Pirate, jailbird, hustler, tycoon: “Colonel” Hogg and his railroad
Desperate for some ready cash after his steamer wrecked on the beach, the would-be magnate hastily built a “railroad to nowhere” over Santiam Pass in an attempt to swindle the federal government. It probably would have worked, but ...
By Finn J.D. John — March 5, 2017
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in May 2009, which you’ll find here.
Next time you’re heading over Santiam Pass from the Willamette Valley, you might take a second to glance over at the side of the big potato-shaped promontory around which the highway bends as you pass Three Finger Jack.
If you do, you’ll likely see something unexpected. Running along its side is an old railroad grade, painstakingly built up out of loose rock. And if you get out of your car and follow the track, you’ll find it starts in the middle of nowhere west of the pass, crosses over the summit, and ends in the middle of nowhere on the east side.
The sawed-off mountaintop the railroad grade traverses as it does this is named after the man who built that track — a charismatic hustler named “Colonel” Thomas Edgenton Hogg (pronounced "hoag").
Colonel Hogg was, at one time or another, a pirate, a shipping magnate, a jailbird lifer (in Alcatraz, no less) and a railroad baron. He was, it seems, always a hustler, forever working one angle or another.
The historical record on Hogg starts with the Civil War. During the war, Hogg was a Confederate privateer — basically a pirate who operates with the blessing of a government. (Although “Colonel” is not typically a Navy rank, it’s the one he adopted, and it remained part of his persona for the rest of his life.)
Hogg’s pseudo-Naval career was not a long one, but it was more bonkers than you can probably imagine (here's a link to an Offbeat Oregon column telling the full story). In short, the problem was, although a privateer is technically a type of pirate, privateers are not expected to act like pirates. They’re supposed to act like Navy officers. Navy officers don't typically disguise themselves as civilian passengers aboard enemy civilian freighters, hijack them on the high seas, maroon their crews on a wild remote coast, sail to Belize, and sell the stolen cargo to the British, lying about where it came from. But, that's exactly what Hogg and his men did.
When the British learned the real story, they not only refused to do business with him but had a good try at arresting him, forcing him to flee the country and abandon his newly-conquered ship.
Then Hogg tried to run the same play again, but this time on a Yankee steamer that could be outfitted with guns and put into service as a Confederate commerce raider. But the Yankees found out about the plan, and when Hogg and his men boarded the ship they planned to hijack, they found a small, well-armed detachment of Union troops waiting for them.
Hogg was sentenced to be hanged as a pirate; but his sentence was commuted to life in prison, and he was installed at Alcatraz to await the end of the war.
Then came 1866, and a general amnesty for war prisoners was declared. Hogg, who a few years earlier had been under sentence of death, was a free man, loose in the most dynamic and promising part of the entire country.
The old pirate’s travels eventually brought him, by the early 1870s, to the town of Corvallis. There he found an interesting opportunity: The town was desperate for a way to connect with a deepwater seaport. Progress was passing Corvallis by as the Oregon and California Railroad chose to cut through Albany; the few remaining riverboats that chugged up the Willamette mostly didn’t even bother to stop there on their way to Eugene City; and the only way to get products out to the world markets was to send them down the river to Portland and out to sea, which was very expensive.
So Hogg threw himself into raising the money to build a railroad line across the Coast Range, from Corvallis to Newport. He called it the Corvallis and Yaquina Bay Railroad.
This turned out to be a rather difficult proposition because of the geography of the Coast Range, which was very prone to landslides, especially after its vegetation has been disturbed. It took Hogg four years to finish the line. To finance it, he sold $25,000 bonds, and there was enough Gold Rush money still in Oregon to get the job done that way.
By the time the line was finished, Hogg had renamed it the Oregon Pacific Railroad — and he’d made some new plans for it. The thing was, at the time — roughly 1884 — travelers and freight coming to San Francisco from back east were having to come through Portland.
Hogg envisioned a transcontinental railroad line coming directly from Boise to Newport over Santiam Pass, which would shave 300 miles off the journey and, for goods and people going by sea, avoid the always-chancy Columbia River Bar. And the federal government was still offering huge grants of land to entrepreneurs willing to build railroads.
So Hogg went to the government and made a deal; the lands would become his as soon as he established service over the Santiam Pass.
Then Hogg started making the rounds of Eastern venture capitalists, deploying the legendary Hogg charm. He returned with big money behind him, ready to finish up the local railroad line.
But some of the business leaders in Portland had gotten wind of what Hogg had in mind. They now moved to block his next move, by buying up a big swath of land through which he would have to run his railroad to get to its planned terminus at Newport.
So instead Hogg terminated his railroad at the very back of the bay, named the resulting town Yaquina City, bought a big steamboat to connect with it there, and started providing passenger service to San Francisco. Then, with a steady stream of revenue coming in from that service, he turned to his next project: The transcontinental.
Crews got busy on the line, pushing it out as far as Idanha. Then, in 1887, disaster struck: Hogg’s steamship, which connected with the rail line for passenger service to San Francisco, ran aground. While navigating the Yaquina Bay bar, the ship suffered a broken rudder cable, and drifted north and beached itself on the sand below Chicken Hill (where the Yaquina Bay Lighthouse is). The surf soon pounded her to pieces.
The loss was insured, but losing the cash flow of the successful passenger route was going to hurt.
In desperation, Hogg had his workers stop working on the rail line and sent them all up to the summit of the pass. There, they started work on a railroad line from nowhere to nowhere: A randomly selected spot on the west side, a randomly selected spot on the east side, and a mile or two of track crossing over the pass.
Then Hogg disassembled a passenger car and had a team of mules pack it up to the pass. There, it was reassembled and set on the rails.
The mules then pulled the car across the pass a couple times with workers on board, the workers having “paid” for tickets; and with that, Hogg was ready to report to the federal government that he had done it — established service over the pass.
The next step, he knew, was to receive those massive grants of land, sell them, and use them to finance the completion of the railroad.
This little swindle would probably have worked, except for one thing more: As the steamship Hogg had bought with the insurance money was being towed into the bay, a cable snapped (again) and the ship was washed onto the South Jetty. Again, it was a total loss.
Two snapped cables, two stranded ships, in two months … what were the odds? Plenty of people thought this wasn’t a coincidence. Suspicion naturally fell upon the Portland business crowd, since Hogg’s plan would have meant a healthy slice of the Port of Portland’s business would move to Newport; but, of course, nothing could be proved.
In any case, the second stranding dealt the coup de grace to Hogg’s transcontinental aspirations. The construction was abandoned, and Hogg concentrated on keeping his existing rail service going.
Shortly thereafter, after failing to make the interest payments on his bonds, Hogg’s railroad was forced into receivership. It filed bankruptcy in 1890 and was bought out by lumber magnate A.B. Hammond in 1894.
(Sources: Marcola-area historian Curtis Irish; “Colonel Hogg’s Great Railroad to the Pacific,” Oregon Coast Aquarium Oceanscape Network, oceanscape.aquarium.org; Sandler, Rich. The Rise and Fall of Yaquina City, a research paper written for Geography 422 at Oregon State University, 2008)
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