St. Maries River Railroad—The “last best place”

When the Milwaukee Road abandoned its main line to the Pacific Ocean in 1980, only a few locations had a enough traffic to warrant continued rail operations. One of those was St. Maries, Idaho, where the sprawling Potlatch mill was generating dozens of carloads of finished lumber each week and receiving one hundred or more carloads of logs during the logging season. From the ashes of the Milwaukee Road rose the St. Maries River Railroad, operating the on the former Milwaukee main line to an interchange with Union Pacific at Plummer, Idaho, and up the St. Maries River to the log reload at Clarkia and, at the time, a Burlington Northern interchange at Bovill, Idaho.

Operating out of the former Milwaukee Road depot in downtown St. Maries and almost exclusively with former Milwaukee Road locomotives, cars, and crew members, the St. Maries River Railroad was like a time warp. At the urging of Paul Didelius, good friend and photography mentor, I first visited St. Maries in 2002. I returned for a week every year except for one through 2008. Every bit as good as the railroading are the friendships I made with the railroad’s most ardent photographers—Marc Entze, Jim Davis, Camron Settlemier, and Rob Leachman.

As of 2021, the railroad still runs to the Union Pacific interchange in Plummer, but operations on the branch to Clarkia ceased in 2009. Without the log trains on the line up its namesake river, the railroad just wasn’t the same. I haven’t been back, but for those halcyon years in the first decade of the twenty-first century, St. Maries was, for me at least, the last best place to see railroading the way it used to be.