The Prineville Railway turns 100
Remember back in 2011, when nearly all the Central Oregon communities were celebrating, or at least reflecting upon, the centennial of the arrival of the railroad to the region?
That was awhile back, seven years. Imagine one town in that area, the oldest, most established town, spending essentially every day of seven years obsessing over why the railroad skipped them, and what they could do to connect to those world-delivering tracks.
In the development of the West, the railroads, by the whims of its titans selecting routes, had the power to offer communities a glorious future or, by skipping it, threatening its future existence. At the end of 1900's first decade, Madras, Redmond and Bend were christened as railroad towns. Prineville, however, the region's original town, its largest city, Central Oregon's county seat mind you, was bypassed, faced with a real potential of joining other ghost towns similarly dismissed by the railroad.
Nearly everyone familiar with Prineville history — with Central Oregon history in general — knows the impressive story of how the rails eventually came to Prineville. It's a story of a community refusing to be cast aside, of a town betting its future, and nearly all its resources, on themselves — and winning.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the City of Prineville Railway. Although the story is known by many, we thought it well worth re-telling.
The dawn of the 1900s had seen the rails pushed southward from the Columbia, all the way to Shaniko. The railroad powers, questioned by Central Oregon interests on when the rails would come into our region, urged patience. Of course, they said, the railroad would come to Central Oregon, and of course it would take in Prineville, its primary city, the county seat.
As the first decade drew to a close, the promise of the railroad into Central Oregon was to be a reality. In fact, two railroad lines were racing to get here. However, neither one of the lines had Prineville in mind.
The most cost-effective route to the region was through the canyon of the Deschutes River, to the little unincorporated town of Madras. From there, a straight shot to another new town, but one rich in timber and potential: Bend.
Prineville was devastated, but it didn't sit on its heels. Its leaders sent out the word that it would partner with any reasonable interest that could build a line to connect with the main line just a few miles to the west.
After years of plans, schemes and charlatans, the city of Prineville realized it would have to at least start the railroad project themselves. A 19-mile route from Prineville, through the Crooked River valley to hook up with the main line between Terrebonne and Redmond, was engineered. The line was expected to cost about $213,000. The city council planned to invest $100,000, a kick-starter essentially, thinking a private investor, or established railroad company, would jump in and finish the project and manage the line.
The city put up a $100,000 bond request to the citizens. Would the people put their money where their vocal hopes had been for nearly two decades? The voters of the city of 1,100 people, with a total valuation of about $485,000, voted 355-1 to back the bond.
But the outside interest? It never materialized. The city would have to ask voters for three more levies to finish the job. When finished, the rail line cost $325,000.
In fact, the city didn't have much luck with the outside contractors brought in. Eventually, the city managed the work itself, asking men from town and the area ranches and farms to come out and join work parties. That's how the final ties and rails were put in place. Ladies from the community and the surrounding ranches would put together meals to feed the workers. Community railroad indeed.
In August 1918, the first train (carrying line workers) reached Prineville. The first revenue-producing train reached on Aug. 15. It brought a load of agriculture products. It wasn't until the following April that passenger service began.
After years and years of toil to bring the rails to Prineville, the city's railway enjoyed less than two years of growth in passenger service. As the city worked to establish its railroad, the automobile industry was rapidly taking over transportation. From April through the end of 1919, 8,800 passengers were carried between Prineville and the Prineville Junction on the main line and back. In 1920, 15,213. But from 1920 to 1921, passenger totals decreased 60 percent.
For the first couple of years, the city's little railway earned a profit. But a recession in the early 1920s, the drastic reduction in passenger service throughout the decade, then the devastating Depression in the late 1920s into the '30s pushed the line deep into debt. At the dawn of the 1930s, the city let it be known that it could not pay the interest on the construction bonds. The town's railway, not yet 20 years old, was failing.
But in 1936, potential became reality. Years before the first spike was driven on the Prineville Railway, a marriage between the rails and the timber from the Ochocos was envisioned. In 1935, it was realized, in a small way. New owners restarted a mill north of Prineville. In October, they shipped four carloads of milled wood on the Prineville Railway to the junction. It was the first of what would become tens of thousands of carloads.
The Alexander-Yawkey Lumber Co. and the Hudspeth operations also began using the line in the mid-1930s. In 1938, the Ochoco Lumber Co. built on the east edge of town. On Oct. 10, its first load of lumber was shipped on the local line.
Timber from the Ochoco had, essentially, saved the railroad. Ton mileage increased 20 fold from 1935 through 1942. The war years didn't set the business back much, only made finding workers a premium.
At the end of the war, the railroad was booming, and so was the little town. Mill jobs begged for able bodies.
The arrival of the mills gave the railroad funding to completely rebuild the line, which had fallen to near unsafe status. Derailments had been common in the 1930s.
By the 1950s, the city's railway had become its cash cow, of sorts. Money from the railroad helped fund construction of the town's parks, its swimming pool and even pave it streets. The city was so flush with cash that it chose to not levy city property taxes between 1964 and 1968.
But by the 1980s, economic and environmental pressures had impacted the timber industry. Slowly, the production at each began to fade, as did their business with the local railway. In 2001, the first major mill to locate in town, Ochoco Lumber, was the last to close.
By mid-decade, the railroad was back in dire economic straits. The annual cars shipped dipped below 500, a total beat in a week or two in days gone by. The city was faced with the prospect of selling off its pieces, and could have brought in an estimated $10 million or so if it did. It was tempting.
Instead, in the spirit of the railway's history of fighting out of desperate, near-death situations, bold leadership tightened operations, over a few years moving from 11 employees to just three. But most importantly, the railroad obtained three lottery-funded Connect Oregon grants, totaling $7.85 million. These grants funded improvements at the Prineville Junction and built a storage depot in Prineville that enabled the line to draw additional business.
Heading into its second century, the Prineville Railway is lean, flexible and diversified, again on an upswing.
The railroad reaching Central Oregon in 1911 set the region on a new course. New counties were formed, a region's future transformed. But when the rails arrived in 1911, we were all one county, and its being bypassed was a massive slap in the face to the county seat.
The story of the 19-mile Prineville Railway — how it came to be, how it survived, how it thrived, and how it has evolved heading into its second century — rises above just an important story in Central Oregon history. It's a great American story of industry and community, of perseverance and faith, of determination and refusal to say die.
In honor of the railway's centennial, the Central Oregonian has produced a commemorative magazine publication, which will be included in the newspaper later this month.