The Iron Gates of the Columbia: A look at Trinidad’s old railroad track

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  • Rachal Pinkerton/Columbia Basin Herald Large stones line the inside of the stone culverts under the original railroad line in the Trinidad area.

  • 1

    Rachal Pinkerton/Columbia Basin Herald Stair step formations from the original railroad line can still be seen in the Trinidad area next to the current railroad line.

  • Rachal Pinkerton/Columbia Basin Herald Large stones line the inside of the stone culverts under the original railroad line in the Trinidad area.

  • 1

    Rachal Pinkerton/Columbia Basin Herald Stair step formations from the original railroad line can still be seen in the Trinidad area next to the current railroad line.

TRINIDAD — Most people familiar with the railroad tracks in the Trinidad area know about the horseshoe railroad track curve in Lynch Coulee a few miles above Trinidad. What may not be as well known is that the horseshoe is not the original train bed in that area.

The Great Northern Railroad completed the tracks between Spokane and Wenatchee in 1892.

“The grading, track laying and finishing of the 183 miles from Spokane to Wenatchee was done between July 19 and Nov. 1,” said a New York Times article from Jan. 1, 1893.

The article gives a detailed description of the journey from Quincy to Spanish Castle.

“The road at length begins the descent to the Columbia River by following a shallow draw which leads down to the edge of the canon,” said the New York Times. “Passing through a long rock cut the view suddenly opens upon a chasm or coulee several hundred feet sheer below the track, with stupendous cliffs rising on the opposite side. Then one notices that the road bed is winding northward, cutting its way near the summit of the rocky bluffs with a steadily falling grade. Trestle after trestle is crossed as successive coulees are passed. The head of the main gulch, called Lynch Coulee, is crossed on a tower trestle 135 feet high and 1,200 feet long. As one’s eyes are lifted from measuring the great depth below a grand vista opens down the length of the coulee, revealing a glimpse of the Canyon of the Columbia, with the snow-white and blue-wooded mountain slopes forming the western walls.

“The train winds down the lower side of the Lynch Coulee until a point is reached directly opposite where the descent was begun on the cliffs above. It is a complete horseshoe, of far greater dimensions than the celebrated curve of that name on the Pennsylvania Road.

A turn is made and we are in the canyon. The river is flowing 500 feet below. It is a mighty stream, 600 feet wide. The greenish hue of the smooth surface suggests its great depth, varying from 50 to 150 feet. Looking down the canyon, two projecting cliffs, many hundreds of feet high, approach from each side and almost close the view. Between them the river sweeps with a majestic curve. They are the Iron Gates of the Columbia.”

Wood trestles crossed the various dips and coulees. According to local Trinidad historian Wayne Smith, the railroad had access to free lumber in the Cascades. It was cheaper for them to transport the lumber than to fill in all of the gaps with fill. Each side of the coulees and gaps were cut into giant stair steps to support the trestles. The stair steps can still be seen on several of the gaps along the old line.

Some of the smaller ravines were filled with fill dirt. At the bottom the ravines, stone culverts were installed underneath the railbed to prevent the fill from washing away. These culverts, still intact, vary in size from the size of a small animal to ones that humans can crawl through. The inside of the culverts are lined with large rocks. In all, five of these culverts have been found.

The longest trestle at Trinidad crossed Lynch Coulee. On July 3, 1893, the newly constructed bridge burned. The newspapers of the day reported that it was Moses Coulee, instead of Lynch Coulee that burned.

“The Moses Coulee bridge on the Great Northern Railroad, six miles east of Rock Island, was destroyed by fire last night,” reported The Morning call on July 4, 1893. “When discovered all the trestle on the east approach to the bridge was enveloped in flames. Section men from Watson Creek and Rock Island were sent down but were unable to do anything to stay the progress of the flames.

“About 103 feet of the structure collapsed and was entirely destroyed. The bridge was 934 feet long and 135 feet high. It comprised four truss spans resting on wooden towers spans resting on wooden towers seven decks high. The bridge was on a curve in the center of the big loop crossing the Coulee, with long and high trestle approaches on each side. There was over half a million feet of lumber in it. To replace it will require three weeks, during which time passengers will be transferred.”

The use of the new bridge and the original railroad line didn’t last long. By 1899, there was talk of constructing a new line.

“A cut off from eight to ten miles in length is to be constructed on the Great Northern railway, changing the approach of that line to the Columbia from the east,” the Seattle Star reported on March 23, 1899. “Work is soon to be started by Foley Bros. and Larson, the contractors, who have been awarded the contract for the work. Plans and details are now being completed by the engineering department.

“The cut off will start from a point near Quincy station, and will strike the present main line at a point several miles west of Trinidad. Several high bridges across dry coulees will be avoided by the cut off and a better grade will be given. There is said to be considerable rock work in the construction, and it will be by no means a cheap undertaking. The advantage is in the avoidance of the so-called dry coulees which in winter become raging torrents and have a habit of sweeping out bridges.”

The Adams County News reported on Nov. 15, 1899 that the new grade would “take two months to complete it ready for traffic.”

In 1905, the railroad in the Trinidad area saw more construction.

“The Great Northern let a contract to shorten and straighten the main line of the railroad six miles east of Trinidad,” reported the Quincy Quill on March 17, 1905. “It will reduce the curvature of the road and one-half mile of new line will be built to reduce the grade. A 1000 foot tunnel will be built and will cost $100,000.”

Almost five months later, work was underway. The Quincy Quill reported on accidents happening at the tunnel.

“Three serious accidents occurred in three days at the Ry. tunnel under construction above Trinidad,” reported the Quincy Quill on Aug. 4, 1905. “Sunday a laborer had his eyes seriously injured, if not destroyed, by an explosion. He was taken to a hospital at Spokane. Monday a man lay asleep in the tunnel when a rock fell on his head. Not fatal. Tuesday morning at 3 o’clock, one, N. J. Johnson, was instantly killed by an explosion of dynamite. He had gone into the tunnel to touch off a mine which exploded before he got safely away. He was found 20 feet away from the blast with one side of his face torn away and a hole in his chest. He was taken to Wenatchee for burial.”

Rachal Pinkerton may be reached via email at rpinkerton@columbiabasinherald.com.

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