Sunday, April 30, 2017

Railroad Touts Plans for Larger Passenger and Freight Terminals in Idaho Falls [otd 04/30]

On April 30, 1909, the Oregon Short Line announced that they would soon begin a substantial upgrade to the railroad facilities in Idaho Falls. This notice followed several years of steadily rising activity at the town.
Train at older Idaho Falls depot, ca. 1905.
Bonneville County Historical Society.

The railroad history of Idaho Falls (then called Eagle Rock) began in 1879, when Utah & Northern Railway tracks arrived in town [blog, Apr 11]. For a time, Eagle Rock was “end of track,” with the usual large, wild tent city. Of course, those throngs moved on with the track-laying. However, new pioneers rode the train into the area and spurred a modest period of growth.

Nor did the freight business over the Eagle Rock toll bridge drop off that much at first. Basically, the wagon freight companies saw no reason to immediately shut down. They simply moved their southern terminus further and further north.

The “tipping point” came more or less when the Utah & Northern established a major station at Dillon in late 1880. After that wagon traffic – and toll revenue – declined sharply.

Fortunately, about then the U&NR decided to build its maintenance and support shops in Eagle Rock. The town’s population rose rapidly after that. With traffic increasing, the railroad also built a rough passenger terminal. However, Eagle Rock suffered a major blow in May, 1886: A huge wind storm wrecked the railroad roundhouse.

By this time, east-west traffic on the Oregon Short Line Railroad had grown substantially. Rather than rebuild in place, the company moved the shops to Pocatello, where they could more easily service both lines. The population of Eagle Rock plummeted immediately.

Long-term, farming and ranching helped soften the blow, and the numbers had almost recovered by 1899. A year later, an independent railway company completed a line north from Idaho Falls to St. Anthony. By then, the OSL had fully absorbed the U&NR. They built a new passenger station, situated near where the spur line tracks met the main OSL rails.

The arrangement puzzled, and annoyed, citizens. The new depot was too far from the old one, which continued to be used for freight … and that made a lot of extra work for patrons as well as railroad personnel. Moreover, the new depot was too small to handle freight business as well as passenger service. In fact, a local newspaper, the Idaho Register, asserted (November 9, 1900) that if a fire broke out in the new structure, “not a person in town would throw a bucket of water on it.”

In any case, crews soon began extending the rails all the way to West Yellowstone, Montana, gateway to Yellowstone Park. Even before the tracks reached “West” in 1909, the Short Line had leased the property; they would later also take over the company. The OSL (rightly) foresaw a major increase in traffic and, as noted above, decided to upgrade several of its Idaho Falls facilities.
Idaho Falls depot, after 1911. Bonneville County Historical Society.

The cornerstone of the project was a new, larger passenger depot. The company also expanded their freight terminal and added trackage to let through traffic bypass the downtown area. They also built a new roundhouse, sized to handle the larger locomotives that were becoming more common.

Although traffic declined after the 1920s, the passenger depot remained in use until 1964. At that point, the company built a new depot at a different location and demolished the old structure. Passenger train service to Idaho Falls ended seven years later.
References: [B&W], [Illust-State]
Mary Jane Fritzen, Eagle Rock, City of Destiny, Bonneville County Historical Society, Idaho Falls, Idaho (1991).
Thornton Waite, Union Pacific: Montana Division, Brueggenjohann/Reese and Thornton Waite Publishers, Idaho Falls (1998).

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