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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Prineville: The Oregon town
that refused to die

Many Oregon towns, when bypassed by the railroad, withered into tiny hamlets — but one of them built its own railroad instead.

Early Oregon history is full of stories of towns that were big stuff — until the railroad came through somewhere else. Today, most of those towns are tiny bedroom communities whose residents drive to work in the lucky towns, now cities, that won the fight over the railroad route. Many of them are ghost towns or exist only in the Oregon Geographic Names reference.

But there’s one such town that refused to give up: Prineville.

Today, Prineville is nowhere near as big and successful as its onetime rival, Bend. But it’s a live, hopping Oregon town. You could say that’s because Les Schwab started his business there, and kept it there until his death (the executives in charge of the company now have since moved it to Bend). But that’s more a symptom than the cause. And the cause — well, it may have something to do with why you used to see so many big trucks with Les Schwab’s logo on them.

The secret of Prineville’s success goes back to a few years after its citizens got the disappointing news that they’d been outmaneuvered in their courtship of the railroad. Well, actually, Nature had outmaneuvered them. The railroad lines didn’t want to mess with the Crooked River. They just shot across the high desert through nearby Bend, missing Prineville by 18 miles. By 1911, it was a done deal.

This was Prineville’s cue to lay down and die. It did nothing of the kind.

Instead, the city’s 1,200 citizens set out to take care of the problem themselves.

First, they incorporated the Prineville and Eastern Railway. A deal with a land promoter didn’t work out, so the city put a bond issue on the ballot. Three hundred fifty-eight people voted “yes”; one single person voted “no.”

The city got to work. Meanwhile, the First World War had raised the price of raw materials, so they had to go back to the voters in 1916 for more money. The “no” camp saw a 1,400-percent increase in its support, rocketing up to 14 votes — but the “yes” votes totaled 202.

Finally, on July 25, 1918, the Crook County Journal ran a banner headline in type an inch and a half high: “RAILROAD IS HERE!”

And so it was. But it carried an ominous load. The first train brought an entire car full of automobiles with it – something Randall Mills, writing in the middle of the golden age of car travel, compared to “a prisoner building his own gallows.”

Sure enough, within just a few years of the railroad’s construction, motor vehicles had started taking over. Prineville was left with a brand-new railroad that few were using and a half million dollars in bonded indebtedness — a lot of debt for a town whose population was still under 2,000.

So the City Council passed an ordinance: All Prineville businesses had to have licenses and report the means by which freight left town. If it were shipped by any means other than the city railroad or the business’s own truck fleet, it was taxed at 10 cents a pound.

Naturally, this was not popular with trucking outfits, which had gotten used to the business and hated to see it go. But their outrage fell on deaf ears. And the plan worked: In 1940, the city proudly proclaimed the railroad debt-free at last.

To this day, the railroad — now known as the Prineville City Railway — is still in operation. Gulick says as of 1991, the railroad ordinance was still on the books. And the community spirit the railroad project forged in Prineville is still noticeable there.

(Sources: Gulick, Bill. Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 1991; Mills, Randall V. Railroads Down the Valley. Palo Alto: Pacific, 1950; archive issues of Crook County Journal)