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MailTribune.com
  • A visionary is derailed

    Joseph Gaston's dream of being the first to build a rail line through Oregon to California fell prey to backroom dealings and political realities
  • Joseph Gaston didn't drive the ceremonial golden spike into a pre-drilled hole on the chilly evening of Dec. 17, 1887, connecting at long last the north-south railroad lines in Ashland that linked Oregon and California.
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    • Gaston lost railroad bid, but had the last word
      Ohio native Joseph Gaston already was a self-made man when he arrived in Jacksonville in 1862.
      Although he was only 29, Gaston had been blazing his own path for nearly half his life. After his f...
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      Gaston lost railroad bid, but had the last word
      Ohio native Joseph Gaston already was a self-made man when he arrived in Jacksonville in 1862.

      Although he was only 29, Gaston had been blazing his own path for nearly half his life. After his father died, Gaston was 15 when he began living with relatives while working on a farm and in a sawmill.

      Yet he doggedly continued his education, studied law and became an attorney in 1856. When the Civil War erupted in the spring of 1861, he organized a company of Ohio volunteers, although he was discharged because of health problems before firing a shot in battle.

      Upon arriving in Jacksonville, he tried his hand at mining but quickly discovered more reward in practicing law and editing the Oregon Sentinel newspaper.

      It was in Jacksonville where he became keenly interested in building an Oregon railroad to connect to one coming north from California, thereby linking the Beaver state to the rest of the nation.

      Gaston helped organize the party that made the first preliminary survey for a railroad from the Rogue River Valley to the Columbia River. Still working tirelessly on the railroad, he moved in 1865 to Salem, where he became editor of the Oregon Statesman. He also edited the Oregon Agriculturist, the first farm journal published in Salem.

      Gaston lost his bid to build the railroad in 1866, when shipping magnate Ben Holladay, in Gaston's words, "did buy judges, and legislatures and attorneys to betray their clients" to gain control of the right to build the state's railroad.

      Two years later, Gaston relocated to Portland, where he edited several other papers, including the Portland Bulletin. In 1875, he moved to a farm in Washington County and began building a narrow-gauge railroad from Dayton to Sheridan in 1877.

      Gaston, for whom the town in Washington County is named, died July 20, 1913. He was 79.

      Gaston's dream of building the state's first railroad may have been dashed, but he got the last word against his enemies. In 1911, he published a history of Portland in which he wrote: "But it is all past into history. All the actors in the drama are dead but one. All the members of all the old companies are dead but this one. And while he was robbed of his rights and his property by a corrupted legislature, and corrupt judges, he still remains to enjoy in comfort a pleasant home that looks down on the city he has helped to build, with all the necessary comforts of life; and what is better than all else, the respect of his old friends, and neighbors — and lives to write this history of those who so wantonly robbed him, and gained nothing in the end by their wrongdoing."
  • Joseph Gaston didn't drive the ceremonial golden spike into a pre-drilled hole on the chilly evening of Dec. 17, 1887, connecting at long last the north-south railroad lines in Ashland that linked Oregon and California.
    He wasn't among the dignitaries — the Oregon governor, mayors of Portland, Sacramento and San Diego — who gathered to listen to Charles Crocker, vice president of the Southern Pacific, opine about a new world being opened up by the rail.
    But the former editor of Jacksonville's Oregon Sentinel newspaper probably should've been.
    "Gaston was an early promoter of the Oregon railroad who started out in Jacksonville in 1863 with high visions," says railroad historian Larry Mullaly of Central Point.
    "But I don't think that Gaston was capable of building a railroad," he says. "I don't think anyone in Oregon was capable because of the immense finances needed."
    Mullaly, co-author of the book "The Southern Pacific in Los Angeles, 1873-1996," will tell you the story of the building of the Oregon railroad has more twists and turns than the Greensprings Highway.
    For instance, Gaston was derailed on a simple technicality by the state Legislature seeking a way to transfer the rights to building the rail line to capitalist Ben Holladay.
    And if Holladay, who would eventually go bankrupt after wresting control of the railroad building project from Gaston, had his way, the railroad would have run through Eagle Point and Medford would never have been born, Mullaly says.
    "The railroad was a new thing, a new technology in the far West," says Mullaly, whose research included digging into the Oregon railroad records at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. "People had really high expectations that their world would change if they could only build a railroad.
    "They would have this godsend in the form of a federal grant and right to build a railroad. The only little problem was they had to pay for it."
    Although Gaston, along with rivals Holladay and German-born Henry Villard, would give it his all, it would take the deep pockets of the Southern Pacific to seal the deal, Mullaly says. Villard, who took over after Holladay, also went bankrupt, he says.
    "The problem with railroads is that they are very expensive," he says. "The Oregon and California was built at $30,000 a mile. This was at a time when all the cars, locomotives and other supplies had to come by ship around the Horn.
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