Thursday, October 28, 2021
Oct. 28, 2021

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The fortunes of Malden, Washington, rose and fell largely with the railroads


Wilson Moreland, born in 1852, homesteaded in north Whitman County in 1884, to farm and raise cattle. Moreland was successful enough that he acquired more land around his original farm.

When the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway expressed interest in building a line through Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington, Moreland donated the land for a new town and the shops, dispatch office, an eight-stall roundhouse and large turntable to support railroad operations.

The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway joined the ranks of major railroads in the 1890s. It became colloquially known as the Milwaukee Road, or just “the Milwaukee.”

In 1905, the board of directors raised money to push a new line to the northwest states.

They created a subsidiary called the Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound to handle the Pacific Extension project.

Once Malden was chosen in 1908 as the headquarters for the railroad’s Columbia Division, which stretched from Avery, Idaho, to Cle Elum, people and investment flooded the new city. The railroad promised 300 or more stable jobs and kicked off several years of explosive growth in the little valley 5 miles west of Rosalia.

Moreland and the railroad’s land company sold house lots. Contractors arrived to build houses for workers, though the first trains were still a few years away.

In the summer of 1908, the population doubled in a few weeks as new workers arrived. The Spokesman-Review said it was a record surpassing that of any other new town on the Milwaukee extension.

The Milwaukee built its own line to Spokane in 1914, the year Union Station opened downtown. The Milwaukee moved half of Malden’s dispatching office to Spokane and the other half in 1918. Malden’s division was divided between the Coast division and a new Idaho Division. After the initial boom, activity in Malden slowed. Trains only rarely stopped at the local depot. Maintenance and fueling were moved to other places.

Moreland died in a car crash in 1914.

The Milwaukee’s audacious plan for a whole new route to the coast had cost much more than anticipated. Purchasing right-of-way, rather than receiving federal land grants, crossing multiple mountain ranges and electrifying long track sections to make it more efficient added major startup costs, putting the company deep in debt from the start. Freight and passenger traffic never met expectations.

The Milwaukee declared bankruptcy as its early revenue bonds came due in 1925, then again in 1935. It filed for bankruptcy for the last time in 1977 and abandoned operations on the Pacific Extension in 1980. The Milwaukee’s demise in 1980 left Malden as a rural bedroom community with vague memories of its brief heyday.

The few commercial buildings still standing were wiped away by the Labor Day fire in 2020 and were the only reminders of the once vibrant business district.