The Railroad in Bannock County, Idaho

It occurs to few men, as they glide smoothly across the Snake River in a vestibule train, and watch the seething waters toss and tumble below the substantial iron bridge, to think of the problem the passage of this same stream afforded the traveler of fifty years ago. In his “Ventures and Adventures,” Ezra Meeker tells of how he crossed the Snake in 1852. Mr. Meeker and his party had crossed the plains from Iowa, on their way to Oregon, and by the time they reached Idaho their funds were almost exhausted. Ferries were scarce and where one was found, the price asked for a passage was prohibitive to most of the immigrants.

‘”Some immigrants,” writes Mr. Meeker, “had caulked three wagon beds and lashed them together, and were crossing, but would not help others across for less than from three to five dollars a wagon, the party swimming their own stock. If others could cross in wagon beds, why could not I do likewise? Without much ado, all the old clothing that could possibly be spared was marshaled, tar buckets ransacked, old chisels and broken knives hunted up, and a veritable boat repairing and caulking campaign inaugurated, and shortly the wagon-box rode placidly, even if not gracefully on the turbid waters of the formidable river.

“My first venture across the Snake river was with the wagon gear run over the wagon box, the whole being gradually worked out into deep water. The load was so heavy that a very small margin was left to prevent the water from breaking over the sides, and some actually did, as light ripples on the surface struck the “Mary Jane,” as we had christened (without wine) the ‘craft,’ as she was launched. However, I got over safely, but after that took lighter loads and really enjoyed the novelty of the work and the change from the intolerable dust, and the atmosphere of the water.”

The Utah & Northern was the first railroad to enter the territory of Idaho. It was promoted by John W. Young, a son of Brigham Young, whose name has been given to Young street in Pocatello, but although a large sum of local capital was invested, the enterprise received its chief support from Joseph and Benjamin Richardson, two contractors of New York City, whom Young interested in the project.

In March 1873, congress granted a right of way to Young’s company running along the Bear river valley, through Soda Springs, up the Snake river valley and across Montana to a junction point with the Northern Pacific. The act allowed ten years in which to complete the work of construction. A second act, passed in June 1878, empowered “the Utah & Northern Railroad Company and its assigns to build their road by way of Marsh valley, Portneuf and Snake River instead of by way of Soda Springs and Snake River valley.”

By the spring of 1877 the road had been constructed as far as the Snake River. In the following year a bond issue of $4,991,000 was “floated and during 1880 the rails were extended to Silver Bow, Montana, a distance of 328 miles from the Utah line.

In July, 1882, congress officially ratified an agreement made at Fort Hall between the Shoshone and Bannock Indians and Joseph K. McCammon, whose name has been given to the town of McCammon in this county, and several railroad officers, by which the promoters secured a right of way through the reservation.

The opening of the Utah & Northern railway gave the first great impetus to settlement and development in southeastern Idaho, making it possible to market produce profitably and at the same time bringing the settler into touch with the outside world.

The Portneuf canyon, through which this line was constructed, is one thousand feet lower than any other mountain pass within three hundred miles either north or south, and constitutes a natural gateway through which a very large portion of the produce of the great northwest must pass on its way to an eastern market.

The Utah & Northern Railway Company was consolidated with the Oregon Short Line Railway Company in August 1889, being known as the Oregon Short Line & Northern Railway Company, and in 1897 the two were merged into the present Oregon Short Line Railroad Company.

The Utah & Northern had constructed a narrow gauge line. When the old Short Line Railway Company built its line between Granger and Huntington it used the transportation facilities afforded by the Utah & Northern both to the east and west of Pocatello. During the early part of 1882 the Short Line laid a narrow gauge track between Pocatello and the Snake river crossing, now American Falls, and from McCammon, at that time called Harkness, to a point near the present station of Pebble.

During the year 1882, the Utah & Northern track between McCammon and Pocatello was rebuilt to standard gauge, the narrow gauge equipment of that company being provided for by laying a third rail. By the summer of 1SS7 the entire line between Pocatello and Silver Bow, Montana, was operating on a standard gauge, while the lines to the east and south had been similarly reconstructed before 1890.

At the time the first railroad bridge across the Snake River was built, American Falls was located on the western side of the river. The population was made up of the usual assortment of men, who make up the population of frontier towns. The good, the bad and the indifferent were there graders, stockmen. Chinamen, gamblers and businessmen, with a few women all rough and ready: hardy people of the plains and the mountains. Law and order were administered in a ready manner and summary justice was meted out to the evildoer by self-constituted judges and juries.

Two of the worst characters in the neighborhood at that time were cowboys, gamblers and probably murderers; “Tex” and “Johnson,” as they were known to the people of American Falls.

One night some Chinamen were murdered and the more law-abiding citizens decided that if the culprits were found they should suffer for the crime. The two cowboys “Tex” and Johnson were suspected of the murder, but as no certain proof was obtainable, they were not punished, but ordered to leave town. This they did, going to the east side of the river and spending the night in a house occupied by Buck Houston. The next day they returned to the west side. The law and order element immediately organized a necktie party, with “Tex” and Johnson as the chief guests. With a grim brevity the two were taken to the river, ropes thrown over an iron span, and with a short wait for the usual last words they were hurried into eternity. Their bodies swung back and forth, suspended from the bridge, the falls roaring and splashing beneath them, and the spray shooting up into the air, wetting their high boots and leather chaps.

Afterwards the two bodies were cut down and taken to the top of the bluff, overlooking the river, and there they were buried. Two rough slabs, with “Tex” carved on one, and “Johnson” on the other, were placed at their heads. The mounds where these men were buried are still discernable.

In most newly-settled communities, justice is administered quickly and wit hunt the formality of legal proceedings. This was especially true of the early days in the west. Time was when the regular method of collecting overdue bills in Bannock County was at the mouth of a gun, and this within the memory of living men. Horse theft was punishable with death throughout the far west, the penalty being no more than proportionate to the crime. For the west in those days was a desert country, and the loss of a man’s horse often meant a horrible death by thirst because the next watering place was further away than a man could walk. So it happened that while a cowboy sometimes paid a hundred dollars for his saddle and only twenty-five dollars for his pony, he would forgive the man who stole the former, but without scruple hang the man who stole the horse.

The terminal facilities of the Oregon Short Line at Pocatello have been steadily increased and the roadbed improved because of the immense traffic caused by the development of the tributary territory. In 1904 the “Michaud Cutoff” was made in order to straighten the track a few miles west of Pocatello. Since 1910 the road has been double-tracked between Lava Hot Spring’s and Michaud, and in that year the system of mechanical block signals was completed from the eastern to the western boundary of the county. A branch line, connecting Alexander and Grace, a distance of about six miles, was opened in 1913. Among other noteworthy recent improvements are the Batise Springs water plant, the Center street viaduct and Halliday street subway in Pocatello, the new shop buildings and depot, now being built in the same city, and the new depot and water plant at McCammon.

The Oregon Short Line is the artery through which pulses the very life blood of Bannock county. In the Pocatello shops over eleven hundred men are employed, and those who find work on the Montana and Idaho divisions bring the number to about 4000. It is, therefore, a very fortunate thing for the community at large that the Oregon Short Line Railroad Company is one of the apparently few large corporations in this country today that realizes a moral responsibility toward the general public. A comparison of the Safety First movement as conducted by this company with the conditions that are not only tolerated but apparently encouraged by the owners of the Colorado mines shows what a great blessing or curse the attitude of big corporations toward the public welfare may be.

Some years ago, Mr. Harriman, while talking with the claims attorney of one of the roads in which he was interested, about the policy to be adopted in dealing with injured employees in the matter settlements, and particularly of providing them with some kind of work when they had been so seriously injured that they could not fill their former positions, said that he wanted “all injured men to be dealt with along the lines of practical Christianity.” That this idea is still followed by the company is shown by the fact that in June 1914, only one injured employee had a suit pending against the company for injuries received in its service; the rest being satisfied with the terms of settlement accorded them by the company.

The Safety First movement, by which the Oregon Short Line seeks to guard the safety of its employees and of the public alike, is an educational measure inaugurated about two years ago and intended to interest all people.

The work is carried on by means of committees. At each division point is what is known as a “subcommittee,” composed of men from all branches of the service, who suggest changes in the road’s equipment or in existing conditions, that will make the work of railroading safer. If the suggestions made cannot be acted upon locally, they are referred to the “division committee,” which in turn accepts or rejects them, and if unable to enforce them by its own vote, recommends them to the “central committee.” This body is composed of officials of the road and their decision is final. In this way the entire Short Line force, from the newest and lowest paid employee to the highest officer, is interested in the common safety, and is in a position to suggest measures for the general good. That the system is successful is shown by the fact that during the year ending June 1913, there were 2829 people injured on the Oregon Short Line. During that ending June 1914, the total was reduced to 3711, or 39.5 per cent. During the first six months of this year there were only 606 accidents, as against 955 for the same months of 1913 a reduction of over 61 per cent.

The company is also conducting a campaign to eliminate the accidents caused by trespassing. In 1913, 5434 trespassers wore killed on the railroads in the United States. Of these, 10 per cent were tramps, 70 per cent young men or heads of families, and 20 per cent were children under 14 years of age. By trying to educate school children, their teachers and the general public in precautionary measures, and by attempting to secure proper legislation on the subject, the Oregon Short Line Railroad company is trying to still further enhance its value to the people at large and to reduce to a minimum the accidents connected with all great railroad corporations.

History of Bannock County, Idaho

Source: The History of Bannock County Idaho, By Arthur C. Saunders, Pocatello, Idaho. U. S. A., The Tribune Company. Limited, 1915

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