What led to the creation of the St. Maries River Railroad began in the
first few months of 1980 when it became apparent that the Milwaukee
Road's presence in the west was dying and it would soon be gone forever.
By February of that year final revenue freights were making their way
over the Pacific Extension and on March 15th the very last train slowly
weaved and wobbled its way from Washington
State back east. In the aftermath of the closing, the 1,000+ miles of
railroad west of Minnesota was up for grabs and states scrambled to
purchase what they could; South Dakota and Washington (the latter as
trails only) had the funds to save their section but unfortunately,
Montana did not. Interestingly, few stepped forward to buy and operate
virtually any of the trackage except what the Burlington Northern picked
up (the lines around Great Falls, Montana and the Snoqualmie Pass
However, the Potlatch Corporation, a wood products company, found some of the Milwaukee's lines in northern Idaho useful for its timber and logging operations. In all it purchased the main line between Plummer Junction and Avery, 64 miles, as well as most of the Elk River Branch between St. Maries and Bovill, 52 miles. It chartered the St. Maries River Railroad which began operations on May 23, 1980 to move raw logs from Avery and Bovill to the Regelus Mill near St. Maries. The yard there allowed loads to be dropped off as well as finished products moved west to Plummer and interchange with Class I Union Pacific (another connection was available with the Burlington Northern at Bovill). It proved to be quite a successful operation for the first handful of years.
However, oddly the U.S. Forestry Service condemned the right-of-way
between St. Maries and Avery around 1986, 45 miles, forcing the loss of
this route as a log feeder (today, it is a highway). The loss of this
line cut down its mileage to just 71 miles, which it still owns today.
For power the SMTA also used all former Milwaukee Road equipment, GP9s
and SW1200 switchers (all of which are still on the property).
Additionally, even its log cars were ex-Milwaukee. It has only been in
recent years the St. Maries River Railroad has witnessed the most
drastic changes when its parent, Potlatch, announced in 2008 logs would
no longer be moved by rail via Clarkia (the Elk River Branch). This retired the historic fleet of log car, much to the dismay of railfans.
While it was a setback for the road it has not resulted in drastic
changes considering it still moves a significant amount of plywood from
the Regelus Mill as well as finished lumber from the Stimson Lumber
Mill. The Elk River Branch is still owned by the SMTA so it will be
interesting to see what awaits its future, if anything. The latest
changes occurred in just 2010 when the Williams Group, from Richmond,
Missouri, purchased Potlatch. Under this new ownership there are plans
to expand the railroad's operations by using its primary maintenance and
engine terminal in St. Maries to begin contracting rail car and
locomotive repairs, a lucrative business
St. Maries River Railroad Locomotive Roster
There is also going to be a focus on diversifying traffic
if possible including agriculture and shipping finished rail ties. The future of the railroad looks quite strong considering that in
1980 the trackage it now operates was left for dead, and certainly now
would be if not for its purchase by Potlatch all of those years ago. Moving forward, we will likely never again see any more of the Milwaukee Road's Pacific Extension restored to operational status. As a result, if you want to see a tiny sliver of this fabled operation still in service the SMTA is your only chance to do so. To
learn more about the St. Maries River Railroad please click here to visit the company's official website.
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St. Maries River Railroad