Walla Walla Valley Traction Company

(The following was originally written by Blair E. Kooistra for his website “The Virtual Walla Walla Valley Railway.” The site is no longer active, and is only accessible via web crawlers.)


Walla Walla Valley Traction trolley car 12 on the streets of Walla Walla.

Incorporated on May 17, 1905, the Walla Walla Valley Traction Company was franchised by Walla Walla to operate trolleys in city limits. Despite Walla Walla’s  small size, it was blessed with an extensive street railroad system. Within a year, the WWTC had begun expanding southward 14 miles through the apple and cherry orchards along the Walla Walla River toward the twin Oregon towns of Freewater and Milton. Grading on the extension to Oregon began on March 20, 1906. The first rails were laid on September 6 the same year, and within five days, limited operations began. Regular operations to Milton began in April, 1907. The yellow cars made the 45-minute run hourly between 6 a.m. and midnight, meeting at a spring-switch equipped siding just south of the Walla Walla River.

In 1909, the railroad was sold to Pacific Power & Light, the utility that generated the railroad’s power at its Gothic-inspired substation on 6thStreet in Walla Walla. With the sale came a name change, to Walla Walla Valley Railway. By then, the railroad rostered  eight electric passenger coaches, a freight motor, two passenger cars, and  six freight cars. Freight operations would figure more prominently in the railroad’s future, especially after 1921, when Northern Pacific, through its Northwestern Improvement Company subsidiary, bought the WWV from PP&L. The WWV, Northern Pacific had discovered, held great potential as a “back door” entry to Milton, where Union Pacific had a near-monopoly on lucrative apple, prune and cherry traffic originating in the south end of the Walla Walla Valley.

A spur to a local packing shed near College Place was extended to reach the 600-acre Baker-Langdon orchard, creating the 4.4 mile Yellowhawk branch. And in 1924, a branchline was constructed jointly with Union Pacific from Milton west to Umapine, a franchise ill-fated when planned fruit traffic never materialized. Hay and grain did provide some traffic, and the railroad purchased land at Wallula with an eye toward extending the line still further west, but by the Second World War the branch was abandoned.

Following purchase by NP, electric passenger traffic on the WWV became increasingly hampered by freight operations. While able to handle a few interurban cars lightly skipping along the 60-lb. rail, the power supply system was ill equipped to keep up with the heavier freight trains which now traveled the line. Old-timers recall instances where passenger traffic was suspended for several hours at a time to allow a single freight train full use of the 6th Street substation’s output, crawling up grade from the Walla Walla River bridge with a half-dozen refrigerator cars at barely a walking pace.

Freight interference with the passenger traffic became a moot issue in 1931, when on September 2, motorman John Wilken, who’d brought the first train into Milton, departed town with the last interurban passenger train. Streetcar operations in Walla Walla had ended on the last day of 1926.

Following Northern Pacific control, local management wasted little time to make the little interurban railroad competitive to Union Pacific. Built primarily for passenger traffic, the WWV’s capacity to handle much freight traffic was severely limited.

“We sometimes interchange as high as thirty empties for thirty loads in a day and after these cars are shoved over to us, we have no place to set out our transfer cars,” General Manager W. D. Pearce wrote March 24, 1923. He requested Northern Pacific officials spend $1574.00 to add 970 feet of interchange tracks with the NP in Walla Walla. “This creates much unnecessary switching, causes a bad delay to the icing crews, and a bad delay to the cars of fruit. . .this track will save each company in the neighborhood of $250 a year in switching alone besides facilitating the work of icing and saving a delay to the fruit of several hours which may mean many hours earlier delivery at its eastern destination.”

On line, the situation was no better. On May 3, 1926, Pearce asked for construction of a storage track to hold 44 refrigerator cars—“almost a day’s demand in shipping season”– near State Line, Washington. “We have always been handicapped during a fruit season on account of insufficient storage space. We can store about 50 cars on our line now, but as we are limited to our motive power and must get our empties out on the line and loads back in when we can, and with the Northern Pacific also cramped for storage space in Walla Walla, we have repeatedly been hard pressed to keep our car orders filled. At the present time, except for a 10 car passing track at State Line, we have no storage tracks between Maple Street (College Place) and Freewater, loading being done on all other tracks between these stations.”

Fruit traffic was booming in the Walla Walla Valley. Packing houses were located at a half-dozen points along the railroad: Blalocks, Whitman, Stateline, Twilight, Ferndale, Freewater and Milton.  All this traffic was very tenuous to the WWV–none of the growers were more than a few miles from access to the Union Pacific, further pressuring the NP to spend the money to keep the WWV up to the task. In 1923, 55 cars of prunes moved off the railroad daily for 10 straight days; during the apple season, a dozen cars a day moved to market, most of them off the Yellowhawk branch. In 1926, WWV shipped nearly 600 cars of prunes and 700 cars of apples. To protect the fruit, an ice manufacturing plant and dock were constructed in 1922 at Milton.

The perishable traffic came in waves; a succession of harvests keeping the railroad busy from late May until into late November. Peas were the first crop to come in, a 6-8 week long harvest beginning in late May. As the peas were tapering off, the Cherries became ripe, with harvest lasting until mid-July. Wheat was harvested during July and August, and then the railroad caught a short breath before the prunes were ready in early August, a run lasting typically three to five weeks. Then, apples took over in late August, running until mid-September. To close off the year, sugar beets bound primarily for the Utah & Idaho sugar factory in Toppenish were shipped in a campaign beginning in mid-September and lasting up to two and a half months.

But not all the railroad’s traffic was fresh fruit and vegetables. Several bulk oil dealers were located on line, along with farmers co-ops handling coal, fertilizer, farm implements, and seed. A sand and gravel plant received a half-dozen or more cars of gravel from Umatilla at a time. Several small lumber mills were located along the railroad, as was a box factory for fruit field and shipping boxes. A vinegar factory was located at Blalocks, between Walla Walla and College place, and a small foundry operation was located not too far south of Mill Creek in Walla Walla.  A small amount of hay moved each winter by rail as well, most of it from the Stateline area.

In the 1930s, what would historically become WWV’s best shipper opened its cannery on the south side of Milton. The Rogers cannery was a big traffic producer, receiving several hundred carloads of empty cans inbound and shipping up to 1000 cars a year, traffic peaking in July, August and into early September.  To help feed the demand of a growing cannery industry in eastern Washington, Continental Can Company opened its Walla Walla can factory in XXXX, jointly served by WWV and Union Pacific. Receiving tin sheet and coil stock and wood pallets, the factory supplied canneries as far as Seattle to the west and Red Lodge, Montana, to the east. Quite a bit of the factory’s production went by rail to local canneries served by Northern Pacific: to Waitsburg and Dayton, and Pendleton, and of course, Milton-Freewater on the WWV.  Union Pacific enjoyed a similar level of traffic from Continental Can.

World War II postponed plans for further expansion to the fruit and canning industry along the Walla Walla Valley, but with the hostilities resolved, blueprints were dusted off. Among them, expanded warehouses and packing facilities of the Blue Mountain Prune Growers Co-operative in Milton, and construction of the new Umatilla Cannery at the south end of the railroad in Milton, which promised an estimated 100 cars inbound and 325 cars outbound of new traffic.

The parallel development of frozen fruit and vegetable processing and mechanical refrigerator of boxcars led Birds-Eye frozen foods to construct a large processing plant in Walla Walla in the late 1940s; the locally-owned Stadleman and Mojoinnier firms built frozen food storage facilities and processing plants in Milton-Freewater. Nearly all these businesses were jointly served by Union Pacific and Walla Walla Valley.

Revenues on the railroad had quadrupled in just ten years, from $48,049 in 1938 to $169,695 in the first 10 months of 1948 alone. The railroad was now hauling more than 1000 carloads of sugar beets yearly, with a doubling in sugar beet acreage anticipated between 1947 and 1949—nearly all of it for the WWV and Northern Pacific. Traffic in the Walla Walla Valley was there for the taking—but was the Walla Walla Valley Railway up to the task?

The WWV was constructed to standards typical of rural interurban railroads. The rail was light—mostly between 56 and 72 pounds per yard. Grades were short, but exceeded two percent in several locations. And the electrical supply system, adequate for light passenger service, was completely inadequate to handle the traffic now expected of it. The railroad’s four freight locomotives were all converted from trolley or interurban cars dating back to 1906. The most powerful, Motor 19, was rated at only 10 cars of prunes—440 tons—on the climb north from the Walla Walla River toward College Place. An interurban passenger car, the 322, made the switch to freight service with little outward modification, capable of hauling only three cars of prunes. The NP paid $4000 in 1943 to rescue Spokane, Coeur d’Alene & Palouse boxcab 500 from a junk yard in Spokane and put it to work on the WWV. The motor had become surplus after SC&P owner Great Northern dieselized the line from Spokane to Moscow, Idaho.  The 500 was good for seven cars of prunes on the grade.

Northern Pacific had been considering upgrading the WWV’s antiquated motive power fleet since 1945, but had not acted on it. As post-war traffic grew and failure of the electric engines became more frequent, WWV General Manager D. E. Carlson pushed the issue. In an October 8, 1948 memo to NP President R. S. Macfarlane, Carlson recounted the horrors of the 1948 fruit shipping season, when three of the railroad’s four motors failed at one time or another. “In this highly competitive territory we could lose a great deal of business in a short period of time if one of our present units became disengaged at a time when business was at a peak. Other railroads can usually borrow locomotives and experience little delay. In our position, however, we could not use steam locomotives because of the severity of our curves, and I do not know of any diesel-electric locomotives the Northern Pacific own, small enough to be used on our line because of our lighter bridges with the exception of one operated at Duluth, Minnesota, by the Union Depot Company.”

A 1949 study on the WWV by a Northern Pacific “Special Committee” reported: “The larger present motive power makes the 14 mile run from Milton-Freewater to Walla Walla in 1 hour 35 minutes to 1 hour 40 minutes, of which, because of voltage loss, 1 hour 10 minutes to 1 hour 15 minutes is required to make the 6-mile run from Walla Walla River to Walla Walla. In this upgrade movement from the river, the motive power can probably exert no more than 50% of its rated tractive power, and an added result is that when one train is operating to Walla Walla from the river, no other train can ascend the grade from the river in either direction.”

G.M. Carlson proposed several options to the WWV’s motive power dilemma: purchase additional  used electric locomotives and upgrade the power transmission system with a new motor-generator-type substation; purchase a diesel-electric locomotive to supplant the electric fleet; or dump the electric operation entirely and replace them with at least three diesels of the GE 44-ton equivalent.  Carlson went so far as to track down a pair of electric locomotives made surplus by the Texas Electric Railway in Dallas, for sale at $7,500 each plus freight. For another $8,000, Carlson wrote, Texas Electric would sell its used substation equipment. His recommendation: “We not purchase anything further in the electric line. I would prefer to purchase at this time one 44 ton diesel electric locomotive,” with an eye to the future to purchase two more.

Northern Pacific moved cautiously in deciding to dieselize the Walla Walla Valley, its hesitancy, in part, due to an operating atmosphere unlike any other on the Northern Pacific. Making the case for financial savings pitting diesels against steam engines was a piece of cake; much more difficult was justifying the narrower rate of return in scrapping a fairly low-maintenance electrification system, despite its antiquity. A study commissioned by NP management in 1949 provides a fascinating look at the line’s, physical plant, competition, traffic, locomotive fleet, and method of operations.

WWV, the study said, operated in a “highly competitive” territory with Union Pacific, and  must be “in a position to furnish switching service that cannot be criticized, particularly during the five or six months of the year when business is heaviest.” Operations in Walla Walla were conducted under a reciprocal switching agreement, giving UP access to all WWV traffic with no division of the line-haul revenues. The originating carrier earned only a flat-rate switching charge, intensifying the need for WWV to provide good service that would entice them to route the traffic Northern Pacific. In Milton-Freewater, UP interchanged with WWV, but many shippers served by WWV also had spurs served by UP: Mojoinnier Fruit (two tracks, one jointly used, one exclusive to WWV); Blue Mountain Prune (six tracks, 4 joint WWV/UP and 2 exclusive to WWV); and Stadleman Fruit and Valley Feed (both served by separate UP and WWV spurs).

WWV originated 2781 cars in 1947; 61% of these were loaded between July and October, when the railway was at its busiest. During the winter, traffic dropped off to less than three cars a day—85 in January, 67 in February, 69 in March­–before rebounding to a high of 514 in August. “The needs for service are such that during approximately 120 days of the year, two locomotives must be working, for 12 to 15 hours per day at Milton-Freewater, while a third engine must be working in Walla Walla to take care of the requirements of the Continental Can Company and other industries. During much of this period the Can Company must be given four to five switches per day. Also, during the period either three or four switch engine shifts are worked. The need for three active locomotives during these 120 days would be the same regardless of type of power used.”

Crews consisted of three men: motorman, a conductor, and brakeman, “and these men all act as motormen during periods when three or four engine shifts are employed, while men employed during slack months as Assistant Line Foremen and Line Helpers act as conductors.” During the busiest months of service, all three or four crews worked heavy overtime, nearly 16 hours each day. “While the contract with the men provides that three men shall constitute a full crew, a fourth man has been employed on each crew during the busy periods. In former years this man was classed as a trolley tender, but Mr. Carlson now pays him the brakeman’s rate so that he can also work on the ground.” The subsequent shorter days as a result of the fourth man resulted in a loss of overtime and “considerable agitation” of the regular crews. Two-shift days would begin at 8 am and 2 pm; three shift days at 6 am, 11am; and 6 pm; and four-shift days at 6am, 8am, 1pm and 7PM.

The electrical equipment, while ancient, was found be to be in good condition, but trolley maintenance was nearly two seasons behind. The electric locomotives were in fair condition electrically but poor in terms of superstructure, under frame and trucks, but the report added that with proper maintenance “could be made to last indefinitely.” But the committee studying the WWV found that the railroad was operating with a bare minimum of suitable motive power—there was no margin of comfort should one of the railroad’s motors go down during a traffic rush. “This lack of relief power is a source of considerable worry to Mr. Carlson, as indeed it should be; the situation simply being that if the Walla Walla Valley should not be in a position to perform service, the Union Pacific would be, and in consequence would probably get the business.”

Even with three replacement diesel locomotives, “the Walla Walla Valley would be in no better position as far as relief power is concerned than it is today.” The committee suggested that four locomotives—or three with access to a “stand-by” Northern Pacific unit—be the bare minimum, protected by a competent mechanical crew with replacement parts on hand. However, it cautioned “the possibility of using Northern Pacific diesels in emergencies is too remote to be given consideration, for many reasons. If the Walla Walla Company should go to diesel operation, we feel that the company should stand upon its own feet.”

Neither high tractive effort or speed were of critical concern on the WWV, the study noted, recommending small locomotives from 380 to 440 horsepower. A locomotive 44 tons or under was also recommended, in order to keep the WWV free of any possible requirement under Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineer contracts which required a fireman in the cab in engines larger than that. Such an additional cost would make any venture into dieselization “financially unattractive.” The committee recommended testing the GE 44-ton diesel then in service as the shop switcher at South Tacoma Shops.

The costs, however, of the conversion to diesel would still be high, given that four diesels would be required to do the job of four similar electrics. In other cases of Northern Pacific dieselization, significant unit reduction could be found in replacing steam locomotives with diesel, driving down crew and maintenance costs and boosting utilization. The average Northern Pacific diesel-electric switcher, for example, worked 21 hours a day. Given the seasonal nature of WWV traffic, even a three-unit locomotive fleet would only average 5.3 hours per day of use each over the year.

The study concluded that dieselization with three small locomotives would save between $14,623 and $15,550 per year, based on an estimated service life of 33 years, and that the railroads rate of return would be between 8.8 and 11.5%, depending on use of 380 or 440 hp locomotives. “However, the rate of return on investment would be much lower than is usually realized from the purchase of diesel power, and would be considerably less if a fourth diesel is found necessary to properly protect service, or if it becomes necessary to employ firemen on all diesel locomotives regardless of size.”

General Manager Carlson wasted no time responding to the study, writing President Macfarlane on March 12, 1949 that he had tracked down a second-hand GE 44-tonner which might be suitable for standby service. And the problem with the fireman on locomotives over 44 tons? Not a problem, Carlson wrote the NP president. “I am quite sure I could arrange a supplement to our present contract with the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen along that line. The three larger locomotives that we now operate all weigh more than 44-tons, and I have not yet heard any comment directed towards placing another man in their cabs.”

As recommended by the dieselization committee, NP 44-ton GE 98 was loaned to the WWV early in the summer of 1949 for use during the fruit rush. By the end of June, GM Carlson had seen enough. “I have changed my opinion after having experience with the (98).” He wrote on June 30, “ .  . .it has been found that this locomotive’s tonnage capacity is superior to any of our locomotives with the exception of No. 19. Our chief requisite in additional power is a locomotive that will haul more tonnage than any we now have, and the 44-ton unit will not do this.” Coincidentally, a salesman from General Electric called on Carlson that same day, pushing the 65-ton industrial locomotives. “The difference in price between the 65-ton and the 44-ton is not too great.” Carlson then suggested buying one 65 ton locomotive at 550 horsepower and two 44-ton locomotives, equipping the smaller engines with multiple unit controls for use on sugar beet movements. “I would prefer receiving the heavier locomotive first.” Carlson seemed quite adamant. “The salesman in our office today stated that rapid deliveries can be made and it might be possible to receive a unit in the very near future which would allow us to return the unit we are now renting from the Northern Pacific.” Nevertheless, Carlson was keeping the little diesel busy, working it 16 to 20 hours a day.

Macfarlane appeared to be getting testy with Carlson’s aggressive efforts at bringing dieselization to the WWV. Upon receipt of the June 30 memo, he fired back a terse reply: “This entire question is under consideration and no decision will be made as to the type of diesel which may be purchased until a careful study is made.”

By August, Northern Pacific thinking had begun to embrace larger, more capable locomotives for WWV dieselization. G. R. Hopkins, assistant bridge engineer in Seattle, compiled a comparison of tractive efforts, weight, and axle loadings of various steam and diesel locomotives. The 380-hp NP 98, for example, was rated at 12 cars on the WWV; a 660 h.p. Alco or Baldwin was rated at 26, but weighed more than twice what the 44-tonner did.

Still, the question of the low utilization predicted by the dieselization committee troubled Macfarlane. In early September, he asked Carlson to give some thought to sharing a locomotive with the NP. “What I have in mind is the possibility that the Northern Pacific could do some switching around Walla Walla when an engine is not required on the Walla Walla Valley,” boosting its usage.

On September 21, Macfarlane memoed Carlson that two 660 h.p, switchers would be sold to the WWV, the first one in December, the next the following May. No decision had yet been reached on a third locomotive. Initial correspondence stated they would be Baldwins, but in early October, the issue was clarified when it was determined that the locomotives would be Alco HH660s, three of which the Northern Pacific purchased in 1940. The locomotives were not well liked with NP crews. After initially using them in yard service in Seattle, their slipperiness and lack of horsepower soon found them relegated to working Seattle’s King Street passenger depot, where they were much maligned for their “sweep” (notchless) throttle, too touchy some felt to gently switch occupied cars. Selling them to the WWV was a perfect solution. The price was right: NP charged WWV $37,646.41 apiece for the locomotives, considerably less than either a new 44- or 65-ton GE. The dieselization program included  rebuilding the 13th St. car barn, reducing the number of engine stalls from three to one, new tools to work on the diesels, and construction of new inspection pits and machine area. After salvage of the electrical system and locomotives, the cost to the WWV of the diesels and improvements was $79,668. Additional expenses were incurred in strengthening bridges and ballasting the railroad. The railroad’s classification was changed with the ICC from electric railway to Class II line-haul railroad.

In late December 1949, Northern Pacific 125 DE emerged as Walla Walla Valley 770. Painted in a scheme of black under frame, a “Union Blue” lower car body and cab and silver on the top half of the long hood, accented by yellow Scotchlite stripes identical to those worn as a NP switcher, the 770 entered service December 27. Throughout the winter, the 770 alone provided dieselized freight service; vanquished electric motors 322 and 600 were retained to scrap the overhead distribution system. On May 15, 1950, Northern Pacific delivered the former NP 601 DE to the WWV, painted to match the 770 and wearing the number 775.  The picture of modernity, the two diesels were featured in an ad campaign for Motorola, extolling the virtues of locomotive radios. For the two diesels, it was the beginning of a second railroad career that would last the next twenty years.

WWV’s stylish Alcos were symbolic of the railroad’s busiest years. While agricultural development in the valley was over, the postwar promised more traffic. Diesels didn’t only power locomotives on the WWV–their purr was heard in new mechanical refrigerator cars spotted at new cold storage and frozen food facilities constructed at Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater (the two towns merged in 1950). And while sub-zero temperatures were great for transporting frozen vegetables, they spelled disaster for the fruit industry in the valley when a sudden freeze in November 1955 decimated area orchards. Carloads of prunes and apples in 1955 fell from 1,181 and 222, respectively, to zero each of the next three years. It was 1960 before prunes again moved by rail, and fruit never regained its importance as a commodity on the WWV. Ironically, 1956 was WWV’s busiest year in terms of car loadings. Sawmills located at Sunnyside and Milton-Freewater, and an increase in sugar beet acreage, offset the loss of the fruit traffic. WWV originated 2781 cars for interchange to Northern Pacific in 1947; by 1959 this number had grown to 3550 cars. In 1961, it was estimated that WWV handled 187,000 tons of freight.

UP and WWV fought for much of this traffic, as few customers were exclusive to either railroad. Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater were designated “reciprocal switching districts” by the ICC for rate-making purposes. Simply put, if WWV originated a carload of freight in Milton-Freewater and interchanged it to Union Pacific there for the road haul, WWV received only a flat per-car switching fee (in 1971, $43.43).  If the car left the district, though, and was interchanged to at Walla Walla, WWV would then stand to be cut in for a portion of the road haul revenue as well—thus, WWV and NP traffic men did all they could to keep traffic routed “WWV-Walla Walla-NPRwy.”  Union Pacific’s salesmen were a formidable foe. UP’s share of the loads originating at Rogers Canning climbed from around 15% in 1943 to nearly 30% in the mid-1950s, a figure that stayed steady into late 1960s.UP used a contract to supply its commissary department with canned peas as leverage against one west coast distributor, who made sure his cars rode the UP out of Milton-Freewater. A little misinformation worked wonders as well: A buyer in Florida preferred a UP routing on the mistaken belief that UP’s more southern route was warmer in the winter months–apparently, the customer was unaware of Wyoming’s brutal winters!

In the 1960s, WWV’s nearly two dozen employees were under local supervision by a General Manager. The office staff comprised freight agents at both Walla Walla and Milton-Freewater, and two clerks. Another half dozen worked on the track department, although several doubled as extra board brakemen when necessary. Two engineers, two firemen, and two brakemen operated the trains. WWV was a daily-except-Sunday operation. The more-powerful diesels eliminated the need for more than one crew to operate any time other than the sugar beet season, when a second crew was called to pull the beet dumps at Baker-Langdon and Zigman. It was not uncommon for the train returning from Milton-Freewater to shove the rear of the beet train from Zigman upgrade from the Walla Walla River. On the ‘mainline”, the locomotives always ran long-hood first. The first order of business upon arrival at the “schoolhouse wye” on the north side of Milton-Freewater was to turn the locomotive so it would be properly oriented for its afternoon return trip. After delivering to the NP interchange in Walla Walla in the afternoon, the locomotive would turn again on the wye, facing south for the next morning’s trip.

The 1970 Burlington Northern merger, operationally at least, effected WWV very little. Office functions moved downtown to the NP depot, and clerical duties migrated to Pasco. Perhaps the most visible change was at the carbarn, where BN replaced the 770 with a pair of EMD SW1’s of similar vintage. Former Great Northern #77 was first to arrive, in August, 1971, followed by a former Fort Worth & Denver unit, #104, the following March. The 775 had been retired in 1968.

Not that there was enough business for two locomotives. Its traffic dwindling, WWV couldn’t overcome three big obstacles to its survival: the shift of traffic to trucks, changing markets of its shippers, and track unable to support modern equipment. Sugar beets had become Walla Walla Valley’s largest single source of traffic by the late 1940s, and in 1969 constituted fully 45% of its 1470 car loadings–nearly three times that of canned goods. But the shift of food manufacturers to corn syrup from sugar derived from the sugar beet was disastrous to companies like Utah & Idaho Sugar, which closed its sugar mills at Toppenish and Moses Lake in 1978. Motor carriers ate into WWV’s traffic by the late 1950s, taking the short haul of empty cans from the Continental plant, then the fruit, the bulk fuel, and eventually even the canned goods. In the early 1980s, Rogers Walla Walla, formerly Rogers Canning, changed its marketing strategy from a cannery producing for a national market to one concentrating on California, moving the business to trucks.. The wheat and barley traffic from the elevators at Baker-Langdon suffered after river barges became a lower-cost alternative to growers than rail when slack water reached up the Columbia River in the early 1960s. Jumbo covered hoppers introduced in the mid-1960s made the 40’ boxcar obsolete in grain service, but were too heavy for WWV’s light rail (nearly 90% of the railroad was still laid with its original 56 lb. rail) and non-existent ballast. Shippers were unable to take advantage of the lower rates offered for these cars, and most opted to truck their crops to other elevators, to a barge terminal, or to the nearby Union Pacific elevator at Spofford..

Only 163 loaded cars were handled on the WWV in 1982, barely 10% of what was handled a decade before. Many days, trains didn’t turn a wheel. WWV employees were absorbed into BN seniority rosters in June 1982 and assignments abolished. Trains would then be called “as needed,” crews filled off the Pasco extra board. WWV operated 165 trains to Milton-Freewater in 1982, and only 50 the following year. BN applied to the ICC for permission to abandon the Walla Walla Valley in late 1984, approval of which was granted April 19, 1985. Abandonment followed five weeks later, on May 26, 1985.

Today, not much remains of the Walla Walla Valley. In Walla Walla, the carbarn was renovated as a winery, company documents donated to Whitman College for preservation. Rails peek through the pavement on Cherry Street and N 6th St. leading to Snyder-Crecilus Paper, still doing business in the former WWV depot and headquarters building across from the county courthouse on Main Street. Down in Milton-Freewater, Rogers Canning, once WWV’s largest customer,  is now owned by Chiquita, and operates seasonally—shipping by truck.  The Freewater substation and freight depot, after operating as the “Night Train” disco in the late seventies and early eighties, has been tastefully preserved as a private residence. A few packing sheds and a dirt right of way remain in the countryside.

Out at the US Borax in Boron, California, the former #77 survives in shiny Great Northern green and orange paint, applied when assigned as BN’s shop switcher at Alliance, Nebraska, prior to the BNSF merger. It led an interesting life after WWV abandoned, being sold to the Frisco before returning to BN after the 1982 merger. In a storage shed at the Port Of Longview, Washington, sits a powder blue HH660, the former WWV 770. Still operable, it has been purchased by the Northwest Rail Museum at Snoqualmie Falls, which one day hopes to restore it as Northern Pacific DE 125—Northern Pacific’s second diesel-electric locomotive. Wouldn’t it be slick, though, to see it wear Union Blue and grey again, adorned with the “flying” Walla Walla Valley road name?


While I was doing research on the Walla Walla Valley Traction Company, I had a hard time finding any old maps or descriptions of the trolley routes. Starting with a small map produced by the Oregon Encyclopedia, as well as using multiple resources and little tidbits picked up along the way, I was able to piece together what I hope is an accurate depiction of the WWVT system in 1908. I hope you enjoy!


2 Comments on “Walla Walla Valley Traction Company”

  1. arnoldliebm3 says:

    Walla Walla Valley Traction trolley car 12 on the streets of Walla Walla. … ffrozentrolley.wordpress.com

  2. Kenny Boucher says:

    I just saw a black WWV marked switch engine on the old Milwaukee Road trackage at Western Junction south of Lacey, WA. Had a Southern Pacific bay-window caboose with a couple of tankcars. Anyone know anything about this operation?

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