Sidetracked in Ashland

In May of 1884, the Oregon and California Rail Road Company had reached Ashland from Portland, yet it would take another three years to finish the expensive and arduous tunneling and track to master the Siskiyou Pass. During these years all train passengers had to travel by stagecoach over a toll road between Ashland and California, resulting in perhaps the most traveled stagecoach segment in the United States.

Once the rails were connected by the Golden Spike on Dec. 17, 1887, the United States culminated its transcontinental connection, marking the end of the dependence on the stagecoach for travel along these most ridden routes.

If you are thinking about trying to find that golden spike just remember that it was extracted like a wobbly molar moments after the mandatory pictures were taken, then replaced by the regular variety in the blink of an eye.

With the trains came abundant commerce as passengers became tourists and our fecund valley was able to ship the abundant pears, peaches and other fruits out to the vast markets both north and south. Milled lumber joined the lot, as multi-car locomotives pulled passengers and freight up the steep grade to the pass, there to flow down into a fast-growing California economy.

Every day, I walk down Eighth Street to the railroad tracks, where the Golden Spike was driven 120 years ago and my mind wanders back to the days of hissing steam locomotives and stagecoaches at the ready, crowds cheering and vendors peddling. When I stop to reflect, I can almost hear the mighty roar and hissing of the steam locomotives that arrived and departed many times a day from the station and yard in Ashland.

But something out of the ordinary rests like an abandoned beast on the tracks. For the last 50 days or so, 30 center-walled freight cars have sat motionless on a side-track from Oak to Seventh streets, forming a wall of steel that separates the town from the Peace Fence, a very good use for an unnecessary fence constructed to protect us from harm, or to punish us, because many in town thought it better to haul away contaminated soil by rail instead of by truck as proposed by the railroad. Several calls to Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad's office in Eugene have gone unreturned at the time of the writing of this article.

We can only speculate if it is a poor economy, retribution or some other reason why so many cars seem stranded so far away from any intended user.

The most recent rumor is that the run over the Siskiyous will be abandoned altogether, even just after a major remaking of Tunnel 13 and star-studded photo-op to and through the scene of the last major train robbery in the United States, seems just days away from being reality.

"But, thank Heaven, the railway companies are generally disposed to do the right and kindly thing without compulsion. I know of an instance which greatly touched me at the time. After an accident the company sent home the remains of a dear distant old relative of mine in a basket, with the remark, 'Please state what figure you hold him at, and return the basket.'

Now there couldn't be anything friendlier than that."

"" Mark Twain, "Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims, and Other Speeches"

A century ago a gentleman, sitting comfortably in the Pullman Dining Car at the top of the Siskiyous, sated after a fine meal and, while puffing generously on a dear cigar, looked about the car. He was seated in the fabled catbird seat: Ornate carved woods, padded leather chairs, leaded glass windows, sconce and hanging lamps, tables with linen, shining silverware, carafes of potable water, fresh flowers in vases, impeccably dressed passengers and crisply efficient waiters and staff our traveler was almost to Ashland, Oregon.

The usual configuration of such a train in the 1900s would be: Two 4-6-0 (four front guidance wheels, six drive wheels and no wheels behind), "Ten Wheeler" type steam locomotives on the front, followed by one or two baggage cars, three or four chair cars, one or two Pullman sleepers, one parlor or observation car and a dining car. Many of the train's passengers would eat at the Ashland station on arrival, where dinner would cost fifty-cents and would always be the same: Chicken Fricassee. The layover was usually 30 minutes while drinking water was replenished and the cars serviced. The Ashland Depot had a large dining hall with linen, hat racks under the chairs and crisp service. Hot wings and a beer. Keep the change.

Yet our traveler still had to make it down the grade, a 2,178-foot vertical descent over the steepest grade under ownership of the Standard Pacific Railroad. From the infamous 3,108-foot-long Tunnel 13 at the Siskiyou Summit, it was nothing but downhill to Ashland. As the train began its descent he could hear the engineer's whistle signaling the Brakemen to set the brakes, causing several lurches, this amidst high-pitched screeching and a flurry of sparks.

The breaking power of the locomotives, combined with that of each car, was formidable. Yet the devil in the descent was the possibility that things might get unraveled and the train become a runaway &

the greatest fear of the engineer, brakemen and passengers. Sparks flew as metal ground and steam plumbs hissed, vast pistons of power holding down the throttle, compression gagging the possibility of a ruin on the rails "&


This rich history was re-routed through Klamath Falls in 1922, bypassing the treacherous Siskiyous in favor of a faster route. Freight trains still pass through Ashland, but the handwriting is on the wall there is much talk of closing the pass and shipping everything north to Eugene, leaving Ashland with untended rails, the absence of trains, tainted soils and a final spike to the heart of Ashland's past.

Lance was last seen walking down the tracks as a light dusting of snow fell, clearly hearing and feeling more vibrant times past. You may send him a telegram by getting steamed and pounding

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