Sunday, February 7, 2010

Railroad Racing

From "Reclamation Era."

February 1971

If horse racing was the sport of kings, railroad racing was the sport of the money barons of Wall Street. Interest in that sport began when development of the steam engine reached a relatively practical state of perfection, and ended only when the United States became gridded with paralleling and crisscrossing railroad tracks.

During the interim, the "Jim Hills" and the "Harrimans" were cracking whips over the backs of rival construction gangs of coolie laborers, thrusting dual rapiers of steel into the ever-retreating West, over what was then called "The Great American Desert." The iron horse was closely following--if not pushing--the construction gang.

The sport was revived in the early 1930's, when the banner news story broke carrying announcement  by two of the major railroads of the Pacific Northwest of their intention to construct branch lines from the Grand Coulee Dam construction area to their respective nearest station.

Periodic bulletins were issued from rival camps announcing new plans which would assure that their branch  line would be completed first.

As the Grand Coulee Dam site was relatively isolated, a branch railroad was essential to the project's needs. Heavy machinery and equipment, and many of the materials required could be brought in only by rail.

The trucking industry was only then entering into serious competition with the railroads, and truck haul was limited by inadequate highways and lack of necessary equipment.

For example, the 11, 800,000 barrels of cement used in the project was procured from some five cement mills, which had no facilities for loading bulk cement into trucks. Also the cement mill's price on bulk cement was in most cases directly related to published railroad tariffs. 

In the story of the race between the tortoise and the hare, one of the participants--the hare--took a nap, allowing the turtle to crawl first across the finish line, but in this railroad race, both contestants took a nap, and neither ever reached the goal.

The race was continued in the newspapers until the needs of the Government for a branch railroad became acute. Then both the contesting railroads announce that neither of them would construct a branch line to the dam site.

A branch was constructed--as you may have guessed--by the United States, connecting with the Northern Pacific at its Odair station near Coulee City. Thus, the Government was committed for rail haul of project materials to the railroad site where its branch made connection.

The records and files of the railroad companies involved are, of course, not available for inspection, and we are left to conjecture and speculation as to how the two railroads became involved in this race, and why it was so abruptly ended.

Even in our speculations, we are not given to imputing anything but the best of motives for the actions of the executive officers of the two railroads.

Hence, we assume that the race was entered into in good faith. That there was not compromise nor collusion involved in the abrupt termination of the race, but rather, plans for such branch line construction were abandoned, because in the judgment of the railroads' executives, such an undertaking would not be in the best interests of the companies.

To arrive at that conclusion resort may have been had to railroad lore, which has it that Mr. Harriman of Union Pacific fame once remarked that he would authorize the construction of a branch line to a haystack, but not to a mine.

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