Oregon Trails: O&C Railroad and Act

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MEDFORD, Ore. – This year marks the 125th anniversary of the completion of the first railroad through our area, to connect Oregon and California; it’s also the 75th anniversary of the landmark congressional act creating the O&C Trust Lands that have provided timber revenue for 18 Oregon counties for decades.

160 years ago, when the first settlers arrived in our area, they came with the clip-clop of horses hooves, and the rattle of steel clad wagon wheels, rumbling along primitive roads and trails. Some 30 years later those horses of flesh and bone became iron horses, and those wheels were of iron, rolling on ribbons of steel.

This year marks the 125th anniversary of the arrival of the railroad through Southern Oregon, and the 75th anniversary of landmark legislation that shared the income of the old railroad lands with most of the counties of western Oregon. It was called the O&C Act. About the same time the transcontinental railroad was beginning construction in 1866, Congress passed the “Oregon and California Railroad Act”.

The idea was to promote development and growth in the west by making 3.7 million acres of land available for settlement. Settlers could buy up to 160 acres of that land at no more than two dollars and fifty cents an acre. The sale of the land would help finance railroad construction. Slowly the line moved south, leading to the creation of several new towns, including Grants Pass, Gold Hill, and Medford in Southern Oregon.

“There was some problems in Cow Creek canyon, there was that one mud slide that was [about] a half mile long and after that disaster they literally located the railroad to the other side of Cow Creek,” explained RR Historical Society Historian Tony Johnson.

Up ahead of the track layers, survey crews mapped out a route through the Siskiyous, trying to find the easiest grade to get to California. It required a tunnel near the summit. Here is where they started construction of the buck rock tunnel in the fall of 1883, miles ahead of track crews. But it was tough going, blasting through a ridge of basalt. Finally, work stopped and was never completed. The buck rock tunnel is what is left about a hundred feet back into the mountain, with a ledge in the back where work stopped.

By the time the railroad reached Ashland the biggest hurdle was getting through the Siskiyous, so punching this tunnel through a layer of basalt rock proved to be an obstacle too difficult to overcome, and in the winter of 1883 and ’84, the O&C Railroad ran out of luck and out of money and it wasn’t until two years later that another railroad picked up the project and dug tunnel 13 to finish the line.

“Southern Pacific, they sent their people out there and uh, and eventually they said, ‘Well, we’re going ahead with the Tunnel 13, but we’re gonna take this other route going down into Ashland’, which was more of an operating nightmare. But again, they could finish it faster and immediately have the business from Southern Oregon,” said Tony.

Then, in December of 1887, the railroad now under control of the Southern Pacific, the Golden Spike was driven at Ashland and the line was completed. At tunnel thirteen is where some 35 years later the D’Autremont Brothers held up a passenger train, killing several crewmen. Then, about ten years ago, a huge fire closed tunnel thirteen and required about $15 million to rebuild. and today it’s not used, weeds growing up between rusty rails, waiting for the Siskiyou Line to be rebuilt and re-opened.

“In hindsight, that’s what you could say was probably the motivation for building what they did. is that it’s not exactly what we want, but we’re already buying a railroad that’s pretty well complete,” said Tony.

But that wasn’t the end of the saga. It was later determined that the railroad was not selling land to just settlers, but also to developers, and at inflated rates. In 1915 the U.S. Supreme Court vindicated the railroad. But a year later congress over-rode the court, and took back nearly 2-1/2 million unsold acres of O&C Railroad Lands.

In 1937 the O&C Act provided a plan for harvesting timber and minerals on a sustainable basis, and agreed to share the profits with the 18 counties through which the railroad lands were located, in lieu of taxes and while timber harvesting has dropped dramatically in recent years, it still remains a unique piece of legislation that has been the envy of many other states.

The significance of the rail line through the Siskiyous began to diminish in the late 1920’s when the southern pacific completed a new route across the cascades, called the “natron cutoff.” That meant mainline passenger service was shifted to the east, reducing the importance of the western line that continues to this day.