Elk Rock: a 260 foot rock bluff overlooking the Willamette River. There is an island on the other side of the river (Milwaukie) called Elk Rock Island. Initially, Elk Rock proved to be a barrier in the path of the railway. The first solution was trestle work that skirted the rock. After that, a tunnel proved to be a better answer.
Elk Rock is named after the tradition of the local Indian tribes who would harvest elk by herding them off the rock cliff and retrieving them from the river below. Both the island and Elk Rock are thought to be formed from an ancient volcano and represents exposed 40 million year old rock, thought to be the oldest exposed rock in the Portland area. Geologists call the local rock formation the Waverly Heights Basalt formation.
The Elk Rock Trestle was a long wooden railroad trestle built along the cliffs of the Willamette River. The rail line was used to travel between Portland and Lake Oswego (then known as Oswego). Built in 1887 by the Portland and Willamette Valley Railroad, it carried passengers by steam locomotive from Union Station in Portland thru Lake Oswego, Tualatin, Sherwood and Newberg. It also carried freight between Portland and southern locations. In 1914, the railway was electrified and Portland's "Red Electric" interurban train system was born. Navigating the trestle was a bit unnerving due to the height and its curves. If that wasn't enough, the vibration of the train sometimes loosened rocks from the adjacent cliff, occasionally showering the tops of the cars with rocks and gravel. One can imagine being a passenger crossing the high, curved trestle in the winter and having large rocks bounce off the cars at the same time. For these reasons, reluctant engineers slowed the trains to 10 mph when traversing the trestle. In the final years of the trestle, a watchman would monitor the conditions of the trestle and give the train the "all clear" signal to cross. The hazardous trestle was replaced by a tunnel in 1921. The original ER trestle was 1050 feet in length and 50 feet high. It was constructed and placed in service in the winter of 1887. It was considered quite an engineering feat at the time. Upon completion, the trestle provided the "missing link" between the railway north to Portland and south of Lake Oswego to the Willamette Valley. Before the trestle was built, people traveled the 1.5 mile breach to Oswego by primitive roads and a steamboat named "Traveller". The steamboat provided through service from Jefferson Street in Portland to the south end of the trestle via a landing.
The railroad had major implications for the development of South Portland as the main
transportation link for communities along the route. Use switched to interurban
transportation from 1914 to 1929 as the line was electrified and more residents moved
south of Portland. Initially, fourteen trains a day operated between Portland and Lake
Oswego. Passenger service peaked in 1920 with Southern Pacific running sixty-four daily
trips between Lake Oswego and Portland. In the 1920s, a trip from Yamhill Street to
Fulton Park cost five cents. Passenger operations would decline by 1924 and disappear by
the end of the decade. The presence of the automobile, construction of roads and expanding bus lines spelled the end of the Red Electric train service.
Use switched back to freight in 1929 until service ended in 1983 when the Interstate
Commerce Commission allowed Southern Pacific to abandon the line. In 1984, the nonprofit
group Portland Friends of the Greenway was asked to assist the cities of Portland
and Lake Oswego, Multnomah and Clackamas counties, Metro, Tri-Met, and the Oregon
Department of Transportation in acquiring the line. In 1988, the consortium of seven
governments purchased the Willamette Shore Line right of way for future transit use.
Since the purchase of right of way, the tracks have been used for the antique Willamette
Shore Trolley during the spring, summer, and fall.
Enjoy the following before and after pictures!
Pictured above is the trestle clinging to Elk Rock on a snowy day in 1916.
Pictured below is Elk Rock today.
Pictured below is Elk Rock today.
The steel topped "Red Electric" trains sturdy construction came in handy when fending off rocks while crossing the trestle.
The Elk Rock Tunnel opened in 1921. Photo taken shows the north portal of the tunnel. The trestle (to the left and in the distance) caused the Southern Pacific considerable anxiety as rocks frequently rolled on top of the cars. The original narrow gauge line was built from Dundee to Oswego (Elk Rock) and ferry service was used to complete the journey into Portland (Jefferson Street Dock ). The sign in middle reads: YARD LIMIT ONE MILE. Sign in distance reads: SLOW.
Tunnel construction in 1921.
The Elk Rock Tunnel was completed on Dec 5, 1921 at a cost of $350,000. The tunnel is a 1/4 mile long. It is 23 and 1/2 feet tall and 18 feet wide. During the construction period of Jun 1 1921 thru Dec 10, 1921 over 100 workers were employed in shifts 24 hrs/day. Before the trestle was built, thru traffic was maintained by Steam Boat.
I visited the Elk Rock tunnel on Mar 30 2014 and took the photo above. The one thing I noticed about the tunnel was how tall it was. I now realize the added ceiling height was made for the overhead electrical carriage (pantograph) and wires.
The Red Electric train car carried both passengers to and from Portland south to Dallas as well as mail.
Color photo above taken Aug 2013
Elk Rock Trestle, on the line from Portland to Oswego (now Lake Oswego). Built in 1887 by the Portland and Willamette Valley Railroad as a narrow gauge line, the line was dual-tracked after it was sold to Portland Yamhill RR in 1892. The narrow gauge rails were removed in 1895. This view shows both gauges, dating the photo to between 1892 and 1895. Initially steam-powered, the line was electrified in 1913. Because of falling rock, the trestle was replaced by a tunnel in 1921. That tunnel and the nearby Riverwood Trestle are again in use for passenger service by the Willamette Shore Trolley, operated by volunteer members of the Oregon Electric Railway Historical Society
Elk Rock Tunnel and Trestle Time Line
1886 PWV RR builds railway from S Portland to Elk Rock
1887 Elk Rock trestle completed by PWV RR (narrow gauge line)
1892 PWV RR sold to Portland Yamhill RR
1892 Mangled remains of dead man found on trestle
1893 Oregon and California RR Company buy out PY RR
1893 Trestle track widened to standard gauge
1896 Trestle rebuilt
1913 PE&E electrify majority of their steam engine line
1914 Red Electrics begin passenger service to Lake Oswego
1915 PE&E changes name to Southern Pacific RR
1919 Landslide hits train on Elk Rock trestle
1921 Elk Rock Tunnel opens
1929 Red Electric trains stop running to Lake Oswego
1967 Fire in tunnel stops service for 2 weeks
1983 Freight trains stop running to LO
1984 SP files for abandonment of rail line
1988 SP sells rail line to local group
1995 OERHS begins operating trolley
1996 Union Pacific RR buys SP RR