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Railfan Extra Board - October 2010

Alone with BNSF in the Columbia River Gorge

A BNSF eastbound led by FURX 8096 passes Drano Lake along the Columbia River in Washington state. In all the excitement of chasing a train through the Columbia River Gorge, the photographer barely noticed the rattlesnake he had disturbed just a few feet away. Fortunately, both creatures escaped without further incident on July 27, 2007.

Alone with BNSF in the Columbia River Gorge

By Otto M. Vondrak/Photos by the Author

Alone with BNSF in the Columbia River Gorge
Washington Route 14 paralells the railroad through most of the gorge, providing many opportunities for photography if you know where to stop. BNSF 7778 West charges out of one tunnel and into another at Lyle. The rest of the train is stretched out across the Chamberlain Lake causeway on July 27, 2007.

The Spokane, Portland & Seattle was chartered by James J. Hill in 1905 to connect his Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads with Portland, Oregon. Hill's new railroad was built along the north shore of the Columbia River, threatening the monopoly enjoyed by E.H. Harriman's Union Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads. Construction progressed quickly despite the protests of Harriman, and soon the SP&S reached Portland, Vancouver, and into northern California. World War II provided a welcome spike in freight traffic as numerous industries located along the line to take advantage of cheap hydro-electric power generated by the Columbia River. In fact, subsequent dam construction resulted in the relocation of the SP&S main at the government's expense. When SP&S parents GN and NP merged with the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy in 1970, the "Northwest's Own" began to fade and was formally merged into Burlington Northern in 1979.

When I first began to read railroad magazines as a young budding railfan, the shores of the Columbia River seemed as distant as the Moon. As I grew older, there was something about these dramatic images that seemed to call out to me. Could I go there and see for myself? Sure, I had family in Oregon, but I hadn't seen them in years. A family wedding provided the perfect excuse to visit in 2003, which included a drive along I-84 through the Columbia River Gorge that gave me a taste of what I was missing. I scheduled return visits in 2006 and 2007 and had the surreal experience of exploring the former SP&S by myself.

"It's a beautiful day on the Fallbridge Sub," I heard the BNSF dispatcher tell an eastbound departing Vancouver for the hundred mile trek through the gorge. The state highway slims down to two lanes outside the mill town of Washougal, and after a twisty climb through the pine scrub you get your first glimpse of the gorge at Cape Horn. The dramatic changes in scenery that greet you at every turn provide endless opportunities for photography. Small towns that offer little more than a place to pull over dot the north shore with names like White Salmon, Cooks, Bingen, and Lyle. The wide expanse of a yard at Wishram belies the size of the town, which consists of two handfuls of small homes and a yard office. Life continues on as it has for the last hundred years since the railroad first arrived.

Railfan Extra Board

Back home I got used to trains that run on infrequent schedules through inaccessible areas bordering congested highways. I came to rely that there is a gas station, McDonald's, or Wal-Mart just around the next corner. This is not the case along the BNSF Fallbridge Sub. Knowing where to gas up and grab some food are just as valuable as having the right scanner frequencies. Where convenience is lacking, the easy drive along Route 14 more than makes up for it. No matter the time of day, each location opens up a new scenic vista with few distractions. I encountered few people along the way, and that's just fine. The constant wind that blows through the gorge seems to carry away all dsitractions, allowing one to truly enjoy the breathtaking beauty of the region. BNSF kindly obliges with fleeted schedules that seem to favor the sun, making you feel like you have this busy mainline all to yourself.


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