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They had a huge first-mover advantage, in that although the big railroads knew they existed, no one had any idea about the English syndicate. The newspapers were already having a great time making fun of their grandiose name for what they openly referred to as a “shoe-string railroad.” Mostly they considered it to be a hustle, a big show of activity intended to bamboozle someone into thinking a railroad was going in, perhaps to sell land or something like that.
So while that cloak of anonymity and disreputability was still on them, they made a few very shrewd moves.
First, Sumner identified and purchased a 40-acre parcel of land that covered what they knew would be the only logical entrance to the tunnel that would need to be built at Noti.
Meanwhile, Hunt was on a whirlwind tour through the Siuslaw Valley, making arrangements for the right-of-way. This was a bit of a challenge, because some of the farmers, when they learned a railway was to be built, tried to shake the syndicate down for huge windfalls. Time was precious — as Hunt and his partners well knew, the minute all these purchases started being publicized, their under-the-radar “shoe-string railway” status would change fast. No “shoe-string” operation could afford to throw money around as they were now doing.
So as he moved along, Hunt would make each landowner an offer. If they accepted it, or even asked for slightly more, Hunt would accept it and ink the deal on the spot. But if the landowner demanded an unreasonable price, Hunt would demur, head for the nearest telephone, and call up Pacific Great Western’s lawyer, Frederick DeNeffe. DeNeffe would write out a condemnation order on the spot — he actually had a stack of form letters printed up so that all he’d have to do was fill in a few blanks — and file it with the Lane County clerk the same day. Soon the Siuslaw River canyon was covered with condemnation actions.
This was the point at which the newspapers stopped referring to the Pacific Great Western as “the shoe-string railway” and started calling it “the mysterious railway.” Obviously there was money behind it. But whose?
For a little while the syndicate managed to ride the “mystery” tiger very successfully. Harriman’s Southern Pacific assumed they were backed by Hill’s Great Northern, and vice-versa, and although both companies issued vigorous denials, nobody believed either one of them.
But then the cat was let out of the bag by none other than Sir Robert Perks himself. Sir Robert, at supper with a New York banker friend, got a little carried away and, after swearing his soon-to-be ex-friend to secrecy, took him into his confidence. The banker betrayed him almost the first instant he was alone in a room with a telephone. And suddenly the Harriman group was wise.
Promptly Harriman’s Southern Pacific bought out a local logging railroad with operations in the Siuslaw River area, the Willamette Pacific Railway Company, which immediately announced plans to build a line from Eugene to Coos Bay.
What followed was more or less the railroad equivalent of a race to the patent office. Whichever company filed its line adoption first would have precedence. Willamette Pacific’s survey crews platted a route that zigzagged back and forth across the canyon, such that if they filed their line adoption first, there would literally be no corridor for a competing line. If they made it first, it was game-over for Pacific Great Western.
And if Pacific Great Western made it first, it was game-over for Willamette Pacific. Without access to the tunnel site at Noti, they wouldn’t be able to reach Florence either. And since Sumner had bought the land around the tunnel site, the only way they’d get that access would be a condemnation proceeding, which they would only win if their line adoption was recorded first.
“I instructed Hunt to finish the resurvey as soon as possible and then immediately to come to Eugene where Bingham and I would be waiting for him at the Bingham home at any hour of day or night,” DeNeffe recalled. “The three of us, who composed the corporation’s board of directors, would then and there hold a special meeting.”
Hunt’s final survey was finished at nearly the exact same time as Willamette Pacific’s, and both engineers headed for Eugene at about the same time. Hunt arrived at 3 a.m. the following morning, on horseback in a driving rain; and by the time he’d gotten his oilskins off, a company meeting was in session, and the company officially adopted its right of way. (DeNeffe doesn’t say, but it goes without saying that the action was recorded a few hours later.)
Two days later, Willamette Pacific’s engineer arrived at the Southern Pacific offices in Portland, and a similar — but presumably drier — scene was enacted.
FOR A WHILE, things proceeded as if nothing had happened. Southern Pacific awarded the Willamette Pacific construction contract to an outfit called Twohy Brothers, which got right to work, transporting equipment out to get the line laid … starting, more or less, at the mouth of the inevitable tunnel at Noti.
Which, as you may recall, lay inside a 40-acre parcel of land that Sumner had purchased.
After purchasing it, Sumner had fenced the 40 acres in with a barbed-wire barrier 12 feet tall and festooned it with “NO TRESPASSING” signs. Inside the compound, Pacific Great Western had built a guardshack with sleeping and cooking facilities and stationed guards there with rifles.
The Twohy Brothers took one look at these preparations and went back to Eugene to consult with SP. SP promptly filed a condemnation complaint against its rival, seeking to force PGW to provide them access for their railroad line.
And that is how the whole affair ended up in court, relatively early in the game.
It wasn’t in court for long. Hunt, it turned out, had not frozen half to death racing back to Eugene for nothing. Pacific Great Western had won the race; its line adoption had come two days before Southern Pacific’s. There was a good deal more maneuvering and posturing, but it appears to have been intended primarily to buy a little time so that SP could make a serious attempt to buy PGW out. It was checkmate, and they knew it; and for SP, the only way forward was either to abandon the field, or buy out their rival.
At first these negotiations went nowhere, because Southern Pacific refused to agree to complete the line as part of the purchase contract. But when it became clear that Pacific Great Western’s directors absolutely would not sell at any price without that agreement, SP relented, and the agreement was signed.
The English syndicate members signed somewhat reluctantly. They’d been looking forward to the vicarious adventure of building the line. But the deal was so advantageous from a return-on-investment standpoint that it made no sense to refuse it for sentimental reasons.
SP was as good as its word, and the line was finished in 1916. It was immediately profitable, and continued to be for decades after it was built. In 2009, some deferred maintenance forced it to be closed down; the Port of Coos Bay, with the help of some grant money, purchased it two years later and refurbished it, and still operates the line today.