‘It is the most beautiful place I have seen in all my travels,” Silas Eccles wrote to E.H. Harriman in 1908, describing the Railroad Ranch in southeastern Idaho.
“We have two beautiful lakes of considerable size on our property and they are actually alive with mountain and eastern brook trout that will last for all time. The river itself winds through the place for a distance of more than two miles. There are many beautiful grassy islands in it and trout in great quantities. The stream is wide, water clear as crystal, and we can wade it … . We camp out in places that are romantic, wild, and delightful… .”
E. H. Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific, purchased a share in the Railroad Ranch sight unseen at the urging of Eccles, already a shareholder. Harriman died the following year, and never saw the property.
But during the next 70 years, Railroad Ranch became the private summer retreat of the Harriman family, as well as the Guggenheims of American Smelting and Refining Corp. and the Joneses of Atlantic Richfield Co.
In 1977, the Harrimans gave Railroad Ranch to the state of Idaho as a waterfowl sanctuary, and today it is Harriman State Park. It is easier to travel to, but no less rich in trout, wildlife, and delight.
The river twitching with “trout in great quantities” that Eccles referred to is the famous Henrys Fork of the Snake River. Fishing season brings many anglers to tease the quiet water with ersatz flies.
Hikers, birders, photographers, and the merely curious might wander more than 20 miles of park trails. The four-mile, mostly level Silver Lake Trail traverses five distinct habitats: river, meadows, marshes, lodgepole pine forest, and lakes and ponds; each supports characteristic birds and animals.
Timber is widely spaced, making it easy to observe animals. In a day of serene wandering, I spotted a coyote, white tailed deer, several moose, (including a wobbly calf), pronghorn antelope, beaver, elk, Canada geese, sandhill cranes, coots, bluebirds, rare trumpeter swans, and few humans.
Visitors can step through the door of Jones House or Harriman Cottage and imagine themselves Eastern guests newly arrived from a 2,000-mile cross-country journey. The family cottages are built in romantic hunting-lodge style, with grand rock fireplaces and beams of peeled log.
Personal items remain where last used. Waders, fishing creels, and binoculars hang in the mud rooms. A couch displays pillows needlepointed by ranch hands as a birthday gift for Gladys Harriman, and Roland Harriman’s pipe collection is within easy reach.
Historical tours led by park rangers add a wealth of historical and intimate detail to this chapter of Western history.
In the Dining Cottage, where most meals were served, everyone was expected to “dress” for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The table is ready for the next repast, laid in china embossed with the Union Pacific Railroad emblem, and antique wood cases are filled with UP glassware of the period.
On the floor, the square of mauve carpeting has a peculiar construction of stitched together strips. An explanation comes from the guide, Aimee: “This carpet was taken up from the aisles of railroad cars.”
The “Honeymoon Hotel,” ranch manager’s house, ice house, barns, and other buildings reveal the Railroad Ranch’s former days as a working cattle operation.
The annual roundup in September was the summit of the season. Employees, “dudes” (as guests were called) and the Harrimans themselves all participated.
Gladys Harriman described one roundup: “It was cold at 5 a.m. … but beautiful. The stars crackled. The geese were honking fussily and the coyotes serenading… . Once the herd decided to move, they poured out of the gate and attacked the sagebrush at a high run… .
“Finally we turned the herd and got them strung out on a strip of mud that goes by the name of a highway in that part of Idaho. According to schedule, we were to meet the chuckwagon that had preceded us at about noon, and have a snack. At noon, the steers were more than ready to stop and graze, but owing to our late departure we were miles from the chuckwagon.
“By this time it was much warmer. The sun was brilliant and the snow sparkled on the distant hills. We were thirsty, steers, horses, and men; but sagebrush, desert and water don’t keep company very often. The later the hour, the slower walked the steers… . Instead of making night camp before dark, the last hour of the drive was in a blackout as the moon had not yet risen. At long last we reached the rented pasture and after much gentle pressure urged the cattle into it and bedded them and ourselves down for the night. So ended the first day… . Is there anything more fun or more inspiring in the world than such a day?”
Like an antiquated episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” Railroad Ranch can spawn a twinge of envy. As Roland Harriman wrote, “It was a matter of love at first sight for all of us. The glorious scenery and weather, the fishing, the hunting, the horseback riding, and learning the lore of cattle handling, all combined to lure us back there summer after summer.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: IF YOU GO Harriman State Park is located on Highway 20 in southeastern Idaho, midway between Rexburg and West Yellowstone, or about five miles south of the town of Island Park. Park hours are sunrise to sunset. Dusk and dawn are the best times to spot wildlife. Bring insect repellent, sunscreen, binoculars and camera. Park rangers lead historical tours of the Railroad Ranch at 11 a.m., 1 and 3 p.m. weekdays; and the same, plus 4:30 p.m., weekends. Park phone: (208) 558-7368. Some trails are closed for short periods of time for calving elk or nesting waterfowl. Mountain bikes and horses are allowed on trails, but pets are not. Camping is not permitted in the park. Horse rentals are available. Call (208) 558-7077 for reservations. Fishing season on the Henrys Fork of the Snake River is June 15-Nov. 30. Flyfishing only, catch and release, no motors. Contact the Island Park Chamber of Commerce at (208) 558-7755 for a list of accommodations, campgrounds and other services.