Camas Prairie Railroad

My second surprise in the region north of White Bird and Grangeville was learning about and seeing some of the amazing railroad bridges. First, a word about the name. Camas is short for Camassia – a plant which thrives in open, moist fields (the bluish-purple blooms in the photo below).

(Photo credit: Getty Images, Copyright: Jacky Parker)

There are many such areas in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and the southern portions of the western Canadian provinces. Tolo Lake, west of Grangeville, is also located on the “Camas Prairie”.

I started seeing some tall, wooden railroad trestles way up high on the hills as I drove along Highway 95, between Cottonwood and Lewiston.

The Camas Prairie Railroad was a joint project of the Western Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads and operated for almost 80 years until 1975. Much of it was built up high on the mountains and many trestles were needed to carry the tracks over canyons and valleys between hilltops. As you will see on a sign later in this post, in one 5-mile stretch there were more than a dozen wooden trestles, some very long and tall, earning the railroad the nickname “the railroad on stilts”.

It is hard to see the wooden trestle in the photo above. It is actually the first one I saw and my eyes were drawn up to it because it was being lit by the (then) late afternoon sun. I’m still kicking myself for not stopping to take a photo of it at that time but I didn’t learn about the others until later. The photo above wasn’t taken until the next morning, when the sun was behind the trestle.

Here are some of the other trestles I could see from the highway:

In addition to the wooden trestles, tunnels were built through some of the mountaintops – including one which was in the shape of a horseshoe. Also, there were some places, such as over Lawyer’s Canyon, which required a metal bridge be built. That bridge still stands today:

The yellow line above the tracks is actually actually comprised of plants in a field way off in the distance. You’ll see more of them in another post.

Here are two signs about the railroad which I found next to the highway:

Unfortunately the railroad, as well as several smaller ones which connected to it, was never profitable and was eventually abandoned. While most of the trestles still stand (one wooden one was destroyed in a wildfire and was never rebuilt) the tracks between them have largely been removed.

Books have been written about the railroad and you can find many other photos of some of the huge, in some cases curved, trestles, by searching the internet for the name of the railroad and adding “bridges”.