“All aboard!” — It was once a common utterance in the Walla Walla Valley. Now, it is relegated to a quaint bit of nostalgia.
Railroads, once an important mode of transportation for passengers and freight in the Valley, have faded into the background of today’s economy.
Yet tangible remnants of those bygone days are still evident in the buildings, locomotives, and tracks they left behind — reminders of the role railroads played in the history of Walla Walla and beyond.
The first railroad in the Valley, the Walla Walla & Columbia River Railroad Co., was incorporated in 1868 by banker Dr. Dorsey Syng Baker, who committed his own capital and attracted a number of other investors to build the 32-mile narrow gauge route from Wallula to Walla Walla.
Construction began Nov. 11, 1872. By 1874 the railroad extended as far as Frenchtown and Whitman Station.
Baker offered to extend the line 10 miles into Walla Walla if the town would finance it. He needed $75,000, but was only able to raise $25,000, so he made a deal with the Oregon Steam Navigation Co.
The route was completed in 1875, and 14 miles of track to Blue Mountain Station and Pendleton, Ore., were added in 1879. The line offered both freight and passenger service; passengers paid by their weight, just like regular freight.
In 1879, Baker sold most of his stock to the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Co. and in 1880 he sold the rest.
The company then converted the line to standard gauge so it could be tied into the Northern Pacific Railroad line being constructed from Atalia to Wallula.
Northern Pacific also promised to extend the railroad 37 miles to Dayton, including the construction of a railroad station. The Dayton depot was built in 1881 and moved to its present location in 1899. Northern Pacific also built a handsome station in Walla Walla in 1914 and provided passenger service to the city until 1956.
In 1898, Union Pacific bought the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Co. The track from Wallula to Walla Walla is currently operated by the Columbia-Walla Walla Railway. The line from Walla Walla to Dayton was turned over to the Port of Columbia in 1996. Presently, the rail line is leased to Frontier Rail which operates it under the Columbia-Walla Walla Railway moniker.
In addition to regular train and freight service, local freight and passenger service was established by the Walla Walla Valley Traction Co., later known as the Walla Walla Railway Co. In 1907, the company began operating an electric street railway system within Walla Walla and to Milton-Freewater. Walla Walla service ended in 1926 and interurban service to Oregon in 1931.
Despite the limited role of railroads today, we’re fortunate to have a number of local railroad sites you can visit. Several are private businesses and can generally be viewed from the street.