Tales from the Salmonberry River
There is a 21-mile long canyon that cuts through the heart of the Oregon Coast Range from Washington County to Nehalem Bay. It is a wild and violent place where brutal storms, fresh off the North Pacific hurl themselves at the coastal mountains with a momentum and brute determination born of the Pacific vastness from which they were spawned.
In 1911 the Pacific Railroad and Navigation Company completed a rail connection from Washington County to Tillamook using the narrow passage afforded by the gorge carved out by the Salmonberry River Valley. Tillamook lay in one of the most inaccessible locations on the North Oregon Coast. It was equally inaccessible from the mouth of the Columbia River, as it was from the Willamette Valley. This link was essential to sustain the vital arteries of Tillamook’s industry, enabling resources to reach markets, and people to travel reliably.
Yet the rail link came at a high cost. Storm damage and constant geological movement constantly so plagued the P.R & N. that the locals took to calling it the “Punk, Rotten and Nasty”. A little more than a year after rail service was first launched, nature took it’s first swipe at the railroad that snaked down the Salmonberry River. Early January 1913, rough winter weather and snow triggered a host of slides that cut rail service to Tillamook for more than 35 days.
The break in rail service was dramatic leaving people stranded away from home and resources. Towards the end of that first week in 1913, a group of eight stranded Tillamook residents assembled in Portland and decided to get back to Tillamook, regardless of what it took.
Leaving Portland early on Friday, the party of seven men and one woman reached Timber around mid-day. Their plan was to follow the railroad right-of-way all the way to the coast. But rail service had been discontinued several days earlier and no one knew how much of the railway line had been swept away by the raging storm. And yet, after eating a meal in Timber, they set out on foot determined to reach Tillamook. Nightfall found them still deep in the canyon and they were forced to bivouac in a deserted cabin. With only two sandwiches between them, dinner did little to dent their appetites. Seeking refuge in the partially collapsed cabin the party tried to sleep, but the cold fog that enveloped them kept them shivering most of the night.
The next morning they set off early and soon arrived at a railroad camp where they managed to secure some breakfast before resuming their long and arduous trek to the coast. In all they reported crossing eight to ten slides. Of these, three were particularly difficult to traverse. In three different places, the track, rails and all had been swept into the river. In some place the fill that had been laid down to support the rail bed had been washed away leaving the rail line dangling in the air. About three miles above the tiny settlement of Enright, they encountered a slide that had obliterated the track for more than 300 feet covering the entire stretch with tons of dirt and rock. Below Enright the track was covered with loose dirt and mud sometimes reaching over eight feet in depth.
Eventually, the exhausted party reached the forward work party that was clearing the line from the coast. From there the bedraggled party were carried out to Wheeler on Nehalem Bay and eventually the P.R & N acceded to the travelers’ exhausted pleas to be carried on to Tillamook. No doubt this was a journey whose story was retold over the years to underscore the determination and grit of the local inhabitants.
While the ordeal was finally over for Mrs. Johnson and her 7 male companions, the community was to suffer an extended ordeal as repeated storms kept creating new slides, destroying the repairs already made, and burying the steam shovels under tons of rock and mud. In the end, it took them 36 days to restore the rail link. At one point the line was finally opened, but within three hours the next landslide took out another 60 ft. chunk of rails. When the Portland train finally made it through the ravaged gorge to reach Tillamook it was received by a jubilant crowd. By that time, the outgoing mail was piling up and Tillamook was running low on staples, fresh food, medicines, whiskey and even the fuel for the steam engines.
In those early days it was an epic struggle between the burgeoning township of Tillamook and the powerful forces that that visited such violent weather upon them. The efforts by the rail crews to keep the line open were truly herculean, but nature often responded with violent repercussions. The Salmonberry struck back just as soon as they finally restored service.
It happened in the steep confines of the Wolf Creek Canyon. There on the level ground near the creek side, the railroad builders had built their temporary quarters. On either side the ravine’s steep walls climbed a thousand feet to the rim of the forest above. Up on the edge of the ravine two ancient Douglas fir stalwarts bent valiantly to resist the push of the rain-soaked wind, and the pull of the earth softening under them as they slowly twisted on the very brink and toppled majestically into the abyss. They fell in an arc so that they pitched completely over smashing directly through the two houses cowering on the valley floor.
In the first lived the section foreman, William Conley, as well as the cook, his wife and their seven-year-old girl. The crash occurred around 5:30 AM in the wet grey dawn. Both men had already risen and were sipping their coffee in the early morning. They must have heard the agonized creaking as two massive trees slowly pitched end-over-end off the plateau rim 500 feet above them. The foreman’s house was hit in the middle. Louis Dudley, the cook was killed immediately, but Conley lay mortally wounded and pinned down by the giant tree.
Unhurt by the crushed central portion of the house, Mrs. Dudley quickly went to the aid of the little girl who had been sleeping at the far end of the house, beyond the fallen tree. Calling for Louis Dudley brought no responses beyond the agonized moans of Mr. Conley, the stricken foreman. Dressed only in their night gowns the woman and little girl climbed out of the wrecked house. A little way beyond lay the demolished shack occupied by some Japanese laborers, one of whom had also perished. With the wet coastal snow as deep as their waists Mrs. Dudley let loose a bellow for help – hoping to attract the assistance of the Greeks and Italians that were camped just a short way down the line.
Eventually, they did arrive, but not to render aid it seems. They quickly looted the foreman’s house and rifled Mrs. Dudley’s valise stealing her entire savings, a tidy sum of $110.00. But then they left, leaving the two women shivering in the snow. But by now the bridge crew was arriving and they did come to her succor. She and the surviving girl were taken to a local hostelry where they were helped to recuperate. Dr Hawk was summoned. The dead Japanese laborer was bundled off and the injured Conley was carefully transported out of the canyon to down into Washington County.
This was just the first of many violent eruptions that the railroad’s builders had to contend with. After the storms of 1996, scientists brought out pictures that showed the ravine stripped to it roots. In 2007, the northern slope gave way and created a giant slide whose repair would have cost more than $4 million. One has to wonder how many more times it will take to convince us that you shouldn’t “fool with mother nature”!