The Good Ship Portland
For twenty years after it arrived on Puget Sound the Northern Pacific discouraged, harassed and outright manipulated the people of Seattle. Their primary sin seems to have been not giving up the ghost and moving lock, stock and barrel to Tacoma, the city the Northern Pacific chose as its western terminus in 1873. High rates, line closures, suspended operations, forced re-loads and inadequate facilities had not deterred the residents of Seattle. With the arrival of the S.S. Portland from the gold fields of the Klondike on July 15, 1897, the Emerald City achieved its goal of becoming the primary port on Puget Sound -- whether the Northern Pacific liked it or not.
Seattle's commerce doubled between 1893 and 1896 in the midst of a national economic collapse which threw the Northern Pacific into its second receivership. When the Portland docked, Seattle's commerce tripled. The establishment of a U.S. Assay Office in 1898 helped the city gain a hegemony over the northern gold trade. The next year the city's commerce was worth eight million dollars. During the Spanish-American War the city set itself up as provisioner of the Philippine Islands; when the Philippine Insurrection broke out after the war, the city went at it again. Three major trans-Pacific steamship lines operated out of Seattle by 1901, seven by 1909. Its port was backed by the most manufacturing muscle in the state -- of 3,360 manufacturing concerns doing $86 million dollars worth of business in 1901, 953 were located in Seattle. The dollar value of the manufacturing was pegged at $26 million, more than twice that of Tacoma. In 1901 Seattle's population was double that of Tacoma; triple by 1911.
At the turn of the century, the Northern Pacific finally threw in the sponge. In 1900 the railway would help to put up the majority of 18 new piers and warehouses built in Seattle that year. That same year the road's new premier passenger train, the North Coast Limited, would arrive and depart from Seattle. Its magnificent Headquarters Building overlooking Half-Moon Yard in Tacoma would be abandoned for high-rise accommodations in Seattle's L. C. Smith Building -- tallest west of the Mississippi. To stay competitive the Northern Pacific was going to have to get to Seattle just a little bit faster, and in 1899 it set about doing just that.
Before The Cut-Off
Stampede Pass’ original routing had utilized a portion of the Puyallup Branch (called the Cascade Branch when construction across Stampede was begun, and later the Buckley Line) to reach the tidewaters of Commencement Bay at Tacoma. The Puyallup Branch had been extended in the latter half of the 1870s from Tacoma to the coal fields of eastern Pierce County. When the decision was made to complete the main line across Stampede Pass, it formed a natural jumping-off point.
What had been expedient in the 1880s was a hindrance by 1900. The route crossed 14 bridges, including a massive timber trestle across the White River near Buckley, endured four stretches of 1.2 percent or greater climbs and had a helper district with a 1.7 percent grade. Its profile was as lumpy as oatmeal, not only cutting train tonnage by a third, but requiring helpers out of South Prairie.
Chief Engineer Edwin Harrison McHenry wrote of it in 1899, stating, "The main line . . . makes a great detour to the south between Palmer and our terminals at Tacoma and Seattle. That was occasioned by the decision to use as part of the Cascade Branch . . . . The decision was no doubt influenced by the scarcity of funds and the desire to take advantage of the mileage already completed. By a forced location, involving a loop near South Prairie, with maximum grades of 1.7 per cent, the construction of three high trestles on this loop and also construction of a bridge seventy feet in height and about 2,000 feet in length on the crossing of the valley of the White River. The unfortunate features of this route have been recognized at all times."
In fact, when Engineer-in-Chief General Adna Anderson had been planning the original Stampede route in 1885, a connection with the Seattle to Tacoma line near Auburn had been offered up as a proposal, but ultimately rejected in favor of the more expedient routing over the existing branch. The question was revisited in 1891, with the Northern Pacific sending George Allen Kyle into the woods to make examinations for a shorter line. Writing in 1899, Edwin McHenry stated, "A very favorable route was discovered from Palmer to a connection with the Seattle [L]ine at a point about midway between the two cities. On account of financial stringency, no action was taken on this report. The estimated cost and length of the line at that time was twenty-two miles, costing $22,000 per mile or $484,000 total."
The matter brought up a third time just before the turn of the century. It came about not because of the Northern Pacific, but because of coal concerns at Leary (now Ravensdale). The Northern Pacific quoted coal operators the 1891-based of $20,000 a mile to construct a branch from their coal fields to a connection with the Seattle Line near Auburn. Over time, the new coal branch evolved into a more elaborate project designed to supplant the old route altogether. Initial estimates had been for a road constructed to branch line standards. As the project developed, several decisions were made which added significant amounts to the overall cost. Standards for the roadway went from fourteen feet in embankments and twenty feet in excavation to sixteen feet and twenty-two feet respectively; first class 72-pound rail would be used in the place of second class 56-pound rail; the number of curves and the degree of curvature was decreased; permanent steel bridges would be used in place of timber structures. The $400,000 cost for branch line work blossomed to $792,902 for main line construction.”
In a report of 1899 McHenry stated, "The new line will shorten the distance to Seattle 20.9 miles and to Tacoma 3.2 miles. It will obviate the necessity for operating the South Prairie loop, where assistant engines are at present required, and if through operation between Buckley and Palmer is discontinued it will avoid the expenditure of $200,000 otherwise necessary in providing a permanent bridge at the White River Crossing.
"The right-of-way is almost completed. The line is located with one per cent grades on the basis of ten daily trains each way. The location was quite difficult, there being but little elevation to spare for the distance and the country being very unfavorable for the location of a line for main line traffic. The Green River is crossed near Palmer and again near the western junction at Auburn. The White River is also crossed at the latter point. The contract was awarded to Messrs. Henry [and] Bennett, on July 10th and construction is actively in progress."
Though referred to as "Rodent Frugality" in coded Northern Pacific telegrams during construction, the line would become known as the Palmer Cut-Off. It would be 21.7 miles long and upon reaching Auburn would put any given train at nearly the center of the Seattle-Tacoma line: 21.5 miles to Seattle; 18.6 from Tacoma. Westbound trains joining the same line at Meeker, the end of the Buckley Line, were nearly 31 miles from Seattle, under ten from Tacoma. The real advantage of the new line was not its shorter distance to Seattle, but its improved grades and curvature. Five bridges were eliminated and the profile was reduced to a nearly straight line, rather than the series of small hills. With shorter distances, faster runs, heavier trains and fewer helpers, it was an accountant's delight.
As envisioned the new main line would move northwest instead of south at Palmer, crossing the Green River and proceeding less than a mile to the first station at Kanaskat. Named for a Yakima Indian sub-chief killed in the area in the 1850s, Kanaskat was also the anchor of the Green River Branch, which continued to mines and mills scattered along the foot of the Cascades. While the branch moved north, the main line moved west. It followed the Green River a few miles further, then struck out across the rolling foothills to find another water-level route to follow to the valley floor some 800 feet below. This took the line through coal-rich Leary, on to Covington and finally down to Auburn along the banks of first Jenkins and then Soos creeks.
George A. Kyle -- Man With A Pass
Auburn was little more than a farming community when construction began. A decade after the steel gangs left, it boasted a population of only 957. (A thousand less than the then-remote mining town of Black Diamond.) What awaited the railroad men was acre upon acre of hops, lettuce and orchard. The land was flat, empty, and relatively cheap.
Papers of the day do not show a great amount of interest in the line that would ultimately lead to such dramatic changes in the town. Local editors and the Northern Pacific's passenger agents instead focused on the elegant new train which would soon make its debut -- the North Coast Limited. Indeed, the arrival of Assistant Engineer George A. Kyle, who had not only located the original route, but who would soon be overseeing work on the cut-off from his headquarters in town, went completely without mention.
Born in 1857 in Union Township, Ohio, Kyle came to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1890s. He made his living for the next ten years locating railway lines. He traveled extensively on behalf of the Northern Pacific, working from the forests of Grays Harbor to the wind-swept grasslands and coulees of Ellensburg and Lind. (As the Northern Pacific was often thought of as a "family road," it bears mentioning that George's younger brother Douglas S. Kyle was also a civil engineer for the railway. During the construction of the cut-off, he would work for his brother as a resident engineer in the field.) Later in life George Kyle went into business for himself as a consulting engineer in Portland, Ore., a step which may have proven to be his downfall. Hired to locate railway lines in China shortly before World War One, he was kidnapped by bandits and held for ransom. When the culprits found his family could not pay, they reputedly pulled the gold from his teeth as compensation. The hearty engineer survived the ordeal and returned to America. Family lore holds that the after-effects of the dastardly dental work suffered overseas put Kyle in an early grave in 1924.
While George Kyle may not have caught the attention of Auburn's editors or residents in 1899, he very quickly caught the attention of the Northern Pacific's Second Vice-President John William Kendrick, a stunning feat considering Kendrick was almost 2,000 miles away in St. Paul, Minnesota. It seems the free-wheeling spirit of western railroad building had not yet left Engineer Kyle. When he became dismayed by the Northern Pacific's bureaucratic sluggishness in issuing passes for contractor's men to get to the work sites, he grabbed a wad of passes, got out his pen, and re-issued the passes to whatever points he felt were in need of men. When news of this high offense reached Kendrick's office in far-off St. Paul, it kicked off a flurry of downward spiraling memos through the ranks of the Engineering Department which eventually landed on Kyle's head. His liberties with passes seem to have been soon forgotten -- Kyle was a division engineer on the Northern Pacific by 1902.
Charles S. Bihler, Western Divisions Engineer for the Northern Pacific at Tacoma was not a man to be trifled with. Born August 29, 1859, in Munich, Germany, he joined the Northern Pacific in 1882 as a leveler. Four years later he was overseeing the construction of Northern Pacific shops at Como, Minnesota, and four years after that he was overseeing the construction of the Northern Pacific's giant western backshop at South Tacoma. In 1891 he was named Western Divisions Engineer, a position he would hold for a decade. Construction of the cut-off paired him with a rambunctious assistant engineer, and pitted him against three formidable foes -- a ruthlessly efficient vice-president with a keen engineering mind, a construction zone whose only reputation was for rain and mud, and an exceedingly balky contractor. His manner of dealing with the situation was to avoid the vice-president, prod the contractor, and bombard his assistant engineer with letters. (Not a day went by when George Kyle did not receive a half dozen written messages from a man just 18.6 miles away.) By the time the question of eminent domain came around, Bihler had no patience left at all.
On January 29, 1900, Kyle received Bihler's first missive on the subject. "In the condemnation suit against the Tacoma Gas and Electric Company I think especial effort should be made to get as small a verdict as possible, as we have made every effort to make an agreeable settlement with this Company and they have rejected all our offers. We have offered them fully twice as much as their land is worth, and still they are not satisfied. I think that if especial efforts were made to see that a good jury is secured . . . that their verdict would be somewhat smaller than the amount which we have offered them."
Nor was he against the occasional Machiavellian ploy. On June 23, Kyle received instructions to "See Mr. Hart and find out what he will take for the 75 foot strip of land on each side as stated; also see if Mrs. Boyd will come down from her figure of $6,000 for this 75 foot strip on each side. If she will not we will be obliged to commence condemnation proceedings to acquire title, as we could do this at the same time we get title from Hart. Hart's land being adjacent to Mrs. Boyd's, he could be used as a witness in the Boyd suit and it would help us out greatly."
Even after the line opened in September, 1900, he was still at it. He wrote Kyle on November 3, 1900, "Will you kindly advise what progress is being made towards taking up the deed from Aaron S. Neeley and wife. This matter has been dragging terribly and should have been closed up a long while ago. We have been too lenient with them and should now force them to deliver this deed to us."
"What Is Reason You Cannot Lay Track Faster On Palmer Cut-Off?"
Pacific Division Superintendent Edward J. Pearson was 36 years old in November, 1899. An Indianan and a graduate of Cornell University, he had joined the Missouri Pacific as a rodman in 1880, then worked on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas and the Atlantic and Pacific before joining the Northern Pacific in 1885. He had worked his way through the Engineering Department in St. Paul, then switched to the Operating Department in May, 1894, becoming the Superintendent of first the Yellowstone, then the Rocky Mountain Division. He left Missoula, Mont., for Tacoma in December, 1898, where he stayed until 1904, going back to the Engineering Department as the Northern Pacific's chief engineer. Engineering on the Northern Tier must have suited Pearson, for he eventually became one of the driving forces behind the Milwaukee Road's Pacific Extension. Though he might have been destined for greatness in western railroading, in November, 1899, he was just another thorn in the side of Charles S. Bihler.
Bihler wrote to the superintendent, "The rock service at the first crossing of Green River on the Palmer Cut-Off is very unsatisfactory. Rock is not received in sufficient quantities to keep the men going, and they have to lay off about every other day . . . . I understand that the shortage of crushed rock is caused principally by your using crushed rock for ballasting, and I do not consider that we are receiving a fair deal in this matter. Complaint is also made that the rock is broken up to fine and that about 30 percent of it is pulverized, also that the rock is very dirty. You are undoubtedly setting the jaws of the crusher too close and are not screening the product . . . . We should have about two car loads of sand and three cars of crushed rock per day. The delivery of rubble rock likewise does not meet requirements."
January, 1900 brought more problems. A small flood damaged the second crossing of the Green River, carrying away the piling on the east abutment and the first pier, as well as filling the excavation work with a foot of mud. The second pier was filled up with about two feet of mud and the upper end of a coffer dam stove in by logs. The damage was by no means critical, with George Kyle writing "I think 100 dollars will cover damages at this point." Further down the line, some of the embankment east of Auburn was scoured, calling for about 1,000 yards of rip-rapping.
At the start of February Chief Engineer Edwin H. McHenry in St. Paul received a letter from Ralph Modjeski. America’s pre-eminent bridge engineer was reporting on his tests of the pin steel to be used in the bridges on the cut-off. "The American Bridge Company," Modjeski wrote, "have not ordered their pin steel in the regular manner, but expected to use billets destined for car axles to make pins from . . . . I have tested their car axle material with the results enclosed, and have consequently refused to accept it . . . . I anticipate some trouble with the material, having rejected a number of steel castings besides this pin material and should like to know if you would prefer to make some sacrifice as to quality of material in order to get the bridges at as early a date as possible." McHenry forwarded the report to Bihler, who declined, writing, "It would enable us to work to better advantage to have the bridges at an earlier date, but do not think that we can gain any time in the completion of the line, and therefore would not recommend that we accept inferior material."
The bridges were not due to be delivered until May 1, but on March 2, Bihler and Kyle received an unpleasant surprise. The bridges would be shipped within ten days, more than a month ahead of schedule. McHenry asked if everything was ready for their installation, and if there was boarding for the bridge gangs. To both questions Bihler automatically replied yes. With McHenry answered, he turned around to find out what the situation actually was. He informed Kyle of the sped up timetable, and ordered him to "construct at once falsework for White River and first crossing Green River and endeavor to have grade completed by the time White River crossing is erected, so that track can be laid to second crossing. Push work on masonry on second crossing and send in your request for cross ties." A week later on March 14, he remembered to ask about the accommodations, to which Kyle quickly replied, "There are no sleeping accommodations at Palmer but [the bridge gang] can get board at the section house. We could furnish some tents to sleep in if you think best. At Auburn they can get in at the Green River Hotel and at the 2nd crossing we can hold our camp there for them. So that we can get along without bunk cars. Still I think it would be more agreeable to the men to give them a bunk car."
Mid-March found Bihler wiring Kyle about the switch for the north leg of the wye at Auburn. The superintendent's forces were not moving fast enough -- Kyle had better do the job himself. Simultaneously he assigned more work to Kyle. He wired, "What is reason you cannot lay track faster on Palmer Cut-Off?" The reason, it turned out, was a shortage of ties. Kyle, already harried by endless messages from Bihler, retorted sharply, "They have been laying the track just as fast as the ties arrive . . . . I cannot consistently ask the contractors to increase their force until the ties begin to arrive in sufficient quantities to justify it. I had talked to Mr. Horicks and McLaughlin 3 weeks before we began to lay track and supposed ties would arrive in the correct quantities and on time. I cannot see how you can blame me. If you will look up telegrams [and] letters you will see that I have tried to impress [on] everyone that we would start track laying about the 5th of March." Two days later, on March 19, he followed with another blast. "The delay in the arrival of ties and switch material is certainly not to be attributed to me as they were ordered 4 or 5 months ago and I have seen and written and I wired a number of times to your office in regard to their being delivered on time." The next day Bihler replied, "It seems that you started on the track laying somewhat too early before your tie supply was assured."
The next target to draw fire were the primary subcontractors -- Horace C. Henry and Nelson Bennett. On March 29 they received a typically brusque message from Bihler. "There are only 40 men in track laying gang. Not enough to keep up back work. [Thirty-four] cars [of] ties in Palmer yard which must be released at once." On same day he sent Henry and Bennett another message. "The progress of the track laying on the Palmer Cut-Off is extremely inadequate. Yesterday's report shows only 1,000 feet of track laid, the reason for the small showing being insufficient force. Apparently your present force should be doubled to handle the work with anything like reasonable dispatch. As it is now, the force can only lay for half a day, because there are no men in the yard to load material on cars to keep the track laying gang supplied. This not only causes an excessive amount of engine service, but also makes it necessary to do a great deal of running over the unballasted track and I wish to avoid this so that the steel may not get damaged. Please make special effort to get a good force on this work at once." This was followed on March 30 by a friendly suggestion. "Principal trouble Palmer seems to be inability to retain men [on] account [of] poor boarding facilities. Not much use to send men out if they won't stay [on] account [of] poor accommodations. This should be remedied."
Apparently, Henry knew that it was better to placate Bihler than incur his wrath. Three icy messages in just two days prompted him to respond, "The ties will all be unloaded today. Have ordered that quarters for men are to be made immediately comfortable regardless of cost." It was lip service however, for two months later things had scarcely improved. Bihler wrote Henry again on May 31, "Reports show you have only 38 men on surfacing and 50 men on track laying. You promised us an adequate force on this work, but do not see that any efforts are being made to fulfill it. You should immediately increase your tack laying force to 75 men and your surfacing force to at least 100. Unless this is done by next Monday, I will be compelled to put on forces of our own." Kyle sent in a note on the subcontractors the following day. "They say that there are plenty of men in Seattle but that they cannot get them which I consider a very lame excuse. They evidently make no inducement for the men to come or even to keep them after they get them there in the way of accommodations." Bihler replied, "Advise me each day of the number of men working on track."
Keeping tabs on Henry and Bennett was nothing new. In the fall of 1899 Bihler had been writing Henry and Bennett to try and get them to push the work. On September 13, 1899, he wrote, "It will require vigorous action on your part to get the work in such shape before wet weather sets in, that the completion may not be unduly delayed." Nor was Bihler the only voice they were hearing from. George Kyle wrote on November 8, 1899, "You will notice that I calculate that you should have 522 men and 117 teams at work to finish your work on the day called for in your contract . . . . Your last estimate shows 87,500 cubic yards [of earth moved] for the monthly, and 191,500 cubic yards total to date. Now the total yardage on the cut-off is about one million cubic yards. One million less 191,500 leaves 808,500 cubic yards to be done, and assuming your last month's rate of 87,500 yards, it will require nine and a half months for you to complete the work, and as you have only five months left, you surely must make an extraordinary effort to finish in time."
Despite his slow prosecution of the work, Bennett nonetheless felt he had cause to complain. In early December, 1899, he bypassed Kyle altogether and took a minor complaint straight to Bihler, who later told Kyle what had happened. The assistant engineer responded it was, "Very characteristic of the man . . . . He always begins at the wrong place with his objections as well as his work . . . . Bennett made an objection when the cut was narrowed and now he objects to it being widened! Bennett is noted for ignoring the engineers on the ground and taking advantage of them by going to headquarters with his troubles. I do not wish you to take this letter in any other light than I wish to show up Bennett's unfair ways of dealing with the field engineers."
The cause for concern was not diminished in the spring of 1900. Bihler wrote again in March, saying "On Section 18, 55,000 yards [of earth] are yet to be removed, and only 14 teams are at work at the present time. At the present rate it will take about three months to complete this section. The same holds good for Section 19, where the steam shovel has got to move about 44,000 yards, and is now moving it at the rate of about 600 yards per day. We will undoubtedly be delayed with track on these sections, unless the work is pushed very much more energetically than it has been up to this time. The sub-contractor on this work has made all sorts of promises of what he was going to do to secure better progress, but up to this time, has entirely failed to make any showing." Later that same month Bihler informed Kyle that he "Had a talk with Mr. Bennett, concerning the progress on his sub-contract, and as usual, he had a lot of grievances and reasons why he does not make any better progress. I told him I could see very readily the reason for his not pushing the work, and that he was simply trying to string out the work so as to get in a more favorable working season. He disclaimed any intention of doing so, but the fact is quite apparent . . . . If arrangements are not being made by the contractor to increase his forces, please let me know. Bennett has always had the habit of snubbing the engineers in the field and he is stubborn and extremely hard to handle; but I do not propose that he should be allowed to proceed with this work entirely to his own convenience."
Bennett's behavior was enough to drive poor George Kyle to distraction. On March 17, 1900, he wrote Bihler, "I wish to say that I have notified Henry and Bennett and Nelson Bennett that the track is going to be held up . . . . There is no use of my trying to do anything with him unless clothed with more authority than I am at present. I wish to place this on record so that I cannot be blamed when it comes to a showdown with him."
May 10 found Bihler complaining to Henry and Bennett about their hiring practices. "I understand from Mr. Kyle that there are teams on hand for this work, but no men to drive them. The securing of labor for this work does not seem to be handled with any particular energy or method, and it appears that the men who are sent out by the employment agencies do not find anybody at the station to direct them to the work. Of a number of men sent from Spokane, practically all did not stop at Auburn, but bought tickets and went through to Seattle. Undoubtedly if somebody had been on hand to receive and take charge of them, a number of them might have been secured."
Despite all the trouble Henry and Bennett caused, Bihler did not hold a grudge. On June 14, 1900, he wrote Kyle "While I do not think that we are under any particular obligations to the contractors on account of the great length of time it has taken them to complete their work, I would still like to give them an opportunity to make some money, where it can be done legitimately."
The Trains Of Summer
Summer, 1900, found crews stringing the telegraph wires. On June 7, Kyle was requesting operators for Leary. "I can put them in the depot most anytime . . . we should also have instruments put in both at Kanaskat [and] Leary so we can handle the trains. I don't suppose it would pay to put in a telephone now as the time will be too short . . . . But I think it advisable to get telegraph communication with Leary and Kanaskat."
By this time, however, the trains were already running. For months Bihler had been corresponding with Assistant General Superintendent William G. Pearce in Tacoma and Samuel G. Fulton, First Assistant General Freight Agent at Portland, Ore., concerning the movement of coal from the Seattle and San Francisco Railway and Navigation Company's works at Leary. Handling the traffic of this company had become a minor endeavor for the Engineering Department by June. Bihler's statement of construction freight earnings for April, 1900, showed that construction trains had been used to move almost 7,000 tons of coal to Seattle. At the insistence of Pearce, the Northern Pacific instigated unit trains to handle this traffic. On June 25 he wired Bihler, "Nothing else but Leary's coal will be handled. Will assign certain cars and power . . . . object of arrangement is to secure quick handling." As the line to Auburn was not yet open, this meant the trains were routed from Leary to Palmer, down the Buckley Line to Meeker, then north to Seattle, a seventy mile trip!
In addition to the coal traffic, the Northern Pacific was looking to route its new first-class passenger train, the North Coast Limited, over the line. This set off a flurry of telegrams debating whether or not the line was in shape to handle this new high speed traffic. At the end of June Bihler notified McHenry that, "Track on Palmer Cut-Off in fair shape now, except some places on lower end where banks have been softened by recent rains. These will be fixed up by July 1st to permit safe operation. What is contemplated by new schedule? It would hinder us considerably in our work to have many trains on line before we get through with the ballast trains."
Once again, Bihler responded positively to St. Paul's queries before the line was ready. Upon hearing the news the new passenger trains would be routed over the cut-off, his first instinct was to fire off a message to Kyle, instructing his subordinate to get the line ready -- fix up the track, improve clearances. Thinking on the matter further, he fired off an additional message telling Kyle to do what he could to strengthen the temporary bridges on the line. Kyle, flabbergasted, responded to the messages stating, "My judgment is that it is absolutely unsafe to run No's. 1 and 2 over the cut-off." Tight cuts and temporary bridges were not his idea of a suitable right-of-way. Bihler plowed ahead. "If it is not safe to run 1 and 2, you will have to make it so. You have a large force of men and should be able to get track in reasonably good shape within a few days." A very few days -- Bihler sent this message on June 29, with the first run over the cut-off tentatively scheduled for July 1! With McHenry telling Bihler the trains must operate over the cut-off, Kyle replied that he would do what he could. He wired Bihler, again on June 29, "I am endeavoring to get track in best possible condition for passenger trains to run . . . . Have all available force picking up worst places may not get extra stringers [reinforcing longitudinal members extending from bent to bent] in [temporary] bridges."
N. E. Handsacker, Bihler's chief clerk, forwarded a message from Pearce to his boss, who was attending to matters on the Rocky Mountain Division. "Have heard nothing from St. Paul about running passenger trains via cut-off have you? Does not seem to me best to do so until track is in good shape, probably not before August 1st." Finally, headquarters relented and the matter was dropped. However, St. Paul’s attention had been drawn.
Mr. Fix-It Calls Home
July 1, 1900, was to have been the date for the cut-off to be turned over to the Operating Department, but the middle of the month found the contractor's men still hard at work, and showing no signs of finishing any time soon. No doubt fed up with the dawdling pace of the work, the second vice-president of the line decided a visit to the site was warranted. His inspection tour created fear in the Engineering Department; Bihler pressed Kyle to tidy up the work and McHenry kept careful watch of vice-president's train as it rolled west -- constantly wiring reports of its progress to Bihler. They had good cause for alarm, as John W. Kendrick was not in a mood to put up with shenanigans of any sort.
Born in Worcester, Mass., in 1853, Kendrick graduated from Worcester Polytechnic 20 years later, joining the Northern Pacific as a leveler in 1879 as the road pushed west into the Yellowstone River Valley. Less than a decade later he had worked his way up to chief engineer, becoming general manager as the road sank into its second bankruptcy in 1893, and second vice-president in 1898, shortly after reorganization. When Chief Engineer McHenry received Kendrick's report of July 18, 1900, it leaned to the frosty side of cordial.
"The station buildings generally are not done and in many cases the section houses are merely framed. Kanaskat station is not done. I noticed at this point that the side track is on the inside of the curve, which is certainly unfortunate." Kendrick noted that there were two steam shovels working on earth slides of up to 12 feet in depth where his new main line should be. Another problem on the line was being worked on by a crew so small it would take them ten days at least to finish the job. Of a temporary bridge west of Covington he remarked "Probably safe, though it does not impress one favorably." Next he spotted adjustable counter rods on some steel bridges waiting to be installed. The sight made him bristle. "I thought we decided sometime ago that it was best not to have adjustable members in bridges and was not aware that our experience made it desirable to return to the old method." Seeing that the fence posts along the line were some 40 feet apart, he wired "It appears that we will have the same difficulty as with the Clearwater line [on subsidiary Camas Prairie] where the fence is said to be practically useless." In addition, the switches on the line had no foot guards, as required by Washington State law. If McHenry was not glum by this point in the report, the acerbic vice-president's closing comment on the line must surely have made him so. The one-sentence paragraph would prove to be prophetic and must have eventually cost the Northern Pacific the better part of a million dollars. It read simply "No yard or transfer facilities have been provided at Auburn."
McHenry's comments to Bihler were comparatively gentle, running more towards disappointment than anger. "I am quite sorry to find that so much work still remains to be done, as I hoped that it would be possible to get the track in condition for operation not later than July 15th, of course with the exception of the stone culvert at Soos Creek. The progress of the ballasting has been disappointingly small. I had hoped that you would put on a big force and rush this to the utmost. At this time I can only say get the work done as soon as possible, particularly the track and ballast. You seem to be making fair progress with the buildings." More trouble was on the horizon. The cut-off would be up for review twice in less than a month -- Charles Sanger Mellen, mercurial president of the Northern Pacific, was going to the Pacific Coast soon. McHenry urged Bihler to push the work, and paint the bridges, as he wished "the line to be in as good condition as possible at this time when Mr. Mellen goes over it."
The Western Divisions Engineer tried to put the best possible face on it. Writing on July 17, he summarized the progress that had been made. Sixty percent of the ballasting and practically all of the surfacing had been done, two cuts had been cleaned out above Soos Creek, with the material going for use at a small four track yard in Auburn. "As a great deal of attention is being paid to finishing up," Bihler wrote, "The work is necessarily slower than it would be otherwise. The work suffered some during the 4th of July week, as men could not be held during that time, and returned to the work slowly." He closed by stating "The principle obstacle against running trains over the cut-off is the lack of facilities at Auburn. No equipment has been available for doing this work until now. It has been decided to do the grading of the Auburn yard with one of the shovels now in our service, and none of them could be spared for this purpose until now."
In the end, Kendrick's evaluation lead to the decision to keep traffic, including the North Coast Limited, moving over the Buckley Line until the cut-off was in better shape. To do otherwise would slow the remaining work and raise costs.
The Stations Of Fall
As early as March, 1900, Bihler was plotting out the facilities which would be built along the cut-off. The plan submitted to McHenry that month called for a 2,850-foot passing track, a 1,200-foot house track and a wye to tie the Green River Branch into the main line at Kanaskat. Facilities at that point were to include a fourth-class combination depot, a second-class section house for the foreman and his family, a bunk house for 24 laborers and a double tool house. Water facilities were to include a box tank and stand pipe.
Further west at Leary there would be a passing track of the same length and a loading track 1,000 feet long. As Leary was already home to a bustling mine, a larger class-C two-story combination depot was built. Another second-class section house was built, with a smaller bunk house large enough for 12 men. Again a double tool house was used. Strangely, no water facilities were mentioned for this point.
At the last station, Covington, the standard 2,850-foot passing track was put in, along with a 700-foot loading. The same size section house was used in conjunction with the larger, 24-man bunkhouse. Water was provided via box tank and standpipe. The only costs listed were for the section houses; $1,000 for each building's construction; $100 for a privy for each; and $50 in furnishings per house. Wells were sunk at each station at a cost of $65 each.
When the line was nearing completion in August, 1900, Bihler sent a list of the structures built to St. Paul for insurance purposes. It spelled out the type, location and value of all the major and minor buildings. The summary provides a glimpse of what had happened since his draft on facilities in the spring of 1900. Each building, depot, section house and bunk house on the line had its own privy. The privies were priced in something of a class system with a nearly $100 for the depots, $42 for the section foreman and $31 for laborers. The bunkhouses, originally to be for both 24- and 12-man crews, were all built to the same one story, 14- by 34-foot size. Finally, all of the bunkhouses were built to house Japanese laborers.
On September 1, 1900, the Palmer Cut-Off officially became the property of the Northern Pacific's Operating Department.
The Rip-Off -- Notes From The Legal Department
The simple act of turning the line over to another department did not end Bihler's woes. Once again, the trouble came from the contractors. In 1900 Henry and Bennett had sub-contracted about three miles of the line building to William McGee and Alex Holman. McGee and Holman wound up making less than they had expected to from their work, and barraged both Henry and Bennett repeatedly with requests to adjust their bill. After numerous letters and a few face-to-face meetings, they hired attorneys Brady and Gay of Seattle. Again Bihler was barraged by letters, to which he steadfastly replied he could see nothing which the subcontractors had done to warrant further payment. Just as steadfastly, he asked for a detailed account of just what work had been done. After months of asking the question, the attorney's sent Bihler an answer on January 3, 1901.
"Our clients state that the beginning of the first channel changes was made at about Station 60. They claim that the engineer took his elevations but failed to discover that the old channel was one foot and a half deeper on the opposite bank, consequently the new channel was not deep enough and was cut in at right angles without any allowance being made for turning the mouth of the channel up against the stream, and the water would not go in the new channel and the water turned all of its velocity against the dam which had been put in. This dam at that time consisted of coarse gravel and rocks and of course was destroyed. Then the engineer resorted to sand bags, hay, etc., for the purpose of making a dam.
"The men were put into the creek in deep water. The creek, which as then practically a river, had a velocity of as much as forty miles per hour. Some of the men worked deepening part of the channel and others were put at the entrance to change from the square system to the radius system. It was very difficult to get men to work in the cold water. They had to be supplied with rubber boots. Each pair of boots would not last longer than a week. All kinds of inducements had to be offered to the men to get them to do the work under the trying circumstances. A large bolder was blasted which was considered below grade. Trees were washed down. These trees with the other drift would form dams that threatened the whole construction.
"Men had to be kept at work to keep the channel deep enough at the intersection of [Soos] and Jenkins Creek. Huge windfalls had to be removed. Old trees measuring eight feet in diameter were in these windfalls. Blasting had to be resorted to and this method had to be used all the way up Jenkins Creek to a point about fifty feet outside of the right-of-way line. Much gravel deposited at the outlet of Susie Creek. Excavations had to be continued. The force gang could scarcely remove this gravel as fast as it formed. Some right-of-way work was done to extend the channel further down the stream. The stream had to be cleared of the windfalls. Dynamite had to be used under water. Stumps and bolders [sic] for a long distance were thus removed time and time again during the winter months. This explanation should give you a clear conception of the work that our clients had to do."
Three months later, the matter was before the courts, with the Northern Pacific in the awkward position of helping to defend Nelson Bennett. His partner Horace Henry wrote Edwin McHenry near the end of the month, "It is all a scheme of the lawyers and, with the help we hope to get from your Company, I have no fears of the result. What I wish is to knock the underpinning completely from under them. Our contract with these subs is made upon the same blanks as our own with your company . . . . Our books show McGee [and] Holman in debt to us between three and four thousand dollars."
Nelson Bennett's ace-in-the-hole turned out to be none other than George Kyle, who wrote, "In making excavation for changing this channel, they took out a narrow ditch, and not down to grade. They then filled in the railway embankment, expecting by doing this to force all of the water down through their new channels, which would cause the same to wash out the balance of their change of channel, and by thus doing, save them considerable work and expense. When they had made this small channel to allow some of the water to go down as a start and had filled in their railway embankment, closing up the original channel, the water did not act as they had intended in cutting out the channel to the proper size, but instead flooded them out and cut around their embankment, and they were obliged to excavate this channel change to the proper depth, as the current would not wash it out itself, and that the whole cause of their having to excavate below water, was on account of their own carelessness, and because their plans would not work.
"This was not a plan of the Railway Company's in any nature whatever, as the contractors were simply required to make a channel change of a certain size, and were allowed to go at it and do it in whatever way they pleased, and they endeavored to work a scheme to make considerable money at this point, and their scheme failed them in that the wash of the creek was not enough to excavate out the channel, and they were obliged to go into the water and do it by hand."
It was not the last suit. In December, 1906, just a few short years after the opening of the route, a shipper in Buckley brought suit against the Northern Pacific to force it to return to using the old main line. Harry J. Horn of the Northern Pacific's Legal Department innocently asked then Chief Engineer William Lafayette Darling "Why did we build the Auburn-Palmer Junction line in place of the old?"
Author: John A. Phillips, III. Title: Rodent Frugality.
© March 20, 2002