Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A new train is rollin' through town

This newspaper article by Dick Sybert was originally published in the Columbia County Review on Wednesday, September 2, 1998. I originally posted it on my website on June 1, 2005; I had very closely replicated the original layout of the article, but it didn’t translate into this new format.
Wednesday, September 2, 1998
Portland & Western Railroad Engineer Bob Slover in 1998
P&W engineer Bob Slover of Woodland, rolls a diesel electric GP-9 road/switch engine down the "A" line from Rainier to the Ft. James paper mill at Wauna. The locomotive was hauling an empty-center beam flat car for loading at the Stimpson lumber mill in Clatskanie, plus two hopper cars full of a special clay for paper making. Two empties were then picked up at the Ft. James plant. Slover is operating the locomotive 'backward' because there are no 'wye' nor turntable facilities on the line. Slover trades duties with fellow engineer and brakeman/conductor Bernard Carlton. 'It gives us a chance for exercise after the sedentary life behind the throttle,' he said.
A new train is rollin' through town
Portland & Western to reopen Astoria line - bringing economic boost, and perhaps U.S. Gypsum, to Columbia County
Story and Photos by Dick Sybert
One hundred years ago, last May, the first train to steam from Astoria to Portland chugged out of its station.
If all goes well, Portland & Western Railroad officials hope to mark the centennial of the event, albeit a few months late, with a special excursion trip over the same - newly reopened - line from Portland to Astoria. 

Howard Heironimus closing the Clatskanie River swing bridge in Clatskanie, Oregon in 1998
It takes Howard Heironimus nearly 30 complete revolutions to close the swing bridge at Clatskanie as he walks a nine-foot pole. After closure, a smaller rod is used to extend the jack ends of the bridge, stabilizing it on abutments. Then 'keepers' are slammed into place to line up the rails. Howard farms a small acreage along the Jones Beach riverfront of the Columbia.
The torrential rains of 1997 resulted in two mud flows covering the tracks, and a damaged trestle in the area between Brownsmead and John Day Creek. "We are excited about the reopening the tracks to Astoria, because it means we can have seamless service from Astoria to Eugene, and establish our own rated for intrastate service," said Bob Melbo, President and General Manager for both P&W and the Willamette & Pacific Railroads.
Although the railroad employs only 24 people countywide, it is considered by many in the business community to be a vital economic elements for the region.
Willamette & Pacific GP39-2 in St. Helens, Oregon in 1998
A huge Willamette & Pacific road engine, designated as a General Motors GP-39, prepares to pull an excursion passenger train from the P&W depot at St. Helens. The train was on a special run involving a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the recently opened Cornelius Pass line.
Melbo spoke to the Review Friday, Aug. 27 aboard a special passenger excursion train that made a round-trip run from St. Helens to North Plains, via the recently reopened Cornelius Pass line. Part of the trip was a ribbon-breaking ceremony at United Junction, west of Portland, to celebrate the reopening of the pass route.
It was a ribbon breaking instead of a snipping. After the ribbon ends were secured to two solid anchors, the locomotive pulling the train slowly broke through and snapped the traditional bunting. Most of the passengers got off the train to view the ceremony.
"Before Cornelius Pass became a reality, we were searching for a Santa Claus to come down the chimney," Melbo said. "Now we'll be able to develop and serve customers to recover the debt of the line reopenings - Astoria and the Pass."
Local officials indicate U.S. Gypsum would not have considered Rainier for a site if it were not for the railroad's existence and its reputation for service. "There will be three spurs: two for incoming raw material and one for Sheetrock shipments on center-beam flat cars." Melbo said.
Breaking up ships
Melbo was also excited about the Astoria potential. "It looks like SIPCO will be getting the contract for 'ship breaking' at Tongue Point," he said. SIPCO is a corporation newly formed expressly to break up ships.
The U.S. Navy has a fleet of mothballed ships anchored in the upper reached of San Francisco Bay. They are to be broken into scrap metal.
"It's a real art. You have to do it just right," Melbo said. "The scrap steel will be important to steel mills. Aluminum and brass will also be recovered. It will start with 12 ships, then could become 300 to 500."
SIPCO would be a tenant of Cresmont Marine Industries of Seattle. Cresmont was awarded a contract by the Oregon Department of Economic Development to recruit business for the idle Tongue Point facilities. The complex of docks and buildings was an active U.S. Naval installation during World War II, and had been turned over to the State of Oregon.
Melbo is also forecasting shipments of lumber from the Warrenton plant of Willamette Industries, the canned and frozen products of two or three fish processors, and a company that combines fish offal with soybeans to produce a cattle feed additive.
Melbo anticipated increased activities at the Port of Astoria. "We are working awfully hard to jointly explore the development of a dock for the unloading of imported cars for rail shipment," he said.
"After you reach enough people and customers, you reach a critical mass of business which opens up a lot of opportunities," Melbo said. "We'll connect Willamette Industries at Dallas and Warrenton to the Dixie Line dock at Columbia City."
A major right-of-way project will be to upgrade the roadbed. "Ten mph is not a very efficient speed," Melbo said. "We have a lot of that 'Class 1' slow track." He explained that class 2 is 25 mph and class 3 is 45. "It's a huge percentage jump from 10 to 25, but not as great a change to 45. We'll need new ties and improved ballast in some areas, and may put down some welded rail."
The reopening of Astoria will result in another train crew and more local jobs. "We'll need to add some people for maintenance of way and working the two additional swing bridges like the one at Clatskanie," he said.
"I also see a developing excursion market, such as a round trip "Bridge to Bridge" dinner train from St. John Bridge in Portland to the Lewis & Clark bridge in Rainier," Melbo said. "Perhaps we'll see combination excursions with tour boats."
Longtime railroad man
Melbo began his railroad career as an executive with Southern Pacific in 1972. He was lured to the young and growing Willamette & Pacific in 1993.
P&W and W&P are owned by Genesee & Wyoming Industries of Greenwich, Conn., and run by Mortimer B. Fuller III.
In 1899, Fuller's great-grandfather began a salt mine operation in Genesee and Wyoming counties of upper New York state. The family constructed a rail short line to get the raw salt to processing and shipping points - then got into equipment, rolling stock and locomotive leasing.
G&W started nearly 18 years ago to purchase short line railroads, and began picking up Oregon systems being discarded by Burlington Northern in 1993. Currently, the firm operates 165 lines, including one in southern Australia.
The local service connects with Burlington Northern/Santa Fe and Union Pacific/Southern Pacific. Nearly all operations are same-day connection with the major lines. Recent industry trends have seen the major systems spinning off the low-density lines.
Rich Oregon history
The planned centennial of the Astoria to Portland line will honor a rich piece of Oregon history.
Astoria residents became interested, following the Civil War, in rail service that would connect them with the rest of the new nation. Various corporations developed and went broke for more than 30 years trying to get tracks either across the mountains to the Willamette Valley and the Klamath Falls connection to the Central Pacific, or along the Columbia to Goble and Portland.
Colorful historic names became a part of the rich mix of history: A.B. Hammond, Ben Holladay and D.K. Warren (Warrenton's namesake) among others.
The initial tracks of the first corporation to go broke connected Skipanon Creek, across Young's Bay from Astoria, to Necanicum Creek at Seaside in 1889. It eventually ran to Tillamook Bay.
A couple of corporations later, a trestle was built across Young's Bay, and in 1896 the first train left Astoria for Skipanon and Seaside.
Finally, the Astoria and Columbia River Railroad was able to complete the job, and at 7:45 a.m. May 16, 1898, the inaugural passenger train left Astoria.
It stopped at Clatskanie to "wood up," according to Walter R. Grange in his book, "The Northwest's Own Railroad."
The train reached Goble at 11:30 a.m., and rolled into Portland at 1:10 p.m. Passengers then had a opportunity to browse in Portland for a couple of hours before the trip home to Astoria.
Goble was a significant point because the Northern Pacific crossed the Columbia River on huge ferry boats cruising between Goble and Kalama. When the Interstate Railroad Bridge was finished by the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railroad in 1908, the ferries stopped running.
SP&S, which was part of the Northern Pacific corporation, then purchased the Astoria and Columbia River Railroad in 1909. It was taken over by the Burlington Northern merger in 1970, and became part of Genesee and Wyoming in 1993.
Dredge stopping Portland & Western Railroad Freight Train at Clatskanie River Swing Bridge in Clatskanie, Oregon in 1998
Service on the P&W "A" line was interrupted last week by dredging on the Clatskanie River. A locomotive operated by Bob Slover and Bernie Carlton was prevented from picking up cars at the Ft. James Wauna plant by a dredge operated by the Port of Astoria. The dredge was blocking closure of the swing bridge at the time the train arrived, Tuesday, Aug. 25.
Susan Walsh-Enloe
Susan Walsh-Enloe is one of the key people who has helped make the current operation the success it has become. A bouncy combination of enthusiastic railroad history and detailed shipping knowledge, she is the marketing director for both railroads.
"We are now the retailers of BNSF's main line service," she says. "We are out there with a lower cost base and far more flexible work conditions. We can influence lower prices because we operate less costly than BNSF - and we have a very supportive non-union staff."
Both Walsh-Enloe and Melbo have high regard for the staff. "Our people live here and don't get transferred halfway across the country," Melbo said.
"We'll run 5,000 cars in 1998 between Linnton and Wauna. That is up from slightly more than 3,500 cars handled by BN in its last year of operation," Walsh-Enloe said.
Portland & Western Railroad Brakeman Bernard Carlton at Clatskanie, Oregon in 1998
Bernard Carlton of Columbia City directs the engineer to a precise location to spot a car on the Stimson lumber siding at Clatskanie. Carlton is also a certificated engineer, and rotates the chores of brakeman with engineer Bob Slover from week to week. The conductor/brakeman must operate the track switches on sidings, set the mechanical brakes on parked cars, uncouple cars being 'spotted,' and connect the air brakes to cars getting picked up. 'All the engineer does is blow the whistle, ring the bell and make it go," he said.
Some of P&W's customers include:
  • Koppers Industry - RR materials and the tars & treatments for ties & poles
  • Mobile Petroleum - ships clays and chlorines for paper mills
  • Corn syrup & starch from Archer Daniels Midland to Steinfeld
  • Armstrong ceilings
  • McCormick pole & piling
  • Letica Plastics
  • Boise Cascade
  • Friesen Lumber
  • Lumber to and from Dixie Line
  • Coastal chemicals - fertilizers
  • Potential Morse Bros. rock and gravel
  • USG at Rainier - center-load flat cars for Sheetrock
  • Stimson Lumber
  • Crystal Ocean Foods
  • Fort James Paper

In addition to shipping, P&W also stores rail cars. "You may have noticed all those blue Alaska Railroad box cars in the Rainier area," Walsh-Enloe said. "We are storing them for the Gunderson and Greenbrier shops south of Portland to be reconditioned."

The company also operates a major diesel maintenance shop that is used by other railroads.

"We are known for our reliable power," she said. "We do a lot of repair and maintenance for other companies. We have wheel lathes, and re-turn wheels in a contract with UP."

Walsh-Enloe says the staff and people in the communities are fond of the company's brightly painted engines.

"It costs about $12,600 to paint a locomotive - that will buy a lot of ties. It takes a little over 3,000 ties to a mile of track at $30 apiece. We paint about two locomotives per year."

Related Links:
Genesee & Wyoming

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