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By Thornton Waite
The Grace Branch of the Union Pacific's Oregon Short Line subsidiary ran south from the main line at Alexander, 5 miles west of Soda Springs, south 5.7 miles to Grace, the only town on the line. The Oregon Short Line built the branch line to Grace in 1913 to serve the surrounding farm area, and the area began to grow. At that time Alexander was also a small settlement on the main line. The branch line was typical of small branch lines which have been abandoned by the railroads throughout the nation, having been superseded by trucks and improved roads. One unique feature of this short line was that it had a unique Pegram truss bridge which is still standing.
The Oregon Short Line Railroad Company prepared a cost estimate for the construction of the line from Alexander to Grace. The estimate was not dated but may have been prepared after the construction of the line. The costs are listed in Table 1.
The Grace Branch left the Idaho First Subdivision at Alexander, 5733 feet above sea level, and dropped down 200 feet to 5533 feet at Grace. There was one bridge, the Pegram truss bridge across the Bear River, in addition to trestles crossing irrigation piping and ditches. The single span, 172 feet truss bridge was built in built in 1897 and was previously at milepost 126.4 on the main line of the Oregon Short Line. It was moved to the Grace Branch in 1914, when the branch was being completed. Although the Pegram truss bridge was no longer adequate for mainline service, it was strong enough for branch line trains. Seventy-five-pound rail was used on the line, common at the time, and it was never replaced.
As could be expected, passenger service was minimal and basic. On March 5, 1923, the local residents complained to the Public Utilities Commission about the inadequate train service on the Grace Branch. The railroad stated that it felt the mixed train service was satisfactory unless there was a snow blockage, and that there was not enough business to justify additional or upgraded passenger service. However, the railroad apparently began providing separate passenger train service soon after the hearings, with a single round-trip train. In 1926 the schedule was shown as tri-weekly, running on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. It left Soda Alexander at 8:50 AM and arrived at Grace at 9:10 AM. Returning, it left Grace at 9:20 AM and arrived at Alexander at 9:40 AM. However, by 1933 the railroad was offering mixed train service, daily-except-Sunday, and all passenger service was discontinued by 1941.
Milk and cream were apparently shipped by rail on this train. On July 19, 1922 a complaint was filed with the Public Utilities Commission of Idaho by the Department of Public Welfare that cream to be shipped on the railroad was allowed to stand in the sun. The Superintendent of the Oregon Short Line sent specific instructions to the Grace agent to be more diligent so that the cream did not stand in the sun. The case was closed on July 24, 1922.
The Grace Branch was typical of small branch lines which have been removed by the railroads throughout the nation. A closer look at the line and how the tracks were laid will give a good idea of the configuration of a small branch line with little business. The tracks layouts at both Grace and the junction with the main line at Alexander are interesting, since they did not change much, if at all, over the years.
In the last years of service there was only a single siding track at Grace, and there were no other sidings on the line. There were only some grain bins and elevators and a stockyard along the siding track at Grace. Since the sidings and storage bins were small by today's standards, they were not able to compete with the larger facilities that could load unit trains on the main line. When it was pulled up it was serving only three small agricultural businesses at the end of the line, not enough to justify its continued use.
With light rail and minimal maintenance, the speed limit was 10 mph. Due to this, the railroad typically ran a light switcher, such as SW10 1219, as required so that the rails were not overloaded. The locomotive was adequate for the few cars switched on the line. Standard buckboards were used at the road crossings, and flashing lights were not necessary due to the slow speed and infrequent service to Grace.
The railroad notified the Idaho Public Utilities Commission in May 1995 that it intended to petition for permission to abandon what its called the Grace Industrial Lead. Hearings were held in July and in September 1995 the Idaho Public Utilities Commission held hearings for the abandonment of the Grace Branch and decided there was no justification to oppose it. There was only one shipper remaining, and he had found alternate arrangements, loading grain at a larger facility at Bancroft, located to on the main line to the west of Alexander. The railroad embargoed the line in early 1995 due to concerns on the safety of the five bridges, including the metal Pegram truss bridge. The other bridges were wooden structures. Prior to embargoing the line, 70 carloads of grain had been shipped over the line in 1993 and 65 carloads in 1994, and there appeared to be no potential for increased traffic on the line. The railroad agreed to give the city the land in Grace and left the Pegram truss bridge standing.
Alexander, initially known as Crater, was named after Charles Alexander, an early settler, and it is known to have existed as early as 1858. The Oregon Short Line passed through the site in 1881-82 as the railroad was being built west from Granger, Wyoming. The townsite never prospered, and the post office closed in 1983. Today there is only an abandoned store and a private residence in the area.
However, Alexander had a set of sidings and passing tracks to allow the trains to go onto the Grace Branch. The ICC Valuation shows that Alexander had a one-story frame depot, 24 feet x 95 feet, built in 1908, and a one-story freight house, 16 feet x 36 feet, built in 1913. There was also a section house, 28 feet x 28 feet with a 10 feet x 14 feet lean-to, built in 1887, a one-story bunkhouse, 12 feet x 38 feet, a 6 feet x 20 feet bunk house, a 10 feet x 14 feet tool house, all built in 1904. There were also a coal and outhouse, 6 feet x 12 feet, and an icehouse, 16 feet x 18 feet both built in 1909, as well as a 14 feet x 14 feet pump house, built in 1911, a well 250 feet deep, and a 24 feet diameter by 16 feet high wood tank on a steel tower, both built in 1913. Alexander also had a stockyard with 1 pen for cattle and 3 additional pens for hogs or sheep and a loading chute.
The siding and tracks to Grace were on the south side of the main line and crossed over Route 30 immediately after leaving the main line. The track layout was designed so that the local freight, which came from Soda Springs and Montpelier to the east, could go directly onto the Grace Branch and not interfere with the main line operations. There are still additional siding tracks on the north side of the tracks to serve the grain bins on that side.
One source indicates the settlement of Grace was named after the wife of D.W. Standrod in 1894, when he was a government agent at Blackfoot, Idaho. Another source indicates the government agent was named Frank Bean. Today Grace has a population of around 1200, up from the 850 population of 1938, and it is a small agricultural community which was incorporated in 1914. The population in 2019 was 1244. Most of the business is performed in nearby Soda Springs.
Initially Grace used a carbody for a depot, installed in 1913, and a shed 10 feet x 20 feet, also built in 1913. It was later replaced by a standard two-story Union Pacific depot. In 1936 Grace had three stock pens with one double deck loading chute and a capacity of 12 head of livestock in the immediate loading decks. Water and scales were available.
Data from the 1960s show that there was not a lot of business for the one-man agency. The average monthly carloadings received in 1964 were 7, in 1965 they were 4; 1966 it was 5 cars a month; and in 1967 it was 6 cars. Average monthly outbound loads were 63 in 1964; 49 in 1965; 41 in 1966; and 36 in 1967. This was in the time before large blocks of cars were shipped together or when unit trains were available.
Consequently, in the 1960s the UP petitioned the IPUC to combine the two Bancroft and Grace agencies into a single agency, and approval was received on June 27, 1967. Permission to close the later single agency was received from the IPUC on June 5, 1972. The depot was removed in the early 1970s, leaving only a small wooden platform by the tracks. There was also a small stockyard with three pens and one loading chute.
The track layout at Grace was simple and straightforward. The line came in from the north and ended a short distance to the south of the depot and townsite. The town was a few blocks to the east and farmland was on the west side of the tracks. The depot was located at the intersection of 1st South, south of Center, and on the west side of 4th West. The main line went past the west side of the depot, and there was a through siding on the east side. The stockyard was on the west side of the tracks, to the north of the depot, and there were sidings for the grain elevators on the west side of the line and a spur track for coal dealers on the east side of the depot. There were sidings for a potato storage cellar and an oil distributor. Photos taken in 1967 show the tracks in worse condition than they were in the late 1970s.
Construction Costs of the Grace Branch: