By 1883, the railroad was finally on its way. Rattling rails seemed just around the corner, and soon hissing steam and whistle shrieks would echo into the Jackson County mountains. It would change local residents' lives forever.
For half a century, Southern Oregon had been one of the most isolated settled places in the entire United States. "Farthest from the center of population," wrote an Oregonian newspaper correspondent in 1887, "and the farthest from the geographical center of any state in the Union."
Early on, what couldn't be grown or fashioned locally was brought in by horses or mules, tied together in long pack trains, with their loads hauled over rugged trails from distant seaports or towns.
Even when northern trails widened into rutted roads, it was often easier, especially in summer months, to just cross over the Siskiyou Mountains and trade with Northern California merchants.
By the time there was talk of a railroad from Portland to San Francisco in the 1860s, Jacksonville and Ashland were doing more business with California than with Portland. That worried many Portland businessmen, and it took awhile to overcome their fears that building a railroad to California would mean the trade of Southern Oregon would all go to San Francisco.
When the railroad reached Roseburg in 1872 and ran out of construction money, the trains continued to bring much-needed merchandise that far. But to get items to Jacksonville or Ashland took two weeks in a freight wagon, accompanied by "amusing scenes," old-timer J.G. Martin recalled to the Medford Sun in 1911, "of balky horses, breakdowns, and cuss words all through the Cow Creek Canyon."
When the stagecoach arrived in 1860, most people in the valley were still sticking close to home and rarely going anywhere. Getting to a ship or railroad to visit relatives back East had meant a tough ride or walk to a bigger town somewhere else, but now, even the stagecoach had its own problems.
"Those of us who have suffered the agonies of a dozen or more trips by the stage line, and braced ourselves against the bruises and tribulations of a night stage ride over the Grave Creek hills, across the Siskiyou Mountains, or down the Sacramento, are glad to see the railroad come," wrote B. Watson, a well-traveled West Shore Magazine writer, in 1882.
From a train one could enjoy the scenery, he said, without having to swallow mouthfuls of dust. The train would bring a passenger the satisfaction of sitting on "velvet cushions in a Pullman Palace Coach, rushing over this country at the rate of 25 miles an hour, and inhaling poetic inspiration from the most genial breezes that fan the face of Nature."
Never in the history of Southern Oregon had prospects seemed better.
"The near approach of the railroad," said the Oregon Sentinel's editor in 1883, "with its army of consumers, has awakened our farmers from a Rip Van Winkle sleep and the plow is turning over every available acre to be sown and planted in anticipation of a good cash market after harvest."
The editor predicted an influx of new settlers who would bring new businesses and new ways to farm, perhaps shaming "some of our old population into a profitable cultivation of soil that should not lie idle." Orchards would be planted, with their fruit carried to the farthest reaches of the country.
"Anything that will bear transportation to market," he said. "Produce it. Be ready to profit."
With the railroad still a few months away, land in the county had taken "an astonishing jump upwards in value." Property previously assessed at $10 an acre and never valued by its owner higher than $20 suddenly was valued as high as $40 to $100 an acre, although most of that was near the proposed line of the railroad.
The changes kept coming. There was a new town, Medford, jumping up on the "jackrabbit flats" near Bear Creek. Lucky boys had been chasing rabbits through the manzanita there for years.
It seemed like a Fourth of July picnic when the railroad reached Ashland in May 1884. Everyone came out to stand by the tracks and, "with curiosity and pleasure," admire the cars.
"The toot of the locomotive whistle any hour of the day," said an Ashland Tidings reporter, "never fails to start crowds of sightseers toward the tracks. "… Ashland is now connected by rail with the great cities of the continent."
Most people had never seen a train before and fewer yet had ever ridden one.
The Medford Independence Day celebration brought most of the county, more than 2,000 people, to the few buildings that made up the new town. The railroad was offering discounts for those who wanted the "thrill ride" of choice, riding the train back and forth between valley towns.
Over the next three years, while Jackson County residents waited for the final railroad connection to California, they built a flour mill, a cigar factory and a brewery. Retail stores, hotels and lots of saloons settled down along unpaved streets. Traveling entertainers were coming more frequently and new theaters were suddenly popping up. But in Jacksonville, five miles from the railroad, business slowly began to fail.
In 1887, when Charles Crocker, vice president of the railroad, was driving the last spike connecting Oregon and California, he joked that California boys would now be coming up to meet and court Oregon girls. But it wasn't a joke. Girls and boys already had learned that a railroad was a great way to get some new and exciting dating opportunities.
The railroad was beginning to change people's lives in ways they never would have dreamed of, and doing it so gradually they probably never noticed. By the time they figured it all out, new changes were already on the way, and the old changes wouldn't matter at all.
Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at email@example.com.