While no railroad ever connected Idaho north and south, at the turn of the century, the plaintive whistle of steam locomotives could be heard all through the timbered mountains of central Idaho.
Locomotives known as Shays followed steep grades and rough tracks into places like the Boise Basin, logging Grimes Creek and Centerville and Idaho City. At the same time, the Idaho Northern Railway, and later the Oregon Short Line, began building tracks along Idaho’s Payette River.
By 1914, it was possible to board a train in Nampa, Idaho, and travel all the way to McCall and back. But passenger service halted in 1949, and some of the track was abandoned.
But in 1998, an arrangement with the Idaho Northern Pacific Railroad allowed the Thunder Mountain Line to begin operating an excursion rail line between Cascade, Idaho, and Smith’s Ferry.
The two and a half hour round trip excursion parallels the Payette River and Idaho’s north south highway. Yet there are some sights that only the train provides, like going through the shortest solid rock railroad tunnel in the nation.
There’s one more thing that Thunder Mountain has that sets it apart: a chance for passengers to raft the Class Three rapids of the Payette River. The rail line has made arrangements with a local outfitter, Idaho Whitewater Unlimited, to haul rafts on the train. At the designated put-in, the train stops, the rafts are unloaded, and train passengers exchange their train seat for a place on a whitewater raft.
Many of those who work on the Thunder Mountain Line are volunteers, who enjoy trains and hope to keep alive the railroad tradition. “It’s a disappearing heritage,” says one volunteer, Don Dopf. “Most of these towns in this part of Idaho wouldn’t be here if the railroads hadn’t come first. Just in our immediate area, hundreds of miles of tracks have been taken out in the last twenty years. If there’s any way to help preserve this line by having the Thunder Mountain Line here, I want to be a part of that.”