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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Mule-powered railroad was desperate attempt to stave off ruin

Colonel T.E. Hogg built tiny track over Cascades, hauled in a boxcar so he could say he had service over the mountains.

Curtis Irish's photo of the old railroad grade to nowhere built over Santiam Pass by a desperate T. Edgenton Hogg in the 1880s.
This old railroad grade can be seen from the highway near Santiam Pass.
It leads from nowhere to nowhere; the rail car that ran on it was packed
in piece by piece with a mule, which was then used to pull it. (Photo by
Curtis Irish) [Larger image: 1800 x 1205 px]

Lane County historian Curtis Irish last week called my attention to a mule-powered railroad. I can’t say it’s the only one, but I’ve never heard of another.

If you’ve ever dared take your eyes off the road while going over Santiam Pass toward Bend, you may have seen it: rock cribbing supporting a railroad grade going up the side of a geographical feature called Hogg Rock.

Not Hogg Butte. Not Hogg Hill. Not Hogg Gently-Sloping-Railroad-Friendly-Mountainside — Hogg Rock. And a rock it is; not something you’d think a railroad man in his right mind would want to run a track across.

But Colonel T. Egenton Hogg, the man who arranged it, was not exactly in his right mind. In fact, he built the track in a desperate gamble to save himself from financial ruin.

He lost, by the way.

A plan to steal Portland's thunder and bring it to Newport

Here’s the story: In the 1870s and 1880s, Hogg was in the railroad business. Starting out small, he incorporated the Corvallis and Yaquina Bay Railroad Company in 1872; the connection through the Coast Range was completed in 1884. At Yaquina Bay, he ran a steamer, the Yaquina City, which took passengers to other ports from there.

Lithograph image of Yaquina Bay as it looked in 1875.
An 1875 lithograph image of Yaquina Bay by Wallis Nash. (Image: OSU
Archives) [Larger image: 1800 x 1304 px]

But Hogg didn't plan on staying small. He envisioned a huge project — a railroad line that would go from Chicago through Corvallis and out to the ocean at Newport, which he saw as a more logical trading spot than Portland because it wouldn’t require crossing the Columbia River bar and going miles upriver.

Portland swells, as you can imagine, were not pleased by this idea — not least because it made sense, on paper: Hogg’s route would cut 300 miles off the Chicago-to-San-Francisco run.

But for the venture to work, Hogg had to get track laid across the Cascades so that it could connect to a terminus in Boise. If that didn’t happen, the government wouldn’t give him the enormous land grants, the sale of which was to finance much of the action.

Disaster strikes: Steamer on the rocks

The stranded S.S. Yaquina City wallowing on the beach north of the Yaquina Bay entrance.
The S.S. Yaquina City wallows in the surf after drifting aground at the
mouth of Yaquina Bay. The ship was a total loss. (Image: Salem Public
Library) [Larger image: 1200 x 885 px]

Everything was going nicely until the steamship Hogg had running at the Newport terminus, the S.S. Yaquina City, suddenly suffered rudder failure — a cable snapped — and was washed aground at the mouth of the bay. Everyone got off safely, but the waves broke the ship apart.

Obviously, this was a big deal. But for Hogg, it was even worse than it looks, because the steamship was a key part of his primary source of income. Even without the Chicago traffic, the steamship and Hogg’s railroad offered the fastest service to San Francisco from the mid- and south-Willamette Valley, and they'd become a popular line.

Hogg scrambled to replace it with the insurance money. But meanwhile, without the steamer’s income, Hogg didn’t have the money to finish his rail line to the Cascades summit.

A scheme born of desperation

In desperation, Hogg dropped work on his rail line and had his workers go straight to the summit of the pass and build a track over it.

T. Edgenton Hogg (commonly misspelled “Edgerton”), during his days as a confederate privateer.
This 1862 portrait shows Colonel T. Edgenton Hogg as he
looked during the Civil War. (Image: Oregon Historical Society)
[Larger image: 800 x 1067 px]

Once this was done, Hogg had a boxcar disassembled and packed into boxes, which were lugged up to the pass by mules. On site, the boxcar was reassembled, and the mules pulled it over the pass a couple times.

The letter of the law having been thus met, Hogg happily announced to the government that he’d fulfilled his end of the deal: A railroad line was running across the Cascades. He got no push-back from Washington, and everything looked good.

Then disaster struck, again. 


While his new ship, the S.S. Yaquina Bay, was being towed into the harbor by a tugboat, the cable snapped, and the Yaquina Bay was washed onto the shore — to lay its bones beside those of its sister ship, the Yaquina City.

Two cable failures, in the exact same spot, within a few months of each other, destroying the same man’s ships: What were the odds?

Few at the time thought it was coincidence. It’s almost certain the Portland companies threatened by Hogg’s Newport scheme had some hand in the double accident.

But there’s a big difference between almost-certain and proven-in-court. Hogg had no proof.

In any case, if it was sabotage, it worked. This time, the loss was not insured. Within months, Hogg’s business was in receivership. Shortly thereafter, he left the state, a ruined man.

But today, more than 100 years later, his railroad grade to nowhere is still there.

(Note: I wrote a very similar article to this one, focusing on Newport and discussing how it almost ate Portland's lunch as the major Oregon seaport, for another publication. Click here to check it out.)

(Sources: Curtis Irish; Sullivan, W. Hiking Oregon’s History. Eugene: Navillus, 2006; Sandler, Rich. The Rise and Fall of Yaquina City, a research paper written for Geography 422 at Oregon State Univ., 2008)