Lemhi and Salmon Valley Railroad Company

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By Thornton Waite

The Lemhi and Salmon Valley Railroad Company was incorporated with the backing of the Union Pacific Railroad to protect its territory in southeastern Idaho. It was chartered as a defensive measure to allow UP to build a line to compete with the Gilmore & Pittsburgh Railroad, which was backed by the Northern Pacific. In this period, when railroads were being built all over the United States and the railroads were anxious to maintain their dominance in their areas, new railroads were frequently chartered, if only as a bluff to other competing railroads. This was also at a time when UP was expanding its network of branch lines in southern Idaho. After an initial burst of publicity, some preliminary surveys and other work were performed, and the idea dropped when it was obvious the Gilmore & Pittsburgh was not, and never would be, profitable, and that it would never expand further than Salmon and Gilmore.

The Oregon Short Line was afraid that The Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad, which was backed by Northern Pacific, was encroaching on its monopoly in eastern Idaho and incorporated the Lemhi and Salmon Valley Railroad as a “contingency” in the event the Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad was profitable. If that happened the Oregon Short Line would build a rail line to Salmon and Lewiston to compete with the Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad. The proposed railroad was incorporated to build a rail line from southeastern Idaho to northwestern Idaho.

The Lemhi & Salmon Valley Railroad was incorporated in Utah on June 10, 1909, and in Idaho on June 14, 1909. The line was to go from a location at or near the Cerro Grande station on the Salmon River Railroad (the present-day Mackay Branch) north to Salmon, a distance of 148 miles. The line was then to go north and west to the west boundary of the state at or near the junction of the Salmon and Snake rivers, 240 miles, and on to Lewiston, an additional 40 miles. There was also to be a branch from Salmon to Challis, 52 miles, and another branch from the main line to Grangeville, 10 miles. A third branch was to go from a junction from near Kaufman on the main line of the Lemhi and Salmon Valley Railroad east to connect with the Oregon Short Line Railroad between the Market Lake (present-day Roberts) and Camas stations, 35 miles. The total length of the railroad was to be approximately 525 miles.

The headquarters for the Lemhi and Salmon Valley Railroad were in Pocatello and the company was capitalized at $5 million. The directors were Oregon Short Line Railroad officials who were also associated with other lines incorporated in Idaho by the Oregon Short Line in this time period. They were W.H. Bancroft, J.M. Davis, William Ashton, and P.L. Williams of Salt Lake City and W.R. Armstrong of Pocatello. Bancroft was president, Ashton was vice-president and chief engineer, G.K. Smith was secretary, and C.H. Jenkinson was treasurer.

The proposed railroad was supported by some of the local populace, and the editor of the Challis newspaper even went so far as to state that the line would resolve the North-South railroad connection many people in the state wanted. Challis, which did not have railroad service, was supportive of the construction of any railroad to their town.

Only a month after it was incorporated the railroad announced that it was not sure when construction would be started. Prior to this the Oregon Short Line had even had its engineers spying on the Gilmore and Pittsburgh crews laying out the route of the G&P in the Salmon area when it was being surveyed.

The Gilmore & Pittsburgh Railroad was incorporated in Idaho on March 11, 1907, and Montana on July 30, 1907. Construction of the G&P started in 1909, the year the Lemhi and Salmon Valley Railroad was incorporated, and completed in 1910.

As early as the year 1907 the UP was reportedly surveying for a line down the Salmon River, and G&P worked to file for a route first. When the Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad was surveying a route to the west down the Salmon River there was a race between the two lines to claim the best right-of-way, but neither railroad built a line through the river due to the rugged terrain and lack of potential business.

The July 2, 1909, issue of the Railroad Age Gazette reported that the Lemhi & Salmon Valley Railroad had been incorporated by the OSL and capitalized at $5 million. However, the July 16, 1909, issue of same magazine reported the OSL was not certain when construction would start. At the same time the railroad had awarded a contract to build the Aberdeen Branch from the Mackay Branch out of Blackfoot, and it was building a network of lines out of Minidoka as part of its expansion and development of the railroad in Idaho. There were no further reports on the Lemhi & Salmon Valley Railroad in Railroad Age Gazette.

William Ashton was the chief engineer, and the railroad performed detailed surveys under his direction for the first segment from Cerro Grande towards Salmon. Surveys were made from February 12 through 27 and from July 26 through 30, 1909, on the section of line through the Birch Creek Valley Pass, and other surveys may have also been performed in this time period. The survey went south from Kaufman’s Ranch to milepost 32.17. Cerro Grande, at milepost 35.4 on the Salmon River Line was not even settled until 1910, but it may have had a section house at this time. Cerro Grande is Spanish for “Big Hill”, for the nearby Big Southern Butte.

When it became apparent that the Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad not going to be profitable, all work on the Lemhi and Salmon Valley Railroad was stopped. The last annual meeting of the Lemhi and Salmon Valley Railroad was held in 1921 and the articles of incorporation forfeited on December 1, 1921.

Cost Estimate

The Oregon Short Line Railroad Company prepared a cost estimate on February 20, 1914, for the construction of the proposed line from Cerro Grande north to MP 25.5, only a portion of the proposed line. The estimated costs were: