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Subtopic : Industrial Period: 1910-1970: Railroads up the Deschutes Canyon

Themes: People and the Environment, Transportation

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Packing in Supplies for
Deschutes Railroad Engineers
OrHi 95534

It was no easy task to build a railroad up the Deschutes Canyon. The gradient was gentle enough, but the rocky passage through the canyon required careful engineering and several substantial bridges.  In the 1854–1855 survey of Pacific Coast railroad routes, Henry Larcom Abbot found central Oregon to be an inhospitable region for the railroad, finding it “separated from the rest of the world by almost impassible barriers.” According to Larcom, “nature seems to have guaranteed it forever to the wandering savage and the lonely seeker after the wild and sublime.”

W.F. Nelson, a Seattle railroad builder, incorporated the Oregon Trunk Railway and planned a route up the Deschutes in 1906. James J. Hill bought the Oregon Trunk from Nelson’s successors in 1909 and assigned his best civil engineer, John F. Stevens, to design a route to Bend. By the mid-summer of 1909, crews from Hill’s Oregon Trunk and E.H. Harriman’s Des Chutes Railroad began the work of building two parallel railroads up the Deschutes Canyon on opposite sides of the river. The Hill forces were working on the west bank of the river, and the Harriman forces were grading on the east bank, with advance parties from both lines claiming strategic points in the canyon.  Materials and supplies for the two railroads swamped the local wagon roads, and the Columbia Southern and Great Southern railroads enjoyed their last profitable months.  In the rival construction camps, feelings ran high. Dynamiting, sabotage, and brawls punctuated the long summer and fall. George Palmer Putnam covered the scene for the newspaper wire services:

At one point the Hill forces established a camp reached only by a trail winding down from above, its only access through a ranch.  Forthwith the Harriman people bought the ranch, and “no trespassing” signs, backed by the armed sons of Italy, cut off the communications of the enemy below.

The Oregon Trunk
By the end of 1909, the silliness of the “Deschutes Canyon War” was apparent to both sides. E. H. Harriman had died that autumn, subsequently James J. Hill and Robert S. Lovett, Harriman’s successor, worked out an agreement for joint operation by May 1910.  Both railroads would use the Oregon Trunk line from North Junction to South Junction (10.4 miles) and from Metolius to Bend (42.6 miles). Both railroads would also use the twenty-four miles of Des Chutes Railroad track from South Junction to Metolius. With the drama gone, the railroad building proceeded smoothly.

Building the Oregon Trunk Railroad: A Chronology

 August 1909  Hill buys the Oregon Trunk
 September 1909  Construction starts at Wishram 
 May 17, 1910  Contract with Des Chutes Raiload
 June 1, 1910  Madras to Bend grading starts
 July 1, 1910  Bridge across Columbia River starts
 March 1911  Passenger service to Madras
 April 1, 1911  Track to Crooked River completed
 June 14, 1911  Crooked River Bridge completed
 November 1, 1911  Passenger service to Bend







© Ward Tonsfeldt & Paul G. Claeyssens, 2004.

Themes: People and the Environment,Transportation

Regions: Central Oregon

Date: 1909-1911

Author: Ward Tonsfeldt & Paul G. Claeyssens

Some saw the Deschutes canyon as an impenetrable barrier destined to keep central Oregon isolated from the rest of the world.

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James J. Hill in Bend, 1911
October 5, 1911

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