Prototype History

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Map of the Siskiyou LineText reprinted, with some adaptation, by permission from Backwoods Railroads: Branchlines and Shortlines of Western Oregon, pp. 111-123, by D. C. Jesse Burkhardt (1994, Washington State University Press).

Map reprinted with some adaptation, . Used with permission.

Siskiyou. In Plains Cree, it means "spotted horse" or "packhorse", and this Indian name reportedly came to be identified with the mountains when Archibald R. McLeod of Hudson's Bay Company led a pack string across the range in 1828. (At the time, Canadians held a hegemony over the Pacific Northwest for trade.) A brutal snowstorm left many pack animals dead, including a prized bobtail racehorse. As the story goes, McLeod's French-Canadian and Indian followers applied the name "Siskiyou" to the mountain pass where they'd encountered the storm, and subsequently the Indian word was applied to the entire mountain range. Many decades later, the Southern Pacific Railroad chose to name its new north-south mainline after the rugged, mountainous terrain it crossed.

On December 17, 1887, the Oregon & California Railroad completed construction of its Portland-San Francisco mainline. Two sections of track - one coming south from Portland, the other built north from San Francisco - joined at Ashland, Oregon. It was a tremendous day in the history of Oregon transportation. For the first time, Oregon goods could be moved directly to San Francisco and Oakland, and dozens of dignitaries and newspaper reporters converged on Ashland to record the momentous event.

About all that remains of the glory days is a bronze plaque marking the site where the new line was ceremoniously joined with a traditional golden spike. Today, the humble memorial remains all-but-forgotten in a tiny park adjacent to the Southern Pacific freight yard in Ashland, but the text explains the importance of opening this right-of-way:

On December 17, 1887, Charles Crocker drove the Golden Spike in the rail yard just south of this point, connecting the Oregon & California tracks from the north with those of the California & Oregon, now the Southern Pacific, from the south. This action opened the Pacific Northwest to California and the Southwest, completing a circle of railroads around the United States.

Passenger trains started operating on the "Siskiyou Route" immediately. Logically enough, the "Oregon Express" was the name of the primary northbound train on the Siskiyou Line, while the "California Express" headed south. Passenger trains operated continuously between Portland and Ashland from December 17, 1887, until August 7, 1955.

Southern Pacific's Siskiyou Line officially begins at Springfield Junction (MP 644.3) on the Cascade Line a few miles east [railroad west] of Eugene Yard. From there the track runs south [railroad west] precisely 300.3 miles through Roseburg, Grants Pass, Ashland, and all the way to Black Butte, California (MP 344.0). At Black Butte, it rejoins SP's Shasta Line between Klamath Falls, Oregon and Dunsmuir, California.

For nearly four decades, the Siskiyou route - SP's mainline - was the key rail link connecting Oregon and California. However, it lost much of its prestige when the "Natron Cutoff" project opened the Cascade Line on August 7, 1926. This newer route funnelled north-south trains via Klamath Falls instead of Ashland, and from that day forward the Siskiyou Line was relegated to "secondary" status.

The "Cascade Route" is roughly 25 miles shorter than the Siskiyou Line, and, more significantly, has fewer curves and easier grades. Now, almost all bridge traffic rides the Cascade Line, with primarily local cars, or occassional outbound empties, travelling the Siskiyou Subdivision.

-- categories -- Saturday 22 April 2006 by Joe Fugate

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