Oregon Steam Navigation Co. (OSN)

Index For This Page

This page was last updated on December 13, 2009.

(Return To Oregon Railway & Navigation Co.)


The railroads along the Columbia River were an extension of Oregon Steam Navigation Company's steamship operations along the river. The first railroads were short pieces of tracks known as portage railroads, built to allow goods and passengers to be moved around portions of the river that were not open to steamship navigation.

For navigation purposes the Columbia River was divided into three sections: the lower river at the western end between Portland and Bonneville (36 miles); the middle river between Cascade City and The Dalles (41 miles); and the upper river between the mouth of the Deschutes River and Wallula (112 miles), near the mouth of the Snake River.

Between these three sections, there were two sections that large steamships could not navigate year-round. The "Lower Portage" was at The Cascades between Bonneville and Cascade City and was six miles in length. The "Upper Portage" was fourteen miles long between The Dalles and Celilo Falls near the mouth of the Deschutes River.

For passengers and freight to continue along the river it was necessary to build land routes that bypassed these impassable sections of the river. At first these bypasses were roads, and enterprising businessmen took it upon themselves to improve the roads and began charging a toll for their use. In the early 1850s, several businessmen got together and built wooden-plank roads powered by mules, with some of the route being right adjacent to the river itself and supported by wooden bridges. Steamships docked at wharves located both up-river and down-river at each impassable section, and these wooden plank toll roads allowed people and goods to move from one steamship to another steamship docked at the wharves. These wooden toll roads soon became known as "portages."

Oregon Steam Navigation Company was organized in 1860 to consolidate the navigation interests along the entire Columbia River, from the Snake River in the east to the mouth of the Columbia River at the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon. This included control of the wooden toll roads at each of the portages.

Lower Portage (The Cascades)

At The Cascades there was a portage on the north (Washington) side and another portage on the south (Oregon) side of the river. The portage on the Washington side was first built in 1851 as a path made entirely of wood with its cars being pulled by a single mule. This road was later known as the Washington Portage, or the Bradford Portage. The portage on the Oregon side was completed in 1856 and later became known as the Oregon Portage or the Ruckel Portage. In May 1861, after converting its portage to a railroad that used iron straps on wooden rails, the Ruckel portage became the Oregon Portage Railroad, after which the Bradford portage was closed.

Oregon Steam Navigation Company was first organized as the Union Transportation Company by a verbal agreement between the portage owners in May 1859. At the time, John C. Ainsworth was the owner of several steamboats that operated along the lower river and on the Willamette River at Portland. Ainsworth was one of the organizers of the Union company and as business grew, he helped reorganize the company as the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. OSN was incorporated in Washington Territory on December 29, 1860 because Oregon (a state since 1859) did not have its own corporation law. The company was controlled by John C. Ainsworth and his associates. These associates included the Washington portage owners Daniel Bradford and Putnam Bradford, and the Oregon Portage owners John C. Ruckel and Harrison Olmstead. The portage owners kept their toll roads separate from the interests of the OSN, but benefited from the steamship monopoly the OSN soon built along the river.

The Bradford portage carried all of the freight after the Union company was formed in 1859, and until May 1860 at which time the business was split between the two portages. Both portages were mule-powered wooden-planked toll roads until May 1861 when the Oregon Portage Railroad Company was organized to rebuild the Ruckel portage on the Oregon side as a railroad using strap iron fastened to wooden rails. The Bradford portage on the Washington side was shut down on May 17, 1861 and all business transferred to the new Oregon Portage Company, due to the latter road's more durable construction. The Oregon Portage Railroad continued to use mule power until May 1862 when it purchased its first steam locomotive (the first steam locomotive in the Northwest) from Vulcan Foundry of San Francisco. Vulcan delivered a total of three locomotives to both the Washington and Oregon portage railroads. All three were small four-wheeled steam locomotives that served more as replacements for the mules, than as real locomotives. All three Oregon Ponies were set aside with the delivery of two full sized 4-4-0 steam locomotives in 1863.

(Read more about the Oregon Ponies)

The Washington (Bradford) portage was shut down in May 1861, Within a very short period of time, at sometime in late 1861 or early 1862, the citizens on the Washington side were successful in getting the Washington territorial legislature to pass a charter for a new portage railroad on the Washington side to replace the earlier Bradford portage. The Bradfords were awarded the new charter. It was in response to the new Bradford charter for a new portage railroad that the Oregon Portage Railroad ordered and put into service in May 1862 the little four-wheeled steam locomotive that is today the famous "Oregon Pony."

Oregon Steam Navigation Company (of Oregon) was organized in October 1862 as a consolidation of the previous Oregon Steam Navigation Company (of Washington) and other steamship interests not related to the portage railroads. The new company was incorporated in Oregon on October 21, 1862 after Oregon had passed a suitable corporation law. Its main purpose was to fund the expansion of the steamship lines, and purchase of the interests of the two portage railroads.

With the technology jump that Oregon Portage Railroad's "Oregon Pony" steam locomotive provided, the Bradfords sold their charter for a portage railroad on the Washington side to the Oregon Steam Navigation Company which immediately began construction of the new line which was put into service on April 20, 1863 as The Cascades Railroad Company. The new railroad was seven miles in length and used a gauge of five feet, compared to a more common 4 feet 8-1/2 inches which was designated as the standard gauge in 1863 as part of the Pacific Railway Act. The Cascade Railroad was also a real railroad that made use of iron rails and two large steam locomotives, named for the company's largest shareholders J. C. Ainsworth and D. F. Bradford.

The owners of the Oregon Portage Company unsuccessfully protested the loss of their portage monopoly to their fellow owners of the OSN, but without resolution and were forced to sell their interests, in the name of its primary owner Harrison Olmstead, to OSN on November 6, 1862. After the sale, the traffic over the four-mile Oregon Portage Railroad was reduced to local lumber mill traffic and whatever goods that could not be moved over the Bradford's Cascades Railroad on the Washington side.

Within a month, on December 5, 1862 the Oregon Steam Navigation Company (of Oregon) purchased the rights and interests of the Oregon Steam Navigation Company (of Washington), including the six miles of the Cascade Railroad, also known as the Bradford portage railroad on the Washington side between the down-river wharf at Bonneville and up-river wharf at Cascade City. As mentioned above, the completed Cascade Railroad on the Washington side went into service on April 20, 1863.

The following comes from George Hilton's American Narrow Gauge Railroads (Stanford University Press, 1990):

Oregon Portage Railway

A mule tramway had been built on the Oregon bank of the Columbia River around the Cascades in the 1850s, and had survived the flood of 1861 that destroyed its counterpart on the north bank. This became a 5'-0" steam railroad, the Oregon Portage Railway, with the arrival of the locomotive Pony in 1862. Henry Villard incorporated it into his Oregon Railway & Navigation Co. for his rail line along the south bank about 1880. He initially planned to convert it to 3'-0", and laid some narrow gauge track before deciding to make the OR&N a standard gauge railroad.

The dissatisfaction of steamboat operators with the low quality of service of the Cascade Railroad on the north bank and delay in the completion of locks at the dam being built at the Cascades combined to produce political pressure for a restoration of a railroad on the south bank. In 1891 the state established the Oregon Board of Portage Commissioners, which undertook a Smile railroad. A 3'-0" gauge was chosen for conformity with the track of the Corps of Engineers at the construction site of the dam. The railroad was opened in September 1891, and quickly proved successful: during its first year it handled over 8,000 passengers and 10,000 tons of freight. The operation ended in May 1896, when the locks opened and the Corps of Engineers refused to authorize further use of its track. (Reference: Randall V. Mills, Stern-Wheelers Up Columbia (Bay Books, 1947), pp. 67-79)

Cascades Railroad

The Cascades of the Columbia River 57 miles above Portland, Oregon, presented a natural barrier to steam navigation. The first railway around the Cascades was a mule tramway on wooden rails built by an operator named Chenoweth in 1851. He sold the line to the Bradford family of steamboat operators, who incorporated the property as the Cascades Railroad on January 31, 1859. The installation was wiped out by a flood in 1861, but it was restored the next year by the Oregon Steam Navigation Co., which replaced the mules with the Pony, a 5'-0" engine from the Oregon Portage Railway, the line's counterpart on the south bank of the river. The six-mile rail line was largely built on trestlework above high water. In 1880 it was converted to 4'-81/2" for compatibility with the railroad being built on the south bank by the successor Oregon Railway & Navigation Co., even though there was no physical connection between the two. In an effort to make use of equipment from the recently converted Blue Mountain branch, the OR&N changed the Cascades Railroad to 3'-0" in 1883. In 1894 the line was washed out in a flood. About half the railroad was leased to a cannery for the movement of salmon to its plant, but the rest lay idle. By 1906 the cannery operation had ended and the line was entirely derelict. The Spokane, Portland & Seattle endeavored to condemn a right-of-way that crossed the narrow gauge at four points. A court order resulted in the narrow gauge's being rebuilt on a slightly altered route, with two crossings by the SP&S, but the line now served no useful purpose, being paralleled by standard gauge railroads on both sides of the river, and rivaled by locks through the dam at the Cascades. The Union Pacific as lessee abandoned it in 1908. (Reference: Randall V. Mills, Stern-Wheelers Up Columbia (Bay Books, 1947), pp. 67-79)

Upper Portage (The Dalles to Celilo)

The 14-mile portage between The Dalles and Celilo was one of the oldest along the Columbia River due to the rugged nature of the combined Celilo Falls and two sets of cataracts; one located three miles downstream from the falls, and the other located ten miles farther downstream. The combination of rough waters stretched for 13 miles along the river and ended at the lowest set cataracts at the site today's city of The Dalles. The Deschutes River flows into the Columbia River at the upper end of this stretch of rough water that blocked navigation along the Columbia River.

Various versions of the "Deschutes Portage" were first built as the wagon trains of immigrants made their way to Oregon in the 1840s. The most used road was converted to a toll road by George Humason in 1856 as The Dalles-Celilo Portage. It was built on the Oregon side and climbed away from river level at the Deschutes River and made its way along the bluffs to descend back to the river at The Dalles, the center of commerce for the entire region of the middle river. The Dalles was also centrally located along the entire river, which added to it status as a center of commerce.

In November 1861, after organizing the Oregon Steam Navigation Company, Ainsworth hired a survey of the river between The Dalles and Celilo and in March 1862 construction began on a new portage railroad along the Oregon side between the two points. After completing just two miles of the new railroad's 13.8 mile route, work was halted to finish the Cascades Railroad at the lower portage. Work resumed on the Celilo line in September 1862, and the Celilo line was completed in March 1863. Both the Cascades Railroad and the Celilo line were put in service on the same day, April 20, 1863.

Operations in 1862-1863

It must be said here that the extent of operations of the three portage railroads in the 1862 and 1863 time period is a bit of a muddle. The three railroads (on the Washington side and the Oregon side at The Cascades, and the third road between The Dalles and Celilo Falls further upriver) were not railroads by today's standards. They were in fact wooden-plank toll roads that happened to be powered by very small steam locomotives which themselves replaced the earlier mule-powered operations. Portions of all three were built on wooden trestle bridges to keep the wooden structures up and out of the water. Reports indicate that each of the three roads suffered each season from damage during the spring runoff along their respective parts of the Columbia River. Similar reports indicate that the portage railroads were only used during times of low water, which severely limited steamship navigation. At times of high water, smaller ships and boats were in fact able to traverse these supposedly impassable parts of the river. So the need for the portage railroads was in fact a seasonal one.

The arrival of the first and smallest Oregon Pony on the Oregon Portage Railroad in May 1862 was, as mentioned above, a jump in technology. But information about the other two slightly larger Oregon Ponies that apparently arrived later in 1862, seems to indicate that they were all three ordered from their builder in San Francisco at about the same time. Sources vary, so it is unclear exactly if the two larger locomotives were assigned to just the newly chartered Cascades Railroad on the Washington side, or to the longer portage between The Dalles and Celilo Falls, or both. One source also indicates that the smaller was removed from the Oregon side and moved to either the Washington side, or to the third line between The Dalles and Celilo Falls, possibly joining the other two in the same location. The operations of all three portage railroads were apparently consolidated on April 20, 1863.

In 1863 two larger locomotives arrived from Danforth, Cook & Company in Patterson, New Jersey. Both were built to traditional railroad locomotive designs, being of the 4-2-4T wheel arrangement, without a tender, and were identical to Central Pacific's number 3, the C. P. Huntington, also built by Danforth, Cook. These looked like real railroad locomotives, albeit small ones. They have been nicknamed "Bicycles" because of their single axle driving wheels. Records of the Danforth, Cook company are incomplete for this time period, so we are unable to determine which month of 1863 that they were constructed in New Jersey and shipped by sea to Oregon.

Again, sources vary, but they do indicate that the three Oregon Ponies were used in conjunction with Oregon Steam Navigation's two larger locomotives between 1863 and 1866, when two additional and still larger 4-4-0 locomotives were delivered from Danforth in New Jersey. At that time the three Oregon Ponies were sold. The smallest of the three went to San Francisco and was used in road construction. The two larger Ponies remained in Oregon and were sold to the Oregon Central to power the construction trains as the road built its line south from Portland. Both apparently remained in limited maintenance of way service. One was retired in about 1905-1906. The other lasted until 1916.

The Oregon Ponies

(Read more about the Oregon Ponies -- three small locomotives built for service on Ainsworth's portage railroads.)

Sale to Northern Pacific Railway

The U. S. Congress chartered the Northern Pacific Railway in July 1864 as a land-grant railroad to build across the northern tier of the United States. Construction began in February 1870 in Minnesota and progressed westward. As a separate effort, construction started at the western end of NP's "Pacific Division" in May 1871 at Kalama, the northern terminus of a ferry that crossed the Columbia River from Portland. The line was completed a distance of 110 miles, and reached Tacoma in mid December 1873. The Pacific Division remained isolated from the rest of Northern Pacific until the Stampede Pass line was completed in 1887.

Although Ainsworth's Oregon Steam Navigation Company dominated the steamship business along the Columbia River, and therefore the movement of goods into Portland, Ainsworth could see that a competing railroad could easily change OSN's fortunes. To keep Northern Pacific from building its own line along the Columbia, Ainsworth convinced NP that the new company would benefit from using OSN's steamships and portage railroads along the Columbia River. After a period of negotiation, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company was sold to Northern Pacific Railway in May 1872.

The Northern Pacific was owned by a group of investors known as Jay Cook & Company. In September 1873 the investment group declared bankruptcy, leaving Ainsworth's Oregon Steam Navigation with an uncertain future. However, it was the cash resources of OSN and its monopoly along the Columbia River that allowed NP to build its north-south line between Kalama and Tacoma, Washington in December 1873. A ferry was operated between Kalama and Portland, to allow movement of goods and passengers between Tacoma and Portland. (NP did not complete its transcontinental line until September 1883 when the line reached Wallula, Washington, and a connection with ORy&N. A line from Wallula northwest across Stampede Pass to Puget Sound was completed in July 1887.)

Oregon Steam Navigation operated the lower portage as the Cascades Railroad. It was four miles long and located on the Washington side. On the Oregon side, the Oregon Portage Railroad had been removed from service after the Ruckel and Olmstead interests sold out to OSN in 1862. To solidify the OSN interests on both sides of the lower portage, and to protect its interests on the Oregon side, in June 1873 Ainsworth organized the Cascades Portage Railroad, but with NP's finances in an uncertain state, only irregular progress was made on construction of the new line.

The financial problems of Northern Pacific, and growing steamship competition along the river apparently reduced the OSN's value to NP. Ainsworth took advantage and began buying back the stock of Oregon Steam Navigation Company at bargain prices. He started buying the stock in 1876 and by 1877 he had 80 percent of the railroad's stock, at a much reduced price of about 20 cents on the dollar of what NP had originally paid for the company. Construction resumed on the Cascades Portage Railroad on the Oregon side of the lower portage in early 1878.

To extend his interests on the eastern end of the river, in February 1878 Ainsworth purchased Dorsey Barker's Walla Walla & Columbia River Railroad, a narrow gauge line that had been completed between Wallula on the river, inland 32 miles to Walla Walla. Wallula is located 112 miles upriver from the upper portage. After selling out to Ainsworth, Dorsey Baker built the Mill Creek Flume & Manufacturing Company, which itself was sold to Oregon Railway & Navigation in 1887.

(Read more about the Walla Walla and Columbia River RR, and the Mill Creek Flume company)

Sale of OSN to Henry Villard's ORy&N

In May 1878 Ainsworth received an offer from Henry H. Villard for Villard to buy the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. Villard's interest in the OSN, and of building a railroad along the Columbia River, dated back to as early as 1876 when Villard first came to Portland to oversee his interest in the Oregon & California Railroad, which had completed a railroad line in 1872 between Portland and Roseburg, 180 miles to the south. Villard agreed to buy Ainsworth's 80 percent interest in the OSN for $2 million in cash and the balance in stock in Villard's new Oregon Railway & Navigation Company.

The Oregon Railway & Navigation Company was incorporated in Oregon on June 13, 1879, and the sale of Oregon Steam Navigation to ORy&N was completed on July 1, 1879. According to the OWRR&N corporate history completed in 1916 for the ICC, the final deed of sale was dated March 31, 1880.

The sale of John Ainsworth's Oregon Steam Navigation Company to Henry Villard's Oregon Railway & Navigation Company in March 1880 gave Villard control of steamship lines and the portage railroads along the Columbia River and 32 miles inland to Walla Walla. The assets transferred in the sale included 28 steamships, five barges, the three portage railroads (including six locomotives) and a regular narrow gauge railroad (including six locomotives).

The three portage railroads included the Cascades Railroad on the Washington side at The Cascades, with its six miles of railroad, and three locomotives. The second portage railroad was on the Oregon side and was known as "The Dalles & Celilo Falls Railroad" and included 13.8 miles of railroad and three locomotives. The third portage railroad was the Cascades Portage Railroad on the Oregon side, across the river from the Cascades Railroad. This line consisted of four miles of completed grade and completed trestles but was not in operation and did not yet own locomotives.

Conversion To Standard Gauge

Initially Villard intended to build the ORy&N as a narrow gauge line, like the Walla Walla & Columbia River Railroad that he had purchased from Ainsworth in July 1879. But Villard wanted to keep Northern Pacific from building its own line along either the Washington side or the Oregon side of the Columbia. To do that his railroad must connect with NP at Wallula and use the same gauge, which was the national standard gauge of 4 feet 8-1/2 inches. In late 1879, as surveys were being accomplished between Celilo and Wallula, he made the decision that the ORy&N would be a standard gauge railroad. In a five hour period of time, on February 7, 1880 crews converted the 14 miles of portage railroad between The Dalles and Celilo from 5 feet gauge to 4 feet 8-1/2 inches gauge.


Asay, Jeff. Union Pacific Northwest (Pacific Fast Mail, 1991)

Klein, Maury. Union Pacific, Birth of a Railroad, 1862-1893 (Doubleday & Company, 1987)

Trottman, Nelson. History of the Union Pacific (Augustus M. Kelley, 1923, reprinted 1966)

Oregon-Washington Railroad & Navigation Company. Report to the Interstate Commerce Commission, Corporate History, As Required By Valuation Order No. 20, June 30, 1916

Gilette, P. W., "A Brief History of Oregon Steam Navigation Company" Oregon Historical Quarterly, Volume V, 1904, pages 120-132

More Information

Oregon Railway & Navigation Company

OSN Locomotives

Oregon Steam Navigation Co. on Wikepedia