In the first decades of the 20th century, as railroad companies were expanding westward, citizens of the Palo Verde Valley, in southeastern California, sought a connection with the growing nation's rail network. A few proposed lines were considered, which included a line that ran between Grand Junction, CO and Niland, CA and a connection with the Southern Pacific mainline, and also an electric railroad that ran just between Blythe and Niland. However, World War I stymied any efforts.
It wasn't until 1914 that the original California Southern Railroad was chartered to build a line north out of Blythe through a pass between the Big Maria Mountains and the Little Maria Mountains to meet future gypsum mines, and then descend into the valley near its northern end. The line ultimately ended at Blythe Junction (now Rice) and a connection with the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The entire 43-mile line was completed in the summer of 1916. The first train hauled hogs out of the valley along with other commodities including cotton; overnight passenger service to Los Angeles soon followed.
In 1920, the line was extended further south to the new townsite of Ripley, which culminated in a big celebration. Ripley would thrive as a fast growing town in the Palo Verde Valley until floods hit a few years later. In 1921, the AT&SF leased the now 49-mile long line.
In the mid 1920s, Midland was founded midway along the line to house the employees of the US Gypsum mine. There was no direct water line to Midland at the time, so a daily train carrying an average of 20 tank cars carrying water made its way between Blythe and Midland. The USG plant in Midland became a significant customer on the line, producing gypsum for several customers in the United States, most notably Fresno, California.
During and after dieselization, the Santa Fe started reefer trains out of the valley to Chicago in trains with the name "PVX". A spur at the edge of the valley was built to Riverview Farms in the early 1950s. An organized excursion with 2 ALCO PAs and several heavyweights by request went on this line to Blythe in 1965. Midland would strive until struggles with gypsum mining would lead to the town's decline. In 1966, the USG plant shut down and the population of Midland declined sharply thereafter. Any empty buildings were either hauled away to other destinations or destroyed by fire training personnel for Riverside County.
By the start of the 1980s, the spur to Riverview Farms was abandoned, and Blythe only supported Trailer-On-Flat-Car ("TOFC") service since it was the only location between Phoenix and the Inland Empire to do so from the highway. Towards the end of the decade, TOFC service declined until a complete cessation of service in August, 1988. With no other service along the line, AT&SF submitted for the abandonment of the line; however the California Public Utilities Commission argued that the line should remain open, and a legal case ensued.
In 1990, the AT&SF placed both its Cadiz-Matthie line and the Rice-Ripley line up for sale. David Parkinson purchased these lines in 1991, and he started the Arizona and California Railroad. No TOFC service was reinstated in Blythe, but rather double stacked trains with Sudan grass bound for Japan were hauled over the line, as such shipments were to heavy for highways. However, as more and more hay was trucked on nearby Interstate 10, this operation discontinued at the end of the decade, leaving only gypsum shipments once again from a loading site few miles south of Midland.
The ARZC continued to operate trains on an as-needed basis, hauling grain, chemicals, heavy equipment, and such. In 2006, the depot was destroyed by a blaze, possibly from running gas. By 2007, service on the line had decreased to the point where trains no longer ran -- indeed, the last train ran in December 2007, at a time when the quality of the tracks was extremely poor. In 2009, the ARZC filed for abandonment on all but the first four miles of the line. The city of Blythe, along with former and potential customers, formed the "Committee to Preservation of the Rice-Blythe-Ripley Rail Line" to oppose the abandonment. Despite of their opposition and desires to use the line again, the STB favored the railroad's decision in June 30, 2009. Weeks later, the owner of the Bountiful Grain & Craig Mountain Railroad from Idaho asked to purchase the line for the committee's members. Despite his effort to submit documents for the purchase of the line, a failed offer for financial assistance prevented any further hope to restore the line.
Over the summer of 2011, the line was removed in piles; first the rails, then the ties, with everything being trucked out of the valley; the crossing signals were the last to go. Fortunately, the city of Blythe took advantage of an opportunity to save a portion of this line. The city asked that a portion of the track and its crossing signals remain; indeed, a 300-foot segment of the original line, along with its crossing gates, bridges and loading ramps, remain today. The city of Blythe plans to get railcars for the track in order to create an attraction, and so far a coffee caboose was proposed by its city manager. The line is currently railbanked, with the hopes of future train service one day.
Thanks to Tyler McMillin for contributing information about this route.