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Legend of the Jacksonville railroad bribe

Putting an end to one of the valley's most popular urban legends is nothing more than a game of Whack-a-Mole. The harder you beat it down, the quicker it pops up again.

The well-worn story says the railroad bypassed Jacksonville in 1883 because the residents couldn't pay a $25,000 bribe.

It fits so well with the image of a greedy corporate giant taking advantage of simple, small-town country bumpkins. How could it not be true?

First, consider that Jacksonville contained 1,000 or fewer people. That means every man, woman and child would've had to pay $25 — not exactly the national debt, but roughly equivalent to $568 in today's dollars.

Then, there's the "evil" chief executive officer in charge of the railroad, Henry Villard. While on a fact-finding western tour in spring 1883, Villard told a meeting of Oregon businessmen that building the railroad from Roseburg to the California border was more difficult than originally thought.

"It turned out after construction was started," he said, "that the line will need a great deal more money than we expected. We have miscalculated the cost of the Southern Extension. We will need more money."

But Villard wasn't asking for bribes from the public. He was asking his original railroad investors to arrange a second mortgage at the conservative estimate of $10,000 per uncompleted mile. At the time, 100 miles were yet to be built.

"Mr. Villard declined to receive $30,000, or any subsidy whatever," read a newspaper report. "He stated that it was not the policy of the 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."

Even if Jacksonville could have raised $25,000, it would have been chump change to the railroad. So, how did the legend get started?

Some say prominent citizens Cornelius Beekman and Henry Klippel had circulated a subscription list in which residents pledged money toward either enticing the railroad to Jacksonville, or bribing it to stay away.

Whatever the facts, when it was announced that the railroad would locate along Bear Creek, five miles east of Jacksonville, in a new town to be built on land partially owned by Beekman, people began to wonder. Was Beekman cashing in because he couldn't bribe the railroad?

Businessman P.J. Ryan placed an advertisement demanding Beekman produce the subscription list and delete Ryan's name and pledge, but Beekman conveniently couldn't find the list.

There's more to refute the story, but the clincher is testimony from Beekman's son, Ben, who was 19 at the time.

"This is not true at all," he told an interviewer from the Federal Writers' Project in 1939.

The railroad wanted to avoid the expensive foothills, he said, and have a direct and flat route to Ashland where a large maintenance yard could be built.

"Considering these things," he said, "the citizens of Jacksonville saw it was useless to raise money. This is the real reason why the railroad now runs through Medford instead of through Jacksonville."

Whack! Another mole down, but don't hold your breath. Another one's probably due any second.

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com.

In 1883, the railroad chose a flatter, straighter and less expensive route through the new town of Medford rather than tackling the foothills surrounding Jacksonville. - Bill Miller