The rise and fall of the Oregon Electric Railroad
Created and priced as a luxury line to compete with coal-fired steam trains, the railroad collapsed rapidly after automobiles came on the scene. Would a cheaper, less opulent service have survived?
By Finn J.D. John — December 11, 2016
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in March 2009, which you’ll find here.
American tourists visiting Italy and other Old World destinations, if they get off the beaten tourist-track a bit, often remark on the number of derelict buildings they see along the roads there. Hulking, enigmatic, hundreds of years old, and clearly historically significant, they stand forlornly beside the little country roads, waiting for someone to come and fix them up and tell their stories.
Oregon, as a state, is too young to have much of this kind of concrete history; certainly it can’t compare to a country whose written records date back more than 20 centuries. And what architectural history we do have is frequently threatened by fresh outbreaks of our occasional enthusiasm for urban renewal.
But Oregon does have a few enigmatic, ruined buildings that wouldn’t be too out of place beside a country lane in Tuscany.
One particular one can be seen, if one cranes one’s neck at just the right moment while driving by, standing beside a lonely stretch of railroad track a mile or so south of Albany. It stands above the tracks like a great gray stone cube, fortress-like with crenellations on its top and square columns down its front and four great window openings across its face, which have been covered with cement slabs. Moss and turf grow on its walls and perforated roof, and over the years graffiti artists have covered it with low-quality street art. Huge rusted steel doors swing ajar on one side.
This railside ruin is the remnants of the Pirtle Transfer Station — one of the few remaining artifacts of the Oregon Electric railroad, a plush, progressive transportation project put together in the early 1900s with an eye toward stitching together the cities and towns of the Willamette Valley.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the state of Oregon, like most places in the West, was far less interconnected than it is today. If you lived in, say, Eugene, you most likely only traveled to Portland or Boise or San Francisco once or twice in your life. When you did, it took days to get there — or perhaps it only took a few hours, but you paid a great deal of money for a ticket on one of the big Southern Pacific steam locomotives that plied the West Coast.
But things were changing, because a new age was dawning at that particular time: the age of electricity. Wealthy residents of Portland and Salem had already been getting household electric power since the 1890s, and by 1905 or so the industry had a pretty good handle on how to generate and transport electricity over moderate distances with tolerable efficiency. Soon city trolley cars in Portland were running on electric power, and soon after that a few members of Portland’s business elite were looking to the south, toward Salem and Eugene, and stroking their chins thoughtfully.
And so it was that, in 1907, an all-electric, interurban railway service debuted between Portland and Salem — opening for business on New Year’s Day, 1908. A few years later, the new rail line punched on through to Albany and then Eugene, bringing the entire Willamette Valley together. By that time, branch lines had been built to Forest Grove, Corvallis, Woodburn, and other large nearby towns.
The Oregon Electric’s founders saw the Southern Pacific’s steam-train passenger service as their main competitor, right from the start. Having an all-electric line gave them tremendous cost advantages over the old steam-powered trains, which enabled them to undercut Southern Pacific’s prices by, essentially, as much as they liked; so they decided to spend a lot of money on their buildings and railcars, so that they could compete both on price and luxury at the same time.
The result was a palatial experience for passengers on the line. The cars — initially painted traction-service orange, but later changed to Pullman green — were like little rolling clubhouses. There were observation cars, buffet cars, smoking compartments, and even, for a few years, sleeping cars — which one could board in the evening in Portland and wake up on the next morning in Eugene. (Because the trip from Portland to Eugene only took a few hours, these cars would be sidetracked for much of the night while the passengers slept.)
This luxury-line strategy was applied to much of the railroad’s buildings and infrastructure as well, and you can see it in the remaining large depots and transfer stations — all built very expensively, with timeless style, and built to last. (Today you can examine the architecture of the grand Oregon Electric depot in Albany over a slice and a pitcher at Ciddici’s Pizza, which now occupies it; or experience the piece de resistance of the line in the Oregon Electric Station restaurant in Eugene.)
Well, competing on luxury at the expense of a reduced price advantage was a strategy that worked just fine against the Southern Pacific’s expensive, maintenance-hungry coal-fired locomotive line, which had itself been initially pitched to business executives and merchant princes as a suitable alternative to bouncing around in a stagecoach. The problem was, new competitors were already arriving on the scene — competitors that appealed a lot more to those wealthy travelers than even the plushest railroad car ever could.
The revolution hadn’t started out looking like much — just a few slow, flimsy Ford Model Ts rolling off a new assembly line back east. But by 1920 — the year the Oregon Electric cleared its biggest profits, and began its slow decline — the roads of Oregon were full of the new automobiles. They ranged from cheap, tinny Model Ts all the way up to the opulent Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts purchased by Hollywood stars. Now the big-spending businessmen had a choice: would they rather spend thousands on railroad tickets to ride in luxury, or buy their own Stutz Bearcats and Packard Twin-Sixes?
The change didn’t go well for the Oregon Electric. Although fortune had placed them in perfect position to be the fastest, lowest-cost transportation provider of all, they’d saddled themselves with huge capital costs to compete better with the Southern Pacific, totally neutralizing their advantage, and now the low-cost market they’d spurned was spending all its money on model Ts. All they could do now was be as efficient as possible and hope the motorcar thing was a passing fad for college kids in racoon coats.
Of course, it wasn’t. By 1945, the Oregon Electric was exclusively a freight-hauling line — and not a very efficient one at that; after all, it had been engineered to haul people, not goods. The last year it actually did haul people was 1932; that entire year, it made just $17,313, down from almost $1 million in 1920.
But time has gone by, and things have changed once again. A new generation of travelers is now growing up in cities served by outfits like Zipcar and Lyft, and more and more of them are using those services to entirely skip the expense and bother of automobile ownership. If only there were some way that a person in Portland, wanting to travel to Eugene, could take a taxi or Lyft to the train depot; board a fast, inexpensive electric train; and then pick up a Zipcar at the Eugene depot on arrival ....
Today, the old railroad lines for the Oregon Electric are mostly in use for short-haul freight services using regular diesel-electric locomotives, and most of them get very little traffic. There has recently been talk of running the diesel-powered Amtrak Cascades passenger train service on them.
But it’s worth pondering whether those old tracks maybe ought to be restored to what they were 100 years ago — an all-electric, dedicated passenger route — without all the expensive amenities that helped financially ruin the Oregon Electric. Running with modern equipment, with electric motors driving aerodynamic trains on steel rails and drawing power from the modern high-tension grid, it’s hard to imagine there could ever be a less expensive way to transport people among the Willamette Valley’s major cities than the old Oregon Electric railroad line.
And if that ever happens, perhaps we’ll even see some of our state’s derelict architectural heritage restored to its former glory in places like Pirtle Station.
(Sources: Thompson, Richard. Willamette Valley Railways. Mount Pleasant, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2008; Johnson, Emory R. Elements of Transportation. New York: Appleton, 1909; Culp, Edwin D. Stations West: The Story of Oregon Railroads. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1972; www.oes-restaurant.com; www.pdxhistory.com)