TrainLife Staff updated August 8, 2011


TrainLife Staff's Tags


Browse Articles » Feature Text View Magazine View

  • North Bonneville: Columbia River Gorge Amphitheater

    Text and Photography by Gregory A. McCommic

    BELOW: On May 9, 1997, a BNSF garbage train, guided by an SD40-2, moves through Tunnel 1.5 at North Bonneville, Washington. There are 12 tunnels in a 50-mile section of track on the Washington side of the gorge.
    RailNews - April 1998 - Page 54

    One of the most scenic places in all of the Pacific North west is the Bonneville Dam area located in the Columbia River Gorge. Here, Burlington Northern & Santa Fe's Fallbridge Subdivision and Union Pacific's Portland Subdivision exemplify Columbia River Gorge railroading at its finest. This diverse five-mile section of riverside running offers everything from tunnels to S-curves, with the Cascade Mountains providing a breathtaking backdrop. Here, the river is at its narrowest width, and the majestic Cascades tower above, almost surrounding the trains below. With over 30 trains a day running on both the BNSF and UP main lines, the gorge is one of railroading's best-kept secrets-and one of the world's busiest railroad-inhabited river canyons.


    The story of the Columbia River Gorge begins with the fiery volcanoes of the Cascade Mountain Range. Over the centuries, these volcanoes left lava and mud flows up to two miles thick. (Remnants of these flows can still be seen in the cliffs of the gorge.) Then, the mighty Columbia River cut a deep canyon through the lava, ash, and mud.

    The single greatest force in creating the gorge was flooding. About 15,000 years ago (near the end of the last Ice Age), gigantic flood waters up to 1,200 feet deep swept down the river corridor and scoured its cliffs, leaving its tributary streams hanging high above the riverbed. Today, many streams cascade down the cliffs, creating one of the world's greatest concentrations of waterfalls.

    The Columbia River Gorge is the only sea level passage through the Cascade Mountains and is the most important transportation artery in the Pacific Northwest. On November 11, 1986, the federal government designated the gorge as a National Scenic Area.

    BNSF Fallbridge Subdivision

    Burlington Northern & Santa Fe enters the North Bonneville, Washington, area at m.p. 49.8. and runs to m.p. 54.8. The main line heading east comes around a sweeping curve alongside Washington Route 14, affording a spectacular mountain backdrop for eastbound trains in the morning and westbounds in the late afternoon. The tracks then run into a giant S-curve that pops into Tunnel No. 1.5, another photogenic location for afternoon westbound trains. Access to this 1,505-foot tunnel is easy, as there is a U.S. Corps of Engineers rest area for hikers across the street from the Bonneville Dam. You can park there and be near your vehicle, with the curves and tunnel only feet away. The main line then exits the tunnel and ducks under Route 14, with the overpass providing views of the tunnel for morning eastbounds and a remarkable view of the gorge for afternoon trains heading west.

    The railroad now makes a run for the Columbia River and along the way rolls under the Bridge of the Gods, one of the few river crossings in the gorge. The rails are now running on the banks and do so for the most part until Stevenson, Washington, at m.p. 54.8. Stevenson marks the beginning of an 11,085-foot siding and is located along the waterfront business district. The Washington side of the river is easy to follow, as Rt. 14 parallels the BNSF for almost the entire length of the gorge. Numerous equipment detectors in the area can easily be picked up by your scanner at m.p. 37.6, m.p. 48.4, and m.p. 61.0. This side of the gorge is a tunnel lover's dream come true. Twelve tunnels of various sizes and shapes canopy a 50-mile section of track.

    ABOVE: On St. Patrick's Day in 1996, BN Cascade green-escorting a west bound manifest-thunders through Stevenson, Washington, where an 11,085 foot siding begins.
    RailNews - April 1998 - Page 55

    Photography along this section of riverside tunning is in deed different, for very few main lines in North America offer westbound trains during the morning hours. As the river narrows in its journey to the Pacific Ocean, BNSF's main line hugs the riverbank on a giant curve with incredible mountain scenery. An excellent vantage point can be had from the Oregon side of the river. The morning sun angle and the narrowness of the river allow for picture taking with just about any type of lens. Head east on Route 14 from the Tunnel No. 1.5 area and cross the Columbia River over the Bridge of the Gods into Cascade Locks, Oregon. Pay your 75 cents toll, drive to the end of the ramp and take a right. Drive approximately a quarter mile and on your left will be the Cascade Locks Marine Park. Pull into the park, and at the first stop sign take a left, then drive until you reach the foot bridge onto a little island. Walk to the other side, and you will find a small piece of heaven with the BNSF main line right in front of you.

    BNSF Operations

    Burlington Northern & Santa Fe train movements have declined a bit since the opening of Stampede Pass, but 30 to 35 trains a day still pound the Fallbridge Subdivision. Morning eastbound trains can be a bit thin, with only one train that you can really count on. The railroad's hotshot train No. 2 out of Portland makes an early appearance and needs to be sought during the longer months of the year. Extra movements, such as empty grain and loaded garbage trains, occur quite often, with a manifest train thrown in once in a while. When Stevens Pass is clogged with traffic or track work is being done, you will find stack trains from the Seattlel/Tacoma area. These trains usually run eastbound in the morning, too. Since BNSF cannot yet run stack trains over Stampede Pass, overflow intermodal movements head south down the Seattle Subdivision and then shoot eastbound out through the gorge.

    Westbound trains tend to run in bunches, during early morning and late afternoon. Any type of train you can think of runs west: Manifest, intermodal, garbage, automotive, grain, and even coal can show up during the big push.

    Motive power can be a real treat on this BNSF line, with evetything but the kitchen sink showing up to power a train. As a rule of thumb, loaded grain trains have been using the new BNSF DASH 9-44CW, with the mighty SD40-2 fleet no longer dominant. Manifest trains receive everything from GP38-2s to BNSF DASH 944CWs. The Portland, Oregon, Vancouver and Rocky Point, Washington, trains usually run with four-axle EMD power; the Seattle/Everett trains get bigger units because they must climb the 1.1 percent grade of Napa Vine Hill on the Seattle Subdivision. The railroad's coal trains are a treat for the orthwest, as Burlington Northern SD60Ms and SD70MACs can be found leading these trains. Intermodal moves are usually a colorful mix of power with LMX B39-8s, BN SD40-2s, and BNSF DASH 9-44CWs providing the muscle. Santa Fe, EMD Leasing, and MRL power can also be had in these parts, as trailing or leading units. Run-through and leased power from Conrail, Norfolk Southern, CSX, Canadian National, Canadian Pacific, and Kansas City Southern is present too. Even UP, BNSF's main competitor, and its merger partners Southern Pacific and Chicago & North Western make an appearance from time to time.

    UP's Portland Subdivision Running from m.p. 38 to m.p. 43.5, UP's main line through the Columbia River Gorge is the Portland Subdivision, linking Portland and Seattle with points to the East. This line is on the Oregon side of the Columbia and is basically paralleled by Interstate 84.

    At m.p. 38 (Exit 40, I-84), we find UP's spur into the Bonneville Dam. Here, the railroad rides high above the visitors' center and fish hatchery area on a viaduct. Excellent afternoon shots can be obtained of westbound trains on both sides of the viaduct. From this point on to Cascade Locks, the main line is not very accessible-the mountains are closer to the river, which does not leave much room for an interstate and a busy main line.

    At Cascade Locks (m.p. 43.5) is the beginning of a 12,695-foot siding, which is a hotspot for meets. The main line enters a very sharp S-curve, slowing rail traffic to a 25 mph restriction. This is definitely railroading in the slow lane. Westbound trains creep through the giant curve, offering repeated opportunities for superb afternoon photography. During the longer days of the year, incredible photos can be had of eastbound trains from the top of the Bridge of the Gods over the Columbia River in the late afternoon. To reach the siding at Cascade Locks, take Exit 44 off I-84. Park your vehicle under the bridge and walk down the dirt road to the tracks.

    FAR RIGHT: A trio of Chicago & North Western's DASH 9-44CWs heads west through Cascade Locks on September 14, 1995, with a hot Seattle bound intermodal train. BELOW: Freight trains are restricted to 25 mph through this sharp S-curve along the banks of the Columbia. On September 20, 1995, a DASH 8-40C and its train snake their way along the curve.
    RailNews - April 1998 - Page 56 RailNews - April 1998 - Page 57


    This small town has a few other photographic sites. Several different views of both UP and BNSF can be taken from the Port of Cascade Locks Marine Park, approximately three quarters of a mile east of I-84. There are three grade crossings east of the park that can be reached by getting back onto Highway U.S. 30 (Wanapa Road) for less than a mile and then taking a left turn on to Forest Lane Road. The crossings can be found by taking a series of left turns down the small roads leading to the tracks.

    Union Pacific Operations

    Train movements on the mighty UP are similar to those on BNSF. Morning eastbound trains can at times be hard to come by, but westbound trains are constant throughout the day. You name it-UP runs it. Intermodal, auto, manifest, grain, and ash trains all travel these rails, along with dedicated doublestack trains for APL, K-Line, and Maersk. Thirty to 40 trains a day are standard toward the end of the week.

    Motive power is interesting, with a large amount of former C&NW units still sporting their former heritage and oftentimes seen leading trains. As of this writing none of the former SP units have received cab signals, so they can't lead; but this will change in the future. For now, it is possible to see all three of the railroads' locomotives in one consist or in multiple variations. Leased and run-through power appears on a regular basis from Helm, NS, CSX, and Conrail, with BNSF power also showing up from time to time. Occasionally, a special treat comes in the form of the Centennial DDA40X No. 6936 in revenue service. E units and the business train are not strangers either. Visiting the UP in the gorge is anything but dull.

    Other Attractions

    The Bonneville Dam area of the Columbia River Gorge is a small horn of plenty. Hot food is available at Char-Burger in Cascade Locks, which offers a wide variety of western-style food. Several smaller restaurants can be found in both Stevenson and Cascade Locks. For those looking for more elegant dining, the Mt. Hood Railroad offers a Saturday Dinner and a Sunday Brunch Train. Take I-84 east for 20 miles to Hood River, Oregon, then take Exit 63. This shortline railroad is located just south of I-84. The scenery on this ride is simply awe-inspiring, with Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams providing a dramatic backdrop. To make reservations (which are required) call (8OO) 872-4661.

    Lodging in the Bonneville Dam area can be found on either side of the river in Cascade Locks, Oregon, or Stevenson, Washington. There are several small inexpensive motels in the area, as well as the luxurious Skamania Lodge in Stevenson, which offers an outdoor whirlpool, 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, horseback riding, and gourmet restaurant. For reservations, call, (509) 427-7700.

    To experience the total Columbia River Gorge railroading adventure, reserve a room at the north end of the Columbia River Inn Best Western in Cascade Locks. There you can relax and enjoy the splendor of the Cascade Mountains and one of the greatest shows in the Pacific Northwest from your own deck. For reservations, call (8OO) 595-7108. If you prefer the great outdoors, you can try one of the many state parks in Oregon and Washington. For information and reservations, call (8OO) 452-56S7.

    Columbia River Gorge is famous for its waterfalls-on the Oregon side of the river alone, there are 77! One of the best ways to view the waterfalls is by taking a car ride down the historic Columbia River Highway.

    Two sternwheelers travel along the river, offering dinner and day cruises. Required dinner reservations and special event information can be secured by calling (503) 374-8427.

    There are many other places to visit in the Columbia River Gorge, such as Multnomah Falls, Beacon Rock, and the Bonneville Dam. No other location in the Pacific Northwest presents such a diverse sightseeing package. To top it all off, these two separate railroads on each side of the Columbia River offer more than nine different paint schemes. In short, railroading in the Columbia River Gorge affords rail fans an unforgettable experience.

    A railroad car welder/rigger, Gregory A. McCommic comes from a family with long ties to the "late, great" Maine Central Railroad. This is his first RN byline.

    Article Details

    • Original Author Gregory A. M cCommic
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date April 1998

    Article Album (1 photo)

    Share - Report