splendor. Stopping for a break at Lenore we spot rail dated 1881 on the Lewiston Grain Growers siding. About an hour later we arrive in Orofino at 5 PM, tie up for the night and walk to our hotels two blocks away. Today's mileage is 98.7.
From Orofino the Camas Prairie sends out two branches: one east to Revling and one southeast to Kooskia. These branches, built around 1925, were primarily for lumber. Our visit coincides with the start of a new service on the CP. Logs too small for a Potlatch mill on the Revling branch are now sent to a mill on the Kooskia branch. The Kooskia branch is opening up again after almost being abandoned.
During the Friday morning safety meeting Chris must compete with a four-man crew replacing some ties for our attention. It's an interesting process. Watching it done manually reminds us how much physical work a railroad involves. We depart at 8:15 out the Revling branch.
People are out waving to us. The day is cool and overcast. At mp 9 we pass a modern-day lumberjack walking beside the track. He is carrying a chain saw and a radio. After cutting down a tree, he radios the helicopter to pick it up. At Rudo mp 14.7, former site of section crew quarters; we stop beside the river where the railroad has brought in port-a-potties for our use. The scenery is second and third growth timber next to the river in a canyon. Between mp 17 and 18 the railroad crosses the river half a dozen times. This branch has many trestles and rock cuts making scenic panoramas that blend together in the mind. The group stays bunched up running between 20 to 22 MPH. We turn around at Reveling just past the Potlatch Lumber operation and return to Orofino by 1:00 PM.
Departing at 1:45 PM we pass through the towns of Greer and Kamiah on the way to our turn around at Kooskia. The group spreads out running around 25 MPH on the rock shelf and fill along the Clearwater River. At mp 50 a rare Phoenix iron bridge (1878) that looks like an "Erector Set" carries us 722 feet across the river. Along the track are pink wild Roses with a five pedal flower, an unknown purple flower in abundance, wild Sunflowers and Queen Anne's Lace. At 3:35 PM we turn around at Kooskia and return to the City Park in Kamiah for a rest break. The run back to Orofino is uneventful and we're tied up for dinner by 6 PM. Today's mileage is 123.8.
Chris Baldo leads an evening trip by bus to the nearby town of Pierce to tour the Howard Bradbury Logging History Museum. Displays are centered on the men, equipment, and working conditions of the Potlatch Timber Co. in the 1950's. The group is back in Orofino around 11 PM.
Saturday May 29th is our last day on the Camas Prairie Railnet. Leaving the yard at 8:20 AM we meet an inbound freight. We're retracing the fine rail along the Clearwater to Spalding with good track speed, clear cool air and a bright sun. After making one rest stop in Lenore, we keep up our speed and reach Lewiston at 10:40 AM.
After taking a group photo on a Camas Prairie switcher, ten cars set off for an early start home, and the rest of us head west leaving at 11:10 AM for the wye at Riparia, Washington seventy-two miles away.
The U.S. Government around 1975, to replace CP track flooded when the reservoirs behind the Snake River dams began to fill, built this section of track. After crossing the 1906 Lift Bridge we can see the Clearwater River mixing with the brown waters of the Snake. The combination creates a wide river with grassy hills on its' banks. Pleasure boats towing inner-tube riders mix with barges being pushed by tugs. The line here is heavy 112 pound sectional rail bolted up tight and laid straight as a laser; the ride is as good as ribbon rail. Soon we're spread out with three-eighths of a mile between cars and running stopwatch speeds of 33 mph!
Along the river we pass a ballast-loading site (mp 50), the Crum siding (mp 44) with 50 cars stored, Lower Granite Dam (mp 39) and stop for lunch next to a grain barge loading operation at Almota (mp 35). Departing at 1:20 PM we fight a headwind as we pass the long sidings at Penawawa (mp 24) and Central Ferry (mp 15). At Central Ferry three houses built by the government stand next to a gas and oil transfer point. There are fishermen in the water above Little Goose Dam (mp 3). We arrive at the Riparia wye at 2:30 PM, switch through in two groups and back down to Ayer Junction, interchange point with the UP. Jim Morefield gives us a brief talk about how the area looked and past operations.
We head back to Lewiston at 3:25 PM making good speed all the way. Approaching Lewiston a pensive mood settles in at the end of this wonderful run. This was certainly one of the best motorcar events ever with its' variety of grades, curves and bridges in mountain, prairie, forest, farm, canyon and river scenery. Our railroad host treated us like one of the family. Set-off begins at 6:25 PM. Mileage today is 184. Total mileage on the CP is 481.8.
All of us renewed old acquaintances and made new friends on this trip. Thank you Chris Baldo and all your tour committee members for their work putting together such a fine event. Thank you Camas Prairie Railnet for hosting Motorcar Operators West inaugural motorcar run on your road.