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Blue Mountain Railroad

Blue Mountain Railroad

Two Blue Mountain Railroad locomotives warming up in the yard at Walla Walla, Washington. John Henderson photo, Jeff Moore collection.

One of the provisions of the Staggers Act of 1980 made it easier for mainline railroads to convey marginal branchlines to new shortline railroad operators. Investors established several shortline holding companies to assume these branchlines and run them as independent railroads, often with much lower cost structures than the mainline railroads. Watco was one of the principle companies so established.

In the early 1990's, Union Pacific determined to quit the last of its once extensive branchline network in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. Many lines simply did not have enough traffic to maintain viability, but a few did. In late 1991/early 1992 UP made approximately 100 miles of branchlines in the region available for lease. Most of these lines lay in Washington, though one branch extended from Walla Walla, WA, south through Milton-Freewater, OR, to a large Smith Frozen Foods plant in Weston, OR. Watco submitted the winning bid, and on 20 November 1992 the new Blue Mountain Railroad started up operations on these lines.

In September 1996, Watco purchased a second group of branchlines centered to the north of the Blue Mountain Railroad operations from Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). Watco set up the new Palouse River & Coulee City Railroad to operate those lines. The PR&CC initially assumed some of the adjacent Blue Mountain Railroad lines, with the operations of the Blue Mountain completely assimilated into the PR&CC by the early 2000's.

While the Blue Mountain Railroad still exists as a railroad, it has today lost its public face into the PR&CC. The Smith Frozen Foods plant in Weston and a handfull of other shippers in the Milton-Freewater area continue to keep PR&CC trains rolling south into Oregon.

John Henderson captures the following images of a Blue Mountain train rolling through country typical of northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington. The Blue Mountain started operations with four former Western Pacific GP-35 model locomotives, all purchased from Union Pacific at start-up. The railroad assigned two of the locomotives to the lines based out of Walla Walla, WA, which included the Weston line. Both of these locomotives have since been retired and replaced with power supplied by the Palouse River & Coulee City. Jeff Moore collection.



"American Shortline Railway Guide". Edward A. Lewis, Kalmbach Publishing, 1996.


"Washington's Palouse River & Coulee City" by Thomas Hillebrant, April 2000 Railfan & Railroad.

More on the Web

Palouse River & Coulee City Corporate Homepage

Union Pacific Shortline Railroad Directory page for Blue Mountain Railroad