"Railroad Ranch" not about trains
April 14, 2006
Go fly fishing at Harriman State Park.
Photo by Lori Van Pelt
by Lori Van Pelt
The name “Railroad Ranch” brings to mind a herd of locomotives gathered in a rural setting, but the actual ranch doesn’t have trains within its boundaries. Instead, wildlife is abundant, the views breathtaking, and the history fascinating.
The ranch, located within the serene beauty of Harriman State Park in eastern Idaho, was once owned (in 1908) by railroad magnate Edward Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad. The name “Railroad Ranch” was coined through the involvement of five directors of the Oregon Short Line Railroad who owned the ranch prior to Harriman. The Guggenheim brothers were also involved in the ranch as early as 1906.
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The Harriman family donated the 16,000-plus acres to the state in 1977 with the stipulation that the land be preserved as a wildlife refuge. Elk, trumpeter swans, and rainbow and cutthroat trout are among the wildlife protected at the park. Another stipulation of Harriman was that the park be professionally managed. This led to the creation of the Idaho State Parks and Recreation Department.
According to Keith Hobbs, park manager, between 40,000 and 45,000 tourists visit the park annually, the majority of them during the summer months. Though records are sketchy as to the dignitaries who have visited, Hobbs says the most notable visitor listed in the records was John Muir, founder of the American conservation movement. Solomon Guggenheim and his family frequented the park when the family held interests in the ranch.
Ironically, Edward Harriman died in 1909 before he could stay at the ranch. However, his widow, Mary, and their two sons, Roland and Averill, spent summers here. Mary continued to visit the ranch until her death in 1932.
Averill Harriman was influential in the development of Sun Valley, Idaho, and served as governor of New York. He held a number of diplomatic posts during and following World War II, and has served as an ambassador to a number of foreign countries, even as recently as the administration of President Jimmy Carter. Roland eventually succeeded his father as the president of the Union Pacific Railroad.
The ranch was a favorite summer place, and the young Harrimans grew up there, enjoying their sojourns in the West. Hobbs says, “The Harrimans liked to play cowboy.”
The beautiful interior of the Harriman Cottage at Railroad Ranch.
Photo by Lori Van Pelt
The park is now operated by the state of Idaho. While hopeful cowpokes cannot work cattle on the ranch, Harriman State Park holds grazing leases with several grazing associations, according to Hobbs, who explained, “This maintains a historic use of the park and generates revenue for the park.”
Each of the 27 original buildings remain on the ranch, although some are currently undergoing restoration. Among the original buildings are the Harriman cottage (built around 1911) ” complete with elbow rests at the windows for the convenience of bird watchers, a fireplace and spacious bedrooms ” the bunkhouse, the dining cottage, and the visitors’ center. The visitors’ center was first the ranch manager’s house and was the largest structure on the ranch. It was built in a 1920s style. The visitors’ center is open by appointment only.
A building designated “The Honeymoon Hotel,” was originally known as “Hotel d’Bum.” Servants of the Harriman and Guggenheim families stayed there. In 1951, the house was remodeled for a newly-married ranch employee and his wife and was renamed in their honor.
The horse barn contains original tack and a variety of branding irons ” both historic and contemporary electric ” as well as finely-preserved saddles and collars. The loft is equipped with holes from which hay was dropped directly into the horse stalls below. Hay was stacked loose until 1937, when the ranch switched to baling. Another barn now serves as a rental facility for groups of 40 or more.
In addition, two lakes are located within the boundaries of the park. Silver Lake is part of the wildlife refuge and no boating or fishing is allowed. Golden Lake stocks Yellowstone cutthroat trout, a fish that had once been on the endangered species list.
The park officially opened in 1976 and was dedicated in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Roland Harriman and Averill Harriman in 1982. Roland and Averill are no longer living, and Hobbs says that the Harriman family rarely visits the park now.
Visitors can enjoy catch-and-release fly fishing for rainbow trout in the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, hiking trails, and horseback riding but shouldn’t expect a train ride.
For more information, contact Hobbs at (208) 558-7368 or visit the Web site at http://www.idahoparks.org.