In 1908, A near war broke out as construction of two competing railroads began at the mouth of the Deschutes River where it empties into the Columbia River. One of the railroads was under control of James Hill, who had ownership of the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway and others such as the Northern Pacific. It was built on the western bank of the Deschutes River starting at Miller. (Miller was the name of the junction with the mainline in Moody, OR; the name is no longer used.) A large bridge across the Columbia River to Wishram, WA was built sometime later.
The Deschutes Railroad Company, a Union Pacific subsidiary, was the first railroad to commence building. Some suspect that surveys were conducted as early as 1906 along both banks of the Deschutes River. The surveys concluded that the east bank of the river offered the best route for the Deschutes Railroad, which then began construction of their line. Not long afterwards, the Oregon Trunk Railroad, which was incorporated in Nevada by investors from Seattle, began its own surveys. They concluded that the west bank of the river offered the best possible route. They soon started construction.
Over the next few years, the railroads would be involved in numerous legal disputes over access in the Deschutes River canyon. Mostly because at one point along the route, both lines run right next to each other and for a distance even share the same rails. The friction between the Oregon Trunk and the Deschutes Railroad quickly became an all-out railroad war. Competing construction crews would often blow up the other people's supplies and ignite the black powder stores, dump boulders on the camps and even get into gun battles! In several cases, local Sheriffs had to get involved and make several arrests when enforcing court orders.
A few people were killed during the conflict, and it's interesting to note that an old cemetery exists on a hillside next to one of the most contested sections of the railroad. It's not known if the cemetery relates directly to the railroad, but there are no ranches or homesteads that ever existed within many miles of the cemetery. Near the site, over 1200 men once worked on two tunnels. The site is where the two companies had to build tunnels right next to each other on the same side of the river.
By 1910, trains were beginning to run on the line. By 1912, construction was almost complete and both railroads began operating on mostly separate lines on either side of the river. This went on for several decades. Trackage rights agreements were signed and both lines would operate the disputed single line section, between North and South Junctions.
From the beginning, the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway operated the Oregon Trunk Railroad. The SP&S Railroad was owned jointly by the Northern Pacific and Great Northern Railroads, and Great Northern locomotives were commonly seen hustling trains over the line. Later the SP&S merged with its partial owners to become the Burlington Northern. The Deschutes Railroad was owned by Union Pacific and operated as an independent railroad. In 1921, the first abandonment occurred when the Oregon Trunk abandoned its line between South Junction and Metolius. It then began using the Deschutes Railroad track from South Junction into Madras and Bend.
The next major abandonment occurred in 1935, when the entire Deschutes Railroad on the east bank from Moody to North Junction was abandoned. The Oregon Trunk agreed to allow the Deschutes Railroad to use its better built line on the west bank and share the costs of maintenance. From this time on, the railroad was essentially a single line operated by two companies. This abandoned section contains many interesting features. These include cars, trestles, a station, and more. The area though, is difficult to access. The only access to the old grade is a gated off gravel road in the state park at the mouth of the river and at Mack's Canyon 27 miles upstream.
Today, the Deschutes Railroad and Oregon Trunk names are no longer used; instead the BNSF (Oregon Trunk) line is jointed operated by Union Pacific, who owned the Deschutes Railroad and Burlington Northern Sante Fe, who owned the Oregon Trunk. The line maintained by both companies. Generally, the line is maintained during the day and trains run on a very regular and busy schedule at night. Usually 9-12 trains in a 24 hour period. Recently a large investment was put into the line to upgrade the rails and ties and it's expected this mainline will exist and prosper for many more years to come.
Some of the abandoned Deschutes Railroad line has been converted to a rail-trail between the mouth of the Deschutes River and Mack's Canyon Campground. The entire trail is in a roadless area, except for a public access road at mile 7 on the other side of the raging river and at the ends. Several old cars exist along the line and at-least two trestles, one still used for the path.
At milepost 12, there is an intact water tank. There is also a station near milepost 9 that appears as if the railroad just walked away from it. The sofa, ice box, stove, and other furnishings are still there, and are in remarkable shape! Just please treat these as a piece of history so that others in the future can enjoy them too. After milepost 17, there are three short bridges that are missing. Theses missing "links" in the grade are nearly impossible to get around, as it's a near vertical 75 feet drop to the river shore below. Bring water as it is scarce, except if you want to scale the hill down to the river, which can be very treacherous. Be watching on Saturday evenings for the once-a-week Union Pacific Local heading north on the other side of the canyon about 5:00 PM. It is a very unique way to witness history on a "then and now" basis.
Farther south, the line between South Junction and Madras is still very well preserved. This section includes the location of several huge trestles that used to exist. Part of the line parallels highway 26 in the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and is easily tracked. Along the line is a tunnel that is still open and in very good shape. The ceiling is about 30 feet high and shows evidence of steam locomotives. The grade near the Pelton Dam is a registered rail-trail and is nicely maintained. Views of the Cascades on this portion of the grade are awesome as well as the stunning view of the huge lake down the hill. Near the Madras city limits, along Willow Creek, one can look up and see the gigantic BNSF/UP Willow Creek Trestle that spans the small valley. The abandoned Deschutes Railroad line used to run to Metolius, but is now totally gone because of farms and the expanding town.
Thanks to Brian Edwards for contributing information about this route.