History of Portland Railroads


Portland is now well supplied with railway connection, not only with all parts of the Northwest, but with the whole of North America. She is the terminus of three transcontinental lines-the Northern Pacific, by the O. R. & N. and the Oregon Short Line, and the Union Pacific systems, respectively, and of the Southern Pacific by the Oregon and California Railway. She is also a terminus of the Northern Pacific on its own rails across the Cascade mountains and by way of Tacoma and Kalama, and, by the routes on Puget Sound, communicates directly with the Canadian Pacific. The Oregon Pacific, which is pushing out across middle Oregon for a junction in Idaho with still another continental line, although maintaining a terminus at Yaquina Bay, will also seek Portland, making the fifth line from across the mountains that ultimates upon our city as the chief, or at least co-important, objective. The next line from the East will probably come down the north bank of the Columbia, reaching our depots by way of Vancouver.

Aside from these main lines, our city is also served by a number of local roads. Standing first among these is the Oregon Central,, to Corvallis, on the west side of the Willamette, operating a line ninety-seven miles in length. A still greater mileage is run by the Oregonian Railway Company’s lines, the Portland and Willamette Valley Road, the extension of the narrow gauge system, on each side of the Willamette-to Sheridan and Airlie on the west and Coburg on the east. Another extensive line is in process of construction from Astoria to some point on the Oregon Central-Hillsboro-which, although chiefly for the accommodation of Astoria and the western part of the Willamette Valley, will connect a large region with Portland and open it up to the enterprise of her merchants. There is talk of constructing a line from Hunter’s Point, opposite Kalama, to Astoria, thereby furnishing a road to the mouth of the river, paralleling the Columbia and making passage more expeditious for summer travelers to the ocean beaches.

Of strictly local lines, i. e., of lines less than twenty miles in length and aiming to. do only local business, chiefly passenger traffic for the benefit of the suburbs, there are four lines in active operation -to Vancouver, to St. John’s, to Mt. Tabor and the Hawthorne Avenue line, also terminating at Mt. Tabor, and the cable line to Portland Heights. _ At least three others are in process of construction-to Oregon City, the Waverly-Woodstock line and the line to West Portland. Several other lines are projected, as that to Marquam’s Hill and a line around the hills on the northwest of the city. Some of these will doubtless develop into longer lines-as the Hawthorne Avenue road, a standard guage, which is popularly expected to be pushed out to the Sandy river and to Mt. Hood.

From this glance it will be seen that of all roads built and extending beyond the city limits, so as not to be enumerated with the street car lines, there are eight; there are building four, not including the Astoria road, which will enter by the Oregon Central; and two or three more are on the tapis. This list shows prodigious railroad activity, and the fact that all the lines are well sustained and do a paying business shows the dimensions of our freight and passenger traffic. The eagerness for further construction, and’ the large prices paid for privileges in the city, indicate that even our present extensive system is not complete. It is the purpose of this chapter to give something of the history of the building of these roads and development of transportation by rail.

Turning to the history of railroad construction in Oregon, we find there was very early agitation of the subject. In 1850 a line was projected, and even advertised to be run, from St. Helen’s on the Columbia, to Lafayette, in Yamhill county. It was under the patronage of Captains Knighton, Smith, Tappen and Crosby. Of course, it was never begun. General J. J. Stevens, in 1853 and for the years succeeding, wrote. voluminously upon railroad connection with the East, and four roads were projected (not all to the East), one being incorporated. In 1854 a charter was granted a road to California, to begin at a point below the falls of the Willamette. In 1857 a company was formed to build a road to Yaquina Bay. None of these were constructed, however, and no rails were laid, except on the portage lines at the Cascades and Dalles, and a tramway at Oregon City, before the days of the Oregon Central.

The development of the railways of Portland is that of the State. There was practically nothing accomplished for our roads outside of Portland, or without Portland men. True, it is not to be forgotten that there was a considerable number of representative men of other sections who entered with lively interest into encouraging railroads, and became identified with the first enterprise. J. S. Smith and I. R. Moores, ,of Salem; T. R. Cornelius, of Washington County; Robert Kinney, of Yamhill; and General Joel Palmer, of the same; Colonel J. W. Nesmith, of Polk; Judge F. A. Chenoweth, of Benton; Stukeley Ellsworth and B. J. Pengra, of Lane, and Jesse Applegate, of Douglas, were among this number. Other names might be added. They were active in interesting the people of their several localities in the construction of railroads and without their aid difficulties would have multiplied. The very first movements toward a road-in 1863-moreover, came from California, with Elliott and Barry. The most radical and active mover was first a citizen of Jacksonville, in Southern Oregon. Quite a considerable portion of the first impetus came from the desire to have direct communication with San Francisco, so that the people of Southern Oregon and the upper Willamette Valley need not be obliged to make a circuitous route through Portland, or sell and buy in her market and pay tolls on passing up and down the lower Columbia and Willamette. The Californians first agitating the project certainly had no aim other than to extend the tributary region of San Francisco. But with all this in view it still remains the fact that it was upon Portland that all the railway activity centered and she proved to be, the only point from which to operate successfully. We are therefore justified in speaking of the railway development of Portland as that of the State, and dating the nativity of her lines from the first efforts in 1863. Whoever accomplished much in the business had to become Portlanders.

The story of our first railroads is interesting, romantic and dramatic. One is astonished at the intense earnestness, the violent contentions, the lurid combats, the savagery, the cunning, the bluster and the ludicrous or pathetic denouements. There are situations of the most amazing oddity; old and hitherto most amiable and dignified citizens of our State finding themselves perked in hyperbolical inversion before a gaping and mystified public, who were in doubt whether to break into a guffaw or to look with feigned nonchalance upon what they supposed must be a new era in morals introduced with a railroad age. What with plethoric promises of lands quadrupled in value, of produce doubled, and visions of the wealth of Aladin, and an inner feeling of the heart that the old order of toil and honesty was somehow to be superceded by an age of gigantic speculations in which wealth by the millions was to be created by corporate fiat, and the fundamental rules of arithmetic and of ancient law were to be transmitted into something easier if not better, our railroad building introduced a time at once amusing and pathetic, as well as pecuniarily progressive. The former phase of the subject must, however, be left to the student of human nature, or to the homilist. Like all great changes in the habits and outlook of the people, it was accompanied by an excitation of much ambition, rivalry, passion, and at length a general cloud burst of indignation and censure; but worked its way through to a beneficent result.

To begin with a somewhat bare account of all this, we find that in 1863 there was a Californian toiling up from the land of gold and droughts, through the valleys of the Sacramento and Shasta, with a surveying party, to run a line for a railroad from the Sacramento to the Columbia river. This was Simon G. Elliott, of Marysville, who had but recently been listening to the expositions, prophecies and demonstrations of Judah, the first preacher in California of the Pacific railway. In the spring he had been in Eugene City, Oregon, and there interested Mr. George H. Belden, formerly of Portland, in his enterprise, and during the season of ’63 the two were running the level, chain and transit from Red Bluff, California, to Jacksonville, in Oregon. There were twelve men in the surveying party, and accompanying it as general superintendent was Colonel Charles Barry, recently from the seat of civil war then raging, having resigned from the army on account of a wound received in the battle of Shiloh. This was- purely an autonomous party, without legal father or mother or sponsor capitalists; spying out a railroad path for its own satisfaction, and having no means of subsistence except from contributions on the way. The land, although rugged and but sparsely populated, was sufficient to feed them, and the settlers along the route listened with awe to their stories of iron wheels that were soon to roll in their foot tracks.

In November they went into winter quarters at Jacksonville, Elliott and Belden separating on account of the delicate question of priority of leadership the rest of the way; the former going to San Francisco and the latter coining to Portland. Colonel Barry, however, staid by the party. At Jacksonville was added the most important member to the company. This was Joseph Gaston, Esq., now of Gaston, Washington County, and of Portland, Oregon, and the present editor of the Pacific Farmer. He was then editor of the Jacksonville Times. Gaston went to work with the enterprise and enthusiasm of an Achilles, and while the baker’s dozen of autonomous surveyors were boarding themselves in the old hospital at Jacksonville, went about collecting means to enable them to continue the work the next summer. He was successful, and in May following, level, transit and chain were again set in motion. In September, Barry’s party was at Portland, having made measurements and memoranda the whole distance from Red Bluff, California, to the public levee in our city, on which they were camped. The people on the way had been startled into life by the apparition, and the State groaning like the rest of the Union under the evils of the great war, and not yet well knowing whether there was still a nation, was aroused by this practical exhibition of faith in the future of the country and determination to he ready for the great national development just so soon as the Union was once more compacted.

Colonel Barry prepared a report of thirty-three pages, addressed to the “Directors of the California and Columbia River Railway Company;” not, however, designating the members of this company by name. His pamphlet discussed the subject of routes, and summarized the findings of the surveyors. As illustrating by what means bills were paid at this stage of the work, it may be mentioned that the pamphlet was published from the office of the Salem Statesman, and the work paid for by editorial services on the paper by Mr. Joseph Gaston.

Being in reality an address to the people of Oregon, it was admirably framed to excite interest in a general movement toward opening the State by rapid transit. As to routes, Colonel Barry reported that there were two from Jacksonville across the Umpqua mountains; one by Grave Creek, a rugged and difficult region, with a grade of 100 feet per mile; and a second by Trail Creek, which he had only partially examined, but thought would prove better. Through the Umpqua Valley he reported an easy way between the multitude of hills, with grade not exceeding eighty feet. He preferred the Applegate Pass of the Calipooiahs to that by Pass Creek, and spoke with enthusiasm of the facility of construction down the Willamette Valley. To reach the Columbia river, he preferred a route to the Scappoose Mountains and through them by the Cornelius Pass to St. Helens, but recognized the advantage of making Portland the terminus. He named the passes of the Portland hills available as at the falls of the Willamette, by Sucker Lake and Oswego, and by the Cornelius Pass below the city. He also spoke of the impossibility of accommodating the whole of the Willamette Valley by one road. By pretty careful and just estimates, he set the total cost of constructing the entire line at $30,000, 000, and the net annual earnings of the road from Marysville to the Columbia at $5, 600, 000. The report was flattering, presented in a pleasing form, and had a remarkable air of ease and assurance. He accorded especial praise to Mr. Gaston for valuable assistance and possession of scientific attainments and thorough knowledge of railroad enterprises. Accompanying this report was a description-prepared by Mr. Gaston-of the region traversed, and of Oregon in general. It was the first of the kind ever attempted-exalt and concise.

The next step was to get the subject before the Legislative bodies. It was brought by Mr. Gaston in 1864 to the attention of the Oregon Legislature, and a bill was passed at that session to grant $250,000 to a company constructing a road from Portland to Eugene; but this sum was so comparatively small as to induce no capitalists to take advantage of the offer. In the same year Colonel Barry went to Washington City and laid the matter before the United States Congress. He was warmly supported by Congressman Cornelius Cole, and General Bidwell, of California, and by the entire Oregon delegation-Senators Williams and Nesmith, and Congressman McBride. A bill was prepared and pushed through the House by Bidwell; by Nesmith, in the Senate. An important provision had already been suggested by Colonel W. W. Chapman, of Portland. When the surveyors first reached Eugene they called a meeting of the citizens to ratify their undertaking. Colonel Chapman happening to be present at Eugene on business, attended their meeting. When a resolution was brought forward to embody the sentiment of those present, he noticed no reference as to the place of beginning to build the road except at Marysville in California, and seeing at once that a road if thus built would draw trade towards San Francisco during its whole process of construction, and might not be at all completed to Portland, he added the provision that the road be begun at the two termini, Portland and Marysville; that the two roads thus constructed should connect near the California border; that they be constructed by two companies, a California and an Oregon, each acting under the laws of their respective States; and that neither should ever discriminate against the other in freights or fares. These provisions were embodied in the bill of Bidwell, which also provided a land grant to the amount of twenty alternate sections, or 12,800 acres per mile, aggregating some 7,000,000 acres, worth about $5,000,000 at the time-now worth at least $30,000,000. Upon completion and equipment of the first twenty miles of road and telegraph line within two years, the land grant co-terminus was to be patented to the railroad companies; the road twenty miles further was to be built each year, and the whole to be completed by 1875.


Harvey Whitefield Scott. History of Portland, Oregon: with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Prominent Citizens and Pioneers. Portland, Oregon. D. Mason & Company, 1890.

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