The Devil Is in the Detours

You might think a walk across the state would be a straight line, or near enough, but the reality is quite different; this walk has been a patchwork of trails riddled with detours. Some of those detours were personal (injury) and some technical (here’s looking at you, broken cart), but the further east I travel, the more those detours are due to the patchy history of the railroad on which the trail is built.

The Palouse to Cascades Trail (AKA the John Wayne Pioneer Trail) follows the Old Milwaukee Road’s Pacific Extension. In the 1890s, the owners of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St Paul (rail line), in particular the ambitious William Rockafeller, were displeased with the existing Columbia basin rail route to Portland– namely because it proffited someone else–, and so they set about planning an altogether more arduous crossing directly to Seattle over the Cascades. They were determined to make it fast, modern, and (most importantly) hugely profittable to them and them alone.

Construction began in 1906 under the direction of Horace Chapin Henry. The company built 2,300 miles of track, crossing the Rocky, Saddle, and Cascade Mounatain ranges in just three years. The track bridged the distance from North Dakota to Seattle in 18 fewer miles than it’s nearest competitor. With an average train speed of 10 miles per hour, that meant a traveler could reach Seattle a full two hours sooner. For those of you now scratching your heads: yes, you read that right. William Rockefeller insisted on building thousands of miles of railroad to improve travel time by just two hours.  Henry’s hephaestian feat was apparently only matched by Rockefeller’s hubris.

Rockafeller’s greed, however, would prove equal to his hubris. He insisted the new Pacific Line would be entirely owned by MC&Sp. The MC&Sp bought up existing railways, as well as property from private landowners, and constructed vast stretches of new railroad. Unlike most rail lines that relied on right-of-way agreements with a mishmash of other rail companies, this line was 100% owned by a single company, ensuring 100% of the profits went into their hands. Of course, that meant a lot of money first went OUT of their hands: $257,000,000. This was 4 times as much as the original estimate. The company sold bonds to cover the astronomical cost– a risky choice in the best of circumstances.

The company also made questionable sacrifices to improve travel times, further imperiling the project. They chose to bypass major cities on the route, including Billings and Spokane. This forced potential passengers to choose other railways, and forced the MC&Sp to rely on freight for profits. It may have seemed a safe bet when construction began in 1906, but it would prove to be a fatal choice.

In 1914, the Panama Canal was completed, diverting a huge amount of former rail freight to the new waterway and severely undercutting the Pacific Extention’s profits. In 1920, the company’s bonds came due. Unable to pay their construction debts, the line declared bankruptcy in 1925. Though the line reorganized and reopened as the Chicago, Milwaukee, St Paul and Pacific Railroad, it was only the first in a century-long succession of hardships, including bankruptcies, mergers, and trusteeships, before it ultimately went bankrupt in 1980.

The railway was still deep in debt when decomissioned. In Washington, the line owed millions in back taxes to the state. To settle its debts, the state took possession of the railroad properties. Those properties were offered in sale to other rail companies and adjacent landowners, some of whom accepted. Some sections were developed into cultural sites, like rail museums and bike and walking trails by state and municipal organizations. Still, long  stretches of the railroad sat defunct and unused for decades. One of those sections became the John Wayne Pioneer/Palouse to Cascades Trail that I am walking.

This history of patchwork sale of the railroad has profoundly altered my walking course in the past week. While the Old Milwaukee Road runs neatly east-west, my path is jagged, sometimes veering as much as 20 miles off course to avoid private property. To this end, I’ve followed dirt tracks, farm roads, agricultural canals, back roads, highways, and byways. I traveled north from Othello to Warden, picked up the Milwaukee Road from Warden to east of Lind, then veered off-trail directly north toward Ritzville, before heading back south to rejoin the trail across the north side of historic Escure Ranch. There, I contacted a private property owner who granted me access to cross to Ewan. And now again I find myself sharing a wide and dusty gravel road with farm trucks, as much of the Milwaukee Road past Rock Lake is on private property. Between avoiding private land and the vast block system of agricultural property, my path this week looks to have been made by a toddler on an Etch-a-Sketch.

While my passage may look blocky and austere on a map, the experience is one of soft curves and rich, subtle detail. At the beginning of the week, the grasshoppers hatched. Startled by my passage, thousands upon thousands of dusty flecks launched themselves skyward in a wave that rolled before me wherever I walked. Their red legs flashed briefly as they jumped. Taken together, they gave the impression of thousands of flying sparks, as if the wind-tossed wheat fields were ready to ignite. The fields of wheat gave way to corn and peas and became wheat again, rippling in the wind with a sound like falling rain.

One morning without warning the wheat fields ended and the channeled scablands stretched out before me dotted with cattle. Raptors I had never seen before prolifically patrolled the skies: swainson’s hawks, ferruginous hawks, and a rare gyrfalcon. The sun shone on surprising pit lakes populated by ducks, grebes, loons, and whole flocks of pelicans. As I rejoined the trail, deer again became plentiful and wholly unused to any human presence; often I emerged from a narrow canyon and found myself only meters away from the nearest doe. At times, I startled whole flocks of red-winged black birds– hundreds of them– from a thicket, only for them to settle in the next bush and rise again in a tizzy as I passed it too. Once, I chased the same flock from shrub to shrub across an entire valley.

The heat has broken. It’s usually in the upper 80s or low 90s now, and I can rise with the sun and walk for hours. I can enjoy the feeling of the sun on my shoulders. I can stop and listen to the patter of the wheat, the waterfall sound of wind in the beech trees, the threatening shriek of the hawk without worry about the time or the weather. Today, I topped a rise and saw the rest of eastern washington spread out before me: copses of pines, rolling golden fields, a ragged hem of Idaho’s mountains. This week I was so busy avoiding private property and finding the right detour and enjoying every step of the way, the distance passed without my even noticing. I blame it on William Rockefeller. With his hubris and his greed and the patchwork trail that is his unintended legacy. It is William Rockefeller’s fault Idaho snuck up on me.

One thought

  1. Tara, What a wonderful description of this long distance trail. I would very much to learn more about your recent trip. perhaps you could share something on our FB page? I am with the Palouse to Cascades Trail Coalition, a non-profit that promotes this trail. Thanks for sharing your trip.

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