The Teton Valley rail trail occupies the original railroad right-of-way of the Oregon Short Line and parent Union Pacific Railroad’s Teton Valley branch. It was an offshoot of the now abandoned Yellowstone branch line extending from Ashton, Idaho north to West Yellowstone, Montana. This segment of the trail will be the subject of future rail trail completion for an ultimate inclusion as a grand loop beginning in Victor extending north along the old railroad right-of-way to Yellowstone Park and then back to Jackson and reconnection in Victor at the original 1914 train depot.
The current completed rail trail extends south from Ashton, Idaho 26 miles to Tetonia, Idaho and through what was historically the heart of the early 19th Century fur trapping country. In fact, until the period of mining development in Montana and agricultural settlement in eastern Idaho driving the need for a railroad connection, the area was best known as the center of the 1820’s through late 1830’s Rocky Mountain fur trapping period. The first white to lay eyes on Jackson Hole and what is now Teton Valley, Idaho was John Colter in his winter journey of 1807-1808. The railroad and bike trail transit Pierre’s Hole (Teton Valley), named after trapper Pierre Tevanitagon, a somewhat rag tag Iroquois free trapper attached to a Hudson’s Bay Company trapping brigade seeking territorial advantage over the competing American St. Louis based fur companies extending west. It was in 1824 that Jedediah Smith encountered Tevanitagon’s trappers in what we now call the Big Holes and aided them after Shoshone Indians plundered them stealing their horses and equipment. Pierre was killed in a fight with the Blackfeet around Three Forks at the headwaters of the Missouri River in 1826
The heart of the fur trapping range extended from Bear River to the south of Teton Valley northward to Three Forks, Montana. The Three Forks was perilously close to the range of the Blackfeet Indians who extended no quarter to the Mountain Men trappers or any other non-Hudson Bay Company whites. Teton Valley was generally part of the range of friendly Shoshone, Flatheads, Nez Perces, and sometime friendly Crows. Hence, the Valley was the site, along with the upper Green River around present day Daniel, Wyoming, of the major Mountain Man fairs, or rendezvous. The Rocky Mountain Fur Company fixed the site of the 1832 rendezvous in Pierre’s Hole, described as the grassy, well-watered basin at the western foot of the Grand Tetons. It would be the largest rendezvous ever held during the trapping period and would be supplied in part by William Sublette.
Unfortunately, several hundred Gros Ventres Indians who were considered little different than Blackfeet emerged from the foot of Teton Pass in a challenge to the encampment. A pitched battle ensued along the headwaters of the Teton River in a swampy marsh resulting in the deaths of ten warriors and one trapper. The fight was likely about three miles west of the rail trail around present day Cedron Road and its intersection with the creeks flowing into the Teton River.
Fast-forward to the early 20th Century and the expansion of agricultural settlement in eastern Idaho and most importantly tourism in and around Yellowstone National Park. The ascendant American middle-class was increasingly able to take heretofore unheard of vacations. Their travel would be domestic and focused on the relatively new facilities offered in Yellowstone Park and other national parks. Edward Harriman, chief operating officer and major stockholder of the Union Pacific Railroad, saw an opportunity for passenger service to Yellowstone Park. The first scheduled passenger service from Ashton, Idaho to West Yellowstone, Montana ran on June 10, 1908. This service would run continually, excepting closure during winter months, until 1960.
An extension of a branch line to provide freight and passenger service to Teton Valley, Idaho, was begun in 1912 with completion to Victor in 1913 and construction of the depot in 1914. The line ran approximately 44 miles and climbed from 5258 feet elevation at Ashton to 6205 feet in Victor, a grade of .41 percent. There were three major watercourses to cross: Warm River, Conant Creek, and Bitch Creek. Conant Creek was once surveyed by the Union Pacific as a possible railroad grade access into Teton Valley, Wyoming from Ashton and would have followed the historic Indian and trapper pass into the northern part of Teton Valley, Wyoming. Railroad construction through the pass was considered economically unfeasible and construction material supplied to the 1906 Jackson Lake dam project was shipped over Reclamation Road, now Flagg Ranch Road, east out of Ashton. The three riveted steel bridges are all original having been the second bridges replacing the original 1912 timber bridges in 1922. They are immaculate and have been improved with new decking and railing.
The railroad served strategically located grain storage elevators located at intervals sufficient to accommodate grain quantities within the radius of a one-day wagon’s round-trip. Trail users will see historic wood grain elevators situated every four or five miles along the old rail line at Felt, Judkins, Lamont, France, the old railroad town of Drummond, Grainville, and Marysville, from south to north. These stops also accommodated passengers in the caboose on the typical mixed freight and passenger trains of the period. Regular passenger service was provided for the tourist traveler to Victor with transfer to bus for the trip over Teton Pass and took a quantum leap in visitor ship with the formation of Grand Teton Park in the mid-1920’s. Passenger service was provided until 1965 and freight service until 1981 when it was abandoned south of Tetonia. The line to Ashton was abandoned in 1990.
Credit for much of the Valley and railroad history goes to historian and writer Robert Utley and local railroad historian Thornton Waite. Both are highly recommended reads on the regions’ history.