Bend Railroad Depot - Oregon Trunk Railway Passenger Station, Bend Oregon
At the turn of the century, when local railroad service had become an established part of the economics and culture of most rural communities in the United States, Central Oregon was perhaps the largest geographical area left without railroads. In 1905, one source remarked that Lakeview, Oregon, "enjoyed the distinction of being the farthest from a railroad of any county seat in the United States" (Shaver, et al., 1905). For George Palmer Putnam, scion of the New York publishing family and owner of Bend's first newspaper, Central Oregon in the first decade of the 20th century was a "railless land ... the largest territory in the United States without transportation".
Oregon's interior counties, including Deschutes, Jefferson, Klamath, Lake, Harney, Grant, Wheeler, and Crook, encompassed an area of nearly 36,000 square miles, equivalent to the state of Indiana. To the west, across the Cascade Mountains, the Southern Pacific Railroad ran through the Willamette Valley. To the north, the Union Pacific Railroad and the Northern Pacific Railroad served the Columbia Gorge. East of the Blue Mountains, the Union Pacific ran through the Grande Ronde valley and the Snake River drainage. In Central Oregon, however, the daunting topography, slender resources, and a sparse population did little to encourage rail construction.
In the first years of the 20th century, the picture began to change. The one solid resource of Central Oregon was ponderosa pine timber. By the 1890s the white pine forests of the Great Lake states were expended, and the southern states' pine forests were fully developed and reaching their peak production. Future pine lumber for the woodworking industries would have to come from the "ponderosa belt" of Central Oregon and Washington, and northern California. One account noted that Central Oregon held "the greatest body of standing pine timber now existing in America" and estimated the total volume at 45.6 billion board feet (The Timberman, Jan. 1910). If we assume that pine for remanufacturing constituted 10% of the total U.S. lumber consumption at the time, then Central Oregon's pine resources represented 15 years supply.
Taking note of the obvious, pine producers from the Great Lakes states and the South began to acquire Central Oregon ponderosa timberlands. Among those in the vanguard were such national figures as Frederick Weyerhaeuser, James J. Hill, and Robert A. Long. Through purchase or option, Weyerhaeuser and Hill controlled 1,500,000 acres of Central Oregon timberland. When Weyerhaeuser and Hill's confederates from Minneapolis were counted, the acreage rose to nearly 2,500,000. Without railroads, however, the timber could not be manufactured into lumber and sold in the national market.
As owner of the Great Northern and Northern Pacific railroads, Minnesota financier James J. Hill was well-positioned to build a branch line from his Northern Pacific line south into Central Oregon. This move would create additional traffic for his rail system and put his Oregon real estate on the market.
James J. Hill had a competitor in Central Oregon railroads and property in E.H. Harriman. Harriman controlled the Union Pacific Railway and the Southern Pacific Railway. When Harriman acquired the Southern Pacific in 1901, part of the package was the Oregon and California Railroad Company grant lands. This immense body of land covered 3,728,000 acres in southwestern and south-central Oregon, including Klamath County. Harriman visited the area and liking it decided to build a lodge on Upper Klamath Lake, where he spent several summers.
By 1900, railroad builders had approached Central Oregon from all points of the compass. The first serious attempt to reach the area came from the west in the late 1880s. The Oregon Pacific Railway, under the leadership of Thomas Egenton Hogg, built a line east from Corvallis up the North Fork of the Sanitam River to Idanha. Hogg then began building east from Idanha across the Cascades. In 1889, with most of the route graded and some rail in place, Hogg's creditors forced the Oregon Pacific into receivership and the line was abandoned. From the north, the Columbia Southern Railroad had built a line from Biggs on the Union Pacific, down the Deschutes Plateau 70 miles to Shaniko. A parallel line, the Great Southern, was built in 1904 from The Dalles south into Wasco County for 40 miles. Neither of these two railroads could negotiate the terrain that led to the Deschutes Valley, however, so they remained dead-end routes.
At the southern border of the state, the narrow-gauge Nevada-California-Oregon Railway reached Lakeview in 1912. This provided service to Lake County, but because narrow-gauge equipment was incompatible with broad-gauge equipment, the railroad had little utility in transcontinental commerce. For this reason, plans to extend the NCO to other Central Oregon towns died and this railroad became another dead-end.
From the Union Pacific line east of the Blue Mountains, the Sumpter Valley Railroad, another narrow-gauge line, built west across the mountains to the John Day Valley in 1905. Here again, the impracticality of narrow gauge equipment and the daunting Central Oregon terrain stopped further development.
In Klamath County, on Central Oregon's southern border, E.H. Harriman and others built the California and Northwestern in 1909. This line was a branch of Harriman's Southern Pacific extending from Weed, California, to Klamath Falls. Harriman and some associates from San Francisco were heavy investors in Klamath County industry and commerce. Among their holdings were the California and Northwestern Railway, the Klamath Development Company, two lumber companies, a large hotel, and their extensive timberlands.
Harriman and the Southern Pacific investors wanted to reach into Central Oregon, but they also wanted to control the region by connecting through to their other railroads, the Southern Pacific line in the Willamette Valley and the Union Pacific in the Columbia Gorge. This triple connection would dominate the Central Oregon market and assure that all cargoes originating in Central Oregon would enter the interstate market on a Harriman railroad. Better than this, it would also prevent Harriman's rival, James J. Hill, from extending his Northern Pacific line south into California through Central Oregon.
The conflict between Hill and Harriman was not confined to Central Oregon, of course. The two great financiers locked horns over the purchase of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railway in 1901, and on other matters as well.
While Harriman was the first to reach into Central Oregon, his plans to extend his California and Northwestern Railroad north from Klamath Falls were thwarted by the Interstate Commerce Commission. Invoking the Sherman Anti-trust Act, federal regulators began to scrutinize connections between the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific as early as 1908.
With Harriman blocked from the south, it became apparent that the only remaining railroad route to the pine country would be a passage up the Deschutes Canyon from the Columbia River. Since Hill's Northern Lines ran through the Columbia Gorge on the Washington side of the river and Harriman's Union Pacific ran on the Oregon side of the river, Hill and Harriman once again found themselves rather evenly matched.
Whoever built a railroad up the Deschutes Canyon would find no easy task. The gradient was gentle enough, but the rocky passage through the canyon would require careful engineering and several major bridges. In the 1854-55 survey of Pacific Coast railroad routes, Henry Larcom Abbott had declared the route impassible. The Deschutes Valley, he found was "separated from the rest of the world by almost impassible barriers, and nature seems to have guaranteed it forever to the wandering savage and the lonely seeker after the wild and sublime".
In 1906, W. F. Nelson, a Seattle railroad builder, had incorporated the Oregon Trunk Railway and planned a route from the Columbia River to Madras, Oregon. Because of the Seattle connection, local speculation held that Hill was somehow "behind" the Oregon Trunk. Nelson's plans were blocked by the General Land Office, however, because projected dams on the Deschutes would raise the level of the river over the railroad right-of-way. This complicated matters. In 1907, the Oregon Trunk secured permission from the Bureau of Reclamation to build a higher elevation line up the canyon. This route would be significantly more expensive, however. Ironically, one of Nelson's Seattle associates in the Oregon Trunk was R.A. Ballinger, who became Secretary of the Interior in 1909. Not surprisingly, Ballinger was able to expedite approval from the agencies of the Interior Department who were frustrating the railroad plans.
Meanwhile, Harriman's Union Pacific associates were also busy in 1906, incorporating the Des Chutes Railroad Company as a branch of their Columbia Gorge line. Crews were said to be surveying their own route up the canyon in 1907. But like the Oregon Trunk, the Des Chutes railroad project languished through 1907 and 1908 as the Bureau of Reclamation considered conflicting uses between railroads and dams. Besides, from Harriman's perspective, the southern route into Central Oregon through the Klamath Country was preferable since it would be less expensive to build and would generate additional traffic through the Klamath Basin. Harriman could reach Bend much more quickly by building north from Klamath Falls than by building south from the Columbia.
Then, perhaps because the Interstate Commerce Commission squelched Harriman's plans for extending the southern route in 1908, both sides became motivated to build the Deschutes Canyon route. In 1909, Hill bought the Oregon Trunk from Nelson's successors and assigned his best engineer, the legendary John F. Stevens, to design a route to Bend. In the spring of 1909 the Bureau of Reclamation approved both railroads' plans. By the late summer of 1909, crews from Hill's Oregon Trunk and Harriman's Des Chutes Railroad began the work of building two parallel railroads up the Deschutes Canyon on opposite sides of the river.