Local Stories

Early History of The City of Prineville Railway

September 8, 2017

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by Frances Juris

Note: The following is an excerpt from an article written by Frances Juris in 2002.  It has been edited to include only the period up to the time that the major mills left Prineville   and  only covers the early years of the railway.. Frances has recently celebrated her 100th birthday.  This story is being re-published to commemorate the City of Prineville Railway caboose being moved for display at the Bowman Museum.

In the year 1900 the city of Prineville, county seat of Crook County Oregon, sat snugly (some might have said smugly) in the beautiful Crooked River/Ochoco Creek valley,  the only city in the vast region between The Dalles on the north, Klamath Falls on the south, Eugene City on the west and Canyon City on the east.  Prineville was founded in 1868, and by 1880, when it was incorporated, it had become a busy frontier town of 200 people, furnishing the necessities, such as sugar, flour and whiskey and a few niceties such as church services and band music, to everyone in the thousands of square miles of emptiness which was Central Oregon.

By 1900, all roads led to Prineville and the community, which had grown to 600 people, felt secure in the knowledge that Prineville would continue to be the hub around which the activities of the whole area would center, even though small settlements were springing up at Bend, Redmond, and Madras.

Problems?  Yes, there were some — memories of the violent vigilante days of the late 1800’s, with the shootings and hangings, were still strong when the sheepmen/cattlemen wars began.  The townspeople tried hard to remain neutral amidst the fury and the hatred which culminated in the slaughter of thousands of sheep, the killing of many men and open defiance of all law by a group calling itself “Crook County Sheep Shooters Association.” The war ended in 1905 only when national forests were created and the Federal government took over the allocation of grazing rights.

In the midst of the more urgent problems, the people were becoming increasingly concerned by the handicap caused by lack of transportation to outside markets.  Cattle and sheep had to be trailed long, slow, dusty miles to the nearest railhead, Winnemucca or The Dalles, and all supplies and merchandise had to be freighted in from The Dalles, 150 miles by wagon, a trip that might take two weeks round trip, depending on the season of the year.

Most Prineville people were confident that the railroad magnates could not continue to ignore the possibilities for hauling the products of Crook County, which included  millions of board feet of prime ponderosa pine timber from the Ochoco Mountains.  As early as 1890, hopes for a railroad had mounted when Col.  T. Egenton Hogg had started construction on his Oregon Pacific, which was to run from Yaquina Bay on the Oregon coast east to Ontario, along the route of the Willamette Valley Cascade Mountain Wagon Road.  Disappointment wasn’t too great when Col.  Hogg stopped before he reached Idanha, because by that time there was action in another direction.  The Columbia Southern Railroad had been constructed and was in operation to Shaniko, just 60 miles north of Prineville.

Things were really looking up.  Now it only took 12 hours by fast stage to cover the 60 miles to the railroad.  And besides, all the talk indicated that the CS would continue south to Antelope, thence to Prineville and would answer all problems of reaching markets.  However, the extension of the CS was never to be.  In the first place, the extremely steep grade from Shaniko to Antelope, provided serious construction and operational obstacles, which would have made it prohibitively expensive to continue the railway south.  Then in the second place, why should the owners of the CS spend all that money to take the railroad to the territory south when all the freight was already being brought to them at Shaniko with no effort on their part and little choice on the part of the shippers?  So, the Columbia Southern never passed Shaniko and another dream died.

For the next ten years there were dozens of rumors of railroads coming to Prineville.  Such reports were so numerous that the Crook County Journal even started a column called “Railroad Rumors” to consolidate all the information in one place.  Then in 1909, things took a serious turn.  E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific announced he would build a railroad south down the Deschutes Canyon.  Then, Jim Hill of the Great Northern, entered the picture and the battle was joined.  The many stories of the war down the Deschutes Canyon, with dynamite, trickery, guns and pickaxes as favorite weapons, are well known as the last of the great railroad epics.

The people of Prineville entertained Hill and then Harriman and listened appreciatively to their orations detailing the virtues of Crook County.  At that time Crook County included all of what is now Jefferson, Deschutes and Crook Counties, but it didn’t occur to the Prineville group that the orators might be speaking of any but their own Crooked River Valley.  As the two rail lines reached the Agency Plains, Prineville waited and watched to see the rails veer to the east toward Prineville.  Finally, when the Deschutes Railway and the Oregon Trunk settled their differences, sharing the Crooked River Gorge bridge and one line south, it became painfully obvious that proud Prineville, Mother City of Central Oregon, was being bypassed and ignored.  To add to the ignominy, the people of the fast-growing towns of Bend, Redmond and Madras were becoming impatient at having to travel to the county seat at Prineville to conduct business, so in 1914, the northern part of Crook County was separated to form Jefferson County, then in 1916 another section was severed to form Deschutes County.

Still, Prineville people were not noted for giving up easily, and they thought that either the Deschutes Railway , which was taken over by the UP, or the Oregon Trunk would build a branch up Crooked River, but this was not to be either.  It seemed that the Oregon Trunk and the Deschutes would share equally in any freight that might develop from a line into Prineville, so there was no incentive for either of them to invest the money necessary.

The next few years were ones of high hopes and deep disappointments.

Numerous proposals were made for railroads into Prineville, most of them made by promoters who solicited local people for funds. As 1916 began, the city leaders finally acknowledged that if there was to be a railroad, the city would have to build it. This wasn’t such a revolutionary idea at the time.  Roseburg, Klamath Falls, Grants Pass, Medford, Burns and even Bend had bonded themselves to build railroads, or were contemplating doing so.  Roseburg, Klamath Falls and Grants Pass actually did build their roads, but they disposed of them as quickly as they could.

In February 1916, when the City Council proposed that Prineville build its own railroad, the idea caught hold immediately and when the first $100,000 bond election was held, the voters, in an amazing display of almost unanimity, voted 355 to 1 for the bonds.  The first bonds could not be sold, so it was necessary to vote again in September 1916.  The local newspaper editor pleaded for complete unanimous approval, but in spite of his plea, that voter wouldn’t change his mind, and this time the vote was 358 to 1. There was much speculation as to whom this one miscreant could be and it’s been said that he was hanged in effigy.  He must have been able to conceal his feelings pretty well, or he might have easily found himself hanged in person.

Early in 1917 construction on the nineteen mile line, which joined the OT and UP main line at a point 4 miles north of Redmond called Prineville Junction.  Optimism reigned, dampened only by the beginning of World War 1. However, before long trouble clouds appeared and it soon became evident that more money would be needed for the railroad.  A third election was held, with a comfortable majority favoring another $100,000 bond issue.  When it became necessary to hold a fourth, and then a fifth election, the small voter turnout and the smaller favorable majorities told a sad story.  The people of Prineville were no longer so enthusiastic or so optimistic, but they couldn’t stop now.  This was to be the story for the next 25 years.

After the road was finished in 1918 and operation started, things went pretty well for the first couple of years.  Passenger traffic was good and freight traffic, mostly livestock, provided enough business so that the C of P ran four trains a day to Prineville Junction.  The C of P did own a locomotive which was used for heavy traffic, but the “Galloping Goose”, a gasoline driven combination freight and passenger car, made most of the trips.  This strange contrivance, which couldn’t haul enough freight to make it worthwhile, and which certainly didn’t provide anything in the way of passenger comfort, served for many years as the mainstay of the C of P.  The “Galloping Goose” is still remembered by old timers who made the bumpety-bumpety ride down Crooked River Canyon, through the fields, past the childhood home of Governor Tom McCall. up O’Neil Hill past spectacular Smith Rocks to the Junction.  Too soon, with the advent of the automobile, fewer and fewer people rode the “Goose”.  Freight traffic fared a little better, but truck transportation soon began to cut into this business too.

  1. J. Wilson, the first railroad manager, died in 1924. C. W. Woodruff was appointed second manager and to him fell the difficult task of keeping the railroad going for the next 20 years.  The people of Prineville had bonded themselves for $322,000 with the expectation that the railroad would soon be sold, but no sale materialized.  Even if the railroad was abandoned, the heavy bonded indebtedness would still have to be paid, so the C of  P had to operate.  For year after year, the people taxed themselves to pay the interest on the railroad bonds.  The Depression piled trouble on trouble and many embittered taxpayers cursed the railroad and those who had conceived the idea, without stopping to realize that the railroad was the means of keeping Prineville alive.  Without the City of Prineville Railroad, the timber from the Ochoco’s would have been hauled to Redmond, and Prineville would surely have met the same fate as Shaniko and Antelope.  Those towns had been bustling centers of activity until the OT and Deschutes (UP) railroads started service to Madras, and then, overnight the towns died, to be added to the list of Oregon’s ghost towns, visited only by a local rancher or occasional tourists.

In the late 1930’s things began to brighten up a bit as the sawmills started to come in.  At last, the long awaited activity in the lumber business was beginning and the construction of the C of P was justified, but, even after the long 20 year struggle, troubles were still not over.  The railway had been built cheaply to start with, there had been no money for proper maintenance, so that the untreated ties were rotten, the ballast was almost gone and the light rails were twisted and crooked.  The situation could hardly have been worse.  Here was the traffic which was so badly needed, but the railway couldn’t handle it.  Rarely was a trip made to the Junction without a costly, time consuming derailment.  The railway limped through the next few years, which, with the beginning of World War II, brought more pressure from the Government and the mills for more efficient service.

Drastic measures were necessary.  C. C. McGlenn was chosen to tackle the monumental task of rebuilding the railroad.  The railway had no funds with which to work, but the sawmills made loans, the City advanced funds and the OT and UP cooperated, so that, gradually, over the next few years the roadbed was rebuilt, new ties laid, new bridges constructed, and the 60 lb. rail replaced.  The steam locomotive was put into good operating condition so by the end of 1950, things were going smoothly.

The 1950’s and 1960’s were prosperous ones.  Seemingly, Crook County was isolated from the rebellion and unrest which plagued the rest of the nation, beginning in the 1960’s with the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert Kennedy and the acceleration of the Vietnam War.

During the 1950’s the C of P Railway was able to pay all its debts, and to transfer substantial sums to the City’s General Fund to be used to build parks, a swimming pool and a City Hall, and to begin a reserve fund for future needs.

For five years, from 1964 through 1968, the City did not levy property taxes, much to the envy of other Oregon cities.

In 1968,  the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Railway, a new depot was constructed, said to be the first railroad depot to be built in the U.S. since the early 1900’s.

In 1969 the City began to levy property taxes again.  In that year the levy was $28,799, which was the maximum allowed under Oregon law.  For the next 14 years the City was fortunate in that the taxpayers approved tax levies and the City was no longer dependent on the Railway for operating funds.  In 1984 the taxpayers approved a new tax base, so it is no longer necessary to go to the voters every year for funds with which to operate the City.

In 1971 Railway shipments reached their zenith when 10,076 carloads, mostly lumber, were shipped to Prineville Junction.  From that time on, for the next 30 years, car loadings leveled, then gradually, steadily, then precipitously, declined until, in 2001, only 798 carloads were shipped out.

 

 

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