Railroads in Union County, Oregon
No matter how many or how fine the wagon roads which were built in the area, their limitations were apparent and there was early the hope that railroad communication with the east and the Willamette Valley might somehow be brought about. Following the end of the Civil War there was renewed activity in western railroad construction and the first line to the Pacific was completed in 1869. In 1865 Major Hudnutt was sent by the War Department to investigate possible routes for a line from the Pacific Northwest to connect with the transcontinental line somewhere near what is now Granger in Wyoming.
The route which Major Hudnult traced out generally followed the course of the Old Oregon Trail as far as the northern boundary of Baker County from Powder River to Grande Ronde Valley the preliminary survey came down the west side of Pyle Canyon and thence by the most direct route to the mouth of the Grande Ronde River on the west side of the valley. From this point it was to follow up the river and across the Blue Mountains by way of the Meacham Creek pass, the route generally followed by the railroad today. It is interesting to note that this survey, the first, was that which was followed along the whole construction of the railroad was length of the route when actual begun.
Following the Hudnutt survey but little was done looking toward the building of the line. There was, however, some activity among the business men of Portland who recognized that the city could not become the metropolis which they planned for it to be without a rail connection with the East. A company known as the Portland, Dalles and Salt Lake Railway was organized, the principal sponsor being Colonel W. S. Chapman, a pioneer resident of Portland.
The organization of this company spurred the hopes of the residents of Grande Ronde but progress was very slow and no tangible results could be seen. A number of public spirited La Grande citizens decided to undertake the building of a line from La Grande to the Columbia River at Umatilla Landing. This company was organized in the fall of 1878, and a number of those most directly interested sent teams and scrapers across the mountains where a considerable amount of grading was done from Umatilla eastward in the fall and early winter of that year.
It is quite probable that the promoters of this enterprise, known as the Columbia River and Blue Mountain Railroad Company, did this work only in the hope of interesting some one of the great railroad companies then building in the West to carry the work through to completion. And this happened in June of 1879 when Henry Villard, as head of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company, assumed control of the Oregon Steam and Navigation Company. Villard was vitally interested in building a direct rail route to the East. With assurance that he would build such a tine, all rights and preemptions held by the Columbia River and Blue Mountain Railroad were surrendered to Villard, evidently without cost to him. The only consideration asked was the word of Villard that the line would be built into Grande Ronde. What the pioneers wanted was a railroad, and them was almost no sacrifice too great for them to make to obtain it.
Villard shortly began the construction of the line from Umatilla eastward, and by 1882 the work had commenced on the heavy grades on the western side of the Blue Mountains. The actual construction of the railroad line was by methods which would be considered crude and inefficient today. A large portion of the work was done by Chinese laborers supplied on contract by Chinese companies operating out of San Francisco Working only with pick, shovels and wheelbarrows, they constructed miles and miles of the road through the rugged mountains, in the deep cuts and where long fills were required, horses and two wheel dump carts were used.
At the same time Villard was building toward the East, the Union Pacific group under Jay Gourd's leadership was building westward toward the Columbia and had reached Shoshone in Idaho. It was apparent to all that there was a genuine race in the offing to determine which of these two contesting lines would build the greater mileage before joining rails with the opponent.
One evening the summer of 1882 a train of freight outfits with several wagons of four and six horse teams came from the West, passed down C Street, which was then the main street of La Grande, and encamped on the east side of town. The lumbering wagons were loaded with Chinese laborers, wheelbarrows, shovels, picks and other tools which denoted construction effort. But try as they might, the citizens of La Grande who queried the members of the party could gain no inkling of what the move implied. The Chinese were unable to speak English and the white men in charge maintained a tightlipped silence and refused to divulge their purpose.
It was not until several days thereafter that the curiosity of the citizens was satisfied. The Villard group were moving into the Burnt River canyon to stake out their route in advance of the Union Pacific or as it was popularly known, the Oregon Short Line. The quiet caravan which had gone through La Grande was quickly joined by other construction crews, permanent surveys were made, and the actual construction of the grade through the narrow canyon of Burnt River was begun. This route was the only one available to either railroad and of course the line which first occupied it had a distinct advantage over its rival.
The Short Line company sent its surveyors and construction crews into the area shortly thereafter, but found the Villard group in control. There was no other acceptable route. For a time it was feared that violence might occur, as the crews were fiercely loyal to their employers and would have taken strong action had any attempt been made by the Short Line to take the canyon by force. Finally an agreement was reached between the representatives of the two companies, meeting in New York in March of 1883, when it was decided that the two lines would join at Huntington. This was accomplished on 24. November 1831 and through rail communication between Portland and the East was established. At the ceremonies attendant to the joining of the rails United States Senator James H. Slater of La Grande made the principal address, stopping over on his way to Washington to attend the opening of Congress.
In building the railroad through the level Grande Ronde Valley the engineers were confronted with problems fully as perplexing and as expensive in their solution as any encountered in building line of equal length through the rugged Blue Mountains. E. H.. Mix was the engineer in charge. The work in the mountains from Pendleton eastward proceeded methodically and without a halt to La Grande, but it was almost an entire year before a permanent line was established between Oro Dell and the Powder River divide. The first construction surveys for crossing the valley called for the line to stay on the north side of the river to Island City, then swing wide around the tule and marshy areas near Hot Lake, and up the east side of Pyle Canyon by way of Union.
Engineer Mix first established his headquarters in La Grande in 1881 but later moved to Oro Dell to be closer to the line. Surveys and resurveys were made across the valley. One proposed route was surveyed by an engineer named Griffiths who examined the possibility of running the line by way of Ladd Canyon, but it was found not feasible, the main objection being the crossing of the east fork of Ladd Creek where a bridge or trestle would have to he built. In Griffith's own words, it "would be so high it would fall of its own weight." There are those today who believe that if the Ladd Canyon survey had come 10 years later, or if there had been available at that time the tunnel construction facilities and steel bridge works of the later period the main line of the railroad would new be through Ladd Canyon on account of the saving of six or eight miles of main line.
Another tentative survey began the climb in the Powder River divide this side of Hot Lake with a very gradual ascent instead of the rather abrupt climb now made necessary by starting the ascent just east of Union Junction. The Hot Lake hill would have been so gradual that much of the helper engine service later found necessary would have been eliminated.
In the matter of a railroad through the Grande Ronde valley there were two communities most vitally interested. Having always been rivals in all pursuits, both political and economic. La Grande and Union were each interested in being as close as possible to the main line, with the other removed from the railroad as far as possible. Citizens of influence in each of the towns made every effort to ingratiate themselves with the engineering staff of the railroad company making the surveys in the area in the hope that all the ad-vantages of being the center of railway activity might be theirs.
The engineers appeared to favor building the line up the east side of Pyle Canyon -- what now appears to have been the most logical route - and in the little town of Union there was much rejoicing. A community hall and general jollification was held in honor of the railway engineers. Certain of the more enterprising and overly optimistic members of the community ordered a large quantity of dimension timbers from local sawmills and had them delivered for bridge work at the deep side ravine which comes into Pyle Canyon just above Union. Needless to say, there was much dissatisfaction in La Grande when its citizens observed these activates among their brethren across the valley, and they took steps to bring their influence to bear on railroad officials in Portland to the end that the original Hudnutt route down the west side of Pyle canyon be followed.
Just at this time Engineer Mix, who had favored the east side route, was sent to the Burnt River section to see that the section of the railroad be held securely in the hands of the Villard interest as against the Short Line interlopers. A new engineer from the East, a Mr. Wood came into the valley, examined all of the previous surveys, and decreed that the west side route should be followed thus leaving Union off the main line by about three miles.
At this day it is somewhat difficult to understand why the route finally chosen was selected m preference to the east side line. Certainly it must have been known that it would be very difficult to build a solid roadbed through the marshy Hot Lake region. Likewise it must have been apparent that the west side route was exposed to heavy snow blockades in the winter and that snow-sheds no little item of expense to construct and maintain would be necessary. Finally it would seem that the railroad company would desire to build through as many settled communities as possible, whenever this would not entail great deviation from the most direct line.
It is true that the railroad company sought gifts of land and money front the communities through which it passed La Grande was required to furnish a right of way from Oro Dell to Hot Lake as a part of its price for having the railroad constructed on the south side of the river and closer to the settlement in Old Town. In connection with Union's misfortune in being off the main line, it is related that an official of the railroad approached the leading banker of the town with a request that Union donate $10,940 and a right of way through town to the railroad company. The banker is reputed to have felt that the railroad would have to come through Pyle Canyon by the east side route and through the town of union whether any money were paid or not. Upon his refusal: the order is sup-posed to have gone out that the engineers in charge were to make no effort to bring the line close to Union, hut were rather to came as directly as possible from Telocaset to La Grande.
In building the railroad across the Blue Mountains, a large part of the work was that of clearing from the right of way the heavy growth of timber on long stretches of the area. The Job of clearing the route was undertaken by Daniel Chaplin an outstanding citizen of La Grande for many years he had been the Register of the United States Land Office in La Grande, but gave this up to enter the larger field as a contractor. It was his idea to utilize as much as possible of the timber removed from the right of way for bridge timbers and merchantable lumber. To this end he constructed a large sawmill on Five Points Creek about half a mile above the location of Hilgard. The circular saw which Mr. Chaplin installed in this mill was the largest in this part of the country at that time. However, the difficulty of moving the logs to the mill and the slow returns from his investment stretched the credit of Mr. Chaplin to the utmost.
It was at this time that the question of the location of the railroad division point began to receive much public attention. It was regarded as a certainty that a division point would be necessary at some point between Umatilla and Huntington and Hilgard being almost half-way between these places appeared to be the logical selection There was an adequate water supply, ample room for the necessary tracks and yards and it was at the foot of the heavy grade over the mountain, thus being the ideal place for the coupling of helper engines. Further the contractor who was to put down the railroad. R. M. Steel had established headquarters at Hilgard, and the nucleus of a town was well established.
Other towns were aspirants for the honor of being the division point. Even North Powder, far to the east which had been founded as an early stage station by James DeMos made a determined effort to be so designated. Before the location of the railroad there was a flour mill at North Powder, owned and operated by James Welch and this mill, with the homes of Mr. Welch and his miller, Mr. Tartar, comprised about all there was of North Powder. But when the railroad surveyors made it apparent that the railroad would come through that way, Mr. Welch immediately platted a town site and the settlement began to grow. In their zeal to secure the division point, the promoters of North Powder under the leadership of Mr. Tartar, deeded a large section of town property as an outright gift to the general manager of the railroad, a Mr. Buckley, without his knowledge. Later, when it was decided that La Grande would be the division point, Mr. Tartar entered suit in equity to regain title to the lands which had been donated to Mr. Buckley. It was only then that Buckley became aware that he had owned a large part of the land now occupied by the city of North Powder.
Credit for securing the establishment of the railroad division point at La Grande must be given to Daniel Chapplin. Although not a man of great wealth, he donated to the railroad company without reservation virtually all of that part of La Grande now known as Chaplin`s Addition for the company to use for its shops, roundhouse, yards, and all other establishments necessary for a division point. The land donated was valued at a later date by the railroad company at $65,000. Certainty it was his public spirit and generosity which gave to La Grande the greatest single factor responsible for its growth and development.
The heavy falls of snow coupled with driving winds which created huge drifts made railroad operation through eastern Oregon very difficult in the early days. To combat this white menace an employee of the railroad company invented the rotary snow plow. Lewis John Bergendahl was a water service foreman for the O. R. & N. Company, and it was his duty to care for the huge windmills which the railroad company maintained at several points to furnish water for the locomotives. One such windmill was located at Telocaset. One day in 1885 during a blizzard, Bergendahl noticed that the huge windmill wheel turned aside the heavy flakes of snow blown into it, and this sight gave him the idea for building the device now used by all railroad companies for removing snow from the tracks. Bergendahl was unfortunate in that he received nothing for his invention, it being taken from his control by legal chicanery.
The only other common carrier railroad built in Union county was constructed in the 1890's to connect the town of Union with the Union Pacific main line at Union Junction. This railroad was known as the Central Railroad of Oregon and was later extended to Cove. The Cove portion of the line was abandoned in 1924, and today only the short two and one-half mile stretch between Union and Union Junction is operating, under the name of Union Railroad of Oregon.
A more expanded railroad project in Union County was that known generally as the "Hunt Railroad". The promoter of this proposed line, G.W. Hunt, was an early wagon freighter over the Blue Mountains. Later he engaged in building grades for the Villard interests. Mr. Hunt, at the time his holdings were absorbed by the Northern Pacific Railroad Company, had some 160 miles of line in Umatilla County and southeastern Washington.
In 1889 he announced his plans to construct a railroad from the vicinity of Walla Walla across the Blue Mountains by way of Toll Gate to the Grande Ronde valley. By way of Summerville and Union, the line was to go up Catherine Creek to Eagle and Pine Valleys and from there by the Snake River valley to the Boise region. This proposed railroad was of course designed to offer competition to the Union Pacific interests.
Mr. Hunt offered to build the line through Union if he were given a right of way at Summerville and Union and a cash subsidy of $180,000. These terms were met by valley residents and surveyors began work in 1889. In February, 1890 actual grade construction was commenced at Union and the right of way was eventually built to Summerville. Here the work stopped rather suddenly probably because of financial difficulties on the part of Mr. Hunt. Portions of this railroad grade can still be seen across the Grande Ronde Valley but after the sale of the Hunt interests to the Northern Pacific nothing more was ever done toward the completion of the Grande Ronde extension of the Northern Pacific line.