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Union Pacific Joseph Branch

Union Pacific
Joseph Branch

A Union Pacific train at the Enterprise depot shortly after th eline's construction.

In 1890, the Oregon Railway Extension Company completed a branchline running twenty-one miles from a connection with the UP mainline at La Grande northeast to the town of Elgin. In 1905, the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company commenced extending the branch beyond Elgin, with an eventual terminous of Joseph, Oregon, reached in 1908. Total mileage from La Grande to Joseph stood at 84 miles.

The La Grande-Elgin section of the line generated a substantial amount of agricultural traffic. Beyond Elgin the line tapped into a heavily forested part of Oregon, and forest products quickly came to dominate the traffic base. The scenic attractions of the Wallowa Mountains drew a lot of tourists, and as late as 1960 Union Pacific still ran a daily-except-Sunday mixed train up the branch, with Train #304 making the La Grande to Joseph run and Train #305 making the return journey. The schedule allowed Train #304 four and a half hours to make the run, with the return trip allowed a little more than five hours.

Freight traffic remained healthy into the early 1990s, with a series of sawmills in Enterprise and Joseph providing most of the traffic. UP served the branch with a local that operated three trains a week, running up to Joseph on three of the days and returning to La Grande on the alternate days. Despite the relative prosperity, the line stood out as a prime candidate for a shortline spinoff, and in 1992 UP offered the line as part of a package including several other branches in Idaho. Rio Grande Pacific Corporation won the bidding process, and on 14 November 1993 the new company took over. Under the final arrangements, Rio Grande Corporation leased the La Grande-Elgin trackage and purchased the Elgin-Joseph trackage. Rio Grande Corp. set up the new Idaho Northern & Pacific Railroad to operate the line.

Joseph Branch timetable, January 1960. Jeff Moore collection.