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‘Automo-bubble’ a part of Deschutes railroad war

By Finn J.D. John
November 1, 2023

SOMETIME IN THE late spring of 1909, at the Oregon Railway & Navigation Company’s ticket booth in Portland, a 19-year-old man named Jim Morrell laid down his last $2 for a ticket on the Bailey Gatzert, the famous Columbia River sternwheeler. Destination: The Dalles.

Morrell was from Colorado originally; just now he was at loose ends, drifting through Portland looking for work. He thought he might find it in The Dalles. Someone had told him about a great railroad war playing out near The Dalles, as railroad magnates E.H. Harriman of the Union Pacific and James J. Hill of the Great Northern scrambled to be the first to punch a railroad line through from the Columbia Gorge into Bend. Harriman’s road was called the Des Chutes (sic) Railroad; Hill was calling his the Oregon Trunk Railroad.

A four-cylinder Studebaker-Garford on display at the Proviantskie Sklady museum in Moscow, Russia. This is the same model as James Morrell’s “automo-bubble.” (Image: A. Savin/ Wikimedia)

Although still a young man, Morrell had some experience with gasoline-powered equipment, and thought this might be a good opportunity for him.

So he had gambled his last two bucks (roughly $65 in modern money) to get to the scene, in hopes he could land a job.

Morrell didn’t look like much when he arrived. On the journey his hat, a battered brown derby, had gotten split between brim and crown; his hair poked through the hat above the brim, making for a pretty comical appearance. Luckily, his hair was also brown, so it looked OK from far away.

Upon his arrival, Morrell was met by a friend — probably the one who’d told him there was work to be had. Morrell’s friend staked him to a meal and a flophouse bunk, and the next day he wasted no time in seeking out J.D. Porter, who with his brother Johnson Porter ran the construction company that had the Northern Pacific (James J. Hill) contract.

Porter’s first question after Morrell introduced himself was straight and to the point:

“Do you know how to skin a bubble?” he asked.

Sheet music cover of “In My Merry Oldsmobile” featuring an Oldsmobile Curved Dash automobile, circa 1910. A photograph of singer Bert Morphy is in the upper left. (Image: Duke University Libraries)

The question was a reference to a popular song that had recently come out: “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” a waltz written by Gus Edwards and Vincent P. Bryan in 1905. It had gotten very popular first as sheet music and later on shellac phonograph records, and had created something of a sensation. The chorus of the song goes, in part, “Come away with me, Lucille, /In my merry Oldsmobile, /Down the road of life we’ll fly, /Automo-bubbling, you and I.”

A “mule skinner” was popular slang for a driver of mule teams; accordingly, a “bubble skinner” was a driver of “automo-bubbles.” ...

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The Oregon Trunk railroad tracks near the mouth of the Deschutes River, with the Des Chutes Railroad tracks visible and still in use on the other side, circa 1911. (Image: Postcard)

(Sources: “Bubble Skinner,” an article by James F. Morrell and Giles French published in the December 1968 issue of Oregon Historical Quarterly; The Deschutes River Railroad War, a book by Leon Speroff published in 2007 by Arnica Publishing; “The Deschutes Railroad War,” an article by Tor Hanson published at; “Railroads into Central Oregon,” an article by Ward Tonsfeldt and Paul G. Claeyssens published in 2004 by the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon History Project.)

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