Recalling UP’s idyllic Idaho Northern

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, February 28, 2019

Legendary photographer Dick Kindig produced a nearly perfect winter photo when he captured Union Pacific 2-8-0 No. 284 bringing McCall–Nampa mixed train 386 down the road's Idaho Northern Branch on December 31, 1947. R. H. Kindig
With winter clinging to the upper Midwest in recent days, I’ve been noticing more than the usual number of trains-in-snow images on my Facebook feed. It seems like half the photographers I know are out in this deep freeze, depicting the time-honored battle between railroads and the brutal weather.

All those snow shots sent me to the Classic Trains library, looking for my all-time favorite winter photograph, the one you see here, showing Union Pacific’s train 386, a mixed train heading south along UP’s idyllic Idaho Northern branch. The great R. H. “Dick” Kindig got the shot near Smith’s Ferry, Idaho, on the last day of 1947. The photo was published in a Photo Section in January 1992 Trains, and authors Jeff Brouws and Wendy Burton used it again in Railroad Vision (Quantuck Lane Press, 2015), a book featuring significant images from the Trains collection.

Everything about this photograph is nearly perfect: the graceful arc of the track following the Payette River’s North Fork; the clouds of smoke and steam pouring from stout 2-8-0 No. 284; the classic mix of freight and passenger cars, with a baggage-RPO on the end; and all those beautiful snow-dappled conifers. It resembles one of those rather precious photo freights we see so often today — except this is a real common-carrier train, just doing its job.

On the same day he shot mixed 386 near Smith's Ferry, Kindig caught Consolidation 6043 on northbound mixed 385 near Horseshoe Bend, Idaho. R. H. Kindig
The Idaho Northern branch has a fascinating history. The line originated in 1900 as the Idaho Northern Railway, eventually stretching for 130 miles north from Nampa through the southwest corner of the state until it reached McCall, at the northern end of the Long Valley. By 1912 the railroad had been absorbed by the Oregon Short Line (OSL). The OSL was already a subsidiary of Union Pacific and was fully merged into UP in 1987. 

South of Cascade was the most rugged part of the branch, along the Payette River, where the tracks contended with endless curves and a steady grade of 1.75 percent, with some portions at 3 percent. Helper engines were stationed at Banks. This is the section that includes Smith's Ferry. After 1941, all the UP locomotives in this territory were converted from coal to oil, out of concern for forest fires.

In the Classic Trains library, the file marked “Union Pacific: Idaho Steam Freight” includes a wealth of prints depicting the Idaho Northern, most of them either by Kindig or another of the all-time greats of Western railroad photography — Henry R. “Hank” Griffiths.  

Griffiths was pure Idaho. A native of Boise, he was born in 1916 and beginning in the 1930s began to roam his home state, creating an indispensable record of steam railroading there. Few other significant photographers ventured into the Gem State in the steam era. Griffiths also covered much of the greater Northwest, especially Montana, shooting Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Milwaukee Road, among others. For much of his working career, he ran the photography operation for Morrison-Knudsen. He died in 1997. 

UP Consolidation 530 forges north with a short train 385 at Banks, Idaho, on January 27, 1949. H. R. Griffiths
Kindig’s reputation is equally imposing. Also born in 1916, in Denver, Dick became a fixture in Trains during the 1940s. He was best known for his work in Colorado, especially along the Denver & Rio Grande Western. Kindig shot some of the most memorable photographs of the D&RGW, both standard and narrow gauge, and he became associated with Tennessee Pass the way Richard Steinheimer was with Donner. In 1984, Kindig won the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society’s Fred A. & Jane R. Stindt Photography Award. He died in 2008. 

I used the word “magical” above to describe the Idaho Northern branch, and it’s obvious to me that both Kindig and Griffiths made a similar assessment. Check out Kindig’s photo of the line’s mixed train, also taken December 31, 1947, showing 2-8-0 No. 6043 rolling near Horseshoe Bend with 10 cars. Or consider this entry from Griffiths, showing 2-8-0 No. 530 throwing a towering column of exhaust into the air at Banks in January 1949.

The Idaho Northern’s charms didn’t end with steam, not completely. Check out Blair Kooistra’s fine portrait from October 1992, showing a pair of UP GP38-2s working their way down the Payette River with a trainload of wood chips and raw cut lumber. The location is a few miles above Smith’s Ferry, near where Kindig bagged his lovely mixed train.

More than four decades after Kindig and Griffiths photographed the Idaho Northern mixeds, Blair Kooistra proved the magic was still there with this October 1992 view of UP GP38-2s along the Payette River north of Smith's Ferry. Blair Kooistra
You can still shoot UP’s old Idaho Northern branch, or at least some of it. Today, portions are operated by the short line Idaho Northern & Pacific, a subsidiary of Texas-based Rio Grande Pacific. Their operation includes the entire line from Payette through Emmett to Cascade. Alas, the northernmost 34 miles to McCall were abandoned by UP.

The IN&P has a roster of spiffy-looking red-and-white EMD rebuilds, worthy prey for a contemporary railroad photographer. But nothing can top that moment 74 years ago when Dick Kindig composed his sublime panorama of a 2-8-0-powered mixed train, creating what, for me, is an unbeatable image of railroading in winter.

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