When The Railroad Almost Bypassed Glenns Ferry, Idaho

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By Thornton Waite

There was a period of time when the Oregon Short Line almost bypassed Glenns Ferry, Idaho. At the beginning of the twentieth century the OSL had to use helper locomotives to push the trains out of Glenns Ferry in both directions, a costly operating expense. Glenns Ferry was a crew change point on the Snake River, and the rail line dropped down to reach the town. Going west, the railroad climbed from an elevation of 2555 feet at Glenns Ferry to 3143 at Mountain Home, a rise of 588 feet in 28 miles. Going east from Glenns Ferry the railroad went up to an elevation of 3270 feet at Bliss, a rise of 715 feet in 24 miles. Over the years the railroad performed several surveys to determine the feasibility of reducing the grades in the vicinity of Glenns Ferry to see if it was feasible to reduce or eliminate the need for helper locomotives. Some of these surveys showed that a line with lower grades could be built, and some of these routes bypassed Glenns Ferry. However, due to the high costs of rerouting the rail line the railroad chose to continue running their trains through Glenns Ferry, choosing instead to add additional tracks and modifying the route to the west in the vicinity of Reverse. With the increased capabilities of today’s diesel-electric locomotives there is no longer consideration of building an alternate route.

When the Oregon Short Line Railway Company built across southern Idaho in 1882-1883 the railroad was anxious to connect with the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company at Huntington, Oregon. The sparse population in southern Idaho couldn't support a railroad, and the railroad needed the business from the Pacific Northwest to be profitable. Consequently the railroad built across the southern Idaho desert on the easiest route possible, going so far as to bypass Boise City, the Territorial Capital. The surveyors chose the route with the lowest grades and that would be the least expensive to construct. Bridges and steep grades were avoided wherever possible. Going west from Pocatello the railroad had to build a bridge across the Snake River at American Falls, but they then built straight across the southern Idaho desert to what is now Bliss. From Bliss the rail line skirted to the south of the mountains but stayed on the north side of the Snake River. The surveyors found that the quickest route, although not necessarily the most desirable one, was to descend down to Glenns Ferry, skirting the north edge of the Snake River. From Glenns Ferry the railroad then went along the Snake River to Hammett and from there then climbed up the steep Medbury Hill to Reverse and Mountain Home. After that it was a relatively easy route to Nampa, Caldwell, and Oregon. The line from Bliss down to Glenns Ferry and back up to Mountain Home provided significant operating challenges, and the trains required helper locomotives to get out of the canyon.

Glenns Ferry became an important location since it was a crew change point, where the train crews handed the train over to the next train crew, and where the railroad added helper engines for the climb in both directions out of Glenns Ferry. The railroad built a large 17 stall roundhouse for the steam locomotives and facilities to maintain and repair the motive power. There was even a YMCA for the crews during their layovers.

Due to the expense and cost of maintaining the helper locomotives the railroad wanted to eliminate the grades at Glenns Ferry. They performed detailed surveys in the summer of 1911, at a time when the railroad was still expanding in southern Idaho and traffic was increasing. This survey work was performed from March 11 through June 16 and from August 20 through September 14 of that year. Several routes were considered, and previous surveys were also shown on the final map prepared by E. Stacey. Two routes were shown, each with minor variations. One route took into consideration the existing main line of the railroad through Glenns Ferry. It left the main line at Ticeska, midway between Bliss and Glenns Ferry, and contoured along the hillsides, covering a longer distance to descend to Glenns Ferry. West of Glenns Ferry the line again curved along the hillside, going to the north of Medbury before rejoining the main line at Reverse.

The second route left the existing main line a few miles west of Bliss and went to the north, crossing the canyons but going in a relatively straight line before rejoining the main line a short distance east of Mountain Home. The line through Glenns Ferry was apparently to be left as a branch line, available in the event of a derailment on the new main line and to provide freight service. There were variations to both of these routes shown on the final survey map, some with more curves and lower grades than others. As a side note, the maps were true works of art, with the hill contours and other geographical features artistically inked onto the maps.

The railroad studied the various routes, but further work was stopped by World War I and the government control of the nation's railroads. After some additional study the railroad concluded that eliminating the grades at Glenns Ferry was too expensive, so in the 1920s they added a second track between Ticeska, east of Glenns Ferry, and Reverse, west of Glenns Ferry and rearranged the tracks at Glenns Ferry. The line was rerouted between Hammett and to a point just east of Mountain Home in 1923-1924, reducing the grades some. More double track was added between Ticeska and King Hill a few years later. Having a second track made it so that the slower trains going uphill didn't interfere with the faster trains and the returning helper locomotives which were going downhill in the opposite direction. The entire line was operated by Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) so that a dispatcher in Pocatello could control the train movements.

The railroad had a ruling (maximum) grade of 1.72% for eastbound trains from Glenns Ferry to Bliss. The ruling grade from Glenns Ferry west to Mountain Home was 1.99%, at Reverse, after the line had been rerouted. The trains required helper locomotives from Glenns Ferry east up King Hill to Ticeska, with the heavier trains requiring them to Bliss, 23.3 miles, and occasionally all the way to Shoshone, 52 miles. Freight and passenger trains both required helper locomotives westbound out of Glenns Ferry for the 10.6 mile grade up Medbury Hill, located between Hammett and Reverse. The helper locomotives were added to the passenger trains at Glenns Ferry, while the freight trains would add the locomotives at Hammett, often on both the front and rear of the trains. The diesel locomotives allowed the railroad to reduce the need for helper locomotives, so that by 1951 the 17 stall roundhouse had been reduced to 4 stalls.

In 1973 the railroad closed the Glenns Ferry facilities and had the trains run through between Nampa and Pocatello without changing crews at Glenns Ferry. Although this improved the train operations and efficiency, it did directly affect approximately 150 railroaders who lived and worked in Glenns Ferry. All that is left at Glenns Ferry are some passing tracks and sidings where sugar beets were once loaded for shipment to the sugar factories.

Today the railroad continues to operate over the line as it was built in the 1920s, and it is a high speed main line with welded rail. The diesel locomotives have replaced the steam locomotives, and CTC has been replaced by Track Warrant Controls, with the dispatcher in Omaha, Nebraska talking directly to the train crews by radio. The train operations in both directions out of Glenns Ferry continue to be an operating challenge for the railroad crews, and the railroad continues to use helper locomotives on some of their trains in both directions out of Glenns Ferry.

Bliss - Mountain Home Main Line of the Union Pacific Railroad

Town Milepost (MP)
(From Granger, WY)
Elevation Notes
Bliss 349.95 3270  
Ticeska 357.19 3087 9.81 miles of second track added from Ticeska to MP 365.91 (1928)
King Hill 367.10 2526 Second track added from MP 365.91 to Glenns Ferry 1922-1923
Glenns Ferry 373.96 2555 Tracks rearranged 1922-1923. Second track added from Glenns Ferry to MP 380 (1922-1923)
Hammett 382.57 2539 9.87 miles of second track added MP 380 to Hammett (1923-1924)
Reverse [1] 393.30 3110 Line change to MP 400 and second track added from Hammett to Reverse (1923-1924)
Mountain Home 401.88 3143  

[1] Reverse got its name since it was at the top of the grade and the location where the helper locomotives were cut off the train and returned to Glenns Ferry.

Special thanks to George Cockle for his help in obtaining the survey map used to prepare this article.