Jim West, Founder of the Washington, Idaho & Montana Railway History Preservation Group, WI&M RY.org
The highlight of my pre-school years was waving to the crew of the local freight train as it rolled past my boyhood home, a farmhouse two miles east of Potlatch, Idaho. Each weekday morning, a train of mixed freight and empty log cars traveled east, returning with freight cars and loaded log cars in the afternoon.
The locomotive and caboose crew always waved to me, too. Trains have claimed my attention ever since.
In my early forties, I was married with a family and desired a winter hobby I could enjoy at home. I revived my youthful interest in model trains and decided to build a small layout in an empty bedroom. I was most interested in logging railroads and Pacific Northwest short lines, but I had no prototype in mind.
That changed the day I used the local library’s computer to identify the trains of my youth. I quickly learned my boyhood railroad was called the Washington, Idaho & Montana Railway Company (WI&M) and that it had been built by the Potlatch Lumber Company (PLCo). It was both a short line and a logging railroad!
What began as model train research became a quest to learn all I could about the 48-mile long, WI&M railway built in north Idaho in 1906. My pursuit of WI&M history led me to museums, libraries and archives in northern Idaho and eastern Washington. My new train table was soon covered with reference material: Pictures, maps, newspapers, and photocopies.
When I commented to a Latah County Historical Society volunteer “This railroad’s history is fascinating. Someone should document it,” she replied, “Why don’t you?” So, in June 1998, I registered the WI&M Railway History Preservation Group (HPG) as an Idaho nonprofit and began gathering both written and oral histories about the common carrier WI&M Railway and the logging branches of the PLCo.
In August 1999, I published the first HPG newsletter, the White Pine Route Quarterly (WPQ). The WPQ has published continually ever since. I also began accepting memberships into the group. The following year, I incorporated the HPG as a 501(c)(3).
Tom Burg of Merrill Wisconsin joined the HPG as a lifetime member in October 1999 and brought with him 30 years of WI&M research, which he planned to publish as a book. That same fall, the Potlatch Historical Society and the HPG selected photos from Potlatch Corporation files that the company printed into historic photographic CDs in 1999 and again in 2000.
Tom Burg’s “book work” allowed the HPG to focus on preserving artifacts, rolling stock, and structures. In July 2001, the HPG purchased the decrepit WI&M Depot in Potlatch from the Palouse River & Coulee City Railroad. With grants, fundraisers, and thousands of volunteered hours, restoration was completed in 2016.
The Depot houses our nonprofit office, the Potlatch Historical Society, WI&M/PLCo interpretive displays, and ten offices rented to local businesses. The HPG renovated Thrall-door box car BENX 182 into a performing arts stage. The restoration of the wood sided X5, the last WI&M caboose, will be completed in 2022. (To learn more details about each of these and other renovations and restorations, please go to Projects.)
Tom Burg’s, detailed history book, “White Pine Route”, was published by the Museum of North Idaho in 2003, with a second printing in 2022. The book is 300+ pages, with over 400 photographs, maps, equipment roster, index, and bibliography. It is available at the Potlatch Depot and from our online Company Store.
We sponsor a variety of events throughout the year, including Santa and a Polar Express Engineer School every December.