Pedaling from the past, into the future
Photos by Tim Young
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Grain silos, those abandoned skyscrapers of Teton Valley, mark my starting point. They speak of a century ago; of the youthful city of Tetonia. Shops, pool halls, churches, a school, a newspaper, and a race track supported the new agricultural community.
In 1912 the first train arrived in town. The local citizens celebrated and rejoiced: the railroad had connected Tetonia with the rest of the country! For the festivities, B.W. Driggs and David E. Smith celebrated in song:
There is not in this world a valley so sweet
As this vale of the Tetons in beauty complete.
Now we’re united by strong bands of steel
We’ll all pull together in one common weal.
That one common weal was the economic lifeline the new Oregon Short Line created. The formerly isolated Pierre’s Hole had suddenly become much more accessible. In addition to train cars full of potatoes and grain, the Union Pacific began loading passengers in 1929; now both tourists and freight were easily and safely reaching the Tetons via this railroad spur from Ashton.
It created prosperity for the local towns. The Oregon Short Line was the best route to Yellowstone from south to north; and, from north to south, to the dude ranches of Jackson Hole. Many of these early tourists made the loop, traveling to Teton Valley from Ashton by train, then via other means over Teton Pass and north through Yellowstone. They reboarded in West Yellowstone, taking another Oregon Short Line track back to Ashton to complete the circle.
It’s not only our landscape or grandeur of scene
Or pure crystal waters and verdue so green,
But the people and friendship of those living here
That makes every scene in the valley so dear.
After World War II, though, freight-shippers and tourists alike began taking advantage of the growing American highway system and advancements in auto and airplane technology. By 1965, with tourists and freight companies preferring alternative means of transport, the last train ran these tracks.
Hurrah for the railroad that’s entered our vale,
For the long dusty road has a wearisome tale.
Hurrah for the valley and peaks’ rugged crest,
The vale of the Tetons, we all love the best.
Between 1981 and 1990 the strong bands of steel were ripped from the ground by the Union Pacific, setting the stage for the Ashton-Tetonia Trail. As is the case with many other railroad ghosts around the country, the deserted railway easement was owned by the state encompassing it. Officially designated by the Idaho state legislature in 1994, work on the trail has chugged along slowly since. The Ashton-Tetonia Trail project is now under the wings of the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation, which has been working to preserve a historic resource and provide recreational access.
I set out to pedal a few paragraphs of Teton Valley’s history on a sunny fall afternoon, after parking in the shadows of the relics of Tetonia’s boom. Little evidence remains of the Oregon Short Line. No signs are yet posted and no trailhead facilities established, but the dark crushed gravel path, slightly elevated, clearly marks the old railbed as it winds through the town’s backyards.
Shortly after beginning, I cross Highway 33, a reminder of the ultimate demise of the railroad. New subdivisions, still mostly vacant, occupy the north end of the valley. Swaying barns and collapsing buildings stand as silent testimony to the past. At one time, traffic was frequent; today I see none.
After I cross the newly completed bridge across Badger Creek, the setting shifts. Lining the path are rocks creating a different landscape—bulging, tilting, folding. The geography is dramatic; it’s reminiscent of rattlesnake country and high desert, vastly different from the farm fields I have just come through.
The next major bridge, the Bitch Creek trestle, marks the high point of the day. The bridge stands 144 feet above the creek, which serves as the boundary between Teton and Fremont counties; just a few miles downstream to the west, it empties into the Teton River. A recently installed railing provides a bit of reassurance from the unsteadiness caused by the gaping spans between railroad ties, but not quite enough: I dismount and walk my bike across.