The SP&S carried through cars from the Empire Builder and North Coast Limited to Portland, allowing the GN and NP to say their premiere transcontinental trains served both Seattle and Portland. This placemat incongruously depict’s the railway’s main cities: Spokane (which is in the northeast part of the railway’s territory) in the northwest part of the picture and Portland (which is in the southwest part of the railway’s territory) in the southeast part of the picture. The SP&S also had extensions to Astoria, Eugene, and Bend, Oregon (but not Seattle).
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James J. Hill built the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway when Edward Harriman denied Hill’s lines equal access to the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company through the Columbia River Gorge. The OR&N had once been affiliated with the Northern Pacific Railroad, but the latter lost control when it went bankrupt in 1893. For a time, the NP and UP shared use of the OR&N over its tracks on the south bank of the Columbia River to Portland, but Harriman managed to get financial control and used it in his decade-long war with Hill. This meant that, to reach Portland, Hill’s trains first had to climb the steep grades of the Cascade Mountains to Seattle and then journey an extra 180 miles south from there.
Hill responded by starting the Portland & Seattle Railway (the name a subterfuge to confuse Harriman) and building from Spokane to Portland. For much of this way, the north bank of the Columbia River provided a beautiful, water-level route that was much less costly to operate than the the lines over the Cascade Mountains. Initially, the SP&S suffered from the general glut of east-west railroads that emerged after the Panama Canal opened, but it became highly profitable during and after World War II.