MOSES LAKE — The expansion of the railroad in the Columbia Basin, and the traces – and problems – from those pioneer days that are still visible today will be the subject of a lecture at 3 p.m. Wednesday at the Moses Lake Museum & Art Center.
Local rail historian Dan Bolyard, Coulee City, will talk about “Northern Pacific Branch Lines of the Columbia Basin.” Admission is free.
In the last half of the 19th century through about 1920, the railroad could make or break a town’s future. And because of that every town desperately wanted to be on the railroad.
A branch line was a prized possession for a town, snagged by Coulee City in 1890-91. “Back in the day, there was one guy who claimed Coulee City was going to be the next Chicago,” Bolyard said. “We know how that turned out.”
From Coulee City the line took off through what became Moses Lake, to Mattawa and Ritzville. And with the arrival of the railroad came land speculation, profiteering, and various nefarious deeds.
“The line to Coulee City (from Cheney) was originally surveyed by a very competent engineer, so as to have moderate curves and grades all the way between Cheney and Coulee City,” Bolyard wrote. “What actually happened is that a bunch of Northern Pacific railway officials got into land and townsite speculation and caused the actual construction of this branch line to move through the town sites these guys owned.
“The construction engineer, one C.F. Reardan, revised the line to go through these new town sites, and as a result increased the degree of curvature and added steeper grades to the route in many places, which is still in use today. So the cost of running a train all the way to Coulee City today is far higher than originally planned.”
Drivers on I-90 between Moses Lake and Ritzville can see signs of the great age of railroad building, Bolyard said. He will include some pictures of the early days of railroads in the Columbia Basin. Bolyard will also talk about the fate of those pioneer railroads, lines that are still in operation, lines that have merged or been acquired by new companies, lines that have been abandoned and in some cases removed.
The lecture kicks off the Winter Salon Series, which focuses on local history, presentations by local authors and lectures on subjects of local interest.