Today only the wind rides the railroad tracks of Lawyer’s Canyon Bridge.The towering trestle was the second-tallest in the United States when it was completed in 1908. At 1,523 feet it spans a canyon more than five football fields long. It’s a dizzying 285 foot drop to the ground below. Late engineer Robert Ashburn of Lewiston once compared crossing the bridge to flying. Looking out the window of the locomotive, no tracks were visible.
Lawyer’s Canyon is the longest bridge on the Camas Prairie Railroad. Considered a feat of engineering in its time, the line was nicknamed the “railroad on stilts.” Its 43 bridges and six tunnels crossed some of the sharpest curves and steepest grades in railroad construction history.
Much of the Camas Prairie Railroad is now unused. Fallen rocks litter tunnels. A 2011 fire destroyed a trestle in Winchester Canyon, but the history of the line is preserved. Robert Ashburn’s wife, Melba, recently donated the couple’s extensive collection of railroad memorabilia to the Nez Perce County Historical Society Museum. A portion of the items are on display through Sept. 28.
Robert Ashburn hopped his first train in 1936 in Nebraska at the age of 15. In 1943, he married Melba Vawter, a girl who had grown up next to the tracks in Culdesac. He then applied for work as a fireman on a steam engine out of Lewiston.
“Do you know how much coal you’ll have to shovel to get a steam locomotive up these rugged Idaho mountains?” the foreman asked. Undeterred, Ashburn embarked on a 40-year career.
Husband and wife shared a passion for railroading and collected everything from puzzles to a caboose. The caboose now stands in Lewiston’s Locomotive Park, where it is festooned with lights for the holidays. For about five years, it served as a museum for the Ashburn’s collection.
“You can’t believe how much we could have in there,” remembers Melba Ashburn, 88, who taught for nearly 20 years at Centennial Elementary School in Lewiston.
They closed the museum after a break-in and took their collection home. The museum exhibit appears much as Melba Ashburn created it — laminated newspaper stories tracing the short line’s rise and decline. There are photos of snowdrifts towering above trains, and the twisted tracks and piled-up cars of accidents, such as the one that took six lives in 1899 when a train’s brakes gave out under a load of steel rails between Troy and Kendrick. A switchman’s lantern stands nearby as a relic from the past.
Robert Ashburn died in 2003 at the age 82. His wife says they wanted to donate their collection, and when she met the museum’s new director, Lyle Wirtanen, she felt the time was right. She hopes one day Lewiston might be home to a railroad museum.
There was once hope the railroad would be revived, if not for freight then for tourists, but that possibility has faded after the recent fire. When asked if it looks like the end of the line for the Camas Prairie Railroad, Ashburn says, “I’m afraid so.”
if you go
What: Railroad memorabilia from the collection of Robert and Melba Ashburn
When: On display through Sept. 28
Where: Nez Perce County Historical Society Museum, 0306 Third St., Lewiston
Of Note: Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is $2.