Jonathan Raban wrote in his 1996 book "Badlands":
One of the most prolific and successful, but least known of these paper promoters was Robert Strahorn. He started in newspapering in the midwest during the Civil War, later coming west to Colorado in the 1870's as a correspondent in the Indian wars. His background in lurid reporting, yellow journalism and his extensive travels with the US Army suited him ideally for a career in promoting RR immigration.
Although, in retrospect this story may seem more like a novel than non-fiction it must be remembered that although times were simpler when it took place, one thing still remains the same today: People will always see and hear what they want if they think it will get them the slightest bit closer to their dreams.
I'll begin with Mr. Jay Gould and the Union Pacific RR. "Jay Gould wished to set in motion an avalanche of home seekers to justify the extension of the Union Pacific. Gould had no scruples about setting this tide of Empire Builders in motion. He wanted wheels to hum, businesses established, and tonnage waiting in the most remote fields before he got there."
Thomas Kimball, General Agent for the U.P. chanced upon a new book by Robert Strahorn entitled "To the Rockies and Beyond", and shared it with Jay Gould in late 1877. Gould, after looking the book over asked, "Might not this man, Strahorn, be a good man to put over our publicity?"
Strahorn was definitely that man. He created the Union Pacific publicity department and flooded the west with leaflets, maps, folders, books, and monthly papers (some in foreign languages) the most well known entitled New West Illustration.
In this capacity, Strahorn came to know not only Jay Gould, but Henry Villard & James J. Hill. Critics called Gould not only a stock market manipulator" but an all around financial buccaneer" and a "railroad wrecker" and similar things were said about other railroad tycoons of the time. Strahorn trained under Gould and learned from his associates as well as his competitors during the most lawless and unregulated period of railroad building in our countries history.
In the 1870's and 1880's, Strahorn and his new wife, Carrie Adell, crisscrossed the west by stage, train, steamboat, horseback and pack train. They investigated and reported on timber, minerals, farming opportunities and resources in general. Carrie passed the time by writing reports of their travels and findings for numerous newspapers "Back East".
In her lengthy and fascinating book "10,000
Miles by Stage", written in Spokane in 1911, she acknowledged her
husband had a "confidential agreement to carefully examine routes and regions
with reference to railway extensions and possible tonnage". This
work was veiled under the popular guise of the hunt for statistics to induce
While his work never ceased, other things were doing, and some of the best known and most profitable railway lines in the west were hatched during those long, tedious trips across the frontier. It was a great secret then and the whole west learned in later years that, "He can keep a secret so well the he has become popularly known as the 'Railroad Sphinx'".
Mrs. Strahorn describes their work in Idaho territory: "We spent some weeks on Wood River gathering statistics which Pard (her affectionate nickname for her husband) wove into entertaining narrative, clothing it in attractive garb that it might coquette with restless spirits in the Far East who were waiting for an enchantress to lure them to the vast mysterious west."
Previously in her book she describes overhearing a comment about her husband's work made by an exhausted immigrant woman while she and her family struggled over Red Rock Divide in a covered wagon during the winter of 1878. "If this is Strahorn's paradise, as his book calls it, I just wish that he had to live in it, that's all, but I wish I was back in Missouri where we'uns come from". Then she burst into tears. She did not know the the man "what writ the book" was passing by in a stagecoach gathering yet more facts to "guide many a restless spirit to home and fortune in the fertile west".
Whether out in the wilderness or in his office at the UP headquarters in Omaha or Denver he was constantly besieged for more information until he became a walking encyclopedia on the then "Far West".
While locating railroad townsites (which included Shoshone, Hailey, Mountain Home, Caldwell, Ontario, Payette, Weiser and Ketchum) Strahorn and several partners formed the Idaho & Oregon Land Improvement Company "To irrigate lands and start colonies". In Mrs. Strahorn's words, "It is an inspiration when one sees a town born and developed into life - full of business activity in a few days or weeks time."
Interestingly, one of Strahorn's partners in the I & O Company was ex-senator Caldwell of Kansas whose wagon manufacturing company was producing 8,000 units a year to feed the needs of western development. Small wonder a thriving new town in Idaho was named after him.
When Caldwell was named and the railroad passed Boise by, Boise businessmen threatened vengeance on everyone who favored Caldwell and the leaders (especially Strahorn) were threatened with lynching. He was blacklisted in the fall of 1883 and warned to keep away from Boise or meet personal harm. A few months later a UP official stopped in Denver to warn Mrs. Strahorn that her husband was to be hung by Boise men and if she had any influence over him to get him out of Idaho at once.
In 1886, a gun battle erupted in the desert where the town of Weiser stands today. Strahorn and four associates held off a much larger, armed mob who attempted to overrun their position using a cattle stampede as a diversion.
After finishing work on the Oregon short line in 1888, Strahorn was involved in the Fairhaven RR project. A predecessor of Bellingham, Fairhaven was meant to be the western terminus of the Great Northern RR. "The stage was now set for the most dazzling real estate promotion orgies of the century", Strahorn wrote in his manuscript, "attracting armies of past masters in real estate manipulation inside and outside the RR organizations. My extensive experience in the publicity line marked me as the leading hot-air instrument. The extremes to which we innocently went in our lurid word pictures of the future metropolis and the general urge of everybody to get in on such an alluring opportunity led to fabulous gains in real estate values almost hourly.It was my business to seek out and broadcast every known resource and even some not too tangible, to promote settlement and quick building of the Puget Sound Empire. Some of these settlers didn't want their sweet solitude among the grand old firs and cedars disturbed by anything so devastating as a RR. This went so far that my associates and I were warned off some claims by threats of shooting if we dared persist in bringing the RR in. Oddly enough, they centered their hatred upon the poor right-of-way man instead of holding the builders responsible, and with their rifles in hand, we were ordered off the premises while engineers stakes were pulled up for kindling. Nothing short of the fearless sheriff and plenty of armed deputies would get such parties into court for necessary condemnation proceedings. This sometimes had to be followed by arrests to protect the engineers and graders. Right here I must confess to a sickening at heart when riding through the wreck and ruin of stumpy barrens for which I was, through RR building, responsible for transforming from those glorious Idaho, Oregon, and California pine forests into desert wastes - especially where for climatic reasons no tree would ever grow again and even if it could, would require the tardy effort of centuries."
In speaking of the Fairhaven RR project, Strahorn says, "Our blueprints desecrated the charmingly seductive solitude by showing docks, elevators, lumber mills, railway approached to busy wharves and smokestacks bravely peering from the age old silent forests." In retrospect, which sounds more attractive? The "brave" smokestack or the age old silent forests?
When James J. Hill reneged on the Fairhaven site as terminus the boomers bubble burst and Strahorn and many other "developers" lost their behinds. A prominent railway president commented to Hill, "I have the utmost respect for you men individually but as railroad presidents I wouldn't trust you with my watch out of sight."
With the Fairhaven disaster came the Baring Bank panic of 1890 and in Strahorn's words, "Our wildest real estate orgies burst with dire reverberations. The general RR townsite and land boom throughout the west, leading to the creation of hundreds of mortgage companies loaning to an utterly reckless degree on worthless as well as worthwhile property, resulted in the latter's universal failure and general stark ruin of the previous happy situation as we all had greedily taken much more than our share of our own medicine. When the smash came we insiders could only point with pride to being much more hurt, on account of our much larger commitments that the remote outsiders, with them usually only a disagreeable incident with us - deep, stark, irreparable total ruin."
No comments were made about the fact that the people forced into court by armed deputies for condemnation hearings were removed to make way for a project that never happened - the downside of imminent domain.
Strahorn retired to Boston for most of the 1890's and worked the bond market as an investment banker. Much of his work consisted of redeeming or shoring up failed western development companies. During this period, he honed his selling and financing skill and after extensive world travels settled down in Spokane about 1903.
He then embarked on what he called a "deeply pondered program" to build a RR from Spokane to Portland and another connecting line from Wallula west through the Yakima Valley to Puget Sound. This with several branches and feeders would be known as the North Coast RR and total approximately 1000 miles. All along, Strahorn's plan was to acquire right of way and by spending as little money as possible tie up routes and give the illusion that a big project was poised to start construction. Strahorn tackled a project that would ultimately cost 30 - 40 dollars million with a shoestring budget of less than $200,00. By late 1905, he had reached what he called "an approximately invincible position of outstanding value". That translated into, he had enough right of way and engineering studies and terminal locations to, in modern parlance, put together a package. James J. Hill and Edward Harriman were the only major players in Northwest railroading and after his financial disaster at Fairhaven, Strahorn was not inclined to deal with Hill. Instead, he approached Harriman, master of the Union Pacific and Hill's chief adversary. This meeting occurred at Harriman's mansion in New York City.
Strahorn launched into his customary optimistic outline and advances with yards of maps, photographs and other data. Harriman replied, "Not interested. We can duplicate anything you have more economically. But I would be glad to see you alone at my office in the Equitable building at 10 o'clock tomorrow morning. But mind you, don't bring any one else or let a soul know you are coming."
Strahorn pitched his project strenuously at the second meeting but was silenced with, "Oh, you western promoters make me so tired. No doubt you have a good thing out there, but the great necessity for secrecy puts it out of the running." He then recommended a conversation with a Judge Lovett in the same building who suggested he contact a large banking concern several blocks away. A nationally known financier rapidly reviewed his credentials and documents and suggested he sign a short memorandum. Then, quoting Strahorn: "It dawned upon my dull and childish comprehension, that I had actually in that first half hour with Mr. Harriman, victoriously reentered the mighty RR game in the interest of America's Master Transportation Genius." It was promptly explained that the Harriman Organization was absolutely limited to consultation and advice, and in the interests of absolute secrecy his eastern connections would not be divulged. Strahorn would never be seen with Harriman and a means of secret contact by mail and wire devised. "Necessary funds would be deposited to my personal credit in such banks as I would designate, in a manner impossible to trace, and to be utilized only by my personal checks."
Strahorn was now really in business backed by Harriman and the Union Pacific millions. His tentative, largely on paper, plans started to become a reality.
Edward Hungerford was quoted as writing, "Strahorn made himself President, General Attorney and Confidential Secretary to the President and General Attorney, and with his attorney and stenographer made up the Board of Directors. So with nobody to interfere, he just goes out and buys his business blocks by the hundred." Albert Smith, an old friend from the Jay Gould days was appointed secretary and treasurer. Strahorn then relates, "Only my valued stenographer, Miss Elizabeth S. Blount, had a remote inkling of our backing, but in any event all were able, bulletproof for loyalty and secrecy. However, to reduce the percentage of danger of leakage among so many men, Miss Blount soon kindly muffled Mr. Smith in happy wedlock, with deep anxiety and a sharp eye on all those fast outgoing millions, as such a widely bred newly wedded house wife naturally would.
While North Coast crews surveyed in the Grandview area, rival survey crews attempted to block and checkmate the work. Strahorn's forces hit upon the plan of creating smoke screens by firing straw stacks behind the located line but just ahead of the rivals. The N.P. forces were so enraged by the smoke screen that they attacked the North Coast survey crew resulting in their being jailed until the survey work was complete.
Meanwhile, the N.P. people arrived on the scene with a large force of specially sworn in, heavily armed, deputy sheriffs. But too late, alas. "Many other efforts were made through detectives and all sorts of ruses, by newspapers, interested property owners and reputed financiers urging to chip in on our pressing needs to smoke me out. It was assumed after I began using money in far more substantial amounts than I could personally command that I was representing one of 3 large railways, either the Canadian Pacific, Chicago Milwaukee & Puget Sound, or the Harriman Lines (UP). I acknowledged to the newspaper boys that the Harriman suggestion was the one I coveted beyond all others and was the one I would turn heaven and earth for," wrote Strahorn. Before the Harriman alliance, Strahorn had secured much of the engineering and right-of-way data to build into Spokane. It was now necessary to go the limit. "Much night work with concealed hand levels was resorted to with all other clandestine methods possible to conceive."
Strahorn's plan for the North Coast to enter Spokane involved the purchase and razing of miles of buildings, 1 mile of which were brick and stone, including the ornate $300,000 city hall where he planned to place the new terminal. During 1907, over 150 pieces of property were secured and only 3 were condemned in court, several belonging to rival railroads.
Although cross examined in court, Strahorn managed to squirm out of admitting who was backing him. One indignant spectator exclaimed in court, "Oh, give the poor man a rest! Can't you see, he don't know where his money comes from himself."
Official announcement of Harriman's backing and involvement in the North Coast project came in 1910 when the new system was incorporated with $60,000,00 in capitol stock. September 14, 1914, marked the driving of the golden spike in Spokane which joined the Union Pacific and the Milwaukee Road at Spokane's Davenport Palace Hotel. The resultant structures (viaduct and station) were to be colossal eyesores until demolished in the early 1970's as part of a redevelopment program for the Spokane Expo. It is a measure of Robert Strahorn's political power and standing that he had secured permission from the city to build the structure and its trestles in the first place. As one writer put it in 1974, when the Expo opened: "For what he did for Spokane, he should have been hanged in effigy if not in person."
First and foremost, Strahorn was a promoter/developer.
Not content with just his RR projects, he expanded into numerous electrical
power generation and irrigation developments.
In 1903, Strahorn and associated acquired Yakima Water Light & Power and late in 1904 started construction of a new power plant on the Naches River. He was also allegedly involved with the establishment of a gas utility plant in Yakima at this time. The Pasco City and Water plant was destroyed by fire resulting from a natural gas explosion on August 13, 1908.
According to the Pasco Express of the same date, "The gas powered irrigation plant at White Bluffs was destroyed in the same manner and it is rumored that the large irrigation plant at Paterson went up in smoke the same way. Two weeks later, Strahorn purchased not only the destroyed Pasco Water & Light system but also the Kennewick Electric Company." In September of 1908, Strahorn consolidated his various power company holdings which formed the nucleus of a new company, commonly referred to as Pacific Power & Light. It is unclear if the demolished White Bluffs and Paterson power plants were part of this whirlwind takeover.
Meanwhile, in February of 1909, the American Power Company, (which Strahorn was said to be involved with) was working 20 miles upriver from Pasco. At a site that coincided with a North Coast RR proposed bridge crossing. The Pasco Express reported: "Photographs of the development work have been secured, but the photographer has even been forbidden to print the pictures and was sworn to secrecy before being engaged to do the work. Although Strahorn denied any connections, a local merchant claimed that goods sold to the American Power Company were paid for with North Coast RR money." By June of 1909, Strahorn had gone public with his grand irrigation scheme capitalized under the Pasco Reclamation Company and Pasco Fruitlands Company. One year later, he consolidated his power holdings under the title Yakima Valley Power Company which was acquired by the American Light & Power Company of New York. Late in June of 1910, Strahorn's holding and 10 other plants were combined to form Pacific Power & Light Company and in September the Hanford Irrigation & Power * Company which Strahorn was also involved with was sold to PP & L. In his book, Union Pacific Northwest, Jeff Asay wrote, "Strahorn had put together a largely paper empire consisting of surveys, preliminary location work, lots of maps and plans, and 1/2 mile of rudimentary grading." Basically, he had tied up a few key properties and hyped his project far beyond what it was. He offered to sell what he had to Harriman for $100,000 which was immediately accepted. In 1906, Strahorn stated, "I feel as though I ought to travel with an accountant, an attorney and a detective or two. A result of allegations of fraud and lawsuits."
Strahorn was a booster, a boomer, an optimist and a con man. He made and lost at least 3 fortunes in his long life. For a man who spent his life writing, publishing and promoting, ironically, his extra long, 586 page manuscript entitled 90 Years of Boyhood was never published. Although instrumental in settling the west and developing its resources, he made many costly mistakes, not only financially but in terms of people's lives and futures. He was one of the best at selling people something that existed only in their dreams. Instead of swamp land he touted farmland. Often times a land so tough that it would take 3 generations of stubborn farmers to finally succeed.
Robert Strahorn lived to be 92 years old, dying a poor man in Spokane, Washington in 1944.
Asay Jeff, Union Pacific Northwest - The O.W.R. & N. Company. Pacific Past Mail. 1991.
Dierdorff, John, How Edison's Lamp Helped Light the West - The Story of Pacific Power and Light Company. 1971.
Norris, Frank, The Octopus. Doubleday. 1901.
Raban, Jonathan, Badlands. Pantheon Books. 1996.
Schwantes, Carlos, Railroad Signatures Across the Pacific Northwest. Univ. of Washington Press. 1993.
Strahorn, Carrie Adell, Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage. C.P. Putnam & Sons. 1911.
Strahorn, Robert, Ninety Years of Boyhood. Unpublished. 1942.
Wilson, Robert S., Trolley Trails Through the West. 1943.
The Pasco Express. Mid Columbia Library, Pasco Washington. Aug. 1908 thru Feb. 1913.
"The Pasco Reclamation Company" - Pamphlet. 1910.