A barefaced battle for rail rights

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Snaking its way north through the high desert of Central Oregon, the Deschutes River has long beckoned adventurous souls with its monumental landscape and voracious rapids. A century ago, however, the ancient fragrance of sagebrush and juniper was joined by an ominous new scent -- the tang of gunpowder.

In "The Deschutes River Railroad War," Leon Speroff recounts the astonishing story of two rival railroads that fought their way from The Dalles to Bend with pickax, spike and gavel.

On one side was the Oregon Trunk Railway, bankrolled by railroad mogul James J. Hill, who owned the Great Northern and Northern Pacific and dominated access to Seattle and Spokane. Sniffing profits to be reaped from transporting lumber and grain from Central Oregon, and hungry for trunk lines to generate traffic for his transcontinental link, Hill bought up options on the west bank of the Deschutes.

Hill's move was a barefaced challenge to his great rival, Wall Street tycoon Edward H. Harriman, whose Union Pacific line and its various offshoots held a stranglehold on Oregon rail. Not to be outdone, Harriman snapped up rights to the east bank of the Deschutes. By the summer of 1909, it became clear that neither man was going to back down. "It looks like war," opined the Bend Bulletin. "And we hope it is."

The two lines hired hordes of workers, more than 9,000 altogether, and proceeded to race up the canyon, grading beds, building trestles, blasting tunnels and laying track. It was dirty, brutal work, made more perilous by the dastardly tricks they played on one another. Workers set grass fires near their rivals' camps, stampeded their cattle, stole their gunpowder and freed their mules. At night, they consoled themselves with bootleg whiskey or flocked to the come-hither twinkle of such boomtowns as Shaniko and Madras.

After Herculean efforts -- among them a spectacular truss bridge constructed 320 feet above the Crooked River -- Hill's crew reached Bend first. On Oct. 5, 1911, before a jubilant crowd, Hill drove home the golden spike. It was the end of the race and also, in a way, the end of an era: The contest along the Deschutes was the last great railroad war of the Old West, before the rise of the automobile forever changed the economics of rail. Today, only Hill's track survives. Sections of Harriman's line have been turned into roads or trails -- the rest has been abandoned to the dust and the rattlesnakes.

This is a fascinating and handsome book -- lucidly written, meticulously researched and profusely illustrated. Its only flaw is that Speroff has organized his material in such a way that the narrative is almost stifled by the maddening preliminaries of geology, economics and engineering. But this is a minor quibble. When Speroff finally grants himself permission to tell the story, the book is as deep and hypnotic as the river itself.

Author Leon Speroff signs copies of "The Deschutes River Railroad War" at 11 a.m. Saturday at Kaufmann's Streamborn, 8861 S.W. Commercial St., Tigard.