The Golden Spike: Ashland’s Train History

“I love trains,” my three-and-a-half year-old grandson whispered to me, in the dark, as we drove from the Medford International airport to our Ashland home. Along with his parents — our younger son Dan and partner Einor — Damian had flown from Denver to spend Thanksgiving with us.

He wasn’t telling me something I didn’t already know.

Tony and I had spent six weeks this past summer hanging out with Damian in Denver, welcoming his fascination with trains into our everyday rhythm and, daresay, family. On weekdays, when Damian got home from daycare, his staging of Brio wooden tracks and train cars moved from the living room rug, to the cement floor of Einor’s studio, to the dining room table. Weekends, we headed to Denver’s light rail or to a train museum nestled in nearby mountains or to an historic steam engine trip up a canyon west of the city.

In Ashland, Damian picked up where we’d left off in Denver.  Anticipating his visit, Tony had bought a large box filled with wooden tracks — straight, curved, up and down — paired with a bushel full of engines, cars, miniature crossing lights, and more.

Each day Damian’s creations became increasingly ambitious. By the day he left, tracks and trains stretched a good 80 feet through our family room, kitchen, dining room and living room, replete with curves, bridges, and balancing acts. By then, the small battery-powered engine Tony had purchased, what I quickly nicknamed the “little engine that could,” was losing juice. So were we. The visiting red cat from next door, who thought the rug was his, was eager to reclaim his territory.

No less beguiling for Damian were the passenger train tracks that once ran through Ashland, largely abandoned more than a century ago but still forming an iron vein through town. Twice we walked the tracks, with Damian in the lead, trying to imagine the days when steam engines dropped off passengers near Ashland’s town square and young boys who lived near the tracks harvested fruit trees and sold cider to arriving passengers, something I’d read about.

Thanksgiving night, when it was my turn to put Damian to bed, he said,  “Tell me more about the trains back then.”

Here, belatedly, is what I can say.

When the first Southern Pacific Railroad train from Portland, Oregon pulled into Ashland on May 4, 1884, with its steam whistle blowing, one can imagine town residents (842 in all) tossing their hats in the air and whistling back.

Established on the site of a Shasta Indian village and settled in 1852 during an ephemeral gold rush, by 1884 Ashland had begun a promising future as a mill town. Located along the Oregon-California wagon trail, it afforded stagecoach travel — with stupendous but hard-earned mountain views — along the Siskiyou Toll Road, which had linked Sacramento, California with Portland since the 1850s.

Train travel opened a world of new possibilities. No wonder hats flew.

There remained, however, a missing link: a serpentine line of tracks that would traverse the Siskiyou Mountain range and connect Ashland, which lay 12 miles north of the 4,310 foot Siskiyou Summit, with the Northern California towns below. (The Siskiyou Summit remains the highest point along Interstate 5 from the Mexican border to Canada.)

From 1884 to 1887, while Southern Pacific Railroad laid this final line of tracks, often employing Chinese immigrants, stagecoaches continued to cross the mountains and link Ashland with Northern California. The ride, not for the faint of heart, took several days.

(“Modern visions of stagecoach travel may be romantic, but this mountain crossing couldn’t have been a comfortable ride, squeezed in like sardines, no one bathing for several days, bumping along rough roads and over rickety bridges in the dark of night knee-to-knee with strangers. Frequent accidents added to the excitement; wheels flying off, stages tipping over, horses running wild.” The Oregon Encyclopedia)

Finally, on December 17, 1887 the Siskiyou Mountain gap was breached and the first train from Northern California pulled into Ashland. Years later, a reporter for the local Mail Tribune imagined the scene.

It was rapidly growing dark, with a chilling wind and damp fog, yet the large crowd waited patiently along the Ashland railroad tracks.

The train from California was late, slowed at every station by small crowds warming themselves against December’s freeze around bonfires, and each demanded a few brief words of oratory from the train’s distinguished passengers.

The day had broken clear and cold. Shallow snow dusted the Cottonwood Valley as three linked-together, six-wheel locomotives left Hornbrook Station and began the twisting and arduous pull up the Siskiyou Mountains. Six Pullman coaches followed behind.

Three cars were filled with more than 80 excursionists who were not part of the official party but had come along for the ride into history. But the most important of all was Charles Crocker’s luxurious private Pullman. Crocker, vice president of Southern Pacific, was coming to Oregon to connect the final link in a railroad that not only joined the entire Pacific Coast, but, as Crocker said, would also be the longest line in the world controlled by one company, 3,336 miles from Portland to New Orleans.

At the Siskiyou Summit, the tracks had been cleared of snow, and as they passed out of the darkness in Tunnel 13, passengers could barely make out the snowless and “sublime” valley more than 2,000 feet below.

“The road winds downward,” said a reporter, “a serpentine course, coiling back upon itself so that in places the track runs within 200 or 300 feet of the point just passed a few minutes before.”

The sun had already set when the train arrived to enthusiastic cheers at the southern end of the Ashland rail yard. In the flicker of bonfires on both sides of the tracks, at least 1,000 people, including the Ashland band and the 44-member Oregon delegation, all came to life.

As soon as the train stopped, Crocker stepped onto the tracks, a silver hammer in one hand and a golden spike in the other.

“I hold in my hand the last spike,” Crocker said.

“Higher! Hold it higher!” shouted some in the crowd.

“I propose now to unite the rails between California and Oregon,” he said. “I hope it will be the means of cementing the friendship of the two states and make them as one people. [Applause.] I hope that the people of California and Oregon will always maintain their freedom, maintain their public schools, and maintain everything that conduces to their happiness and virtue.”

At 5:08 p.m. on Dec. 17, 1887, Crocker slowly tapped the golden spike three times with the silver hammer. At San Francisco’s Presidio, a cannon blast was fired at each tap. In New Orleans, El Paso, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sacramento, Roseburg, Salem, Portland — at any city along the Southern Pacific line — guns, firecrackers, fire alarms and church bells erupted in celebration. The hammer and spike had been wired to the telegraph network so that each tap sent a signal down the line.

Less than two hours later, after some music and a series of speeches, the train continued north.

No doubt about it. The world was getting smaller.

Even with the newly laid tracks across the Siskiyous, trains needed almost five hours for the 81 miles from the lumber mills in Weed in Northern California to Ashland, for an average speed of 17 miles per hour.

With the railroad came tourists and prosperity. By the mid-1890s, Ashland had become, for a time, the largest and wealthiest community in southwestern Oregon. It secured its place as the region’s cultural center by hosting southern Oregon’s annual
Chautauqua festival and the forty known mineral springs circling the city led some tourists to deboard the train with bathing suit in hand.

For years, up to four trains a day stopped in Ashland.  It was also a good spot for Southern Pacific to locate many of its crew, giving rise to what was called — and is still called — the Railroad District.

The daily train arrivals with travelers looking, at the very least, to stretch their legs attracted local entrepreneurs, particularly young boys, eager to win their business. In his Walk Ashland” story about the city’s historic railroad district, Peter Finkle shares a 1978 interview with a longtime resident who recounts how he and his brothers, when youngsters, profited from the tourist trade.

Talking about local fruit, Albert Meyers said: “My brother and I also had a lot of cherries at our old house and we used to bring them in little paper boxes [to arriving passengers] and sell them for five cents.”

“Everything happened at the train station,” Albert continued, including proffering water from the legendary, sulfurous mineral fountain a few blocks from the station.

Whenever a train came in, all the passengers would get off and drink some Lithia water, either liking it very much or not liking it at all.  They didn’t have any cups down there and the fountain wasn’t fixed like a normal drinking fountain, so it was hard to drink from.  My brother and I bought some cups from the five and dime store.  Every time a train came in, we’d sell them cups for 5 cents so they could get a drink.  

We had a great big long board that the passengers were supposed to put their cups on when they got through drinking the water.  We would set them there to dry, and then, when the next 100 to 150 people came, we would use the same cups again.  We made a good amount of money in several years just using used cups.

Reportedly one resourceful boy trapped chipmunks with the hope of selling them to tourists who found them cute.

Meanwhile, the Ashland Depot Hotel, built in 1888, offered overnight accommodations and meals “in a huge dining room that could serve a train full of passengers all at once.” (Finkle)

On a darker note, on October 11, 1923 (an event whose hundredth anniversary was recently noted here), the last great train robbery in the West unfolded in a tunnel along the Siskiyou Pass, leading into Ashland. A poster placed in post offices nationwide offering a $15,900 reward in gold for the three perpetrators explained:

On October 11, 1923, a Southern Pacific Railway train was blown up near Ashland, Oregon, U.S.A. The mail clerk was killed and his body burned, and three trainmen were shot and killed. Conclusive evidence obtained show that Roy, Ray, and Hugh de Autremont, three brothers, who lived in Eugene, Oregon committed the crime. Their photographs and general descriptions are shown on this poster.

The brothers eluded capture for four years.

In 1927, passenger train travel though Ashland faded when Southern Pacific re-routed trains away from Ashland over to Klamath Falls, 70 miles to the east. The new route promised a faster and safer ride.

Like air leaving a balloon, the “train time” that had filled Ashland for forty years dispersed.

Limited passenger service continued until 1955, when passenger trains to Ashland were discontinued entirely. Freight trains filled mostly with lumber continued to pass through town, moving logs felled in Northern California to “forest-to-finish wood products” mills in Roseburg, Oregon.

In the 1990s, the Central Oregon and Pacific took over the Siskiyou line from the Southern Pacific. It abandoned the tracks in 2008 because of their poor condition.

Arguing that the line was important to carry wood products from Southern Oregon to the national rail network, a consortium of Southern Oregon and Northern California counties, along with private industry, asked the federal government for help. Seven years and $10M later, freight travel from the lumber mills in Weed, California through Ashland and another 110 miles on to Roseburg resumed — two trains a day. When we moved here in 2018, we could hear the train whistle from the evening freight train as we went to bed.

A 2022 fire in the Roseburg Forest Mill in Weed silenced, once again, train travel along the Siskiyou line. Now, allegedly once every week or two, a lone engine pulling a handful of cars passes through town, valiantly trying to keep the tracks alive.

As Damian, his Dad, and I walked Ashland’s silenced railroad tracks two weeks ago on a brilliant November morning, I told Damian a story I’d recently heard.

It went like this. In 2015, Ashland’s long gone, de-commissioned train depot was found hiding in plain sight, within a nondescript home close to our house, three miles away from the original rail yard.

The old depot announced its presence when the property was sold by family members of the railroad employee who in the 1960s had loaded it onto a flatbed car, carted it away, and built a barn-like structure to hide it from tax assessors. The new owners, priests at the Ashland Zen Center, discovered the depot as they began to clear the property.

A city employee who serves on the Ashland Historic Commission said she had ridden past the house for years and had no clue what was behind the walls.

Damian was nonplussed.

Back in the car, as I buckled Damian into his car seat, he said quietly, “I want to stay and wait for a train to come.”

In July of 1955, when I was eight, my family boarded the California Zephyr from Chicago to Los Angeles. Seventy years earlier, my grandfather had boarded a transcontinental train with his family from Derby, Connecticut to Redlands, California seeking to trade the hard life and tuberculosis that stalked them in Connecticut for an orange grove in California.

A shining wonder, launched in 1949 and retired in 1970, the California Zephyr sported vista dome cars, a dining car with white table cloths, sleeping compartments with bunk beds and curtains, and more.

I remember the clickety-clack of train wheels as I fell asleep, stretching my legs in old train stations from Omaha to Denver, waking up at daybreak in Salt Lake City as giant hoses sprayed miles of dust off our train, the once-in-a-lifetime views of the Colorado Rockies as we wound through Glenwood Canyon.

I never felt as privileged or awestruck by America as I did that week.

Like Damian, as we left Ashland’s abandoned tracks, I imagined a steam engine pulling into the train depot after a harrowing climb across the Siskiyous, passengers flocking to the five-cent cups of fresh cider or to nearby mineral baths, the hopes and possibilities that filled the air.

Like so many golden ages, you never knew it was one until it’s passed.