Railroads & Locomotives Online Bonus: Pend Oreille Valley Railroad

Online Bonus: Pend Oreille Valley Railroad

By Bruce Kelly | May 28, 2008

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By the time Milwaukee Road pulled the plug on its Western operations in March 1980, the Pend Oreille Valley Railroad had already been in business nearly six months. Local business leaders organized the Port of Pend Oreille in 1978, and on Oct. 1, 1979, they took charge of the trackage between Newport and Metaline Falls, Wash. It borrowed a Milwaukee Road GP9 at first, but the new short line soon rostered a pair of Alcos: S-4 101 (ex-Yreka Western 1172) and RS-11 102 (ex-SP 2936). After five years of contracting out the line’s management to Kyle Railways, the Port decided in 1984 to assume full control of the railroad. During the mid-1980s, the Alcos were replaced by a GP7 and two GP9s of BN (ex-NP) ancestry.

The Lehigh Portland Cement plant at Metaline Falls, which had long provided traffic for the Idaho & Washington Northern and Milwaukee Road, was purchased by Lafarge in 1990 and shut down soon thereafter. Lafarge still uses the plant’s silos to hold surplus inventory, resulting in occasional shipments of cement to and from Metaline Falls via the railroad. Of the various lumber mills that once dotted the I&WN north of Newport, only the Vaagen Brothers Lumber Co. at Ione survived into the Pend Oreille Valley era, but it too has vanished. However, new business came on line in 1989 when the Ponderay Newsprint Company opened its sprawling paper plant south of Usk, Wash. In 2000, Usk became home for two additional ventures: Ponderay Valley Fibre’s modern woodchip and lumber facility, and the railroad’s new office building and engine shops.

A pair of GP10s joined the railroad’s roster in 1997, ex-Illinois Central 8310 and ex-Chicago Central & Pacific 1749. The 1749 was resold the following year, but four more GP10s were added: ex-IC 8042 and 8325, and ex-CC&P 1745 and 1775. A few months later, the 1775 was traded for ex-Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range SD9 159, which served Pend Oreille Valley for a couple years before being resold. GP7 110 (ex-BN 1629) had already left the railroad by then, but GP9s 101 and 102 (ex-BN 1846 and 1753) were still on the property, the 101 being cannibalized for parts. Last but not least on its roster is GE 70-tonner 103, formerly Lehigh Portland Cement No.1, which Lafarge donated to the North Pend Oreille Valley Lions Club.
All this motive power maneuvering came at a time when the Port of Pend Oreille was negotiating with BNSF for control of the ex-GN main line from Newport east 26 miles to Dover, Idaho, plus four miles of trackage rights from Dover east to the Boyer, Idaho, interchange yard on the outskirts of Sandpoint, Idaho. Wood products customers along the former GN would generate 20 to 30 additional carloads per day for the railroad, more than double the daily car count from its existing customers along the former I&WN. A long-term track lease was signed with BNSF, and Pend Oreille Valley ran its first train to Boyer in March 1998.
The railroad’s customer base has grown along with its trackage. Just east of Newport at Albeni Falls, Idaho, where a Crown Pacific lumber mill was closed in 1996, The railroad now provides service for Tri-Pro Cedar Products and J.D. Lumber. In nearby Priest River, lumber and woodchips are trucked in for railcar reloading. And farther east at Laclede, Idaho, Riley Creek Lumber continues to ship heavily with Pend Oreille Valley. Rolling stock repair shops have popped up at Newport and Usk, and the railroad even rakes in some easy per-diem dollars by simply storing empty cars for other companies.
Railroad crews go on duty around 6:00 a.m. Monday through Friday, plus nights or weekends if needed. The daily train east to Boyer usually starts out of Priest River or Newport, but may start from just about anywhere if the previous day’s trip ran short on hours and had to tie down en route. Since 1996, UP has operated BNSF’s ex-GN trackage between Dover and Boyer as part of a bypass route avoiding downtown Sandpoint. As a result, the crews must get a UP track warrant before proceeding east of Dover. Arrival at Boyer is usually before noon. On a less-frequent basis, a crew switches customers on the former Milwaukee branch north of Newport and gathers outbound loads for the next run to Boyer.

Pend Oreille Valley Railroad on the big screen
Never heard of the Pend Oreille Valley Railroad? Hollywood has! The 1993 movie “Benny & Joon,” starring Johnny Depp and Mary Stuart Masterson, was filmed largely in Spokane, Wash. This romantic comedy has almost nothing to do with trains, but its opening sequence shows plenty of runbys along Pend Oreille Valley’s scenic north end, with a GP9 pulling coaches across Box Canyon Bridge and various wooden trestles.

Kevin Costner’s 1997 doomsday flick, “The Postman,” set in the post-apocalyptic Northwest, shows us very little of Pend Oreille Valley per se, but many of its location shots were done within sight of the railroad. Obvious settings include downtown Metaline Falls, Wash, the Lafarge cement plant, Box Canyon Dam, and the rusted girders of the railroad’s Box Canyon Bridge.

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