The Railroad Wars

Oregon's rugged but picturesque Deschutes River canyon became the battle ground of a vicious war between rival railroad companies during the early 1900s.

On one side was James J. Hill, who first announced plans to help develop Central Oregon after visiting the Lewis and Clark Exhibition in Portland in 1905. Rumor had it Hill intended to build a railroad through Central Oregon, beginning at Bend and extending south to Klamath Falls and into northern California.

On the other side of the tussle was builder E. H. Harriman, who upon hearing the rumors of Hill's rail plans organized the Deschutes Railroad Co., and began surveying and filing maps of rights of way over government land in the Deschutes River canyon.

A man posing as sports fisherman John F. Sampson entered the picture a short time later and began buying up Options on wild lands and ranches throughout the Deschutes River Valley. He then approached William Nelson, the man who held controlling interest in a speculative, but non-existant railroad company called the Oregon Trunk Line, organized in 1906 in Nevada. Sampson bought Nelson's interests for $150,000.

It later was revealed that John F. Sampson was really John F. Stevens, the noted engineer behind the development of the Panama Canal and the Great Northern Railroad. Stevens had actually bought the Oregon Trunk Railroad for Hill, who furnished the funds to build the rail line through Central Oregon.

That signalled the beginning of the frantic race between Hill and Harriman to see who would complete the rail lines first. Twohy Brothers of Spokane were hired as contractors to build the grade for the Deschutes Railroad Co., the Hardman subsidary. Camps were set up all along the 45-mile stretch between the mouth of the Deschutes River and Sherars Bridge.

At the same time, Hill hired Porter Brothers as his prime contractor on the Oregon Trunk Railroad line. More than 1,000 men were hired under 20 separate contracts to complete the line work.

As might be expected, tension mounted between the rival camps. Each faction used dynamite and blasting powder to disrupt or delay their competitors' work. Some workers were injured and a few died.

Twohy Brothers established their main headquarters and commissary at Grass Valley, then constructed a ten-mile road to the Deschutes River at Horseshoe Bend at a cost of $10,000. Twohy Brothers obtained a 30-day option to buy the ranch of Fred Girt which crossed part of the roadway. But when Porter Brothers learned their competitors had not exercised their option, they bought Girt's property themselves for an inflated price of $38,000. They quickly built a fence and posted an armed guard at the gate to prevent Twohy's hands from reaching the river. The Porter Brothers also purchased a spring from which Twohys men had been getting their water supply.

Twohy Brothers went to court and obtained a temporary injunction against Porter Brothers, preventing the company from denying Twohy employees access to the river. Into the fray stepped young, newly-elected Sherman County Sheriff Jay G. Freeman. Freeman was determined to see that the court's order was carried out, even if it meant resorting to force.

When Porter Brothers employees first ignored the injunction and continued stopping Twohy hands at the gate, Freeman, in his familiar horse and buggy, and several sworn-in deputies showed up bright and early the next morning, armed and ready for action. Porter Brothers employees backed down and Twohy' s men were allowed to pass through and proceed down the steep grade to the river.

But Freeman didn't stop there. He arrested three of the Porter Brothers workers, charging them with inciting a riot by refusing Twohy wagons permission to proceed down the grade.

Mack's Canyon, some 25 miles upstream, also was blocked by a gate erected by the Porter Brothers. Twohy Brothers wagons were unhitched by Porter Brothers workers and the wagon drivers were being beaten with pick handles and clubs .Freeman again was dispatched to the scene with a court order to open the road. When the Porter Brothers foreman refused, Freeman arrested him, placed him in handcuffs and put the man in his buggy for a trip to the Sherman County Jail.

Freeman and his men were kept busy trying to maintain law and order between the warring railroad workers. The wars continued, even after construction in the Sherman County section was completed. But this time it was in the courts, with opposing attorneys arguing over who held the fights of way to the upper 60 miles of the Deschutes River canyon.

On Aug. 24, 1909, Federal Judge R.S. Bean in the U.S. District Court in Portland ruled that Hardman had no fights over government land in the upper 60 miles of the canyon. But Hardman's forces had acquired a ranch on the east bank of the fiver, below North Junction, which provided the only feasible railroad grade site. Hills' interests reluctantly agreed, in return, to allow Hardman the joint use of the Oregon Trunk line over the 11-mile stretch from Metolius to Bend, as well as joint terminal facilities.

Edward Hardman did not live to see completion of his railroad line. He died Sept. 9, 1909. But James J. Hill drove the final spike at Bend on Oct. 5, 1911. Ironically, later agreements allowed both railroads to use the same Oregon Trunk Railroad track from the mouth of the Deschutes River to Bend. It was generally considered better built than the Deschutes Railroad Co. track along the east bank of the fiver which were later torn up.

After leaving his sheriff's post, Jay C. Freeman operated a dry goods store in Moro for several years. He was appointed Moro postmaster in 1935, serving in that position 14 years before retiring in 1949. Freeman died in 1951 at the age of 78.

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