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MailTribune.com
  • Betrayal? railroad misses Jacksonville

  • Jacksonville residents were angry, shocked and hurt. They felt betrayed. This was Jackson County's most important city, the center of trade and commerce for an entire valley and much of Southern Oregon, gateway to the mines, the seat of government — weren't they entitled?
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  • Jacksonville residents were angry, shocked and hurt. They felt betrayed. This was Jackson County's most important city, the center of trade and commerce for an entire valley and much of Southern Oregon, gateway to the mines, the seat of government — weren't they entitled?
    But no. In 1883, the Oregon and California Railroad had made up its mind. It would create a new town on the manzanita-covered prairie, name its depot Medford, run its railroad tracks straight through, and leave Jacksonville wondering why.
    "Why was not the (rail)road located in accordance with the natural lay of the country, where it ought, obviously — to have been located?" wrote Frank Krause, editor of Jacksonville's Oregon Sentinel.
    Jacksonville had been swimming in a self-made sea of smugness over its importance as the county seat ever since the first railroad surveyors rode into town in the 1860s.
    "Can anyone," Krause asked, "give a good and valid reason why the road was not located on what was conceded to be the shortest and cheapest route? "… Every effort was made consistent with our means to secure the location of the road where it ought to have been."
    "Consistent with our means." Perhaps Krause was referring to the alleged bribe, or "inducement," of $25,000 that some say the railroad company demanded if it agreed to run its rails to Jacksonville.
    It's one of the Rogue Valley's most popular urban legends. Even today, it's a well-worn story that seems to fit with that Hollywood image of a greedy corporate giant taking advantage of some clueless, country bumpkins — a 129-year-old myth that stems from rumors first reported in an April 1883 edition of the Ashland Tidings newspaper.
    "It is reported the R.R. officials have offered to swerve the line toward Jacksonville provided the people will raise $25,000, but we haven't learned whether this is true or not," the paper said.
    The Jacksonville Democratic Times chimed in a few days later.
    "It seems as if the railroad authorities are not disposed to recede from their proposition to run the road this side of Hanley's butte for $25,000 and the right of way. From present indications it looks like there is either not public spiritedness or money enough in Jacksonville to raise the required amount."
    A month earlier, three unnamed Jacksonville citizens "had an interview with Manager Koehler of the railroad." They reportedly were told that the railroad expected "to be reimbursed, partially at least, for the additional expense, as the line will be nearly a mile longer than a straight line through the valley."
    Although no railroad official nor town resident was ever linked to the rumor, it's possible it picked up some steam when Cornelius Beekman and Henry Klippel began circulating a subscription list on which residents pledged money toward enticing the railroad to Jacksonville. We only know about the list because, after the railroad announced it was building five miles away, two Jacksonville subscribers placed an advertisement in the newspaper and demanded their names be removed from the list.
    It seems likely that the $25,000 idea originated with Beekman and Klippel and not railroad management. Beekman and Klippel may have believed cash could move the railroad their way, but they weren't the first to make that mistake. Perhaps they hadn't seen the Jacksonville Sentinel's front page story of April 28, 1883.
    "Mr. Villard declined to receive $30,000, or any subsidy whatever," the story said. "He stated that it was not the policy of companies he represented to take subsidies. Their intention was to furnish the citizens of the northwest with needed transportation facilities at their (the railroad's) own cost."
    Henry Villard, president of the Oregon and California Railroad Co., had a reputation of honesty in his business dealings. He had been asked by a committee from Umatilla County to build a 20-mile spur railroad to Pendleton and connect it to the railroad that the company was constructing on the south banks of the Columbia River.
    To accommodate Jacksonville, a town of fewer than 1,000 people, would make no sense for a railroad whose construction costs were estimated at up to $30,000 per mile of track, depending on the terrain. Survey parties alone were costing an additional $1,000 a day, and an inducement of $25,000 would hardly make a ripple in the company's overall annual bond and loan interest payments that reached into the hundreds of thousands each year.
    "If you go into a newspaper office or pick up the usual history book," Ben Beekman told an interviewer in 1939, "you will find that the usual reason for the railroad's passing through Medford instead of through Jacksonville is that the citizens of Jacksonville failed to gather in a bonus required by the railroad — but this is not true at all."
    Ben Beekman is the son of Cornelius Beekman and was 20 when the railroad was built through Jackson County. He said the railroad had made two surveys through the county and the closest would still have missed Jacksonville by 2.5 miles and that the railroad already had decided Ashland would be its division headquarters.
    "It all depended on Ashland," he said. "If the closer survey were adhered to (along the foothills), the line would wind up into the hills above Ashland "… (it) would not have permitted the building of roundhouses, workshops, and necessary appurtenances of a railroad division. Considering these things the citizens of Jacksonville saw it was useless to raise the money."
    Editor Krause was sure that in the end, Jacksonville would prevail as the county's commercial capital and that Medford, that "ideal town," would "evaporate entirely, or sink into the insignificance of a second-class saloon and a railroad lunch house," but he was wrong.
    Over the first half of the 20th century, Jacksonville almost became a ghost town, a wasteland of "what ifs." But then came Robbie Collins, the man who saved the town and, in 1967 with the help of his friends, got it designated as the country's first National Historic Landmark Town.
    Jacksonville was back, with no need to wonder why ever again.
    Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.
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