Monday, July 28, 2008

The Great Northern Rock Ovens Between Quincy and Trinidad

Back in 1892, the Great Northern was trying to complete its mainline for transcontinental traffic. Part of the hold-up was trestles in Lynch Coulee and also just down the line at the Rock Island bridge.

In order to complete the line, the GN had up to 4000 men working in Eastern Washington, specifically in this area.

It takes time to build trestles and bridges, so you can expect the men to have to camp near the work site. In this area, very near the old station of Crater, there are many ovens, built of rock. They would have had a large fire built inside of them to heat the rocks. Then the fire would have been removed and the ashes swept away. The heat in the rock would then cook any food placed in the oven.

The following newspaper article sums up most of the story:
THE SEATTLE TIMES, Sunday, October 22, 1967

Rock Ovens left by Railway Builders
by Leonard Ekman

Several ethnic groups contributed their sweat and muscle power to making grades, boring tunnels, scattering ties and laying steel rails when the nation's transcontinental railroads were built to the Pacific Coast. Among them the Swedes, Irish and Orientals will be remembered for their role in railroad history. Some of them left physical marks along the way which now identify the nationality of the men who made them.

One national group, the Italians, left beehive ovens made of rock, in which they baked bread, along the rights of way of the nation’s newly constructed railroads. One group of these ovens, of which only one or two are semi intact, can be seen at a Great Northern tunnel construction site near Trinidad, 25 miles east of Wenatchee, and one in the Tumwater River Canyon west of Leavenworth.

George Smart, retired Great Northern engineering employee, recalls seeing ovens built by Italians in construction days along the Great Northern right of way. They were made of the rock material at hand and sometimes were plastered with mud. An opening at the top served as a chimney, and a hole on the side provided an opening for firing. Since they were intended only as a temporary convenience and were loosely held together, most of them long since have been destroyed by the weather, or were removed when land along the railroad was cleared.

Many Italians employed by westwardbound railroads were new arrivals from their homeland, and brought with them their love for bread, a particular kind, made with a special flour. To satisfy this need the flour was stocked aboard construction trains where bread-hungry Italians lost no time in turning it into bread. Smart remembers one inventive crew which fashioned an emergency oven out of scrap metal and mud in a tool car on a construction train. The oven produced quality bread but the constant jarring of the tool car, as it moved back and forth on the project, caused the bread makers to make almost daily repairs.

The ovens near Trinidad and in the Tumwater River Canyon apparently are the only ones remaining. The single oven in Tumwater Canyon is about 100 feet from the grade once used by the railway in crossing Stevens Pass, and is now slowly being surrounded by second-growth timber and brush. If mud was used to plaster the outside of this one, it has been washed away by rain and melting snow. The Tumwater oven and those near Trinidad are similarly constructed. It appears, therefore, that the same workmen built ovens at both sites as they moved along.

A pioneer woman, living in Moses Coulee, along the railway's Mansfield branch, relates that a beehive oven once stood near the mouth of this coulee, but that it has collapsed and its parts are scattered.

The Great Northern tracks reached Wenatchee in 1892. The site where one sees the ovens was once a camp of considerable size, at a place where a series of deep cuts were made in basalt rock. The job was to bring the railroad off the Columbia Plateau to water grade at the Columbia River. Because workmen were stationed there for several months while the cuts were excavated, there was time for building ovens and for baking the bread they relished.

In 1891, when track workers labored on the rock-bound grade near Trinidad, no power equipment was used for drilling or for moving rock. Hand-held drills, struck by burly, maul-swinging laborers, made the holes for blasting powder. After each round of blasting, the loosened rock was hauled from the cut in wheelbarrows, where it was dumped over the side of the coulee near the project. Pay for this arduous work was $2.00 a day, for a ten hour shift.

Included in the large work force was a group of 250 Italians. Although the contractor's bunkhouse provided board and room for the workmen, the Italians lived in a separate camp. This stemmed from the fact that after deductions for board and room were made at the end of the month, each workman had only a small part of his salary left. The independent Italians lived in makeshift tents, shacks made of whatever material could be found and crudely made stone huts.

Among the Italians was Peter Janni, a boy of 17, who had gone from Italy to Butte, Montana, where his father was working on the famous copper hill. Peter's job consisted of carrying steel drills from the drill crews to the shop where they were sharpened, and back to the drillers when the steel had been reconditioned and tempered. At times, when no steel needed sharpening, he took a turn on a wheelbarrow, hauling rock from the diggings to the dump on the rim of the coulee. Although he was not required to haul rock, he was afraid he might be fired if caught not working. Since his father returned to Italy shortly after Peter's arrival at the Trinidad camp, the thought of being unemployed and alone in a strange land was indeed frightening.

Now 93, living at Northport, Janni still has vivid memories of his experiences at Trinidad. He is no doubt the only person still alive who worked at the camp, Janni recalls that the men slept on sagebrush boughs covered with blankets, and that at times when the men awoke in the morning they would find that several rattlesnakes had moved in.

Janni explained that the Italian men divided into groups of up to ten each. Each group constructed an oven for bread. Besides the economy factor, their love for bread doubtless was one of the reasons for living in an independent camp. Each group hired a cook whose salary of $2.00 a day was apportioned among its members. One can surmise that a talented breadmaker was much appreciated among men whose standard of living can be classed as bare existence.

Baking bread in a beehive oven was a relatively simple process. Dough was kneaded on a flat piece of driftwood found along the Columbia River. Meanwhile, a sagewood fire was lit in the oven and tended until the bottom and rock walls were well heated. Then large pieces of dough were placed on the rocky bottom of the oven with. a wooden paddle also made of driftwood. In imagination one can sense the aroma of baking bread, mixed with the spicy odor of sagebrush, drifting through the camp of the hungry men.

In a nostalgic mood Janni said: "The bread was so hard that if a man had been struck in the head by one of the loaves it would have killed him." Then he added, "But it was real bread."

Fresh meat was often scarce or unobtainable. Jackrabbits were plentiful, however, and rabbit stew was often part of the menu.

Asked if wine was consumed at their meals, Janni replied: "No wine-we hardly had any water!"

Water was hauled three miles from the Columbia, and rationed in camp. If a man wanted a bath, or to wash his clothes, a hike of three miles across the parched, rattlesnake-infested country to the Columbia was the price paid for cleanliness.

I found evidence of at least 5 ovens. A clue for the ones that have fallen into rubble was rock that had turned reddish due to the head of the fire.

There were lots and lots of old rusty cans of varying sizes. Many were larger gallon sizes that had corrugated sizes. A few had the ends with writing still visible:

There were many rock foundations, that would have been around the edges of tents. There were about 2 dozen or so that I could recognize:

In the satellite picture below, the road in the bottom left is SR28 as it heads down the big hill to Trinidad. The black line is the current railroad grade.

The oven near the east industry switch down at Trinidad proper has been partially bulldozed in. Here is a photo taken a few years back of it:



Anonymous said...

this is a pretty awesome article thanks for sharing

Unknown said...

Thanks Dan for the tour of how it was back in the days while the GN constructed this amazing route. I look forward to going up there in the near future and discovering these ancient artifacts while camping out amongst the l artifacts the construction crews left behind. History at its finest sir.

SDP45 said...

Thanks for the kind words, Drew. Look forward to seeing you out this way again sometime.