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Union Pacific Marsing Branch

Union Pacific
Marsing Branch
Contributed by Jeff Acock

Upon completion of the Union Pacific's Oregon Short Line across Southern Idaho and into Eastern Oregon, the railroad began building a network of branch lines into outlying areas. A number of these were built under the auspices of other railroad companies, nearly all of which were controlled by OSL. Several were built with the express purpose of forestalling incursions by the Hill roads, which also coveted the Snake River country. Others, mostly the later ones, were constructed directly by the OSL.

Of the latter type was OSL's South Side Line which paralleled the south bank of the Snake River for 33.5 miles from Nyssa, Oregon to Marsing, Idaho, serving the communities of Dunaway, Kingman, Adrian and Homedale. The line was built south from Nyssa beginning in 1911. The intent of the OSL was to follow the river southeast through sparsely settled territory for some 150 miles, to connect with the Twin Falls branch at Buhl and rejoin the mainline at Minidoka. This would have created a secondary main line through southwest Idaho. A primary objective was traffic from a large irrigation project proposed for land around the mouth of the Bruneau River. The project failed however, and with its demise the OSL lost interest in a through line choosing instead to end the branch at Homedale, 25 miles from Nyssa. Because of its potential status as a through line, the South Side was better-engineered than most branch lines, with heavy grading, sturdy bridges and broad sweeping curves.

Farmland development in the 1910 - 1920 period brought about a demand for further rail service south of the Snake. In 1922 OSL proceeded to extend the branch 8 miles to the site of Froman's Ferry and the hamlet of Marsing. The Interstate Commerce Commission, in its certificate authorizing the extension stated:

"The applicant estimates the total population to be served at about 1,500, and states that the outbound tonnage will consist principally of potatoes, lettuce, and wheat, while inbound traffic will be made up of coal, lumber, and agricultural implements, together with a small amount of general merchandise. An estimate of probable traffic submitted by the applicant gives a total outbound tonnage available for shipment during the present season of 1,005 carloads, moving to points in Colorado and to Missouri River gateways."

The ICC certificate also makes mention of "a small amount of passenger traffic", but it is unclear what sort of passenger accommodations the branch offered. Anecdotal evidence indicates that in later years occasional passengers were carried in the caboose of the daily freight that plied the line.

The South Side received its largest influx of traffic in 1927 with the construction of Owyhee Dam, the highest concrete-arch dam in the world at the time. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built the Owyhee Dam Railroad from Dunaway, 5 miles south of Nyssa, 29 miles up the Owyhee River to the dam site, and for the next six years the branch delivered loads of cement, steel and other building materials to this connection.

Dunaway and site of Owyhee Dam RR connection. Jeff Acock photo.

With the completion of Owyhee Dam and the demise of its railroad, operation on the branch reverted to the schedule that would occupy it for the next 50 years - a single monday-thru-friday round trip plus occasional extras. Traffic was mainly agricultural with inbound loads of lumber, fertilizer and fuel, and outbound traffic of fruit, grains and produce. Seasonal sugar beet extras handled loads from Marsing, Homedale, Napton and Overstreet.

Railroad deregulation in 1980 enabled Union Pacific to reduce service on many of its light-density branches. Sugar beet haulage ended entirely, and a great deal of other agricultural traffic went to trucks. In 1987, UP included the branch as part of the "Boise Group", a total of 476 miles of branchlines in eastern Oregon and southeastern Idaho offered up for sale or lease. By the end of the year UP selected the Intermountain Western Railroad, created as a joint venture by Intermountain Gas Company and Western Railroad Builders, as the successful bidder. The new IW purchased and painted a number of locomotives and made other preparations to start operations, but uncertainty over whether or not union contracts would apply due to an on-going court case and some other issues finally forced the IW to back out. UP continued to operate the line, but business continued to slide. The closure of a wood-products plant in Homedale and the consolidation of local grain elevators took a further toll, and service was reduced to a single weekly round trip, and then to an as-needed basis. The Homedale branch, now reduced to the status of an "industrial lead" generated a total of 49 carloads in 1995 and 42 in 1996. In 1997 Union Pacific filed for permission to abandon the Idaho portion of the line and received no formal protest. While UP would undoubtedly have preferred to be rid of the entire branch, the state of Oregon vide ODOT Rail and Malheur county had become concerned about the continued loss of rural branch lines in the state and were opposed to the abandonment of the Oregon portion of the line. Union Pacific, anxious to maintain the goodwill of the powers-that-be, agreed to leave the line in place to milepost 11.4 just south of Adrian.

Typical operation in the final years before abandonment was a pair of UP SD40-2's toting one or two cars. Jeff Acock photo.

In this foreshortened state the remnant South Side line had the distinction of being the very last of Union Pacific's once-extensive network of Treasure Valley branch lines - all others had either been abandoned or spun off to short line operators. The only remaining on-line customers were an onion-packing shed in Adrian and a grain elevator that piled wheat at Overstreet near the Owyhee river crossing. The remaining traffic could hardly be said to justify replacement of the light rail to accommodate the heavy modern grain hopper cars, and the trestle over the Owyhee River had become a serious liability. The Owyhee is prone to flooding in its lower reaches and the trestle's closely-spaced pilings trapped floating debris creating an ad hoc dam which sent water pouring over nearby farmland. One of the very last equipment moves of any kind occurred in 2007 during a period of high water, when UP sent a rail-mounted crane with a clamshell bucket to the crossing and kept it stationed there for several days to keep the channel cleared. Finally in 2007 Union Pacific filed for permission to abandon the remainder of the line save for two miles at the north end that served several customers in Nyssa.

The Malheur County commission made an eleventh-hour effort to have the line rail banked in hopes that it might provide an incentive for future economic development, but further study showed no on-line sites that were likely to attract new industries. Union Pacific's abandonment petition stated that no traffic had moved over the line since 2005. Interestingly, there was one final move of some sort over the branch. Late in 2007 a local observer reported a train of flat cars with a locomotive from a nearby short line operator loading out a large quantity of crated storage onions from the Adrian shed which was closing out its packing operation. This was almost certainly a purely local transfer move as onions are very susceptible to weather damage and a shipment of any great distance would use refrigerated box cars. It was also the very last time a steel wheel would turn on the South Side line. A contractor began lifting the rails in summer 2008, and the ROW was reverted, in most cases to adjacent landowners.