Railroad pioneer planned to bypass Rogue Valley

This month marks the 125th anniversary of the golden spike, that famous moment when the north-south railroad was completed at Ashland. But much less familiar is the story of daring transportation capitalist Ben Holladay, who built the tracks from Portland to Roseburg in 1870-72, planned to bypass the Rogue Valley, then went bankrupt before he could do it.

Holladay, already the owner of large shipping interests and the coast-to-coast Overland Stage, in 1866 acquired the rights to build the line, which would connect with the transcontinental Union Pacific in California. He would pay for it with German bonds and huge amounts of land awarded by the Interior Department, says Ashland historian Larry Mullaly, who will give a talk on the golden spike's anniversary at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14, in the Gresham Room at the Ashland library, 410 Siskiyou Blvd.

Holladay planned to avoid the torturous Siskiyou Pass by going through Sams Valley, then jumping the Cascades by Lake of the Woods and shooting down the Klamath Basin, says Mullaly, adding, "If he'd done it, there would have been no Medford."

Using new documents uncovered in the National Archives, Mullaly will tell the story of how Holladay, known as "the Prince of the Plains," bribed the Oregon Legislature, got $8 million from German investors, formed the Oregon and California Railroad, outcompeted another railroad laying track on the other side of the Willamette River, got to Roseburg in three years and completed surveying to Glendale.

"He controlled our Legislature. That was the norm back then. You just buy it," says Mullaly. "He had a lot of sway. He was known as Oregon's Man. He was good friends with President Grant."

Holladay won $6 million ($110 million in today's dollars) in federal subsidies to build the line. He was granted 28 square miles of land for each mile of track built and started "a huge land company," Mullaly says. He bought the Pony Express in earlier years and sold his Overland Stage to Wells Fargo in 1866 for $1.5 million ($27 million today) to get capital.

"But then things went south," he says. "There wasn't enough business in Oregon to pay interest on the bonds. He couldn't get the Interior Department to approve the 50-mile deviation to Klamath. Then came the Crash of 1873 and he went bankrupt."

Holladay would have been granted 1 million more acres of land with the longer route through Klamath, but it proved a bad gamble, disappointing Southern Pacific magnates who wanted the straight route through Siskiyou County, he says.

"The situation was beyond recall, and Holladay's empire and his public life imploded," notes Mullaly. "His wife died, he lost his shipping company, Oregon's relationship with the man who was able to do so much abruptly came to an end. Holladay was ruined. He never again played a significant role on the stage of history. And for years the railroad in Oregon, built so quickly and deftly, sat at Roseburg with weeds growing at the end of its tracks."

Holladay died in Portland a few months before the line was finished.

He had planned the north-south golden spike ceremony for Tulelake, Calif. It took another 15 years for the two lines to meet, which they did on Dec. 17, 1887, in the Ashland rail yard — after dark, Mullaly says, so there are no photographs of it.

Ashland's cornet band played, bonfires lined the hills, and the governor spoke, rejoicing that the "mountain-wall of partition between the two states has virtually been removed."

Charles Crocker, vice president of Southern Pacific, which laid the line north to Ashland, pounded in the same golden spike that joined transcontinental lines, Mullaly notes, adding that not a mention of Holladay was made.

Holladay was "illiterate, coarse, boastful, false and cunning," wrote Henry Villard, then president of Northern Pacific Railway. At the peak of his success, Holladay bought the Portland home of Dr. Rodney Glisan, then president of the Oregon Medical Association, and turned it into his own harem, filled with ladies of the night, according to E. Kimbark MacColl's "The Shaping of a City: Business and Politics in Portland, Oregon, 1885 to 1915."

"It was a fascinating era and Holladay had a bold plan," says Mullaly. His talk, sponsored by the Ashland Railroad Museum, is free and open to the public.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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