Portland Traction Company

An article I wrote and photos I took of what remained of the route in August of 1981.

 

History: The Trolley Boom

The place is Portland Oregon. The year is 1891. The city is laced with the tracks of no fewer than six transportation companies, and their wooden cars patrol the streets, competing for the paying passenger. In May, many of these narrow-gauge trolley systems merged, and the East Side Railway was born.

As the city became firmly established as a trade center in the Pacific Northwest, the desirability of a rail link with Oregon City, some ten miles south along the Willamette River, was realized. What became popularly known as this nation's first true electric railroad came into being when rails were laid into Oregon City in 1893.

Before the line had a chance to become profitable, the economy faltered and the railroad passed into receivership later that same year. This was the beginning of many repeat performances in the history of the Portland Traction Company. In 1901, the line was sold and reorganized as the Portland City and Oregon Railway Company, this name lasting just over one year.

In 1902 it became the Oregon Water Power and Railway Company, and property was purchased at Faraday and Cazadero on the Clackamas River for the purpose of constructing power-generating dams to serve the electrical needs of both the railway and the city of Portland.

By this time, the railroad had many trolley lines serving southeast Portland, and in 1903 trains began service to Gresham on newly completed non-electrified trackage extending from the end of the Mount Scott line at Lents. The first trains on this line were pulled by steam dummies, soon replaced by more powerful 4-4-0 locomotives. A steam dummy was a locomotive shrouded within what appeared from the outside to be a wooden trolley car. The car body hid the side rod mechanism from plain view. The purpose of this disguise was said to avoid spooking horses, who were not used to the movement of a steam locomotive's side rods.

A new, more southerly route was established in 1904. This line branched eastward from the Oregon City track at Golf Junction, site of the Sellwood car barn, and followed Johnson Creek east and north to Lents. The next year saw rails being laid north from Gresham to Troutdale on the Columbia River. Plans were made to cross the river and enter Washington, but they were never carried out.

In keeping with its "roller-coaster" ownership history, the railroad again changed hands. It came under the control of Portland General Electric and was now operated as the Portland Railroad Company. In 1908, with the new Cazadero Dam coming on line, the remaining independent trolley companies serving Portland merged with Portland Railroad Company, and the system became the Portland Railway, Light and Power Company.

In 1911, it again became necessary to increase Portland's supply of electricity. The Portland Railway, Light and Power Company purchased more riverfront property farther up the Clackamas River at Three Lynx for another dam. To reach this remote location it was necessary to construct a railroad up the deep, narrow river canyon. As part of the right-of-way purchase agreement, the railroad logged and hauled timber from the area to a dump on the Willamette River just south of Portland. At first, electric " steeple cab" motors were pressed into logging service, but as the tracks moved deeper into the woods four two-truck Shays were purchased for this purpose. The Shays brought the logs from the railhead to Estacada, and the steeple cabs took over for the trip to Portland.

 

The Descent Begins

Once again the pendulum of the economy swung, and in 1924 the line was reorganized into the Portland Electric Power Company. Declining traffic forced the abandonment and removal of the Troutdale branch in 1927.

In 1930 the road was placed under the holdings of the Pacific Northwest Public Service Company but continued to operate as PEPCO. Pacific Northwest Public Service Company dissolved in 1933, releasing the railroad.
Traffic on the Estacada branch south and east of Boring ceased in the early 1940's. The railroad was sold in 1946, this time to California-based Portland Transit Company. The City and Interurban systems were separated, the city trackage becoming Portland Traction Company and the Interurban lines became the Portland Railroad and Terminal Division of Portland Traction Company, the name by which the railroad was known in 1981.

The city system fell victim to Portland Transit's buses and a motorized society. The last interurban passenger train polished the rails in January of 1958. In 1962, the railroad was purchased jointly by the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads but continued to operate as an independent company.

 

An Overview of the Railroad in 1981 (Written in present tense, as I wrote it in 1981. Not much of what I described then still exists today)

The historic Oregon City line is long gone; its steel truss bridge over the Clackamas River at Gladstone feels only the weight of fishermen and pedestrians. Humming electric freight motors have been replaced with growling diesels as one daily train sways along rusty rails at restricted speed. While the passenger trains are only a memory, there is still work to be done -- freight to be moved. PTC interchanges with Southern Pacific at Portland's East Side Yard, where the company's offices and shops are located. PTC motive power consist of two orange EMD SW1 switchers, more than enough horsepower to handle the average train of two to six cars.

North of the yard, tracks in Water Street serve a southeast Portland warehouse district. A spur runs east in an alley south of S.E. Main Street to reach a warehouse and Spokane, Portland & Seattle's street trackage on S.E. 3rd Avenue, crossing the Southern Pacific's mainline (two tracks and a siding) at grade. Also from the yard, abandoned streetcar tracks cross Market Street then turn west to run below the Hawthorne Bridge's approach to the east bank of Willamette River. This remnant of trackage is all that remains of the city streetcar system and had become useless when the approach to the east end of the bridge was rebuilt at a higher elevation years ago. After the bridge approach was elevated, interurbans which used to cross the river on the Hawthorne Bridge to reach downtown Portland would stop at the river's edge to transfer passengers to a bus that would take them the rest of the way into the city.

Two miles south of the yard, the track curves past the site of the Oaks Amusement Park. During the heyday of interurban travel, the Oaks was the destination for thousands of picnicking families and was a focal point for weekend excursions on the trolley. Prior to its American Freedom Train rebirth in 1976, Southern Pacific's GS-4 Daylight No. 4449 was stored on a display track at the Oaks; in 1981 Union Pacific 4-6-2 No. 3203 and Spokane Portland and Seattle 4-8-4 No. 700 remained stored there.

At some point, these locomotives were moved to Union Pacific's Brooklyn Roundhouse, and later from there to Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation's new home for the three locomotives near Oregon Museum of Science & Industry, south of the Hawthorne Bridge. (Contact www.orhf.org for more information on these three locomotives.)

Leaving the Willamette River, the track swings east at Sellwood. The Sellwood car barn is still standing, being used by Molded Container Corporation for light manufacturing. Plastic pellets are delivered in covered hoppers at the siding here, and one or two are often waiting their turn for unloading on the stub of the old Oregon City line. The Sellwood substation was still in service, and high tension lines parallel the railroad right of way all the way to the dams.

Just east of Sellwood, a spur veers off the mainline and down a steep grade to serve an industrial park. The main line continues eastward, crossing S.E. McLoughlin Blvd. and the Southern Pacific mainline on a high plate girder bridge.

The line threads a short canyon and then follows Johnson Creek past the one-time stations of Stanley, Wichita and Bell in rapid succession (each marked only by a very short passing siding today). Curving to the northeast, the rails skirt the backyards of suburban southeast Portland, pass through Lents Junction and begin to leave "urban sprawl" behind.

In open country now, the railroad passes through the Bellrose area, winds past wooded Powell Butte, and makes its way to Linneman Junction. Here, the Gresham branch turns north, ending in Gresham, and the Boring branch curves to the southeast and terminates just south of Boring.  Beyond end-of-track, bridges and trestles are still in place as far as Estacada.

 

Customers

On-line industry served by the Portland Traction Company includes many lumber yards and mills, warehouses, cold storage facilities, a pharmaceutical manufacturer, a cement plant, various light manufacturers, and the Oregon Liquor Control warehouse. Until just a few years ago, there was a large lumber mill in Lents, but today its buildings lie vacant.

 

Equipment

During the busy interurban years, many types of cars were in use. Many were built in the Portland area, and the railroad owned cars from builders such as the American, Holman and Niles car companies, as well as a few single-truck Birneys. The most recent equipment to be purchased for passenger use were Brill two-trucked "Master Unit" cars. Other cars were purchased second-hand from such railroads as the Fonda, Johnstown and Gloversville, the Pacific Electric, and others. Late color schemes were cream over red.

Freight motors were mostly of steeple-cab design built by GE as well as some home-built copies, and a few home-built "express car" box motors saw service on the Oregon City line. Steam power consisted of 2-4-2 "dummies" disguised as trolleys, 4-4-0's and at least one 0-6-0, as well as the four Shays. Log cars were flatcars with log bunks added.

Modern Portland Traction Company power, in fact today's entire locomotive roster, consists of two orange SW1 switchers, numbers 100 and 200.

 

Operation

The Portland Railroad and Terminal Division of Portland Traction Company in 1981 is a relaxed railroad; there is no real hurry on the line. Even if there was a need for speed, track conditions and light rail limit speeds to 10 mph or less. Generally speaking, one train daily Monday through Friday can be found working the line as far east as necessary, with service to Gresham and/or Boring as needed. No turnaround facilities are provided, so the locomotive heads out of East Side Yard pulling its train hood-first eastbound working trailing point sidings en route, runs around the train at one of the many sidings on the line, then pulls cab-first returning to Portland. No caboose is currently used, and the average train consists of one to eight cars.


Portland Traction Company Highlights

  • May 1891: Incorporated as East Side Railway Company.
  • 1893: Entered Oregon City.
  • December 1893: Passed into receivership.
  • January 1901: Sold and reorganized as Portland City & Oregon Railway Company.
  • June 1902: Reformed as Oregon Water Power & Railway Company.
  • 1902: Purchased property on Clackamas River for power generating dam.
  • 1903: Steam trains to Gresham from electrified Lents route.
  • 1904: Route to Cazadero opened and work begun on dam.
  • 1905: Work begun on Troutdale branch.
  • April 1906: Sold to Portland General Electric Company and Portland Railroad Company, jointly.
  • 1907: Cazadero power plant on line.
  • 1908: Merged into Portland Railway, Light and Power Company with city-wide service.
  • 1908: Troutdale branch in service.
  • 1911: Purchased site at Three Lynx for another dam.
  • 1922: Line started to Three Lynx with agreement to log timber.
  • 1923-24: Shays replaced electrics hauling logs.
  • 1924: Reorganized into Portland Electric Power Company (PEPCO).
  • 1927: Troutdale branch removed north/east of Ruby Junction.
  • 1930: Reorganized as Pacific Northwest Public Service Company, operated as PEPCO.
  • 1933: PNPS disolved, railroad reverts to PEPCO.
  • Early 1940's: Service suspended east of Boring.
  • 1946: Sold to Portland Transit Company. City and interurban lines separated. City lines become Portland Traction Company, interurban lines become Portland Railroad and Terminal Division.
  • January 1958: Interurban passenger service curtailed.
  • August 1968: Oregon City line abandoned due to poor condition of Clackamas River bridge at Gladstone; paper mill switching in Oregon City handed over to Southern Pacific. Oregon City line tracks laid abandoned for several years until they were finally removed.
  • 1962: Purchased jointly by Southern Pacific and Union Pacific.
  • 1988: SW1 #100 sold to Dick Samuels.
  • September 1989: All trackage east of 17th Avenue (industrial park) abandoned.
  • 1990-May 1991: Tracks east of 17th Avenue removed.
  • April 1, 1991: Samuels organizes East Portland Traction Company and purchases Portland Traction Company. PTC still exists as real estate holding company.
  • January 1, 1997: Samuels' Oregon Pacific Railroad acquires remaining EPTC trackage and begins operation.
  • 2002: PTC right of way between Golf Jct. and Gladstone sold for bike path.
  • November 11, 2003: Sellwood car barn demolished by developer.

The Springwater Corridor Trail

springwater corridor logo

Text by Craig Bass, January 2004

I moved from the Portland area in early 1982. Since then, I've learned the following from other sources, not personal experience or research I did for the 1981 article.

Beginning not long after I left, the Gresham line was abandoned and partially removed to make way for Portland's new MAX Light Rail system, which launched service in 1987. The PTC had been used to deliver MAX cars to Gresham. In 1989, Southern Pacific sold the line from Sellwood to Boring to the City of Portland. The tracks were removed in 1990-91, and the right of way eventually became what is now the Springwater Corridor Trail (according to a 1946 map, the line from Golf Jct. to Faraday [near Cazadero] was shown as the Springwater Division).

Also in 1990, the Spokane Portland and Seattle's 700 that had been stored at the Oaks was returned to operation and left the park. I understand that recently the UP 3203 was moved to the Brooklyn Roundhouse to undergo restoration.

The remainder of the line was purchased by Richard Samuels of Samuels Pacific Industries. The East Portland Traction Company was incorporated in April, 1991 to operate what was left of the line from the East Portland yard to the Milwaukie Industrial Park east of Sellwood, where the current-day engine house is located. Seasonally, a passenger excursion called "Samtrak" is run on this abbreviated trackage, consisting of a 45 ton diesel locomotive, an open air covered passenger car and an old caboose. The ride covers 8 miles from Milwaukie to East Portland and back and lasts an hour. Surprisingly, the railroad now has 6 locomotives, whereas in 1981 the PTC only owned two.

In January 1997, Samuels' Oregon Pacific Railroad acquired the remaining trackage and commenced operation. (Oregon Pacific also acquired ex-SP's Canby to Mollalla branch and began operation there the same day.)

In 2002, the Portland Traction Company sold the right of way between Gladstone and Sellwood (Golf Jct) to be used as another bike path.

The Sellwood car barn was razed on Veteran's Day, 2003 to make room for new development. The developer plans to keep the facades of the three original front bays and incorporate them into the new construction.

Other than the four miles of trackage used to connect the Milwaukie Industrial Park to the UP and BNSF world at East Portland, the only remaining evidence testifying of Portland's historic interurban empire are a few bridges and a small section of track used by UP to work a paper mill in Oregon City.