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Colonel Hogg’s Great Railroad to the Pacific and Other Engineering Disasters

Category: General Article

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GPS Coordinates to the Yaquina City Town Site: 44.601944, -124.008611

As American settlements expanded throughout the valley, access to the Pacific Ocean was imperative. The coast offered resources not available in the valley, and at the time ocean-going vessels were the fastest means of transportation.

But getting to the Pacific Ocean usually meant a difficult journey on foot through the coastal mountains. Over the generations, the Native Americans had established numerous trails and trade routes through the mountain passes, but there was still no way to transport large items from the valley to the coast. It would take decades before some innovative Oregonians found a way to connect the two halves of the state with roads or railways.

Corvallis Needed A Railroad

In a state where the Pacific Ocean was the lifeline for transportation and commerce, a town like Corvallis needed a way to span the fifty miles to the coast – and this was the job of a railroad.

It was the middle of the nineteenth century and already the people of Corvallis were feeling like progress had passed them by. After all, the state capital had relocated from their town to Salem, steamboats regularly stopped in Eugene but not Corvallis, and Portland was growing rapidly at the point where the Willamette River intersected with the Columbia River. Even the Oregon and California Railroad missed Corvallis altogether, stopping instead in the town of Albany twenty miles to the east. The only connection Corvallis had to the coast was a narrow toll road that wound through the Coast Range Mountains to the ferry stop at Elk City. But even this road was in poor shape. It had originally been the same trail used by the Native Americans, but it was muddy and often impassable due to landslides. No matter how you looked at it, Corvallis simply didn’t have a safe and reliable conduit to the ocean.

The railroad that would eventually connect the Willamette Valley to the coast was incorporated by a rather disreputable character who called himself Colonel Thomas Egenton Hogg. No one was sure how the “colonel” received his title or if it was even legitimate. But this wasn’t the first or only shady thing about the colonel. By the time Col. Hogg arrived in Corvallis, Benton County reached from the Willamette Valley all the way to the Pacific, and the economic wealth promised by a railroad made it easy for the Colonel to secure rights to all the tidal and marsh areas in the region, including Yaquina Bay. Gifted at self-promotion, Col. Hogg was very good at creating the illusion of progress where little existed. He had the route through the Coast Range Mountains between Corvallis and Newport carefully surveyed. He purchased a used steam engine which he immediately named “Corvallis” and placed it on public display to the delight of the locals. He sold bonds to investors at $25,000 each – although the fine print on these documents didn’t actually guarantee the investors any results. The endeavor was officially named the Oregon Pacific Railroad Company.

After one false start and many logistical problems, construction finally began on the railroad in 1881, four years after the original groundbreaking ceremony. Col. Hogg boldly promised that the railroad would have 130 miles (209 km) of working track in its first year. By the end of 1881, however, not even one mile was operational.

Overcoming Geology… Or Not.

So what went wrong?

Despite a workforce of over 800 men, the geology and geography of the Coast Range Mountains, the weather and the numerous rivers and streams that needed to be spanned made progress painfully slow. Taken separately, any of these factors could halt an engineering process. But sometimes these natural conditions worked in concert.

Like most of the mountains in Oregon, the coastal range between Corvallis and Newport is composed mostly of hard volcanic rock laid down millions of years ago. But that doesn’t mean the rock doesn’t move. Whether weakened by the flow of water (such as precipitation, runoff or waterways like streams and rivers), natural weathering processes, or earthquakes, even the largest landforms can shift – sometimes violently. When these shifts occur, they can cause the lighter, looser soil above to fall away, resulting in landslides that could wipe out newly excavated railroad track in the blink of an eye. If the soil sitting on top of the stronger landforms is saturated by rain or snow, then the landslide could become a mudslide which had even more dangerous potential due to its increased fluidity and weight. The terrain between Corvallis and the coast was so challenging that it was impossible to bring in any heavy equipment normally used to create railroads. One critic wrote that the goal of the railroad appeared to be to connect “a rock pile in the Cascades to a mud puddle by the Pacific.”

In the end, it would take four years for Col. Hogg to finish his railroad and even then it didn’t reach the Pacific Ocean. Instead, the Colonel decided to build his own town, which he called Yaquina City, further up the bay. This meant that goods and supplies using the railroad now had to be transported that much further by water, often first being offloaded onto smaller boats in Newport before arriving at Yaquina City.

Despite the project’s reputation as one of the ”monumental fiascos in railroad finance,” the Oregon Pacific continued to operate for the next fifty years until the onset of World War II. By that time, the town of Toledo, which lay just a few miles east of Yaquina City, became an important hub for the timber industry. The rails beyond Toledo were pulled up and Yaquina City was reduced to a ghost town almost overnight. Today, very little of Yaquina City still exists except for some crumbling piers and old railroad trestles.

For the town of Corvallis, however, the long-desired railroad was now a reality and it would stay that way. Eventually, the railroad would be accompanied by Highway 20, both of which run along areas originally surveyed and developed by Col. Hogg and his engineers decades earlier.

Related Feature: Life in Ruins: Yaquina City and Paradise Lost

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Where is Yaquina City?

Oceanscape Network youth volunteers go looking for a forgotten railroad town on the edge of the Yaquina River.