Old train track leads into the distance through a field of green grass. Low mountains on the left and right in distance.
Decisions about where to route railroads through remote places could make or break towns. Shown here are railroad tracks crossing Warnock Road in Wallowa County. (Oregon State Archives, 2016)
Get a high resolution copy of the tracks in the Oregon Scenic Images Collection.
Prior to the arrival of railroads, freight was first transported to Portland by river-steamer. Ships then transported Oregon goods to U.S. and world markets. Many routes for rail were proposed in Oregon’s early days. Few were funded and fewer still were actually built. 

First was the Oregon Portage Railroad in the 1850s which ran 45 miles from the Bonneville Dam area to the Cascade Locks. After the Civil War and through the 1880s, the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company laid over 600 miles of track across the state. These projects connected Oregon to the rest of the nation through the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad.

Railroad companies typically followed frontier roads and trails when surveying routes. This was in part because existing routes offered a path of least resistance through the wilderness. This is also because railroads were fantastically expensive to build. However, these high start-up costs could also lead to dramatic financial gains. Railroads offered low-cost, year-round transportation for goods, livestock, and people. 

Old steam locomotive on a train track.
The Sumpter Valley Railroad train arrives in Sumpter. (Oregon State Archives, 2010)
Get a high resolution copy of the train in the Oregon Scenic Images Collection​.
Oregon’s farmers responded to this new market access by upping production and land-use for agriculture. Rails also brought heavy equipment out west, helping farmers transition from subsistence to intensive agriculture. Manufacturing exploded as well. Lumber mills were built to supply new lines. Repair shops, as well as wool and flour mills, popped up alongside the railroads they relied on. The state’s population boomed after rails arrived, growing from 90,000 people in 1870 to over 400,000 in 1900. 

Railroads brought prosperity for some towns, but spelled doom for those the rail bypassed. Some prosperous towns shriveled up and disappeared after railroads were laid just a few miles away. This often resulted in the drawing of people and businesses to the new rail junctions. By the beginning of the 1900s, small farmers and businesses suffered too, as they were increasingly gouged by powerful railroad monopolies. Only large corporations had the capital to afford the mounting fees of doing business by rail.