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The Columbia River: Its History, Its Myths, Its Scenery, Its Commerce/Part 1/Chapter 11


CHAPTER XI

Era of the Miner, the Cowboy, the Farmer, the Boomer, and the Railroad Builder

Early Gold-hunters—Gold in California—Effects of that Discovery on the Columbia River Country—Growth of Towns on the Columbia—Discovery of Gold in the Colville Country—Gold on the Clearwater—Stampede to the Idaho Mines—Cowboys Rush in with the Miners—Sudden Development of Industries at Walla Walla, Lewiston, and Other Towns—Profits and Fare in the Mines in 1861—The Hard Winter—Development of the Farming Industry—The Boomers—The Hard Times—The Railroad Age—Beginning of Railroading in the Willamette Valley—Ben Holladay—Transcontinental Railways—Henry Villard—His Great Building and his Downfall—The Present Railroads on the River—Dr. D. S. Baker and the Pioneer Railroad on the Upper River.

THE age of gold in the Columbia pressed hard upon that of the trappers. But it dawned first far south.

The Spaniards had sought the precious metals with boundless energy. Richly had the treasures of the Montezumas and the Incas rewarded their reckless cupidity. But as they moved northward they met with nothing but disappointment. The El Dorados of their ardent fancy had vanished as they turned toward Oregon and California.

In 1848 the guns of Stockton and Fremont thundered the salvos of American occupation over the Sierras. Just as the sovereignty of Uncle Sam was acknowledged, the long-sought discovery of gold startled the world.

In 1838 a gay, mercurial Switzer, Captain Sutter, had made his way with a band of trappers across the plains to Oregon, and thence had gone to California. A dashing adventurer, without money, but with boundless sang-froid and bonhommie, Sutter had marvellously interested all whom he met and in some inexplicable manner had got money and credit sufficient to build a fort and start an immense ranch on the Sacramento, almost on the site of the present capital of the Golden State. "Sutter's fort" became one of the most notable places in California. In 1844 James W. Marshall went to the Columbia, but after only a year's stay made his way to California. In 1847 he entered into partnership with Sutter in a sawmill enterprise at Coloma on the south fork of the American River. There, while at work in the mill-race on the 19th of January, 1848, Marshall discovered shining particles. Gold!

The discovery was made, and soon the secret was out. And then—! There never was anything quite comparable to what followed. The first and greatest of the great stampedes for gold took place.

When the tidings reached Oregon it was as though a prairie fire were running over the country. Men went fairly mad. Throngs, hardly stopping to take their ploughs from the furrow, mounted their horses, galloped off up the Willamette, through the lonely valleys of the Umpqua and the Rogue River, over the Siskiyou, and down the Sacramento, where a fortune could be had for the digging.

All the stress and strain of American life and history reached the utmost intensity in the fever strife for gold on the Sacramento. The Willamette and Columbia were almost equally stirred. During the first two years of the gold excitement homes on the Columbia were well-nigh deserted. Then the Oregonians began to drift back again. Some came with gold-bricks in their pockets and sacks of gold-dust in their packs. Some came broken in health and spirits, sick with disappointment. Some did not come at all, and their bones found unmarked graves in the pestilential ditches of the Sacramento.

But the shrewder Oregonians perceived that they had better than a gold mine in the trade with California. Grain, fruit, eggs, lumber,—these were in such demand that frequently twenty ships at a time were moored by the dense forests of the lower Willamette waiting for cargoes. Gold-dust was the universal medium, and it seemed to be cheaper than anything else. Four bushels of Oregon apples brought five hundred dollars in gold-dust in San Francisco. Tons of eggs were sold for a dollar apiece in the gold mines.

Portland, the lonely little village on the Willamette, with just enough of a foothold by the edge of the forest to keep from rolling into the River, sprang at a bound into the rank of a city. The huge firs were dug out, and wharves went in. The face of nature, even, as well as that of industry and politics, was transformed by that gold-dust in Marshall's mill-race on the Sacramento.

But, most of all, the disposition of the people was changed. The serene, idyllic, pastoral age passed, and the fierce lust for wealth, the boundless imagination, the fever in the veins, came on. Why should there not be gold as well by the Columbia as by the Sacramento! The men who had come down the Columbia in search for homes and grass-land for cattle, now began to retrace their steps and turn again up the River in search of the precious metals. Nor was it long before discovery of gold in the region tributary to Colville was made known. The first discovery was at the mouth of the Pend Oreille River. A regular stampede ensued. Other discoveries on a greater scale were soon to follow. During the early days of the gold excitement of California, a Nez Percé Indian had wandered on to the Sacramento. He made acquaintance with a group of miners, who became impressed with his general force and dignity. Among these miners was E. D. Pearce, and to him the Indian gave a vivid account of his home in the wilds of what is now Idaho. He told also a tale of how he with two companions were once in the high mountains, when they beheld in the night a light of dazzling brilliance, with the appearance of a refulgent star. The Indians looked at this with awe as the eye of the Great Spirit. But in the morning they summoned courage sufficient to investigate, and found a glittering ball that looked like glass. It was so embedded in the rock that they could not dislodge it. It was clear to them that this was some great "tomanowas." On hearing this fantastic story, the mind of Pearce was kindled with the idea that perhaps the Indians had found an immense diamond. He determined to seek it. After several years he made his way up the Columbia and reached Walla Walla. From that point he ranged the mountains of Idaho, but for a long time met no success. With a company of seven men, he entered upon an elaborate search, which finally so much aroused the suspicion of the Indians that they ordered him from the country. Nothing daunted, however, he induced a Nez Percé woman to guide the party from the Palouse to the Lolo trail, from which they reached an unfrequented valley on the north fork of the Clearwater. There one of the party, W. F. Bassett, tried washing a pan of dirt, with the result that he got a "colour." This was the first discovery of gold in Idaho, and the spot was where Oro Fino afterwards stood.

Fall was coming on, and after digging out a small amount of dust, the party deemed it wise to return to the settlements for a more thorough outfitting. Accordingly, they went to Walla Walla and located with J. C. Smith, to whom they imparted their secret. So impressed was Mr. Smith with the tidings that he organised a party of fifteen, with whom he returned just at the opening of the winter of that same year, 1860. Soon shut in by deep snows in inaccessible mountains, the little company built five rude huts, and in the intervals of the storms they dug for gold along the streams, meeting with such success that in March Mr. Smith made his way to Walla Walla with $800 in gold-dust. The dust was sent to Portland. Now ensued another gold excitement and stampede almost equal to that of '49 in California.

As the miners rushed into Idaho, every other species of industry rushed up the River with them. The cowboy came side by side with the miner. In fact, already following close on the heels of the Indian war, had come an inrush of cattle, horses, and sheep. During the last years of the decade of the fifties, stockmen had driven from the Willamette Valley thousands of head of stock to the rich pasture lands of the Walla Walla, Umatilla, and Yakima. When the gold discoveries of 1860 and 1861 became known, the activities of the cowboys were multiplied, added bands of stock were driven in, all the wild and extravagant features of a combined cowboy and mining age, vendors of "chain-lightning and forty-rod," gamblers, prostitutes, murderers,—and with them missionaries and teachers,—became reproduced again on the shores of the Columbia, Snake, Clearwater, Salmon, Walla Walla, and other rivers of the Inland Empire. It was another of those wild eras in which the worst and the best that are in human nature jostled each other at every turn.

Transportation problems followed close upon the cowboy and the miner. The Oregon Steam Navigation Company, organised in 1860, began within a year to run steamboats from Portland to Lewiston, with portage railroads around the Cascades and the Dalles. Stage lines were started from Umatilla, Walla Walla, and Lewiston, within a year or two after the gold discoveries of Oro Fino. Prairie-schooners, huge waggons, sometimes three in tandem fashion, drawn by a team of twenty mules, with jingling bells, driven with a "single line," formed the approved system of hauling freight over the mountain roads. In addition to the stages and prairie-schooners, however, thousands of mules and horses were driven with pack-saddles over the trails and roads. Then was the time when "throwing the diamond hitch" became a fine art. Then was the time, too, when it behooved stage-drivers and packers to be handy with a "gun," for "road-agents" were plentiful and vigilant. Many a man with a pack-saddle loaded with gold-dust, or sometimes with whiskey or even "canned goods," "passed in his checks" under some over-shadowing tree or behind some sheltering rock.

Both the distresses and the successes of that epoch are well illustrated by extracts from some of the newspapers of the time. From issues of the Washington Statesman of Walla Walla, we learn that flour was at one time a dollar a pound; beef, thirty to fifty cents a pound; bacon, sixty; beans, thirty; rice, fifty; tea a dollar and a half; tobacco, a dollar and a half; sugar, fifty cents; candles, a dollar. Some of these staples could not be had at all. Physicians, when they got into the mines, would charge twenty dollars a visit. Board was from five to ten dollars a day, frequently more.

But as an offset to the expense and frequent positive suffering, we gather the following item from an issue of the Statesman in December, 1861:

S. F. Ledyard arrived last evening from the Salmon River mines, and from him it is learned that some six hundred miners would winter there; that some two hundred had gone to the south side of the river, where two streams head that empty into the Salmon, some thirty miles south-east of the present mining camp. Coarse gold is found, and as high as one hundred dollars per day to the man has been taken out. The big mining claim of the old locality belongs to Mr. Weiser of Oregon, from which two thousand six hundred and eighty dollars were taken out on the 20th, with two rockers. On the 21st, three thousand three hundred and sixty dollars were taken out with the same machines.

The Statesman for December 13, 1861, contains the following:

During the week past not less than two hundred and twenty-five pack animals, heavily laden with provisions, have left this city for the mines. A report in relation to a rich strike by Mr. Bridges of Oregon City seems to come well authenticated. The first day he worked on his claim (near Baboon Gulch) he took out fifty-seven ounces; the second day he took out one hundred and fifty-seven ounces; the third day, two hundred and fourteen ounces; and the fourth day, two hundred ounces in two hours.

As an ounce of gold was worth sixteen dollars, it will be seen that Mr. Bridges of Oregon City had truly "struck it rich."

Within a year, a million and a half dollars in gold-dust had been taken from those mines. Anticipated demands led cattlemen to rush still larger numbers of stock into the upper Columbia Basin, and traders brought in yet larger supplies of goods into Walla Walla and Lewiston, as well as the mining camps themselves. A considerable part of these goods, we regret to narrate, consisted of material for spirituous refreshments. That the said refreshments were of a stalwart character may be inferred from a reminiscence of a traveller to Walla Walla, who relates that upon going into one of the numerous saloons, he found the floor covered with sawdust, and upon asking for whiskey, he received with it a whisk-broom. Feeling puzzled as to the intent of the latter, and not wishing to reveal his ignorance, he waited till another man came in. Waiting for developments, he found that the object of the broom was to sweep off a place on the floor to have a fit on, for the whiskey was sure

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An Oregon Pioneer in his Cabin.
Photo. by E. H. Moorehouse.

to produce one. After having got through his fit, the happy (?) purchaser would return the broom and go on his way.

Just as miners, cowboys, and traders were plunging eagerly into every form of enterprise, the famous "hard winter" of '61 descended upon the country. It was almost a Minnesota winter. There was snow on the ground from December 1st to March 22d, something never known before or since in the Columbia Basin. Cattle could find no food and perished by the thousands. Miners were found frozen into the stiff crust. In the rude cabins, with wide cracks into which the snow drifted, the few women and children in the Inland Empire fought a distressing and frequently losing fight. Even in the Willamette Valley where houses were more comfortable, supplies more plentiful, and the weather less severe, the conditions were hard enough. At Portland the price of hay was eighty dollars a ton. In Eastern Oregon it could not be obtained for any price, and the maintenance of life by cattle depended entirely on their endurance.

But with the coming on of tardy spring, the rush up the River was resumed, and the game went on. Seven millions in gold was reported in 1862, besides almost as much, as was estimated, taken out in ways of which no record was reported.

At Florence in February, 1862, flour was a dollar a pound; butter, three dollars; sugar, a dollar and a quarter; coffee, two dollars; boots, thirty dollars a pair.

The enormous profits, as well as enormous expense, of developing those mines hastened the coming of the farmer. Among the throng that passed madly into the mountains for gold, and among the throng that drove the wide-horned cattle over the bunch-grass hills, there were a few keen-eyed observers who asked themselves if wheat and corn and potatoes and barley and fruit-trees might not grow on those broad prairies, and especially along the numerous watercourses descending from the Blue Mountains.

A farm here and there at some favourable point beside some favouring stream, followed in two or three years by a flour-mill, then a few apples whose bright red cheeks and fragrant smell showed that the upper Columbia lands could match those of the Willamette, then an experimental wheat-field or barley-field on the high bunch-grass prairies,—and, almost before people realised it, the farmer was standing up beside the miner and the stockman, as tall and broad and important as either. The plough and the hoe and the mowing-machine took their places beside the pick and gold-pan and quirt and schapps and spurs as symbols of Columbia River nobility.

The "boomer" was the logical result of the development of mine and range and farm and garden and orchard. If people were going to eat and travel and raise wheat and cattle, they must inevitably buy and sell. And if they were going to buy and sell, they must needs "boom." The decade of the eighties was the great age of the boom in real estate along the Columbia and its tributaries. Then, as also upon Puget Sound, cities were founded with most extravagant size and expectations—on paper. Farm lands changed hands rapidly. If a man could raise nothing else on his land, he could at least raise the price.

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Old Portage Railroad at Cascades in 1860.


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A Log-boom Down the River for San Francisco.
Photo. by Woodfield.

That was the time when the boomer boomed, the promoter promoted, and the sucker sucked. It was a great age, but alas, it was followed by an awakening, similar to that which follows a night of carousal, when the next day brings a dark-brown taste in the mouth and a very heavy head. The decade of the nineties was dolorous along the River and in the mines and forests and farms and town-lots and additions and suburbs adjoining.

Interlocked with the days of miner, cowboy, rancher, and boomer, was another age of equal importance and one that was both result and cause of the others. This was the age of the railroad builder.

Transportation by the River was a great feature of traffic in the fifties and sixties. But, during the second of those decades, the people of Portland began to realise that the time had arrived for rails as well as sails. The first great transcontinental railroad, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific, was in active process of building between California and Omaha. A fever of railroad building spread to the Columbia River people. Railroads were projected from Portland on both sides of the Willamette, up the valley, with the view of ultimate connection with California. Surveys were made by S. G. Elliott from Marysville, California, to Portland in 1863. It was October, 1870, when the first train reached Salem, the capital of the State. The road was known as the Oregon Central Railroad, and its manager and ultimately its chief owner was Ben Holladay, the most famous railroad man of that period in Oregon. In 1871 and 1872, railroad building was extended on the west side of the Willamette. The lines on both sides were reorganised under Mr. Holladay's control as the Oregon and California Railroad.

Meanwhile the air was full of discussion of a transcontinental line to the Pacific Northwest. The conception of a Northern Pacific railroad was nothing new. Away back in 1853, Governor I. I. Stevens and Captain George B. McClellan had made a reconnaissance across the Rocky and Cascade Mountains and over the great plains of the Columbia, for the purpose of ascertaining a route for a northern line. They pronounced the route feasible, but the time had not yet come for such an undertaking. In a letter to McClellan of April 5, 1853, Governor Stevens states the route to be from St. Paul to Puget Sound by the great bend of the Missouri River. It is interesting to note that this is nearly the course afterwards followed.

Work on the Northern Pacific was begun in the vicinity of Kalama on the Columbia in 1870. The financial panic of 1873 resulted in the failure of Jay Cooke & Company, the backers of the enterprise, and for several years railroad work was at a standstill.

In 1879 there came to Oregon the greatest railroad builder of that era, Henry Villard. He was a true financial genius, daring, far-seeing, persistent, and self-reliant. With the quick grasp of a statesman, Mr. Villard perceived that the Columbia River was the key to a boundless opportunity. He saw that a central line up the Columbia with branches north, east, and south-east, might be thrust like a wedge between the Northern Pacific and the Union Pacific and control both. In pursuance of this conception he made three rapid moves. The first was the

incorporation of the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company. The second was the formation of the "blind pool" and the Oregon and Transcontinental Company. The third was the acquisition of a controlling interest in the Northern Pacific Railroad. The three years up to and including 1883 were years of almost feverish activity along the River. The line of the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company between Wallula and Portland was pushed on with tireless energy. Rock bluffs were split off by enormous charges of dynamite, or were tunnelled through. The road was indeed built so hastily and the curves were in some cases so extreme that much work had to be done over at later times.

A part of Villard's plan in pushing the work so hastily was to divert the Northern Pacific system to the River, and make Portland rather than Puget Sound the western terminus. The undertaking seemed to be crowned with success. The connection was made. A gorgeous celebration, the greatest ever held in the Columbia River country, commemorated, in October, 1883, the completion of the transcontinental railroad to tide-water on the Columbia River. But in the very hour of victory, the sceptre fell from Villard's hands. His downfall was as sudden and dramatic as his rise. By clever jobbing of the market, the Wright interests regained possession of the majority of the Northern Pacific stock, the transcontinental pool broke, and at the very time that Mr. Villard was being worshipped at Portland as the financial god of the North-west, he learned that his gigantic enterprise had fallen into the hands of the enemy. But in spite of defeat the work of Villard was and his name and fame as the champion railroad builder of the Columbia River was established.

After the Wright interests had regained possession of the Northern Pacific, that great system was pushed to Puget Sound. The Oregon Short Line was carried to a connection with the Union Pacific system. Thus two independent transcontinental lines reached the River. Yet later the Southern Pacific system acquired control of the Oregon and California Railroad, and, by joining the sections, connected the Columbia River with the Golden Gate. Through connecting lines the Canadian Pacific Railroad gained access to the Columbia River. There are, therefore, four distinct transcontinental railroad systems into the valley of our River. Two more are rapidly approaching completion. As a logical result, too, many local and connecting lines have been built. The Astoria and Columbia River Railroad, on the Oregon side of the River, joins Portland to Astoria and Seaside and the other resorts of the ocean beach. The Oregon Railway and Navigation Company has continuous connection on the south side of the Columbia and Snake rivers to Riparia on the latter stream, and thence by a road on the north side, owned jointly with the Northern Pacific, to Lewiston, Idaho. The most remarkable of all these connecting and joint roads is the Portland, Seattle, and Spokane Railroad, commonly called the “North Bank Road.” This is supposed to be the joint property of the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railroads. It is one of the many monuments in the West to the financial genius and tireless energy of James J. Hill. It was completed in 1908, between Pasco and Portland, and

at the first of the year following, from Pasco to Spokane. It is said to be the most expensively and scientifically built road in the United States, having curves and grades reduced to a minimum, being, in fact, a continuous descent from near Spokane to tide-water. Its builders evidently expect stupendous traffic, and every feature of the line is adjusted to such expectation.

Any account of the great railroads joining the Inland Empire to the River and thence to the seaboard would be incomplete without reference to the pioneer of them all, the “Strap-iron” narrow-gauge from Walla Walla to Wallula. This line was forced by the exigencies of the times, but it commemorates the rare commercial foresight and ability of a man, who, in native business genius, ranks with the foremost in the history of the Columbia Valley. This man was Dr. D. S. Baker, a native of Illinois, an immigrant to the Columbia in 1848, and a settler in Walla Walla in 1860. Perceiving the vast latent resources of the Inland Empire, he invested in land, founded a bank, became a partner in a store, and during much of the time was also actively engaged in his profession of medicine.

In 1863, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company was running boats from Portland to Lewiston, over four hundred miles, having short railroad portages at the Cascades and The Dalles. That was the most active era of the mines in Idaho. Rates from Portland to up-river points were as follows: freight from Portland to Wallula, $50.00 per ton; to Lewiston, $90.00; fare from Portland to Wallula, $18.00; to Lewiston, $28.00. (The rates had been much higher a year or two earlier.) From Wallula to Walla Walla, freight was hauled by prairie-schooners at from $10.00 to $12.00 a ton, thirty miles. Needless to say, the company piled up a fortune.

Dr. Baker saw the possibilities of the region and, almost unaided, with every difficulty and discouragement, constructed a narrow gauge, with wooden rails, on which strap-iron was fastened. An astonishing amount of business was soon developed, steel rails were substituted, and the business made a fortune for its builder. It was absorbed by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company. But Dr. Baker's strap-iron road may be considered the true progenitor of the railroads of the upper Columbia.

During these first years of the twentieth century, the shores of the River have echoed with the sound of whistles on many a new road, but the distinguishing mark has been the construction of electric roads. The lower Willamette Valley, centring at Portland, has become fairly swarming with electric roads. Spokane has become almost an equal centre of electric lines, while Walla Walla is following close behind her larger sisters in the procession. When lines already constructed from Spokane southward are joined to a system projected from Walla Walla northward and westward, there will be a complete system of independent electric lines from all parts of Eastern Washington and North-eastern Oregon to steamboat connections on the River, and thence to tide-water. The significance of this as a commercial fact cannot be realised as yet.