Friday, June 14, 2013

Rails to Trails - Part 1: The Soil

Right after graduating from high school, I enrolled at Washington State University (WSU) located on the eastern border of Washington in Pullman. I was a student from 1961 to 1963.

My "major" was broadcast journalism.

The urban legend continues that the city was named to honor rail car designer and builder George Pullman.

However, back in 1997, The Spokesman Review (Spokane) quoted Larry Stark, assistant archivist for WSU's Holland Library, as saying "It's all bunk."

The Spokesman Review story goes on to state: "Indeed, the story of George Pullman's connection to the town fits right up there with the Palouse's two other great myths: that Colfax is a speed trap (it isn't) and that Playboy magazine once named Washington State University the No. 1 party school in the nation (it didn't)."

Our journey to Pullman took us from the evergreen forests of Puget Sound over the Cascades to the Inland Empire, traveling over a gazillion miles of concrete slab "Thumper" highways.

"Thumper" highways - which was our family reference - were so called because of the "thump-thump thump-thump" issued by the tires. In transportation lingo, the correct term is "slab pumping." Click on "Play Animation."

At one time or another, many of these early centers of commerce were ravaged by fire. Following a series of great fires, red brick becomes the main building material in the Palouse. Virtually every edifice on the Washington State University campus is constructed with red brick.

1882: Colfax nearly destroyed by fire on July 14, 1882. The fire claimed all of the fledgling city's records. Rebuilt with red brick and continued to grow steadily, becoming Whitman County County Seat.

1889: Spokane Falls, Seattle, and Ellensburg all destroyed by disastrous fires. Known as a night of terror devastation, suffering and awful woe, Spokane's response to the Great Fire of 1889, which destroyed 32 blocks of the central portion of the city, was to rebuild immediately, and in a far grander fashion of substantial and elegant red brick, stone and terra cotta.

1890: Pullman, Washington. A stable fire on Grand Street spread to the rest of the town, destroying all the business buildings except the Herald and the hotel within 2 hours. Thereafter, business buildings were required to be constructed of red brick and warehouses covered with corrugated iron.

As a result of these devastating fires, commercial structures were, by revised building codes, to be reconstructed with brick!

Pullman has its own "red brick streets."

I was in the first group of residents to inhabit the new Gannon-Goldsworthy six floor men's resident complex. As shown in this document, my tuition was $60; room and board $720! 

From my sixth floor window at Gannon Hall, I had a wonderful view of the unique those rolling hills. Lynn Suckow gratuitously granted use of her "before" and "after" views of the changing Palouse, shot from Steptoe Butte, just north of Pullman.

I came to appreciate the changing seasons, as beautifully depicted in this Matt Farnsworth video. (Near the end of the video, there is a monument next to the tracks that reads "Cougars" and "Vandals," the respective football teams of Washington State University and Idaho State University in Moscow, Idaho.)


What makes this area so distinctive are the miles of rolling hills known as the Palouse. Rod Barbee makes a beautiful attempt to capture the essence of the Palouse. There are many citations for how the area got its name. Most go with its name from the indigenous tribe who lived along the Palouse River.

The Palouse covers an area of 2,142 square miles (5,548 km².) (State of Delaware; 2,050 sq mi, 5,310 km².) Originally used for cattle and sheep ranching over the vast grasslands. Dry land farming of wheat was first proved viable in the Walla Walla region in the 1860s.

The Palouse was blanketed with a mosaic of native vegetation. Bunchgrasses were the dominant feature; shrubs, wildflowers (forbs), and even mosses and lichens also were important. This grand complex, known as the Palouse Prairie, impressed early settlers in the region. One Moscow homesteader in the 1880's wrote "Its beauty was wild and untrammeled and the undulating hills were covered with luxuriant grasses."


South of Pullman during the 1870s, the Walla Walla region was rapidly converted to farmland. Initial trials in growing wheat began in the Palouse region, which previously had been the domain of cattle and sheep ranching.

When those trials proved more than successful, a minor land rush quickly filled the Palouse region with farmers during the 1880s.

What contributed to this rush away from cattle and sheep ranching was the soil under the grasslands. The "Palouse Soil" is deep and very rich, composed of dust, including volcanic fallout. This provides excellent support for the production of wheat, barley, pea, lentil and other field crops.

"This "soil" is a fine-grained mass that is intimately dissected into hills and valleys. The little valleys are usually cut to or just below the level of the underlying basalt, so that the height of the hills, from 100 to 150 feet, measures the thickness of this "soil." This material is locally known as "Palouse Soil," from the rich wheat-growing area along Palouse River south of Spokane, which is popularly known as the " Palouse country." [From "The 'Palouse Soil' problem with an account of elephant remains in wind-borne soil on the Columbia plateau of Washington" by Kirk Bryan.]

The rich Palouse Soil is also home to Driloleirus americanus

Unlike farming in the flat lands of the Great Plains, these fields are on hills, resulting in harrowing conditions for planting and harvesting!

 Navigating those rolling hills in a combine is not for the faint of heart! Here is a beautifully restored film featuring a multi-horse drawn combine, back in the day. In one scene, the angle of slope must be pretty close to 45°!

These "modern day" harvesters were captured by Dave Honan. Check out his other galleries.

This video demonstrates the hillside leveling technology that facilitates farming this unusual terrain. And, for many teens growing up in the Palouse, this is one way they learned how to drive!

Colfax, (which became the County Seat for Whitman County,) Pullman, Palouse and Moscow Idaho rapidly became hubs for commerce and supplies.

And who better to fill those needs?

Coming next:  To Market To Market

4 Comments - Click here:

Rod said...

Anxiously awaiting part 2. I hope it has some N.P. RDCs....

Drew Black said...

$720 total!? How I wish...

Anyway, I'm heading back to the Palouse on Monday. Senior year at WSU, only two more semesters to go. If you ever want to see some photos and video of the current-day railroads and remains of previous railroads in the Pullman-Moscow area, just let me know.

--Drew Black, aka, "weekendrailroader". is my email.

Drew Black said...

$720 total!? How I wish...

Anyway, I'm heading over to Pullman for my last two semesters (senior year) at WSU in four days. If you ever need some photos or videos of railroads and railroad artifacts in the Palouse for your wonderful blog, just let me know. :)

--Drew Black, aka "weekendrailroader".

Matt Farnsworth said...

Thank you for linking to my video!
Matt F

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