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Portage Railroad Display

From Oregon Hikers Field Guide

The small railroad exhibit at the Fort Cascades Historical Site (Steve Hart)
This axle was built in Philadelphia by the A Whitney and Sons company (Steve Hart)
This 1878 one comes from Lobdell car Wheel in Wilmington, DE. (Steve Hart)



The Cascades of the Columbia River were a barrier to transportation in the early northwest. While most of the river was navigable, the Cascades and another set of rapids near Celilo prevented through navigation by water. The first portage built by Europeans was a road built by the US military. The next development was a simple portage railroad built in 1851 by Hardin Chenoweth. This railroad was primitive at best, with wooden rails and mules for motive power. A second, competing portage railroad was built on the Oregon side of the river.

In 1862, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company purchased the Washington railroad and reorganized it as the Cascades Portage Railroad. The line was completely rebuilt as a five foot gauge line and ran with modern (for the time) steam power. The history of the OSN, the Northern Pacific and the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company is long and interesting. For our purposes, it's probably enough to know that the OR&N later purchased the OSN and completed an all-rail route from Portland up the Oregon side of the Gorge to link with the Union Pacific in eastern Oregon. This gave Portland direct rail access to the east and made the steamboats and portage railroads obsolete. Although the portage route was heavily damaged in the 1894 floods, portions of the Washington route were later used by a fish cannery into the 1930s. The Cascades Portage Road was also used by the OR&N in an attempt to stop construction of the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Ry in 1908.

Today the OR&N has been completely absorbed by the Union Pacific and the SP&S is part of Burlington Northern-Santa Fe. The Cascades Portage Railroad was virtually forgotten. In the 1980s, archaeologists began excavating the sites of Fort Cascades, the town of Cascades and the portage railroad. A few sets of railroad wheels and a few rails were found and a small display was created on a new hiking path. Today, hikers can view the heavily rusted equipment with ease.

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Oregon Hikers Field Guide is built as a collaborative effort by its user community. While we make every effort to fact-check, information found here should be considered anecdotal. You should cross-check against other references before planning a hike. Trail routing and conditions are subject to change. Please contact us if you notice errors on this page.

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