Payette Valley Railroad

Railroads in Treasure and Payette Valleys and Weiser:

1899 Weiser to Cambridge

1901 Extended to Middle Valley (Midvale and Cambridge area)

1911 Extended again to New Meadows

1906 Payette Valley Railroad—Payette to New Plymouth 10.83 miles

1910 Payette Valley Extension Railroad—extended from New Plymouth to Emmett

1914 extended from Emmett to Cascade

There were a number of attempts to run a railroad from Caldwell to Emmett and up the river, but eventually all of them failed.

When looking at the growth of fruit growing in Payette Valley, it is instructive to note the railroad history in the area. Fruit growing was utterly dependent upon railroads. You may have any number of farmers planting apples and other fruit, but commercial production cannot be done without a way to get them to market.  And the markets that counted were back east.

An apple tree can produce more fruit than several families can eat. A single small orchard could completely saturate any local use. Apple trees mainly came west first with the Mormons in 1847, and were widely grown for personal consumption, they being easily stored for much of the winter.  And, of course, there were the Johnny Appleseed types who planted apples willy-nilly here and there.  But, the Mormons were serious about apples. Apple seeds will produce a vast assortment of apples, some good, some bad, and many in between.  However, a serious apple grower knows that one much choose a known apple for its flavor and other assets (called cultivars), then clone that apple to get orchards of similar apples–it is called horticulture.  NP could have never been successful without some serious horticulturists amongst us!

Apples were a natural for local industries as commerce grew in 1880s in Idaho with the advent of railroads. And, locally grown apples could be shipped — but only if they could be gotten to the freight cars on the railroads.

Because Payette and Treasure Valleys were first served by a depot at Weiser, then Weiser began the Idaho apple story. However, trucks really did not come into general use until after WWI both because they were not available, and because there were no real roads. So local Idaho production in this area was first confined to Weiser and close vicinity, or to sidings such as Payette.  This does not mean there were no apples grown in NP, Emmett, or Fruitland, just that those had to be used locally until the rails came to them.

But farmers wanted to grow apples, and the railroads really wanted to sell them land and ship their apples. So railroads aided small railroad companies to spring up, capitalize, and operate the “short lines” that spurred off the main railroad to service small valley farm produce and /or forest products.  And, there were many, many of these over the country.

For Payette Valley area, 1899 was the first such spurs. Farmers in “middle valley” (Midvale, Indian Valley and Cambridge area) had gotten a canal in operation and set out many apple orchards. So, other than small local orchards mainly for local consumption, this is where the area’s coming big time apple production really began.

Knowing that a railroad would be shortly coming to New Plymouth, growers there could bet on that future by planting, getting a multiyear head start on a producing orchard. It generally takes about 4-5 years before a tree matures enough to produce sufficiently. 1906 was the second apple area when the Payette Valley Railroad was built to connect New Plymouth with Payette — and freight yards there, 10.83 miles. This would serve the rapidly expanding New Plymouth market. About this time, Fruitland was about to also come on line — not having to await its own railroad, and luckily just had to build sidings on a railroad that spurred the beginning of the town itself.

1910 this Payette to New Plymouth railroad was extended by yet another railroad — Payette Valley Extension Railroad, to reach Emmett.  Different ownership.  In fact all these spur railroads would begin and then be bought out, forced out, and end up in Union Pacific.  The tail of such doings is a story in and of itself–and repeated all over the west.

1914 Again extended from Emmett up to Cascade (and sealing the doom of the rail efforts from Caldwell). All of these, and the extensions themselves were separate railroads — separate companies. Later they would all coalesce into other and still others eventually either disappearing or being sucked up in the daddy of them all, the UP/Oregon Short Line, itself coming and going in different iterations. Each extension enabled many more farmers, each iteration bringing costs down, and enabling more and better supporting services.

Any study of apple production then, will note the growth centers surrounding each freight depot — and the reach to the eastern mega markets — that are the real and enabling source of treasure.

However, all of these growth areas will have satellite areas — that can feed off the main depots, but still have more costs and difficulties than those close in. Areas like the Emmett Bench across the river, and spread out for miles (with frost and water issues), and Sweet and Ola up Squaw Creek, a real distance issue. These areas had much more cost and difficulty getting their produce onto a train at a depot. So a history of each such area will show a beginning, difficulties, then an ending or specialization for niche marketing.

We simply cannot avoid the transportation problem of 1890s to 1920s of surface transport via trucks. Fragile and perishable fruit does not do well if it must go via horse and wagon very far! Let alone very primitive roads. Transportation via horse and wagon is slow, laborious, jarring and hard on delicate fruit. Apples to eastern destinations must be kept cool or it spoils — which is as difficult as transport when an orchard is distant from a depot.

Early apple farmers also had a huge learning curve. Learning not only apple horticulture, such as cloning and grafting, but dealing with climate and insects. Early frosts in spring, the flow of cold air down valleys.  Few folks are knowledgeable about frosts.  In NP area the mountains, of course, get the colder air.  This cold air is heavier than warmer air, so it sinks down into valleys, it flows down the valleys much like water does. The flow can hit obstacles, like bends in the valleys or the dam, stop, and then build up like a river is dammed.  When it reaches a large flat area like Treasure Valley, then it spreads out–but leaves areas like benches high and dry from the cold flow.

Pests, wind damage, and general climate change would shape who would survive in apple cultivation — and any other fruits. General wholesale climate change would mostly disappear this same apple industry. As you watch the saga unfold you see each market blossom, ripen, then encounter obstacles, and fade.

If one studies railroad data, it is possible to judge from the shipping records how much fruit was produced in each area for each year. A sure fire way to judge the climate variations locally. And, to watch the ebb and flow of apple horticulture in the state, as they coped with all the variables.

Railroads are a particularly vulnerable function of capitalism. Very, very speculative. They only exist because of capitalist actions by a special breed of entrepreneurs — made famous by the “Railroad Barons,” or “Robber Barons.” The large railroads, of course, drew the heavy hitter experts at the game. But, every small spur railroad encouraged local speculators to enter the game. Locals were necessary because local politics and the gaining of rights of way thru already occupied lands was crucial — that could simply not be done from New York!

The history of railroads reads like a lurid adventure novel as the small rails collided with each other, with nature, and without fail, fall by the wayside, merging, being bought out, abandoned, again and again. The market matures in the “maturation” cycle where it begins with numerous start ups, that get weeded out again and again, dwindling down to a precious few remaining. This occurs in every industry, and apple growing in Payette Valley was no exception.

Knowing of this history, and because my own work required a lot of private flying, I was vigilant in watching the terrain I flew over for mankind’s efforts. Early railroads were the work horse of the west far more than most today even begin to suspect. Because rail was so superior to the dismal roads and surface transport of the time, tiny little railroads — mostly narrow gauge — would spring up across the west as need arose. These served only a small local market.

Ghost towns everywhere had their own tiny rails to get ore to mills, or spurs to get to bigger railroads. Or, in some cases to bring the very lumber the towns and mills were made from. As the source of the transport need faded, then the rails would be picked up and moved elsewhere. This left tell tale signs of the right of way prepared for them. Sometimes the entire railroad would be picked up, and then set up someplace else. Sometimes the entire small railroad was simply abandoned — leaving everything, or pieces. Most of these left abandoned would be salvaged in WWII for the steel in the rails. Many ties were also salvaged. Some “shoestring” narrow gauges used such mediocre ties they were non salvageable — and now, over the course of 100-150 years have rotted or even evaporated in desert sun.

What I would see as I overflew most western states were the “cuts” thru hills and other evidence of right of way, like grades constructed across valleys, or approaches to mountain terrain, as necessary to obtain the grade needed by trains. These are clearly visible today most anywhere they have been. Sure they are covered with sagebrush or ravaged by floods or creeks undermining old trestles and culverts, and many times they are taken over by later roads that decided to use the work of the right of way to build a later road. Or, as time goes on, and later use makes a very different use of the area, they simply disappear. However, from the air, they are clearly still visible for much of their old pathway. Blips on the history of the west.

Payette Valley had its own saga of competing railroads. Example: in the huge California central valley two competing railroads raced each other. One down the west side, and the other down the middle of the valley. Politics, financing, skullduggery were all part and parcel of the effort. Finally, the middle railroad won the prize and the west side effort, hurt badly by the speculation, dried up entirely–halfway to its prize. Similarly, folks in Nampa and Caldwell tried their own railroad to Emmett and the upper and lower Payette Valley — even upriver to Cascade. It did not last long though, and like so many small railroads, simply became a money pit, and was acquired by others, and/or died.


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