By the turn of the century, the Deschutes River country desperately needed a railroad. There were cattle, sheep, and billions of board feet of pine trees to take to market, but no way to get it there.
Dreams of a railroad had come and gone for more than 40 years. In 1855, Jefferson Davis, then the Secretary of War, sent a team of U.S. Army topographic engineers to see whether a railroad in the Deschutes River country was feasible. The engineers were unimpressed with what they saw.
For half a century, no one attempted to build a railroad into the region. Then two men decided to build at the same time, along the same route. Their multi-million dollar race to Bend began in early 1906.
It was to be the nation’s last hand-built railroad. At its peak, there were 3,000 to 4,000 men on each side, with work camps established up and down the river. Largely emigrants from southern Europe, the laborers were plagued by searing heat, rattlesnakes and low wages — just 20 to 30 cents per hour. The work was difficult and the competition serious. Violence erupted periodically, with opposing crews sabotaging black powder supplies, starting landslides to slow the others’ progress, and firing shots at one another across the river.