The Walla Walla and Columbia River Railroad was constructed through Frenchtown by Dr. Dorsey S. Baker beginning in 1871 at Wallula. In 1874, when the railroad reached the point known as Whitman Station at what is now Old Highway 12 and Frenchtown Road, Baker told local citizens his funds were exhausted and that the railroad would end there unless the public contributed the remaining capital needed to complete the line into Walla Walla. Despite prior unsuccessful attempts at public financing, this spurred the citizens to raise the needed funds, and the line was completed from Wallula to Walla Walla in 1875, becoming the first railroad in the northwest other than short portage lines on the Columbia.
The Baker Railroad was a narrow gauge track, initially built with wooden rails on which strap iron was nailed. The ends of the iron were bent over the ends of the rails to help prevent the iron from curling up from friction by locomotive wheels. This didn’t always work, and sometimes the iron worked its way loose and sprang up through the floorboards of the passenger car, which was popularly known as “the hearse.” To prevent such “snakeheads” or “widow-makers” as they were called, the train traveled very slowly and the passengers kept a sharp watch, though no serious accidents were reported.
In 1878, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company (O.S.N) bought a controlling interest in Dr. Baker’s Walla Walla & Columbia River Railroad. During its ownership, the O.S.N built a fourteen mile branch line from Whitman Station south to a point in Oregon southwest of present-day Milton-Freewater along Dry Creek, known as Blue Mountain Station. The O.S.N was sold in 1880 to Henry Villard, whose Oregon Railway and Navigation Company converted the Walla Walla & Columbia River line to standard gauge in 1881 to meet the new Northern Pacific line being built east from Portland. The last remaining narrow gauge branch was the line from Whitman station to Oregon. It was abandoned in 1883. The current track is owned by the Union Pacific and leased to Blue Mountain Railroad.
The Blue Mountain narrow gauge engine ran from Wallula to Walla Walla from 1878-1881, and south from Whitman Station to Blue Mountain Station in Oregon from 1881-1883. For more information on the Baker Railroad and the Blue Mountain engine, click HERE and HERE.