The Last Great Railroad Race



In the early 1900s, one-eyed railroad baron James J. Hill, called "The Empire Builder", came up with a scheme to run a railroad into the timberlands of central Oregon. Hill was headquartered in the Midwest, which was about "cut out", as loggers say. Midwest timber barons began buying up Oregon woodlands and planning their mills. Hill would ship their lumber to market with a relatively fast and efficient railroad line, replacing horse-drawn freight wagons on rough outback roads.

Hill already controlled main lines in Washington state - the Great Northern and Northern Pacific Railways across the Cascades, and the Spokane, Portland, and Seattle Railway on the north bank of the Columbia River. He planned a branch from the SP&S running south across the Columbia River and up the Deschutes River, and sent his chief scout up the Deschutes, to survey a route and buy land on the sly while pretending to be a sport fisherman.

But life was never so simple for the ambitious railroad baron. He had a rival - New York financier Edward H. Harriman >, owner of the Union Pacific and other major railroads, and the Wells Fargo Express Company. Their rivalry was in fact smoking hot - not long before, Harriman had secretly tried to buy a controlling number of shares in Hill's Northern Pacific Railway. Harriman's scheme was discovered, and stymied, and turned into something of a fiasco. And now here was Hill trying to sneak a railroad into Oregon, and then probably on into Harriman's Union Pacific turf in California!

That's exactly what Hill had in mind.

< Hill's scout, John Stevens, chief engineer of the Great Northern Railway, for whom Stevens Pass over the Washington Cascades was named, scored another coup on the Deschutes, buying land for a grade up the west bank. Harriman countered, surveying his grade up the east bank. By 1909, the race was on.

It was literally neck-and-neck up the river. Hill's crews, blasting their grade out of the hard volcanic basalt, showered rocks and debris on Harriman's crews across the river - who of course returned the favor whenever they could.

Photo thanks to the Fort Dalles Museum, The Dalles, OR

Photo thanks to the Sherman County Historical Museum, Moro, OR

They say these were the last major U.S. construction projects built with pick and shovel and black powder, rather than later mechanized heavy equipment and dynamite.

They did have some steam-powered heavy equipment - a steam crane -

Photos thanks to the Fort Dalles Museum, The Dalles, OR

- and a steam shovel, each with an on-board steam engine to power the winches and cables.

The Deschutes River canyon is up to 2,000 feet deep, in a rugged remote country riven by deep canyons. Supplying two major construction operations in such terrain was a heroic task itself, taking heavily-loaded horse-drawn wagons down steep canyon trails. When one side's heroes failed to deliver, that bereaved side would then raid the other side's supplies. While food and fuel were important, of course the greatest prize was liquid refreshment.

Some call this race a war, but it seems to me just rough sport between rough necks.

Violence did occur when Harriman's side allowed a transportation easement to lapse. Hill's side immediately seized it and refused passage to Harriman's men and supplies. This threatened to put a kink in the local economic boom, and a judge issued a court order to allow Harriman's wagons through. Hill's men thought this was grossly unfair, and resisted.

Sherman County Sheriff Jay Freeman was called out, and responded in his horse and buggy outfit.

It seems the sheriff, with his horse and buggy and preacherly appearance, had to make his point the hard way. There was a scuffle - an attending judge was roughed up - some roughnecks were arrested and buggied off to the calaboose. All in good fun.

Men were maimed and killed, but not by any war - rather by the hazards of working hard and fast to blast two railroad grades out of rock-hard rough country. They worked in the heat and cold with the smell of steam and rock dust and the sulfurous stench of blown powder. Hard country - hard men - they worked hard and played a hard game.

Photo thanks to the Fort Dalles Museum, The Dalles, OR

For the record, Hill called his line the Oregon Trunk Railway - Harriman called his the Deschutes Railroad. To minimize confusing a somewhat tangled tale, I'll continue identifying the lines by their chief officers' names.

The roads had to combine on the east bank at a place called North Junction, so Hill could avoid the legal complications of building on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. A further 12 miles upriver, they separated again at South Junction - Hill's line continuing up the east bank of the Deschutes to Willow Canyon into Madras, while Harriman's climbed out of the Deschutes River canyon at Trout Creek, reaching Madras through Gateway.

Photo thanks to the Fort Dalles Museum, The Dalles, OR

Harriman died in 1909, aged 61. The racing ended. The two railroads cooperated, building a single line from Metolius south. Hill drove the final spike in October 1911.

Timber barons cut and milled the logs - railroad barons shipped the lumber. All prospered.

It made little sense to run two railroads when one would do, and the lines gradually consolidated their operations, picking the better grades and abandoning the rest. Hill's grade along the Deschutes from South Junction to Madras was abandoned in 1923. Harriman's grade along the east bank of the Deschutes River from the Columbia to North Junction was abandoned in 1935.

The present active railroad line now runs from the Columbia up the Deschutes on the west bank to North Junction, where it crosses on a bridge to the east bank. It runs on the east bank through South Junction to Trout Creek, where it climbs out of the Deschutes canyon to Gateway and Madras, and on south.

Hill the Empire Builder died in 1916, aged 77. His railroads gradually merged and morphed into today's Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, or BNSF. Harriman's lines continue as the Union Pacific. BNSF is still running trains from central Oregon to the Columbia River to this day.

Northbound over the Crooked River Gorge at first light, 8/5/2012

The abandoned grades? They're all still there, in the 107 miles from Madras to the Columbia. But life is never so simple for the ambitious rail-trailer.

Through-biking the Ghost Grades of the Deschutes