The Palouse to Cascades Trail follows the historic route of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, also known as the Milwaukee Road. Founded in the midwest in 1847, the Milwaukee Road gradually expanded west, successfully conquering significant engineering challenges and extending to over 10,000 miles of line to reach western Washington. The Milwaukee Road corridor was the best engineered rail line serving the Pacific Northwest.
In 1914 the railroad adopted electrification as an alternative to steam power for sections of the route. The system used a 3,000 volt DC line overhead. The first district was electrified in 1915 in Montana, and two years later, a separate district was electrified between Othello and Tacoma in Washington. Remnants of this historic period of electrification can still be seen along the Palouse to Cascades Trail.The company made the decison in 1973 to de-electrify the units that were electrified, and switch to diesel in an effort to save costs. However, just as the electrification infrastructure was scrapped, the 1973 oil crisis took effect. Strained by financial burdens and growing competition, the railroad went through several restructuring processes before final bankruptcy in 1977. For more history of the Milwaukee Road in Washington, see Cascade Rail Foundation.
After the last train ran on the line in 1980, the state of Washington bought the former Milwaukee Road corridor for $3,000,000 via a quickclaim deed. Controversy soon sprang up over how to use the State's new property. Horseman and outdoor enthusiast Chic Hollenbeck envisioned its use as a trail, allowing people to walk, bicycle, ride a horse, or drive a team across the state. Hollebeck lobbied hard to make this a reality. The trail was first named the John Wayne Pioneer Trail for Hollenbeck's admiration for the cowboy actor. Hollenbeck was also the founder of the John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders, a group organizing an annual ride across Washington on the trail since 1981. The John Wayne Pioneer Wagons and Riders have continued their strong support of the trail to this day.
In 2015, the eastern PTCT was almost lost due to a budget proviso introduced by eastern Washington State legislators giving a large section of trail to adjacent landowners. (See media coverage). Fortunately, an error in the wording of the proviso temporarily nullified it. As a result, numerous public meetings were held to seek public input on the future of the trail and public support grew.
In May 2018, WA State Parks and Recreation Commission renamed the John Wayne Pioneerl/Iron Horse State Park Trail the Palouse to Cascade State Park Trail. Efforts are currently underway to improve sections of the trail in eastern WA as support for the trail continues to grow.