The Oregon Electric railroad line: State's past, and future?
The plush rail service left artifacts along its lines after being made obsolete by the popularity of automobiles.
EDITOR'S NOTE: A revised, updated and expanded version of this story was published in 2016 and is recommended in preference to this older one. To read it, click here.
By Finn J.D. John — March 22, 2009
About two miles south of Albany city limits, at the edge of a field dotted with grazing sheep, is a derelict building in a stand of trees beside a lonely stretch of railroad track.
It's tall, square and classical-looking. In fact, it looks like the shell of something that was once very impressive. And it's about 200 yards from the nearest road -- a tiny rural lane that sees perhaps two cars an hour at most.
This is Pirtle Station, a transfer station on the Oregon Electric Railroad line that once connected Portland to Eugene.
The Oregon Electric was launched in 1907 as a short passenger line running from Portland to Salem. Five years later, the line was extended with great fanfare to Eugene.Electric railroads were taking the country by storm at the time.
While a steam train had to include a heavy, expensive locomotive pulling a long string of cars to be cost -effective, an electric could consist of one car, with an electric motor between its wheels. The only trouble was, you couldn't send the power more than a hundred miles or so, or the voltage would bleed off. So using electricity only really worked on short, local lines between cities.
This video was made by Charles Turner at www.darewehope.org during
a haircut at the shop of Ivan "The Hairable" Tadic, a Portland history buff
with a particular interest in the Oregon Electric line. Tadic remembers the
line when it was operating, in the 1930s.
On the Oregon Electric, the coaches were plush and comfortable, the service fast and dependable -- and, powered entirely by electricity, cheap and easy to maintain. The future looked bright for the new rail line.
Of course, it wasn't. The same year it was launched, Henry Ford created the automotive assembly-line system that would result in thousands of inexpensive Ford Model Ts crawling all over Oregon within a decade. The better cars became, the fewer people chose to ride the rails. By the time World War II ended every passenger electric railroad in Oregon, from the Oregon Electric to the streetcars in Portland, had died for lack of business.
The Oregon Electric itself shut down electric operations in 1945, but by then it was exclusively hauling freight. It went from making almost $1 million in 1920 to $17,313 in 1932. The following year, when the Public Utility Commission held a hearing to end passenger service on the line, only six people came.
But you can still see plenty of evidence of what it was like, all along the line.
Of course, in Eugene there is the Oregon Electric Station restaurant. This famous eatery occupies the station built there after the line came to Eugene in 1912; it's a Georgian Revival building with a very distinctive triple-arch facade, and there are a couple of the old coaches outfitted as dining areas. It's been lovingly restored to its original glory.
In Albany, the station -- only slightly less fancy -- is now home to Ciddicci's Pizza, a place with deep roots in the community, at which one can pore over pages from old Albany high-school yearbooks varnished over on the tabletops.
But the indirect effects of the Oregon Electric line are much more pervasive today. This cheap, fast service from Portland made the south Willamette Valley accessible to thousands of people who otherwise wouldn't have come. It's no accident that the towns it went through became some of the biggest in the valley.
Ironically enough, all commercial railroads are electric today. The difference is, the electricity is no longer sent over wires to the trains; the power is generated in the engines by massive diesel generators.
(Sources: 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)