Train Wars in the High Desert

Last summer we picked up a book at an antique store on the coast. I’m normally not a train fanatic, but this one happened to have a photos of the Crooked River high bridge on the cover, looking towards Jefferson – so, if our house had been built fifty-odd years ago, it would have been in this picture. We thought it worthy of the $8 price tag.

The book is Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway by Charles and Dorothy Wood. It covers not only the major lines throughout the west, but also our own little railway line here in Central Oregon, the Oregon Trunk Line.

A time schedule from 1912 shows many town names lost to history. Nena? Nathan? Maybe they were just stopping at people’s houses.

Of course, it was 1900, EVERYONE had trains, this is so NOT news. Oh, but au contraire mon frere, what we had here was a knock-down, no-holds-barred, spy-vs.-spy, fight to the finish line between two different companies.

Harriman and Hill

Two giants emerged on the scene to do battle for Oregon’s train spoils – James Jerome Hill and Edward Henry Harriman.

Harriman was born on Long Island in 1848, and became a boy wonder on Wall Street. He persuaded his father-in-law, president of the Ogdensburg & Lake Champlain Railroad, to let him reorganize and improve the property.  A dozen fruitful years later, he joined with a syndicate to purchase the Union Pacific, turning it from receivership to one of the best railroads in the country using the proceeds of smaller lines he purchased and sucked dry, then cast aside after their stockholder were ruined.

Hill was born in Ontario Canada in 1835. After working as a clerk then forwarding agent for a steamship line, he created the Red River Transportation Company, which was direct competition to theHudson’s Bay Company in the area. During the panic of 1873, Hill was able to take over a bankrupt line fromSt.PaultoManitoba. Later he bought a Dakota company that held paper for thousands of acres of land. Land that had been homesteaded by many settlers for over 20 years, and instead of forcing the homesteaders to move, the government passed an act to allow Hill to trade these lands for valuable timber land in Montana, Idaho and Washington. His friend and neighbor, Frederich Weyerhaeuser helped him survey the land and purchased a few thousand acres for himself. In 1889, Hill organized the Great Northern Railway Company. The company sneaked into ownership of the Northern Pacific by purchasing shares under different names, then consolidating all into what became known as the Hill Lines.

These were the two men, backed by massive capital and land, who came to Central Oregon in the 1890’s ready to build tracks, haul lumber, and make money.

While both Harriman and Hill were willing to accept the business of Central Oregon, that business alone was not worth the effort and expense of constructing a railroad.

Before the train came to town, Bend was overrun by donkeys. Okay, maybe not, but travel wasn’t very easy, especially in winter months.

The name of the game was power, the control of transportation, and Hill, with a foothold now in Oregon, was determined to reach California. He sent John F. Stevens, one of the best known engineers in America, to the Deschutes with fishing gear in the guise of an affable sportsman. Another man was sent to buy up options on ranches and unfenced wild lands. The resulting survey showed the Hill line traveling along the Columbia from the Dalles, to the mouth of the Deschutes and up Willow Creek to Madras.

Harriman quickly took up the challenge also, and made his move to prevent Hill’s entry by chartering the DesChutes Railroad in 1909. Surveyors soon filed maps for a route up the Deschutes and Trout Creek to the plateau near Madras, although some changes were made in this route when the construction was started.

It’s ON!

In July, without waiting for the courts to settle the issues, Harriman quietly moved in large amounts of supplies and a great number of laborers to Dalles via the OR&N, and rushed them to the Deschutes Canyon to seize the strategic points.

The Twohy Brothers were contractors for Harriman, the Porter Brothers for Hill. Within days more than a thousand men and twenty different contractors were at work under the Porter Brothers, who started construction shortly before midnight July 26, 1909.

The Oregon Trunk Line Incorporated, responsible for the grading and terminal work from the Columbia River to Madras, acquired the Central Oregon Railroad Company by stock purchase August 24, 1909, thus obtaining the vital site for the railroad crossing of the Crooked River, and blocking Harriman from building a parallel line to Bend.

“Welcome to Madras! We have dust, and rocks!”

The American public was vitally interested in the accounts of the two greatest railroad figures of all time engaged in a dramatic canyon war, the last rail battle it turned out, to be fought along the right of way. It was also the last big job to be done by hand.

The job involved thousands of laborers, mostly recruited from Portland and Spokane. Labor was in great demand and men were hard to hold. Common laborers received 20c to 30c an hour, carpenters and concrete men, 30c to 40c, while well drillers drew $7 per day and teamsters $6. Lodging was furnished, with meals costing 25c to 30c.

It was rugged country – even food had to be carried better than 100 miles overland. Men, supplies and equipment were brought via the Shaniko branch of the OR&N or by the Great Southern from Dalles to Dufur, then followed almost 25 miles of mountain wagon roads to points along the first 70 miles of grade upstream from the Columbia. Harriman had the slight edge with control of the Columbia Southern, but Hill also ferried supplies across the Columbia.

When they weren’t trying to kill each other, the workers threw down sticks of wood and laid pieces of metal on top. This job was made more difficult by the dangerous equipment, rugged terrain, and erratic weather. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

The workers fought not only the heat, the snakes and hard rock formations that had to be blasted out by hand, but each other as well. Shovels, pickhandles, crowbars, rocks and guns were weapons as well as fences, barricades, guile, trickery and court orders. Black powder was placed in “coyote holes” drilled in lava cliffs to tear away the sheer walls of the gorge, and shortages occurred and delays ensued as powder caches were blown up by the rival side. Dynamite was set off at strategic points in the narrow canyon, and teamsters were drugged, made drunk or dragged from their wagons as they transported supplies over the rough terrain. There were running battles between huge gangs across the river from each other, using any weapon handy. Men were maimed and killed.

There were constant mix ups of titles, surveys and court orders. At the very start of the construction the Twohy Brothers woke up to find that the Porter Brothers had purchased the land on which they had spent $8,000 to build a wagon road to haul supplies from Grass Valley. Now not only did the Harriman forces not have a wagon road, but their enemies did.

These people live in homes with no running water, their toilet is a hole in the ground, and they are dressed nicer than many “modern” Central Oregonians on their wedding day.

The Porter Brothers also bought the property on which was located the spring providing the entire water supply used by the Harriman forces. A fake telegram was sent to George W. Boschke, Harriman’s leader and the builder of the famous sea wall at Galveston, instructing him to come at once as the wall had broken. He knew that he had built the wall to last and threw the message away.

The various conflicts on the routing of the two lines between the Columbia and the Warm Springs Indian Reservation were resolved by the agreement of the DesChutes to hold to the east side of the Deschutes River and the Oregon Trunk to remain on the west side of the river. At mile 75, however, the Oregon Trunk crossed the river to avoid the delay attendant in seeking permission for a survey on the reservation and filing the maps for approval of construction. Their filing on the east side for the twelve miles south to Trout Creek predated the filing made by the DesChutes line, and the latter was then faced with the delay.

Welcome to Madras! We still have dust, and rocks. But we’ve got a car and a train station, things are looking up!

The Oregon Trunk built their grade across the survey line of the DesChutes, blocking them out and causing the government to enforce the Canyon Act providing for joint usage of the ten miles of track between North and South Junction. Just south of this river crossing was the Smith ranch, over which passed the only right of way to Bend. The Oregon Trunk maps had been approved by Washington before Smith secured title to the land, but he had filed on it while approval of the maps was still under consideration, and the courts decided that this gave Smith the prior rights. The Porter Brothers offered Smith $2,500 for the right of way, Harriman purchased it for $3,500. This time the Oregon Trunk called for enforcement of the Canyon Act and another mile was added to the joint trackage.

A truce was reached on May 17, 1910 when Hill agreed to build no further south than Bend, and the opposing contractors agreed to cease fire for 999 years. With the worst part of the Deschutes Canyon behind, the Oregon Trunk reached Mecca and rapidly moved toward Madras, where the city declared February 15, 1931 Railroad Day with local dignitaries on hand to preside over a gala celebration. The Oregon Trunk let the contract from Madras to Bend, and to hold the right of way, kept men at work on the approaches to the 350 foot long Crooked River Bridge, which towered 320 feet above the water. The DesChutes had not progressed beyond Culver where the two systems ran parallel and not more than 100 feet apart. The first agreement giving Harriman entrance to Redmond on joint track from Metolius was amended on September 6, 1911 to provide joint trackage to Bend with joint terminal facilities.

Hey look! Our historic train station! The one we almost sold to Prineville for no apparent reason. Yea Bend, hi-5 for historic preservation!


So, that’s how the train got to Bend. No orderly and organized building of lines, but a bloody brawl for every mile.


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