History Spotlight: Building the Railroad Was an Amazing Feat

History Spotlight: Building the Railroad Was an Amazing Feat

All of the odds were stacked against the rail builders who opened the Salmonberry country in the early 1900s: heavy rains, high water, steep and inaccessible hillsides thick with timber, an ongoing challenge of finding sufficient workers, supplies and equipment. 

The Pacific Railway and Navigation Company began construction in Hillsboro in 1905 and in Tillamook in 1906. Crews worked toward the middle. In between: 13 tunnels, all dug by hand, horse and by steam. The longest tunnel was almost 1,500 feet and took eight months to build: 25,000 cubic yards of earth was hand-loaded, carted out and dumped.

60 bridges—35 of them over 100 feet long—crossed an abundance of creeks and rivers. The Step Creek bridge near Timber was reputed to be the highest single-pile bridge in the world (single constructed pilings were almost 100 feet tall). The Big Baldwin trestle was 167 feet tall, 520-feet long

Much of the construction work was performed by immigrants: Swedes, Austrians, Greeks, Russians, Irish, Norwegians, Japanese, Chinese…all working side by side. By 1907 40 percent of all railroad workers in Oregon were Japanese.

Railroad rights-of-way in the most remote sections were cleared with horses. Then horse-drawn wheeled scrapers plowed down to mineral soil. Later, steam donkeys (huge locomotive-sized self-propelled winches) helped with moving logs, sawn timbers for trestles and ties, and boulders. Crews followed in to build and level the railroad grade and make it ready for ties and steel. Even today, the enormity of effort is hard to imagine.

Donkey engine in the Willamette Valley, 1915.
Oregon State University Archive, Gerald W. Williams Collection, Willamette Valley album. From Oregon Encyclopedia