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Oregon California & Eastern Railroad/Weyerhaeuser Woods Railroad History

Oregon California & Eastern Railroad
History Page 1- Roots and Big Dreams, 1909-1925

The city of Klamath Falls (originally known as Linkville) had long desired a railroad, and when the Southern Pacific completed its line into town from Weed, CA in 1909 the citizens went wild with celebration. The city had their link to the outside world, and better yet, that link was looking like it might turn into a major mainline railroad running between Oregon and California. However, by 1911 the railhead stopped at Kirk, 40 miles north of town, leaving the city partway up a dead-end branchline.

Business on the new railroad boomed from the start, but the plentiful business very quickly exceeded the capacity of the single track railroad to the south to transport it. The citizens also felt that the Southern Pacific was charging too much, and many who celebrated the arrival of the railroad a few years before quickly grew to resent being at the mercy of only one railroad. It was not long before cries for some form of competition to SP were being heard.

Into this scene stepped Robert Strahorn, a railroad builder who had big plans to provide competition to the SP. Strahorn had a long history in railroad building in the northwest, and had laid out many towns along Union Pacific lines in Idaho. He had been deeply involved with the building of a railroad in the Willamette Valley in western Oregon immediately prior to coming to Klamath Falls.

Strahorn's plans called for a 400-mile long system based out of a central hub at Silver Lake, OR. From Silver Lake one line would go south to Klamath Falls, another line would go southeast to a connection with the narrow-gauge Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad at Lakeview, another line would go east to a connection with a Union Pacific branchline at Crane, OR, and another line would go north to a connection with the joint Oregon Trunk/Union Pacific line at Bend. The established community of Burns was initially left off of the system, but after the community protested Strahorn added plans for a 20-mile long branchline into the town off of the Silver Lake-Crane line. Another branch was proposed to drop down into the cattle country of southeastern Oregon. The proposed system would connected several dead end railroads in the central part of the state with each other and would provide the citizens and businesses of Klamath Falls with alternates to the Southern Pacific. Total construction costs for the planned railroad amounted to $6,000,000. Strahorn quietly formed the Oregon California & Eastern Railroad on 6 October 1915, but no immediate construction took place.

In addition to the "core system" outlined above, Strahorn also apparently dreamed of building another line west from Klamath Falls to a connection with the Pacific & Eastern Railroad's Medford-Butte Falls line at Butte Falls, OR, then farther west to a connection with the California & Oregon Coast Railroad, which was intent on building a line from Grants Pass southwest towards the sea port of Crescent City, CA. Strahorn also envisioned another possible line that would run southeast to a connection with the Western Pacific's Salt Lake City-Oakland mainline somewhere in northern Nevada.

Strahorn started acquiring key pieces of property and securing right-of-ways, along with holding prelimiary discussions with the various communities on the proposed system. Klamath Falls gave Strahorn the best reception, and he decided to start construction from that point. On 18 August 1916, Strahorn hosted a public meeting in Klamath Falls in which he set forth three requirements for his proposed system, which were a right-of-way from Klamath Falls through Dairy to Sprague River, a terminal in Klamath Falls, and a cash subscription of $300,000 to get construction started. Raising the money to fund the cash subscription required issuing a bond, which was initially vetoed by the mayor as he felt that the city lacked the authority to issue such bonds. An active campaign was mounted by the citizens of the city, and after some persuading the mayor consented to putting the issue of whether to issue the bonds or not to a public vote. The city electorate approved issuing the bonds by a wide margin in the November 1916 election. The city council authorized the bonds in December, and they were placed a short time later. To fulfill the terminal requirement, a group of prominent citizens pooled $50,000 of their own money to purchase a lot on the corner of Seventh and Klamath Streets in Klamath Falls.

In order to protect its interests, the City of Klamath Falls incorporated the Klamath Falls Municipal Railway, and Strahorn contracted himself to the city to build the first 20 miles of line to Dairy. The spring and early summer were spent obtaining right-of-ways and gathering needed supplies, and the first ground was broken on 4 July 1917. Strahorn promised to have the line completed to Olene in three months, to Dairy in six months, and to Sprague River in a year. However, construction crept forward at a snail's pace from day one, and the first section of the line to Olene, less than ten miles from Klamath Falls, was not completed until a year after the start date. The balance of the first 20 miles to Dairy was finally completed in early 1919.

Shortly after completing the first segment of the line Strahorn went back to the city with an offer to buy the railroad in exchange for $300,000 worth of income bonds and a promise from Strahorn to complete the line to Sprague River, 20 miles beyond Dairy. Once again the issue was put to a vote of the citizens, and the proposal was approved in an election held in May 1919. The city deeded the first 20 miles of completed railroad to Strahorn's Oregon, California & Eastern Railroad on 29 May 1919.

Strahorn set out to finance the next 20 miles of line through the sale of first mortgage bonds, which he marketed mostly by himself. Construction proceeded slowly, however, as Hildebrand, less than five miles beyond Dairy, was not reached until 25 August 1922. The next 20 miles to Sprague River was finally completed on 16 September 1923, and a "golden spike" ceremony to mark the completion of the first 40 miles was held on 12 October 1923. The final stretch into Sprague River involved crossing Bly Mountain, which Strahorn initially planned to bore a tunnel through. However, the money to bore a tunnel was not available, and Strahorn instead built his railroad across the top of the mountain using a pair of "temporary" switchbacks, to be replaced with the planned tunnel at a later date.

The completion of the OC&E to Sprague River did open up vast new stands of timber to harvesting, and in many cases loggers had already accumulated huge decks of logs adjacent to the grade before any rails had been laid. In the summer of 1923 the railroad was already delivering 40 carloads of logs per day to the Southern Pacific for shipment to sawmills around the Klamath Basin, and new requests for sidings to load log cars on were being received on a regular basis. By the following summer Strahorn was boasting that his railroad was handling around a billion board feet of lumber each month.