In 1905, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad decided to extend its lines through eastern Washington, Idaho and Montana, which the company called the Pacific Expansion. To do so, it created a subsidiary called the Chicago, Milwaukee and Puget Sound (CM&PS) — later known simply as the Milwaukee Road.
A wide-spot in the road until 1908, Malden was chosen by the railroad as the future head- quarters of its Columbia Division, which stretched 300 miles from Avery, Idaho, and Cle Elum, Wash. Malden was located approximately at the division’s midpoint, about 7 miles west of Rosalia in northern Whitman County. The town subsequently experienced rapid growth and became almost entirely dependent on the railroad in one way or another.
Land for the railyard and the town was donated by Wilson Moreland (1852-1914), a successful homesteader who had settled in the area in 1884. He also sold building lots in Malden, which was incorporated on Dec. 20, 1909 — the same year that Milwaukee began construction of its railyard.
An impressive roundhouse was part of the Malden railyard. Although it was not what local legend claims was the largest roundhouse west of the Mississippi River, it was nonetheless notable. Like other roundhouses in the country, it was built around a circular turntable with radiating tracks. The facility was used for servicing, repairing and turning locomotives. One of six roundhouses in service for the CM&SP, it featured an 85-foot turntable and eight bays. In its heyday, more than 80 mechanics worked there full time. Substantial numbers of administrative and support staff were also stationed in Malden.
Since there was no bunkhouse for Milwaukee employees, most owned or rented houses in town or took advantage of affordable “railroad rates” available at several Malden hotels. As a result, the new town boomed. By 1920 the population was more than 1,000, and by 1928 it had mushroomed to 2,500. A thriving business district also sprouted, with a bank, a hard- ware store, grocery stores, a pharmacy
and a post office among other businesses. Several churches and a school also were built. Hotels and restaurants were particularly successful, as trains with luxury passenger cars — called Olympians — stopped overnight in Malden. Although they were the first passenger trains with “second-story” observation windows, they did not have sleeping cars. Passengers thus disembarked and stayed in hotels, particularly a brick hotel owned by the railroad.
The roundhouse, however, had problems almost from the beginning. In September 1915, it was partially destroyed by fire, as were eight locomotives in the bays. Although it was quickly rebuilt and reopened in January 1916, it operated for only 10 more years. Once “run-through” procedures were implemented, steam loco- motives were no longer changed in Malden. Since the roundhouse was no longer needed, it was closed in December 1926.
By the late 1920s, the Milwaukee Road had begun to move operations out of Malden. After a line was extended to Spokane in 1914, half of its dispatchers were transferred. By 1920, the Columbia Division had been redistributed, the western half joining with the Coast Division and the Eastern half joining with the Idaho Division. Scores of workers were transferred out of Malden as a result. Then the Great Depression hit. By 1930, the population of Malden was only 375.
Today, little remains of the railroad and its buildings. The Pacific Extension was abandoned in 1980, and Milwaukee Road disappeared when it merged with Canadian Pacific Rail in 1986. The tracks, depot, maintenance buildings and round- house in Malden were all razed by the end of the 1980s. The rail right-of-way became part of a hiking trail — first called the John Wayne Trail and now the Palouse- to-Cascades State Park Trail — that runs across Washington and northern Idaho.
The current population of Malden — after a disastrous fire that burned 80% of the town on Labor Day 2021— is estimated just more than 200.