The Dismantling of  the Camas Prairie Railroad 
By Jim Reed
I was fortunate to ride on the  Camas Prairie Railroad (CSP) line out of Cottonwood in the early 1950's when the Steam Locomotives were still pulling not only freight cars, but also  daily passenger  cars  that carried  the  daily  US mail for the communities up to Grangeville. The CSP rail road line has  had an incredible history since its first train  pulled into Grangeville from Lewiston, one hundred years ago - December, 1908. It was known as  the “railroad on stilts” with its  many trestles - more than 40 from Lewiston to Grangeville.  The CSP was a remnant of the great railroad wars in the 19th and 20th century, when  Edward H. Harriman of the Union Pacific and  James J. Hill of the Great Northern Pacific were fighting over the inland empire area to see who could get the most rails into the Northwest. They called the conflict  “the railroad war,” and the Camas Prairie Railroad was the result of that war and in many ways the end of the war.  In the end, the railroads cooperated in a joint venture to build the Camas Prairie Railroad 
Following a recent visit to  Idaho,  one wonders  why the CSP line  is being dismantled around  Ferdinand and Cottonwood - while railroad traffic has picked up ten fold  in many places around the country?  With diesel fuel  recently spiking  at around  $5.00 a gallon this year,  and trucking being the choice of transportation off the Prairie,  I think it's a wake-up call for what  may occur with the grain growers on Camas Prairie.   On visiting Montana on the same trip,  I learned  that the high price of diesel has driven the 100 plus daily grain trucks that ran  for many years from  Montana to Lewiston  off the roads. The shipment of grain out of Montana to the west coast ports  has returned to  the  railroads,  which is about ten times more efficient than truck transportation when moving grain.  The Camas Prairie grain industry shortly will not have that option if they also lose the line from Craigmont down to Lewiston. 
While  driving an 80-mile stretch down  the Columbia River out of Pasco,  on  my  return to Portland,  I counted well over a dozen  trains moving up and down the river.  From my windshield  view, it looked like the  American Railroad  system is  roaring  back into the mainstream of modern day transportation. The high price of railroad stock has  also shown that the industry is on a big rebound. 
In 1905 James Hill shared his concern about the future of the Railroad industry with his son who took over the Great Northern after his father's retirement. Hill warned his son "to be out of the railroad business by the time you're forty." Unfortunately, many banks and investors picked up on his advice  and the railroads fell out of the leadership  roll  with  the country's transportation industry. Last year Warren Buffett's investment company   purchased one of the largest American railroad companies The Burlington Northern/Santa Fe Line. This should be a  good indication of where we are heading with the country's future  transportation industries.  Buffett is known to be one of the  most successful investors in American History. He has been a prominent fixture in forecasting future trends in the economy. Buffet recently met with the country's  prominent leaders in giving his input on how to stem the  current financial melt-down  that is infecting the stability of the economic health of the country.
I am confused as to why the State of Idaho  and the grain industry  from Central Idaho   have allowed  one of their most valuable  transportation infrastructures, the Camas Prairie Railroad to decay from non-use and now  to be  disassembled.  In doing some quick research on the subject,   I found  that the daily railroad passenger service out of Lewiston to Grangeville  was shut down in the 1950's when the US Postal Service  switched  the mail service to truck transportation  over US  Highway 95.  With the government building a network of dams and locks up the Columbia and Snake  rivers (1950's-1960')  to  Clarkston and Lewiston,  shipping by water became a new, and at  times,  a cheaper form of transportation. With gas and diesel prices extremely low back then, and with a  much improved Hwy 95 off the Prairie,   many grain growers bypassed the Camas Prairie Rail Road and started trucking their crops directly to the Port of Clarkston.  The old Camas Prairie Railroad line fell into hard times and was spun off from the old original holding company and was  sold a couple of times. Similar events have occurred in neighboring  Oregon and Washington. 
With the new crisis of record diesel prices throughout the country and  trucking companies  going out of business, it looks like  rural communities and farmers are  vulnerable to being priced out of business. Those that have access to railroad lines will probably  weather the financial and energy crisis gripping the country. Washington and Oregon have stepped in  and are providing subsides and financial incentives to keep small and independent railroad branch lines  like the old Camas Prairie Railroad Line in operation  -  Idaho  has  not yet seen the importance of doing so. 
It is interesting that during the demise of the Camas Prairie Railroad line from 1995-2006,  Idaho farmers  received $1.9 billion in direct payments from  the Federal Government Farm Bills. During that period,  Idaho Country farmers received direct payments of $63.1 million and Lewis County farmers received $59.3 million. The two Camas Prairie farm counties' combined total was   $122.4 million during this ten-year period (see Environmental Works Group - The CSP officially ground to a halt  in July 1998.  I have not been able to find where the Federal Government, the State of Idaho, or the Idaho farming industry gave 1 cent to the local railroad line to stay  in business during this period of time of high crop subsidies. They can subsidize highways, airports, and seaports, but never a dime to the railroads. A friend of mine who grew up in Montana,  stated that railroads  in that state were  looked upon as "cash cows" and taxed so heavily that everyone had a surplus budgets in the 1900's. 
The current owner  of the old CSP,  Mike Williams and his family,  run Bountiful Grain and Craig Mountain Railroad.  From what I understand they have not been able to generate any interest from the State of Idaho, the local communities or the Camas Prairie grain growers in  keeping the  local railroad solvent. It seems curious to me that at the same time  the Feds are prepared to bail out Wall Street to a tune of  $700 billion dollars. 
One wonders what the Camas Prairie  and the surrounding  communities will look like in a few years when the Federal Government will no  longer fund the farm subsidies/pork-barrel earmarks decried and condemned by the McCain/Palin Administration.   With a wake-up call of the recent  high price of truck transportation and the dismantling of the Camas Prairie Railroad,  the local farmers might  well find themselves priced out of the market  and out  of business. Interesting, that we can  bail out Wall Street,  the big banks,  big corporations, direct payments to the  farmers,  but  we don't seem  to be interested in helping small American businesses. An old  quote that Warren Buffett has been said to use is "that man is too old too soon and too smart too late. Our lack of foresight can best be summed up with an old quote from Warren Buffett: "that man is too old too soon and too smart too late." 
Jim Reed
6910 SW 11th Drive
Portland, Or 97219

Bio: Jim Reed was born and raised in Cottonwood, Idaho. He graduated from the University of Idaho in Political Science. He worked  several summers for grain growers on the  Camas Prairie-both in Idaho and Lewis County. He is retired and lives in Portland, Oregon

Cottonwood, Idaho 83522


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