The Oregon Steam Navigation Company

and its Related Portage Tramways

A brief history by Glenn Laubaugh ; edited by Ron McCoy

Captain John C. Ainsworth came to the northwest as an experienced Mississippi River steamboat crew member. Originally he came out west seeking fortunes in the steamboat trade of the Sacramento River, but was convinced later to come to Oregon. Here, in the early 1850's, he worked briefly for Lot Whitcomb on the Willamette River but soon owned several steam boats on the Columbia River and was saving money for future investment. At the time, navigation on the Columbia River was provided by a number of steamboat companies as well as individually-owned boats.

With steamboat traffic on the Columbia River increasing, the Cascades rapids and the Celilo Falls were significant obstacles. While roads were built to transport good and passengers around these obstacles, they were not quite satisfactory as they turned to mud during rainstorms. Construction and operation of various portage rail-like tramways started in 1851. Initial construction was primitive, with rails being made of wood and horse-drawn equipment being simple four-wheeled platforms. Initially, these tramways were owned and operated by individuals rather than corporations. The rapidly increasing traffic, as well as competition between portage tramways on both sides of the river, required changes. By 1862 some of the tramways were several miles long, and one tramway was operating the Oregon Pony, the first steam locomotive in Oregon. (This diminutive little engine was also the first steam locomotive built on the west coast, and is now on display in the city of Cascade Locks ).

As an aside, it is from these early tramways that the Union Pacific Railroad traces its origins in the Pacific Northwest. According to Culp, there is a lease agreement for the right of way of one of these lines dated August 29, 1857 preserved in the Union Pacific archives in Omaha.

In late 1860, Captain Ainsworth incorporated the Oregon Steam Navigation company. This company rapidly became the most powerful transportation monopoly ever in the Pacific Northwest by controlling a number of steamship routes. Although this company has a very interesting history as one of the most complete monopolies to ever exist in North America, it is a subject better covered by a navigation and riverboat history related organization. (If you are interested in further research of this company from a marine transportation point of view, I suggest that you contact the Oregon Maritime Center and Museum.)

At first, Oregon Steam Navigation (OSN) did not own any of the portage tramways on the Columbia River. In 1862, OSN acquired both of the existing portage tramways in the present-day Cascade locks area, one on the north and one on the south side of the Columbia River. The Oregon Pony remained in operation on the Oregon side of the river while OSN reconstructed and improved the portage railroad on the north side of the river. The portage railroad on the north side of the river was incorporated as the Cascades Railroad Company in Washington Territory as a subsidiary of Oregon Steam Navigation. It was six miles long, built to a track gauge of five feet, and was built from the start to standards that would allow for operation with steam locomotives.

During the same time period, work was being done on a similar railroad line on the south side of the Columbia River from the present site of The Dalles to a point just above Celilo Falls. This line came to be known as the Oregon Portage Railroad.

Both railroad lines were ready for operation by late April of 1863, and newer, larger steam locomotives arrived in May of that year. By 1865, even larger locomotives arrived.

Ainswoth and his Oregon Steam Navigation company continued long into the 1860's without any real significant threats to business. (The methods used to keep OSN's monopoly are described quite well by author Jeff Asay.) However, in the 1860's the threat of competition became a real problem. The Northern Pacific Railroad had obtained a grant from the US Federal Government to build a railroad through the northern states into Washington, and the proposed route would feature a line to Portland along the north side of the Columbia River. OSN could easily drive away competing steamboats financed by local individuals, and proved it could do so from time to time. However, a railroad along the Columbia River, with capital provided by already powerful eastern railroad barons, with authority from Congress to build right next to the river, and with no need to transfer goods from steamship to railroad to steamship was a different type of competition for OSN.

Therefore, in 1866 Ainsworth started to promote the concept of constructing the Northern Pacific to Wallula, on the east bank of the Columbia river as it turns north near Pasco. The Oregon Steam Navigation would then provide NP's connection to Portland.

In the middle of recovery from the Civil War and the construction of the first transcontinental railroad to Sacramento, interest in the Northern Pacific project was lost for a few years.

By 1870, interest in the Northern Pacific project had returned. The promoters of the Northern Pacific needed to have some income to help finance the construction of the line, and Ainsworth's proposal was considered. The Northern Pacific completed the purchase of the majority of OSN stock in 1872. The Northern Pacific declined to purchase the Oregon Portage Railroad, which therefore remained owned by Ainsworth.

In 1873, the now-infamous Philadelphia banking house responsible for marketing NP's bonds went into bankruptcy. The workings of financial manipulators of the era are well documented in a number of excellent reference and history books about North American monopolies, trusts, and nineteenth century financial scams. Those who are interested in those manipulations are encouraged to research the histories of Jay Cooke & Co., Jay Gould, and others who were in charge of financial institutions at the time.

While the financial state of the Norhtern Pacific was in a state of confusion, Ainsworth reactivated work on the portage railroad on the south side of the Columbia River in the area of present day Cascade Locks, Oregon. This operation was designed to protect Ainsworth's interests and make the purchase price of the properties higher should NP or another railroad care to enter the scene. This reconstruction was incorporated as the Cascades Portage Railroad. The financial problems of parent NP hampered construction, however. This probably wasn't particularly important since the only goal (or so it seems) was to create enough activity to make a valid claim to land on the south side of the river.

In 1875 the true nature of the NP's financial problems became clear to Ainsworth. He decided to re-purchase OSN from NP, and then seek a new buyer, or wait for NP's situation to clear up.

Through an assortment of financial manipulations typical of the day, Ainsworth eventually re-owned four-fifths of OSN stock. With that problem settled, work on the Cascades Portage Railroad project proceded in a more organized fashion. By December of 1878 the grading of the line was completed and several buildings were constructed. However, no actual rail was ever placed on the "railroad", and it was never operated.

In 1878 and 1879, purchase negotiations were held between Ainsworth and the newly incorporated Oregon Railway & Navigation Company. By March 31, 1880, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company had ceased operation, with all operation being performed under the OR&N name. Along with the operations along the Columbia River came the Walla Walla & Columbia River Railroad, a line completed in 1875 between the Columbia River and the city of Walla Walla.

For more information, see:

Early Oregon Days; Culp, Edwin D.; © 1987 by the author; The Caxton Printers, Ltd., 312 Main Street, Caldwell, Idaho 83605; ISBN 0-87004-314-5

Union Pacific Northwest: The Oregon - Washington Railroad & Navigation Company; Asay, Jeff, © 1991 by Pacific Fast Mail, P.O. Box 57, Edmonds, Washington. ISBN 0-915713-21-7. Covers the entire history of most of the Union Pacific in Oregon, Washington and parts of Idaho.

Encyclopedia of Western Railroad History, Volume III: Oregon, Washington; Robertson, Donald B., © 1995 by the author. Caxton Printers Ltd., Caldwell, Idaho 83605. ISBN (volume 3): 0-8700-4366-8. This is a general history of railroads in Oregon and Washington.

Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest; Schwantes, Carlos A.; © 1993 by the University of Washington Press; Seattle and London. ISBN 0-295-97210-6.

The History of the Northern Pacific Railroad © Louis Tuck Renz, published by Ye Galleon Press, Fairfield, Washington. ISBN 0-07770-235-7.

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