Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Jefferson Street Line

Later, I will (most likely) write an article on one of the Portland region's more controversial future rail projects, the Portland/Lake Oswego Transit Project.  Technically, it is incorrect to call this a "rail" project.  One of the options under consideration involves enhanced bus service rather than rail of any sort; in addition, a multipurpose trail is also part of the project definition (and a complicating factor given the terrain).  No final determination has been made, though a decision is expected later this year, when the DEIS is due for completion and selection of the "Locally Preferred Alternative" is made.

This post, however, will instead examine the existing rail route which is at the heart of the matter; the so-called "Jefferson Street" line which runs along the Willamette between SW Portland and Lake Oswego:

Early history:

The line opened in 1887 as the Portland and Willamette Valley Railroad, for the purpose of providing passenger service between Portland and Oswego (as Lake Oswego was then known).  Originally a narrow-gauge steam-powered line, the line was later purchased by Southern Pacific, converted to standard gauge, and electrified in 1914, forming part of the SP's Red Electric interurban service.

The original routing of the Red Electric lines (there were two of them) ran from Union Station down 4th Avenue; at Jefferson Street the lines split.  The westside line ran down present-day Barbur Boulevard, turned west at Hillsdale (running along what is now Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway), and then through Beaverton, Aloha, Hillsboro, Forest Grove, Yamhill, McMinnville, and south towards Corvallis.  Other than a short stretch between along OR47 between McMinnville and Gaston, where the ROW was abandoned and the tracks pulled up, most of the line past Beaverton still exists and is in service.

The eastside line turned east at Jefferson (hence the name "Jefferson Branch"), headed down towards (Lake) Oswego along the Willamette River, then turned west towards Durham, Tualatin, Sherwood, Newberg, and Dundee--the two lines rejoined at St. Joseph's Wye, near McMinnville.  Other than the downtown segments, all of the eastside branch is still in service.  The Portland-Oswego stretch was (and still is) single-tracked with one siding of note.  In 1921, a dangerous trestle around Elk Rock was replaced with the quarter-mile Elk Rock Tunnel, which is still in use.

Abandonment of passenger service:

In the 1920s, the expansion of the road network, and the resultant competition from bus service and private automobiles, reduced demand for passenger rail service--as a result, SP discontinued the Red Electric service in 1929, and eventually de-electrified all the routes in question.  The downtown streetcar lines along 4th would not long after be dismantled.  In order to keep freight trains out of downtown streets, the SP had in 1910 built the Lake Oswego Railroad Bridge, connecting the Jefferson line at Oswego with the SP mainline at Willsburg Junction north of Milwaukie.  With the passenger trains gone and the northern connection to the rest of the rail network severed (leaving the northern terminus of the line near what is now Riverplace) the Jefferson line soon became a little-used spur.  Several industrial customers along the waterfront in SW Portland still needed rail service, so the line remained in operation for another 50 years, but in in 1983, SP discontinued freight service and filed for abandonment.

One year later, the Interstate Commerce Commission agreed to permit the line's abandonment, but a group of local governments, recognizing the possibility of the line for future transit service (the eastside MAX line was about to begin construction at the time), petitioned to buy the line instead; the sale was completed in 1988.  One year earlier, a historic trolley service begin operation.

The purchase of the line, and its use for trolley service, was not without acrimony.  After the freight trains stopped running in 1983, one nearby homeowner, whose driveway was bisected by the line, paved over the tracks--a court injunction was required to get the pavement removed.

Historic trolley service

After the acquisition of the line was completed, historic trolley service resumed in 1990, has has continued, more or less, since then.  Several further changes have been made to the line, with an extension into downtown Lake Oswego (alongside the existing freight rails) added in the early 1990s, and the northern terminus moving north into Riverplace, and then back south to the present Bancroft Street terminus (the ROW north of Bancroft is now used by the Portland Streetcar).  Today, the service is known as the Willamette Shore Trolley, and is operated by the Oregon Electric Railway Historical Society

The present use of the line for historic trolley service, and future uses for transit, are not without controversy.  Many neighbors along the line (despite much of the housing being newer than the rails) would like to see the line abandoned, and object to the trolley service--viewing it as (among other things) an invasion of privacy.  At one point, the WST website  touted close-up views of luxurious Portland and Lake Oswego homes as an attraction of the line; such language has since been removed.



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