Klickitat Railroad Grade


August 2012

Construction on the Goldendale Branch. B&W photos thanks to the Presby Museum, except one noted.

It was 1903 when this line was completed from Lyle on the Columbia River 42 miles to Goldendale. John Golden began working to bring a railroad to his town when he was 54. When the Columbia River and Northern Railroad finally arrived, he was there to see it, aged 78. 10,000 tons of wheat were waiting to be shipped by the new trains.

This line was usually known as the Goldendale Branch of the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railway, but in fact the "branch" was in service 5 years before the main line was built. During that time the CR&N delivered its cargos to Regulator Line steamboats at Lyle for further transport by river. Freight in those early days was mainly livestock and wheat.

Klickitat's first cabin was built in 1890. By 1909, the Western Pine Lumber Co. was building a logging railroad and a mill that would add lumber to the railroad's freight loads.

Until the 1920s, the railroad was the only link between Lyle and Klickitat.

First train to Goldendale, 1903

Klickitat's main street, 1912.

When railroad baron James J. Hill, "the Empire Builder", laid the SP&S along the north bank of the Columbia in 1908, it absorbed the CR&N as its Goldendale Branch. The SP&S was in turn absorbed by Burlington Northern in 1970, and is today operated as part of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

Mixed train, freight and passenger cars. More of these excellent Rob Root photos at Brian's SP&S Goldendale site.

The Klickitat lumber mill closed in the early 1990s. The Goldendale Branch stopped running trains, and the rails were taken up in 1993. It was just a country branch railroad - but what fine country it went through, and today the grade is intact and rideable for 31 miles between Lyle on the Columbia and Warwick up in the wheat farm and ranch hills. Thanks to the people and organizations who saw the opportunities and worked to preserve them.

From the trail brochure -

The property was purchased from Burlington Northern by the National Rails-to-Trails Conservancy. Washington State Parks then received title to the property. The US Forest Service has determined that it will manage 13 miles of the Trail from Lyle to Klickitat. The remaining 18 miles will be cooperatively managed by Washington State Parks and Klickitat Trail Conservancy (KTC).

Map at the Lyle trailhead.

You can do it the "easy" way, downgrade from Warwick, but the grade in Swale Canyon, linking the open hills with the Klickitat River, is steady and steep enough to get up a good head of steam downgrade. I've done it both ways, and actually preferred riding uphill from Lyle - the scenery is that good along the grade, and I needed the exercise and fresh air.

SP&S Depot in Lyle, long gone.

There's a nicely landscaped trailhead at SR 14 and 142 in Lyle. There's also parking I considered secure at Warwick and Klickitat. That's both ends and the middle, so I had nothing to complain about.

The grade heads out north, and soon crosses the river on a trestle to the west bank, away from the highway. The river's a wild thing, its company a joy.

Looking north over the Klickitat from up on the Centerville Hwy, trestle crossing lower left.

The first several miles are quite smooth and easy going. That's probably all most people use. Past that, it gets a little rougher - still perfectly rideable, but the greater rolling resistance takes more effort than smooth dirt or pavement. Gear down and enjoy - the scenery never quits on you, whether it's the river or various curiosities found along the way.

There is one section I'd avoid - between Pitt at mile 10 and Klickitat at 13, I'd recommend the highway. The trail surface is quite rocky and the brush was thickly overgrown in places. The highway, trail, and river are so close together you miss nothing but bumps by taking pavement over these 3 miles.

Klickitat was mighty quiet when I visited on a warm Friday afternoon. I guess almost everyone has to work out of town since the mill closed. There's parking in town at Depot Park, and there's a 1961 BN Ry caboose that used to work on the line.

The mill's still there, fenced off with health warning signs. I'm told the cause is some asbestos used in the old construction. As long as the buildings stay intact it shouldn't be a problem for the public.

The town must've been pretty lively when logging was booming. The Klickitat Log & Lumber Company Railroad pulled in 30 to 35 log cars a day. On the temporary makeshift grades in the woods, they used a 13-ton Shay locomotive - the smallest Shay ever built. The wood-fired steam engine's midship pistons delivered power via geared shafts to all 8 wheels, making it sure-footed as a goat on steep uneven track.

The railroad trestle crossing the river at Klickitat is gone, so you have to ride 142 a further 3 miles to Wahkiacus (Wa-kock'-us, after a Klickitat Indian family) to cross over and get back on the grade. There's a little prize for doing it, though -

- 2 miles out there's an abandoned mineral water plant. The building was saved because people discovered swarms of swifts flying in and out through the chimney to roost inside. Across the river, reachable by dead-end rail-trail from Wahkiacus, there's a mineral water well field with many of the wellheads remaining.

There are wellheads along the highway, too, like this one still producing iron-stained water at MP 16 on 142. Some people swear by it. I don't know....my health is fine and I want to keep it that way. The water's also naturally carbonated. Attempts to make money on it go back to 1890, but it's been one bust after another. One unsuccessful entrepreneur even killed himself over it. The remaining structure dates from an enterprise manufacturing dry ice from the water's CO2.

The businesses did have one lasting effect - the town of Klickitat took its name from the "Klickitat Pop" bottled here in 1909 and shipped out on the railroad. The pop was briefly famous for its "health effects".

A mile on, a road bridge crosses the river to the Wahkiacus trailhead. From here you can take the dead-end trail back toward Klickitat, or head up Swale Canyon.

I took the dead-end as far as the dry-ice plant. There it became flood plain, river rocks and fine sand, poor riding.

The trail surface in Swale is a bit rough and rocky but the scenery makes it worthwhile. There's also a sense of peace and calm remoteness from the noise and chaos of modern mechanized life. I wanted that feeling to last, and it has.

There are several old trestles, some rideable, some not. There are no major difficulties.

The trail brochure points out the lack of cell phone coverage, so it pays to be cautious, especially crossing trestles and minding the speed if you're riding down grade. It could be a long crawl out.

I did come across one fatality, possibly the victim of a magnetic storm. It's been a bad year for sunspots.

There's flowing water in the canyon. It looks good and clear enough for cooling off, but I wouldn't drink it without filtration and iodine.

Swale Canyon may be closed during fire season, roughly June to October, as conditions dictate. Access for firefighting is the problem - there's only the old grade. My first attempt at this was in August 2011. I wound up standing in The Dalles watching towers of smoke rise over the Columbia Hills. This year I went in mid-June - no problem. The KTC website may have updates on fire closures.

12 miles out of Wahkiacus you start coming out of the canyon into the hill country. Harms Road trailhead is just ahead, Warwick a couple of miles further. After 31 miles of climbing grade you should be about ready for a cushy car ride and a fabulous dinner.

If you have the time I highly recommend the Presby Museum at 127 W Broadway in Goldendale. They do a great job of preserving the past for us in the present and the future. Two floors, the attic, and an outbuilding contain a trove of well-displayed artifacts in a very charming setting. The volunteers range from helpful to priceless. When I went there with questions I lucked into three experts willing to share their knowledge - this is what museums are all about.

Links & Search Keywords

Klickitat Trail Conservancy

Presby Museum, Goldendale WA

Brian's NW railroad pages

Lima Shay locomotives

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