Robert Strahorn "The Promoter"
Story By: Ted Van Arsdol

       One hundred years ago, .in early 1906, workers began grading for a new Tri-Cities area railroad. This was the North Coast Railway, promoted by Robert Strahorn, whose story is told below. Robert Strahorn was described by historian Randall Mills as "endowed with a ringing voice, a gift for rich phrases and an ingratiating presence. "
       Another writer elaborated: "He is slight, dark, reserved, rather incommunicative and gives the impression of being a cultured person of foreign extraction, who might have spent his life in the diplomatic service."!
       The writer could have put considerably more emphasis on the uncommunicative aspect, and been correct. Strahorn was keeping plenty of secrets as he traveled through the West on behalf of wealthy individuals in the East, who hoped to get even richer because of railroads that were opening up vast western sections of the nation that had been labeled the Great American Desert.
       Strahorn's travels would bring him to the Tri-Cities area, along with many other places.
       Small-scale land promoters wanted to know his secrets, if possible, so they could acquire and sell choice property. And rival railroad people also wanted details, so they could offset the plans or meet the competition in whatever way necessary. Also, in the early 1900s a rivalry between James J. Hill and Edward H. Harriman (the latter a Strahorn backer) was particularly intense, involving lawsuits and other controversy in the Pacific Northwest.

James J. Hill                                             Edward H. Harriman

       Although Strahorn had been identified with Harriman's Union Pacific railroad in earlier years, he was not admitting any such affiliation when he was in Washington state in connection with extending the North Coast Railway from Kennewick into the Yakima Valley.

North Coast Railroad Excursion Train Passing Through Kennewick, WA : March 1911
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       Work already was under way in 1906 on another new railroad, the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railway, along the Columbia River below Kennewick. James J. Hill planned to extend this line along the north bank of the river to Vancouver, where a new bridge would cany trains across the Columbia to Portland. The public also speculated about other possible new railroad plans in those early years, during the last big splurge of railroad construction in the Pacific Northwest, before World War I.

Material Yard For The North Coast Railroad At Kennewick, WA : April 1910
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       But railroads were far from the only projects in Strahorn's mind. After his move to the Pacific Northwest he got involved in other ventures, notably involving water and power, where the backers were sometimes a mystery. One writer; who called Strahorn "a controversial figure," mentions that the. promoter made a fortune in the Pacific Northwest but lost it in the Great Depression of the 1930s.
       Strahorn became a part of Pasco history by developing the first significant reclamation effort here, diverting water from Snake River. He had taken over a light and power company in the town earlier. Strahorn already was a veteran of launching power and light projects along the line of the Union Pacific Railroad, his employer in previous years.
       Strahorn, born in Pennsylvania, had moved west, worked as a newspaperman, in Denver, Colo., and elsewhere on the frontier, and had covered Indian wars for papers in bigger cities further east. He accompanied railroad surveying parties, doing publicity work for railroad companies, and organized and headed the publicity bureaus of the Union Pacific and Kansas Pacific companies from 1877 to 1884, splitting his time between Denver and Omaha.
       "He was also engaged in a confidential capacity in inspection and analysis of traffic resources and suitable railway routes for construction of new lines in all territory tributary to the Union and Southern Pacific, this carrying him by stage, horseback and on foot in almost every county of every state and territory west of the Mississippi River," the Columbia Port Digest reported.
       Strahorn was accompanied by his wife, Carrie, who later wrote a book, Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stagecoach, published in New York in 1911.

Construction Of Road Bed At Union Gap : July 1910
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       In the earlier part of his career, Strahorn prepared guide books for the Union Pacific Railroad. These received wide distribution and caused one critic to term Strahorn a propagandist. Strahorn spoke of western pioneering in glowing terms, assuring prospective settlers that irrigation was "really quite easy" and the Pacific Northwest was "an Eden for fruits."
       However the promotional material was not much different from much other contemporary advertising for western land and real estate.
       Considerable parts of the Pacific Northwest, where Strahorn was active from 1884 to 1890, needed irrigation for crops to grow, and Strahorn was involved in colonizing, layout of towns and promoting reclamation. Towns he helped develop were Hailey, Shoshone, Caldwell, Mountain Home, Payette, all in Idaho, and Ontario, Oregon. Strahorn also was involved in railroad promotion on Puget Sound, and moved in 1898 to Spokane, which had been boomed by construction of the Northern Pacific Railroad in the early 1880s.

Construction Of Trestle For The North Coast Railroad In Badger Canyon West Of Kennewick, WA : June 1909
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       They Built the West, a book, states that Strahorn was sent to Spokane "to develop water works, electric plants and irrigation schemes." The same source explained that the main purpose of the North Coast Railway, which Strahorn headed, was to bring Spokane and Walla Walla closer to Portland, Tacoma and Seattle.
       But he had a selling job, to get financing for the North Coast. Strahorn traveled east to talk to Harriman, who has been described as a man with "an immense fortune" and "a lust for control of rail mileage." At one time Harriman was reported to control "more millions of capital than anyone on earth." He had gotten control of the Union Pacific and in 1901 acquired the Southern Pacific and later the Central Pacific railroad.
       The North Coast plan outlined by Strahorn to Harriman was accepted, but Harriman cautioned that he was not to be identified.
       "Necessary funds would be deposited to my personal account in such banks as I would designate, in a manner impossible to trace and to be utilized only by my personal checks," Strahorn said.
       After his return from the East, Strahorn was quoted in Seattle as saying his new railroad would run southeast from Seattle and Tacoma to Kennewick. One branch would connect with a Walla Walla terminal and another would extend to Spokane. The Spokane Press also reported the new company had bought out the Spokane-Columbia River Railway and Navigation Co., which had planned a line from Spokane, would bypass Connell and reach the Columbia River 28 miles above Pasco. Whether some of this might have been information provided to mislead a rival, Jim Hill's SP&S railroad, is uncertain.

Porposed North Coast Railroad Crossing, Spokane, WA : Sept. 1907
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       The Pasco Express commented in early 1906:
       "A rumor is born every day concerning railroads in Pasco. They have been flying thick and fast lately. The air has been surcharged with them for six months and now they are becoming facts."
       Plans for the North Coast Railroad were probably one of several factors spurring development at Priest Rapids on the Columbia River of an irrigation project that survived for nearly four decades. The Kennewick Courier of Dec. 1, 1905, reported that the project would take water from the Columbia River. Judge C.H. Hanford, whose name was used later to name an atomic plant, was one of the project's promoters.

North Coast Railroad Roadway Crossing Near Spokane, WA : Sept. 1909
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       Other irrigation projects were under way or proposed for the Columbia River, two or three on the east bank between the Snake and Walla Walla rivers. At that time the reclamation job seemed easy. One proposal called for reclaiming 50 million acres of the Great American Desert at the rate of one million annually.
       In April 1906 the North Coast Railway was reported buying more right of way in Yakima County, preparatory to grading and laying of tracks.
       One of the features of this new railroad was a bridge constructed across the Columbia River just below the mouth of Snake River. In February 1910, Strahorn had accompanied F.L. Bitman, North Coast chief engineer, to an inspection of the new span.

Construction On The North Coast Railroad Bridge, East Of Kennewick, WA : Feb. 1910
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       E.H. Harriman died in September 1909. Whether this had any effect on the North Coast is not known, but the railroad's history was destined to be brief under the North Coast name. In December 1910, the business was sold to the Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Co., which had been incorporated in November. At the time the North Coast extended from Attalia, an irrigation project in Walla Walla County north of Wallula to North Yakima (soon to be renamed Yakima). The railroad also owned a partially completed track from Ayer Junction on Snake River to Spokane by way of Marengo and Cheney. The OWRN Co. completed this route in 1914.

Construction On The North Coast Railroad Bridge, East Of Kennewick, WA : Feb. 1910
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       A 1916 map showed a network of OWRN lines in eastern Washington including Ayer-Spokane. Connell in Franklin County was the western tenninus of one extension of the railroad. The OWR&N main lines extended between Portland and Huntington, Oregon on the Snake River and between Pendleton and Spokane. The company had cashed in on the influx of dry land fanners who grew grain, and some development of inigated agriculture east of the Cascades, especially in the Yakima Valley.

Construction On The North Coast Railroad Bridge, East Of Kennewick, WA : March 1910
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       An Oregonian editor, Harvey W. Scott, commented on the stepped-up activity in Washington state during the early 1900s. He pointed out that the destination of settlers headed into the Pacific Northwest during earlier decades had been mostly Oregon. But now most of the desirable Oregon locations had been taken. Partly in response to this, railroads now were developing the country north of the Columbia River, "setting off an immense tide of movement." The new settlers were writing to friends in the East "to come on," according to Scott, who especially cited the Milwaukee and OWRN companies as active in bringing in more population.

North Coast Railroad Locomotive No. 1 , At Kennewick, WA : Jan. 1910
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       However, the new communities needed more than railroads-such as power, along with water for irrigation--and Strahorn worked on these issues too. He had done so even before he began work on the North Coast Railway, and some of the projects in which he was involved ended up later as part of a new corporation, the Pacific Power and Light Co.
       In 1903,Strahorn, AG. Smith and R.J.Danson organized the Northwest Light and Water Co., and in December of that year they had gained title to Yakima Water and Power. In 1904, the company started a new power plant 11 miles above the mouth of the Naches River, a tributary of the Yakima River.
       In 1908, Strahorn purchased the electric system operated at Pasco, and he laid a submarine cable in the Columbia River to connect with a Kennewick light and water business he had also bought. Smith was still the company secretary and George Arrowsmith was manager. The Strahorn organization then started work on a transmission line from Kennewick to Yakima. In April 1910 the Pasco, Kennewick and Yakima properties were consolidated into a new organization, the Yakima-Pasco Power CO.
       Another firm, American Power and Light Co., had been interested in moving into the Pacific Northwest and had been buying and consolidating gas companies in the Portland area.
       In January 1909, the Pasco Express reported American Power and Light Co. was proposing an irrigation project 20 miles above Pasco on the east bank of the Columbia River. Strahorn visited a short time later and told a newspaper man that "it was the intention of the company" (possibly the North Coast) to water all the lands surrounding Pasco, and that in the near future the company would have "the power to do it with." He also was questioned about railroads, "but deftly directed the conversation to other channels."

North Coast Railroad Depot At Benton City, WA : March 1911
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       Strahorn was more talkative at Spokane, where he said in June that he would irrigate 20,000 acres of land near Snake River, and had organized four companies to help. These were the Pasco Fruit Lands Co., the Pasco Reclamation Co., the Finance Co. and Avenex Co. Assisting Strahorn were RJ.Danson, a Spokane attorney, and P.A. Devers of Portland, banker. SteamboatCapt. William Polk Gray was heading a Pasco committee working with the promoters. The company wanted land owners to sign contracts for use of the water pumped from Snake River.
       One publicity problem that arose shortly after the project announcement was discussion of a failed irrigation effort a short distance south of the Snake River, on the Columbia. This was the Pasco Power and Water Company's Two Rivers project, which the Pasco Express conceded had been "more or less of a fizzle 'since its conception."
       But the potential for reclamation got a boost in 1910 with the announcement that a new company had taken over the Yakima-Pasco Power Co. and other water and light businesses. This was the Pacific Power and Light Co., with headquarters in Portland, and Guy Talbot, an American Power Co. vicepresident, as its first officer. PP&L, said to be closely linked with General Electric Co. and Electric Bond and Share Co., was planning to cover the Columbia, Yakima and Walla valleys with transmission and distributing systems. Some news stories already had mentioned American Power Co. interest in irrigation near Pasco, and a story about the new PP&L story remarked, "it was the belief there would be a great deal of pumping in territory being opened by the Milwaukee, North Coast and other railroads."
       PP&L was essential to Strahorn's plans for irrigation at Pasco, because its power would enable his turbine pumps to transfer water from the river.
       Strahorn's companies went ahead with construction of their big plant on Snake River, which was expected to pump water out of the river for orchard growers and fanners on adjacent land. A pamphlet from Pasco Reclamation Co. and Pasco Fruit Lands Co. even offered a bit of poetry: "Rivers which for ages merely lapped a desert's feet as if in irony at its fate accursed are halted in their course at last and made to slake that desert's thirst"

Strahorn & Business Men From Spokane & Pasco, Leaving From Kennewick, WA : Oct. 1910
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       The Strahorn people were especially proud of their pumping plant, said to be capable of supplying water to 15,000 acres. Powerful pumps were installed to lift the water to customers' fields. The pump house, three miles above Snake River's mouth, was said to be "a veritable monolith," featuring heavy steel beams and reinforced concrete walls. Residents were reminded of the city slogan, "Keep Your Eye on Pasco," and reassured that "the dream of the pioneers is about to be realized."
       Also, potential water users were informed: "With the aid of sunshine and water, farm and orchard homes to their liking, there is probably no part of the irrigable West which holds such promise as does the district surrounding the town of Pasco."
       In July 1910, the first water was turned into the fields, and by August more than 5,000 acres were being irrigated. A quarter of a century had elapsed since Pasco and Kennewick had been founded, and after a series of proposals and plans that had gone awry, residents were hopeful that this new project would provide solid growth. One individual, described as a former Pasco homesteader, put his feelings into a long 1909 poem that included the following, as printed in the Pasco Express:
       "Then the sagebrush shall disappear "And in its place alfalfa fields with rich perfumes "Shall wave in the breeze, and honey bees "Shall suck sweet nectar from the bloom "And apple trees bear fruit of exquisite quality. "
       In November 1910 more than 100 Pasco area residents traveled to Spokane by train to promote the city. One of their cheers on "Pasco Day" lauded Strahorn:
       "Zip! Boom! Buff!
       Strahorn! Strahorn!
       He's hot stuff."
       Strahorn's assistant on the irrigation project-Devers-was among speakers at a jovial dinner that day in Spokane. He talked about Pasco area development and joked that "the soil is so productive that unless the ladies sweep it out of the house the alfalfa will start growing inside."

North Coast Railroad Road Bed Beside The Kiona Canal Flume : March 1908
WSRHS Museum North Coast Railroad Photo Collection

       The years 1909-10 represented the peak period for expectations in Pasco, and for the irrigation project that was supposed to provide a big boost, leading off as it did with a civic celebration.
       A series of problems now beset the company, according to Richard D. Brown, a secretary of Franklin County Irrigation District No.1 in later years. These included unlined canals and buried wood stave pipe that deteriorated. "Water in the canal percolated into the soil, causing drastic loss of water, which resulted in extremely high pumping costs," Brown said. Considerable controversy centered around the business before it went into receivership in 1916. In 1917, voters agreed to formation of the irrigation district, which took over the property in 1918 but faced continuing problems in the 1920s and 1930s.
       Strahorn had long since moved on to other activities, some in Spokane. Pasco's hopes for a big boost in growth based on irrigation had faded. Residents would need to wait nearly 40 years after the pumping plant's start, before getting first delivery of water from the government-operated Columbia Basin Project, which assured a substantial long-range water supply for the area.       {END}


Return to the Museum.