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From the October 1932 issue of Locomotive Engineers Journal
(published monthly by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers)

Opening an Empire
by James William Fraser


(Building the Great Northern - Western Pacific "Inside Gateway")

Forty years ago the late James Jerome Hill was dreaming of building a railroad from the Middle West to California. How he succeeded in developing the great steel trail through the vast northwest until in 1893 it reached Puget Sound is history that is familiar to most of us. But before the dream became a reality, the Empire Builder, having received his final call, made the trip over the road from which there is no returning.

Still his spirit carried on. New lines were built, branches and feeders added as the railroad progressed. Southward through the state of Washington, on through Oregon the Great Northern pressed on in the direction of the coveted goal.

Then came an interruption in the form of the World War and railroad building in general was suspended for a number of years. The spring of 1928, however, saw the Hill lines operating trains as far south as Klamath Falls, Oregon - we might say within walking distance of the California boundary, with the spirit of the founder still urging, driving forward.

More than two hundred miles of lava beds, mountains and practically virgin timber lands reached away from that point to the south. There on the Feather River was the closest east to west rail route, the Western Pacific main line stretching between Salt Lake City and San Francisco. There was an objective. Not only did it afford an entry into California but if a hook-up could be arranged, mid-western Rocky Mountain territory as well as the port of San Francisco would be opened to the Hill lines.

The Western Pacific was more than willing to listen to the proposal. Actually speaking it was agreeable to the extent of meeting the Great Northern more than half way; it would construct 112 miles of railroad across that two hundred mile gap.

In the early days of railroad building, that would have been all that was necessary - choose the route, secure the right of way, then go ahead and build. But how differently today! These first two steps are only preliminaries. The most important was to obtain permission from the Interstate Commerce Commission to build.

And what a task that proved to be! Another Class 1 railroad already operated a line running north and south about sixty miles west of the proposed extensions. Objections were filed and hearings scheduled.

The case developed into the most important that that august body had handled in many a year. The commission sent the chief examiner himself to San Francisco to hold a hearing. Many prominent railroad officials attended the hearings; eleven western state commissions were officially represented as well as numerous civic and business organizations.

Arthur Curtis James, the famous railroad financier who held stock in most of the railroads involved, favored the extension. Almost unanimously the others wanted the new line.

Applications were filed with the I.C.C. on February 14, 1928. The decision authorizing the construction of connecting extensions was handed down on June 20, 1930. In a spot so thickly timbered that tractors could scarcely drag the steam shovel through, the work began on August 16, 1930 near Greenville, California. No announcements were made of the event, but as if by magic a crowd of some 300 people gathered that morning to witness the opening ceremonies.

President H.M. Adams of the Western Pacific made a brief address, read a telegram from Mr. James and tugged at a lever. Steel cables tightened, the huge shovel bit into the earth and construction was under way.

Five projects were involved in this undertaking. The Western Pacific building 112 miles north from Keddie, California to Bieber in Plumas County, California; the Great Northern building 91 miles south from Klamath Falls, Oregon, connecting with the other road at Bieber and constructing a joint terminal there. Jointly the two acquired a railroad and right of way for a distance of 36 miles between Hambone, California, eastern terminus of the McCloud River railroad and Lookout Junction, eight miles north of Bieber on the new hook-up. Twenty five miles of this private logging railroad were already in operation. Eleven additional miles remained to be built.

The Great Northern, in entering Klamath Falls, ran trains from Bend to Chemult, Oregon, over another logging railroad and south from Chemult over a right of way constructed by the Southern Pacific. The fifth project of the hook-up was the rebuilding of the logging road, 24 miles in length.

Like a modern army taking the field the contractors carried on their campaign. Twelve camps were erected, each one an up-to-date settlement surrounded by wilderness. Nothing rustic about the camps, however, except their locations. Workmen were divided into small groups, quartered in cottages equipped with electricity, gas and running water. They boasted of electric refrigeration and heat, the last word in comfort and sanitation. After the day's work, a fellow could tune in on his favorite radio program with better reception than we get in the large cities.

Far different from the roaring times of the "seventies" when the Union Pacific raced along the Overland Trail to meet the Central Pacific builders, was the calmness and serenity of these camps of "thirty-one"! No brothels, no carousing, no camp followers and no incessant gun play throughout the nights. Not a ghost town nor a boot hill cemetery remains in the wake of the newest line in railroad history.

Pushing through dense forests, across volcanic beds of tough lava rock, along the crest of a mountain range, traversing in part a region that has remained virtually unchanged since the gold rush petered out nearly three quarters of a century ago, these twentieth century pioneers made remarkable progress.

The Western Pacific began by cutting eight tunnels ranging from 400 to 1070 feet in length in the first 25 miles north of Keddie. Eleven tunnels were originally planned but by substituting cuts, two were eliminated. The omission of one remains an outstanding feature of engineering - the big cut and deep fill at Sheep Camp Creek Gulch where plans and specifications called for a viaduct and a tunnel through the mountain side.

By making an open cut 118 feet deep, rock and earth was used to build a fill 100 feet in depth. A concrete culvert five feet wide, six feet deep and 350 feet long, was poured at the bottom, six tons of powder discharged at one blast and 260,000 cubic feet of mountain became a fill that towered above the tallest tree tops in the canyon.

Hollenback Loop is another construction feature. At the opening of the ninth tunnel at the bottom of Wolf Creek Canyon, a horseshoe loop 2700 feet long and 400 feet across the neck bends 240 degrees in curvature.

A roadbed cut out of the wall half way up the sheer side of the canyon at Keddie required extensive grading. Five hundred thousand cubic yards of earth and rock were moved to accommodate yard tracks, round house and oil and water facilities. Here, too, is the world's most unique wye - the twin viaducts of the Feather River Canyon. On the right lies the mainline between Salt Lake City and San Francisco; to the left the take-off for the new line which enters abruptly into tunnel number one.

Through the Modoc lava beds, a country of flat, brilliant terrain bordered by the snow capped Sierras the greatest difficulties were encountered. A generation ago the Modoc Indians roamed this picturesque valley where nature provided the red man refrigeration in her ice caves. They fought the approach of the white man - the lava beds became red with the blood of natives and United States cavalrymen in conflict.

It was here the Captain Jack made his famous stand among the rocks. Another and different kind of battle developed when the railroad fought for a roadbed through the tough volcanic deposits. Every few feet for a distance of sixty miles "gopher holes" had to be drilled for blasting charges to break a way for the power shovels.

Blasting played an important part. For years to come they will still be recalling the "big shot" on the Western Pacific job. Seventy days and nights the "gophers" labored in making "coyote holes" preparatory to the firing. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the western lingo, let me explain that "gophers" are miners, "gopher holes" and "coyote holes" are shot pockets and powder tunnels.

Seven main tunnels, each 1,115 feet long, including cross cuts, 43 pockets and 13 down holes were drilled from the surface. Fifty tons of black powder were tamped into the holes, and an additional two tons of dynamite caps placed for detonators. The pockets were connected by 2,500 feet of wire, then by a field wire to the battery position on the slope some 500 feet above the drilling.

Everything was in readiness, the crowd moved back to the safety zones a quarter mile away. The shot firer leaned his weight on the plunger. An instant later there was a dull, muffled roar and the mountain side became as a living thing. On hundred and seventy-five thousand tons of rock, earth and trees rose in one vast cloud. When the dust settled there was a great scar across the landscape, 400 feet long, 140 feet wide and from 75 to 100 feet in depth.

It was a highly successful piece of engineering, the line of demarcation being within ten feet of the surveyor's stakes. To fire that big shot, including the cost of explosives, transportation and labor, cost $10,000.

The unusual topography of the Pacific coast region reveals other new and difficult problems but with aggressiveness characteristic of railroad trail blazers, the builders pushed forward. Straight as a crow flies they pressed through valleys and across grazing lands, then winding and twisting a mile high along the ridge of the Sierras for more than 100 miles.

While American Railway Association committees met in Washington, to urge safety laws governing grade crossings, progressive western states and counties, working in conjunction with the railroad were moving entire sections of highway, making overhead passes and eliminating grade crossings wherever possible.

Cattle passes, something unknown to many travelers, appear frequently in the grazing country. Corrugated culverts seven feet in diameter, their bottoms covered with gravel were installed at the base of the roadbed. Herds of cattle can roam at will on either side of the track without interruption to train movements.

Construction methods, too, are far different now than when the first rails were laid from east to west along the Great Northern and Western Pacific. The Chinese coolie with picturesque hat and big wicker basket has vanished from the grading camps. Even the familiar horses and mules have almost entirely disappeared. One veteran contractor kept a few horses at work just for sentiment - his superintendent and himself were perhaps the only two men on the job who could actually handle a team and scraper.

Tractors supplanted the faithful four-footed beasts of burden, compressed air drills and electric locomotives speeded the boring of tunnels, drag line excavators replaced thousands of hand shovels. All latest type modern equipment was at hand: gasoline cars, automobile trucks, hydraulic dump excavators of ten cubic yards capacity, rock crushers, road graders, dump cars handling eight times the amount the old Fresno scraper was built to carry. Hydro-electric power, generated in mountain plants, was used for the hardest tasks.

This was the first big railroad job in which such a large percentage of work was done by modern machinery. The engineers actually speaking, did not realize how fast they could move the earth. Consequently, trains were running over the rails almost a year ahead of the proposed schedule.

Until a few years ago, north-eastern California lands lay practically idle. Due to the poor transportation facilities even agriculture could not be conducted on a large scale. Four entire counties situated high up in the Sierras were known as "six months country"; settlers were able to leave only during the summer months.

Cattle and sheep had to be driven on the hoof for great distances to reach shipping points. A 40 mile trek to the nearest loading chute was not an uncommon trip for the herders. It is still a hunter's paradise: the land of wild game where mule deer, bob-cat, mountain lion and bear are in abundance, together with numerous wild fowl.

Truly, this country served by the new rail line is an empire - a territory as long as the state of Ohio and as wide as Connecticut. Adjacent to the new transportation line lies some 400,000 acres of agricultural land in addition to vast sheep and cattle ranges. Less then one fourth of this farming soil is now under cultivation. Along the Oregon-California boundary, in what is known as the Tule Lake section, a reclamation project is adding 122,000 more acres; 41,550 acres in Oregon and almost twice that area in California.

Ranches blocked off in parcels of sixty acres are given to settlers by the Federal Government under the Homestead Act. Water is supplied from Klamath Lake nearby by means of irrigation ditches. Such virgin soil promises a rich return from bumper crops of alfalfa, hay, grain and potatoes. Three thousand car-loads of "spuds" is the anticipated haul for a season - and the country is scarcely opened up. A few thousand acres of land still remain to be reclaimed.

Straight as the surveyor's line the tracks traverse the heavily timbered region near Westwood, in the north, where yellow pines raise their lofty tops high into the air. Westwood is one of the few remaining typical lumber towns in our country. Every individual in the place depends upon the lumber industry, every house and store is served by it. Something like 36,000,000,000 feet of timer, board measure, are available in this territory alone.

New towns springing up along the route prove the old assertion that business follows the railroad rather than vice-versa. Modern settlements are already encroaching upon the last frontier, still picturesque with Indian guides and rodeo riders. West Bieber, where the Great Northern ends, is an example. Streets were laid out, buildings and houses appeared as if by magic. An old prospector living in solitude up on the mountainside suddenly found his cabin located within the city limits.

Farther north along the line and near Bieber, a large canvas sign announces BIG VALLEY CITY - and below it their slogan, "Watch us grow." The city is not on the map as yet, not even on the time card, but it promises to be there before long. They already have the prime requisites - a general store, a Chamber of Commerce composed of the store keeper, a ranch owner, a few cow hands and some business-like looking Indians, plus the progressive spirit.

Meanwhile, their share of the work was completed, and for the first time in history, a Great Northern train rolled across the state of California.

That day, Tuesday, September 15, 1931, was a memorable one for the little town of McCloud where the first shipment originated. A general holiday was declared. Fifty car loads of finished pine lumber valued at more than $1,000 per car was starting eastward. That meant a lot to the McCloud River railroad and its cohorts. When the little logging road turned that drag over to the big brother fifty miles away, it automatically became a feeder for another big trunk line and actually a part of another trans-sierra route.

The Great Northern took the train at Lookout Junction. Destined for St. Paul without breaking, it moved north over the new extension. Along the entire route wherever there was habitation, people gathered to cheer its passing. Another epoch of transportation history was being enacted as the big "Mikados" roared through virgin forest and sleepy mountain lands, awaking the echoes for the first time with their shrieks.

Completion of the entire hook-up when the Great Northern became welded with the Western Pacific was celebrated less than two months later at Bieber. On the morning preceding the eventful day, three special passenger trains pulled out of Oakland. Others were already enroute from points more distant; Reno, Salt Lake City, Portland, Seattle, Spokane. All were loaded to full capacity.

People from much greater distances were in evidence in northern California on that tenth day of November, 1931. From Chicago, New York, Canada, Mexico, and way points they came to witness the ceremonies culminating in the traditional driving of the golden spike.

On the train of President Adams of the Western Pacific was a man who was to witness the second great golden spike ceremony of his lifetime. Ed. S. Harrison of San Francisco, a retired freight and passenger agent, was present at Promontory Point on May 10, 1869, when the transcontinental hook-up was made between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific.

Thousands of people gathered around the stand as the speaking began. Rail executives, statesmen, and men prominent in public life made brief talks. Then the spike that was destined to fill a niche in historical archives was produced.

This spike without a doubt is the most unique ever used in such a ceremony. Its gold came from the vicinity of Oroville, CA, in the heart of the famous old '49 region and represents the various processes by which the metal is obtained in the United States.

Treasured nuggets, souvenirs of the primitive panning and sluicing days of the pioneers were donated by early settlers and their descendants. The historic old Cherokee Mine contributed ore which had been unearthed by the hydraulic method. Mines tunneled into the ancient river channels under the Sierras produced more specie. Gold from the celebrated quartz mines at Forbestown was produced; and lastly there was a supply from the dredgers, the present day method of mining.

Sixty two years ago, the blows of the golden spike ceremony were transmitted from the desert of Utah to the rest of the country by telegraph. An ingenious connection between the operator's key and the rail sent the taps speeding over the wires at lightning speed. Today the same sounds traveled thousands of miles without the aid of wires, faster than the sound could travel from the point of contact to the microphone.

A huge Great Northern jack came gliding smoothly southward with President Budd standing on the pilot beam. From the opposite direction, a Western Pacific engine approached, President Adams likewise riding the pilot. With a few inches between them, both engines stopped, the men grasped hands and two railroad systems, an aggregation of some 13,000 miles, were officially united.

Immediately following the ceremony freight trains began to operate. A southbound extra rolled over the spot with 151 cars of lumber and finished products from northern California and southern Oregon, the largest shipment of forest products ever assembled in one movement by a single manufacturer.

With the opening of the new line three western roads, the Great Northern, Western Pacific and Santa Fe, are linked in the biggest rail hook-up in the entire world. New and competitive routes are now created.

Passenger service will be inaugurated soon and tourist travel given a new impetus. The natural beauty of the new territory together with that of the connecting lines makes a scenic route that is hard to surpass in grandeur. Traversing a most picturesque mountainous country in the three Pacific Coast states with the famous peaks of the Cascades in the distance, this has been most appropriately named "The Mountain View Route."

Mount Lassen, the only active volcano in the United States, will be more easily accessible. Created a national park in 1916, this wild, rugged volcanic region has been explored by comparatively few, due to the fact that pack trains were the only means of transportation.

Strange and interesting things are to be found in the park. Boiling hot springs, fumaroles, surging mud pots, the devastated area where the fury of Mount Lassen's eruptions show plainly in the charred, uprooted shrubbery, seared vegetation, burned trees, and over all a thick deposit of gray volcanic ash.

Many other national parks will be included in one extensive route enabling the traveling public to see Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Glacier, Lassen, and Rainier National Parks and Crater Lake, Yosemite, Mesa Verde, Grand Canyon in a single tour.

Paralleling the shores of Lake Almanor, the largest artificial body of water in the world, for a distance of eight miles; with Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen in the background, crossing Susan River Summit at an elevation of 5,743 feet - higher than the Great Northern pass over the Rockies - then dropping down a long grade into Feather River Canyon, the deepest and most picturesque in all California, the newly constructed section adds much to the scenic splendor of an itinerary already rich with enchantment.

And so another chapter of American rail building history has been written. Rich with the romance of conquest, remarkable because of achievement under the most adverse difficulties, and resulting in the opening of new transportation fields, it is to be hoped that this is not the finale in the blazing of our great steel trails.

The End.