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A visionary is derailed

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.

"They would come into San Francisco, then be reloaded and shipped on to Portland by coastal steamers," he says. "The costs were very high and there were only about 90,000 people in the whole state of Oregon."

But expanding the national rail system was a top priority of President Abraham Lincoln when he signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, Mullaly says.

After all, this was during the Civil War, a time when Lincoln was doing everything he could to keep the Union together. The rail lines would link the East with the West, Mullaly says.

"The Oregon railway was seen as a spur line — an extension — of the transcontinental line," he says. "The trouble was the Oregon lines did not have the bond support to pay for it like the transcontinental had."

However, following Lincoln's assassination, Congress approved the California Oregon Railroad Act of 1866, giving rights to the state to award a charter to build a railway from Portland to the California border.

Whichever company received the charter would reap a substantial reward for its efforts — 20 square miles of land on each side of the track.

"They would give you 20 square miles of land to sell after you built 20 miles of track," Mullaly says. "But it was a catch-22. Most people did not have the money to build the railroad to get the land to sell to pay for it."

But that didn't stop railroad entrepreneurs with big dreams from trying.

Indeed, three years before the bill passed, Simon Elliot and his crew began surveying for the railroad from Marysville, Calif., bound for Portland.

"The group from Marysville surveyed up as far as Jacksonville but had no money left by the time they got there," Mullaly says. "They literally begged people to give them food and supplies so they could keep going. The Jacksonville residents declined because they thought this was a California venture and didn't want anything to do with it.

"A critic in Jackson County said, 'If a railroad should be built, the first train would carry all the freight in the county, the second all the passengers and the third pull up all the tracks behind it and carry off the road itself,'" Mullaly says. "They were very cool to the idea."

But not all Jacksonville residents. Gaston took up the survey baton and headed north with it.

"Everyone in the Gaston period was really thinking the federal government would come in and bail them out," he says. "These were heady times. These were the most glorious days of Oregon railroading."

The plan was to have California build the railroad on its side of the state line while rail backers in Oregon would build their side, he says.

The problem was scraping up the necessary funding.

"You had these folks, well-meaning and highly competitive as well as anxious to make a bundle, unable to get this venture started," he says. "They had the same challenge in California."

South of the state line, the project was known as the California and Oregon Railroad. And the name on this side of the line? The Oregon and California Railroad, of course.

Early on, Gaston received the rights from the Oregon Legislature to build the railroad but was stymied by the immense cost.

"He was trying to penny ante the thing," Mullaly says.

"Gaston had a real challenge in that the railroad was wanted but no one could afford it. Then he got caught up in all these crazy legal things."

Gaston pushed the rail survey north to Portland, eventually forming what he dubbed the Oregon Central Railroad Co. His route was dubbed the "West Side Line" because it followed the west side of the Willamette River upon reaching the Willamette Valley.

But Holladay, a friend of then-President U.S. Grant, was backing an endeavor to build what was known as the "East Side Line" largely on the opposite side of the Willamette.

"The Oregon legislators weren't the noblest men on the block but they were no worse than anybody else," Mullaly says. "They had all these local people fighting constantly over the railroad, going nowhere. And all of a sudden this nationally known figure, a friend of the president of the United States, shows up to lead the way."

Holladay told legislators that he would build the railway, providing they undid the legislation that had earlier awarded it to Gaston, Mullaly says, noting that money allegedly changed hands to complete the deal.

"So the legislators found a technicality — a signature missing," he says, referring to the fact that Gaston had not properly filed for his company's articles of incorporation.

"Basically, they said, 'We changed our mind,'" he says. "It was actually just a little technical flaw. But life is tough. They were going with the big dog."

And the big dog got a jump on Gaston at the outset.

"Holladay managed to build the 20 miles the federal grant required by the deadline," Mullaly says. "That won him the rights to continue building."

With a head of steam built up, Holladay pushed the railway nearly 200 miles from Portland to Roseburg. He completed a survey as far south as Glendale, where he wanted to skirt Grants Pass, Central Point, Medford and Ashland, Mullaly says.

"He would have taken a survey by Jesse Applegate which would have gone through Eagle Point," he says, adding that would have avoided the difficult Siskiyou Summit.

In addition to avoiding the high pass, the other route also would have granted Holladay about 1 million more acres of land, he says.

However, despite his powers of persuasion and political clout, Holladay couldn't get the Interior Department to approve the 50-mile deviation to the Klamath Basin.

The other route also would have taken the steam out of the little engine known as Medford, which was platted in December 1883, Mullaly says.

"The synergies of what makes a town takes something — it has to be something like a gathering point," he says. "With the railroad, Medford grew and grew, eventually replacing Jacksonville as the administrative center."

Without the railroad, the regional center would likely have been Eagle Point, he says.

In Jacksonville, the Oregon Sentinel — Gaston had long since left the paper — sniffed in 1883 that the new town would "evaporate entirely, or sink into the insignificance of a second-class saloon and a railroad lunch house."

Unfortunately for Holladay, his fortunes went south with the economic crash of 1873. A decade later, along came Villard, who brought the line to Medford in 1883 and on to Ashland the following year before he also went fiscally belly up, Mullaly says.

"The railroad work stopped from 1884 until '87, when the Southern Pacific came up from the south to finally complete the north-south connection," he says.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

A work train brings railroad ties to the Siskiyou Mountains during construction of the final segment connecting Oregon and California, circa 1887. - Southern Oregon Historical Society photo No. 8216