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By M. Timothy Nolting
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Across The Fence: Relay race to Roseburg, Ore.

 

In 1955, the world as we knew it was changing and changing fast. The nation's need for speed, horsepower and independence was reflected in Chevy's '55 Bel Air and the classic Nomad wagon. Ford motor company countered with the popular Victoria and the Thunderbird promised to rival the sleekest of European sports cars.

1955 would see automobile sales peak at 7.9 million sold. Elvis Presley rocked the music world and pink shirts for men rocked the fashion world. Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald's, Disneyland opened in California and the Mickey Mouse Club made its television debut alongside Captain Kangaroo. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery Alabama bus and the Civil Rights Movement was born. Stan Musial hit his 300th home run and Dr. Jonas Saulk successfully tested the polio vaccine. The U.S. launched military intervention in Vietnam and Iran and the Navy launched the first nuclear powered submarine. President Eisenhower was the first president to appear on color television and also raised the minimum wage from 75 cents an hour to a whopping $1 per hour while the average annual income was a prosperous $3,851.

Invariably in the wake of progress comes the demise of the familiar and it is only human nature to attempt to hold back the tide. While major social, economic, political and military events pushed the American people into a whirlwind of change there were multitudes of lesser events across the country that in some small way attempted to hold back or slow down this wild rush of progress. One such event, during the 1955 tidal wave of change, was the relay race from Eugene to Roseburg, Ore.

Ever since the ground pounding drivers of a steam locomotive sent the shockwave of progress across the realm of the buffalo, cowboys, with egos bigger that the 10-gallon Stetsons that they wore, and pride in horseflesh that rivaled the most devout partnership, would often challenge the great "Iron Horse" to a race. It was horseflesh against horsepower, heart and stamina against pent up steam and a firebox full of flame. It was a race between the old and the new, a hanging on to what they knew to be tried and true and a vain attempt to lean a shoulder against the push, and for a little while longer, staunch the flow of progress. While the effort was valiant the results were often less than spectacular.

On the second Tuesday of July in 1955, the Douglas County Mounted Sheriff's Posse of Roseburg, Ore., met for its regular monthly meeting. There wasn't much business to discuss since the main activity of the posse, the annual Roseburg Rodeo, was already under their belt. But, before the meeting closed the captain introduced a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce of Roseburg. The announcement that was made sparked a flame of passion and resolve and renewed the all too familiar rivalry of "the people vs. the railroad."

The Southern Pacific Railroad had recently announced that, due to decreasing business, it would be discontinuing passenger service between Portland and Roseburg. The "service" was in fact hardly any service at all. The train was routinely scheduled to leave Portland in the late evening and arrive in Roseburg at 2:55 a.m. The midnight run through some of the most beautiful country that Oregon has to offer was far from the potential scenic tour that could have been marketed if the schedule was changed to daylight hours. Additionally, the schedule was almost never kept with arrival and departure times so unpredictably erratic and unreliable that passenger numbers had dwindled away. And finally, the train was so very slow, averaging less than 30 mph, a fact that had earned the service the unaffectionate moniker of "The Nightcrawler."

And so the Chamber of Commerce had set out to incite the people of Southern Oregon to unite and prove that the service was failing because of poor service. And, it was argued, that with a little encouragement from the citizens and some positive improvement by the railroad the service could continue, be profitable, and both the railroad and the people would benefit. The challenge that the Chamber placed before the Sheriff's Posse was to stage a race, horses against the train, from Eugene to Roseburg, a distance of 78 miles.

The idea was to shame the railroad into submission by a relay of horses against the "Nightcrawler." If the horses would win, as was expected, then the railroad would perhaps speed things up a bit, become more dependable and even schedule a run in daylight where the scenic landscape along Oregon's Rogue River could be savored and appreciated. The challenge was accepted and plans were begun for the famous race between Douglas County Pony Express and the Rogue River Limited.

One local, Roseburg rancher by the name of Johnny Spencer began the chore of detailed planning that it would take. While it was originally planned for the horses to race against the clock and beat the time of the Limited, it somehow evolved that the race would be a match race. Since the highway ran almost completely parallel to the railroad the race would occur during a regularly scheduled nighttime run.

Horses would run in relay with each horse and rider covering one and one-half miles before handing off the baton to the next rider. It was arranged for heavy trucks and police cars to light the way for the horses by traveling behind and lighting up the highway. Many of the 78 miles of highway had no shoulders and what were once narrow logging roads had been paved over for use as a state highway. It would be dangerous going for men and horses.

The race was held on July 30, a Saturday night, and a bright, full moon offered up its help to light the road. Cars filled with onlookers lined the highway to watch the race as it progressed. The congestion along the highway could have been a major detriment for the horseback men. There were not enough horses and riders to cover the distance and so some of the riders had to leapfrog from their first leg of the race, then load up and drive to a leg further down the course. Some riders barely made it to their next relay station because of the traffic on the highway.

Johnny Spencer started the race astraddle his favorite cowpony "Sundae" at the Eugene Depot. The Limited sat idling beside the depot and I'm sure that Johnny wished that the engine pulling the 1870s era passenger cars had been an old Southern Pacific steamer. Instead, steam power had been in rapid decline and the engine was a modern diesel. Sleek and powerful, the shining engine turned out 1,200 horses of constant, steady power.

At 11 p.m., engineer Claude A. Brindenstine walked out of the depot and climbed the steps to the cab of the engine, settled in, eased the throttle forward and 1,200 horses thundered to life in the surrounding fumes of diesel fuel. Alan Knudtson handed the baton to Johnny Spencer who gripped the baton in his off hand and spurred Sundae to a reckless gallop.

From the beginning horses and riders took a commanding lead leaving the Limited several miles behind at Creswell. At Cottage Grove, the Southern Pacific gained the advantage by allowing the Limited to proceed where it would have normally had to lay-by on the siding while the northbound freight had the right-of-way. On this night the freight took the siding while the Limited continued non-stop.

At little more than halfway, near the rail town of Drain, horses and diesel were running neck and headlight, side-by-side along the moonlit race path. The passenger cars, normally empty on the Limited, were loaded with passengers, and loaded passengers were leaning out the open windows cheering on the horses and their riders who sped alongside.

At Rice Hill, a steep incline on the S.P. line, Engineer Brindenstein gave the engine full throttle and topped the hill at 50 mph a speed unattainable by the horses on that leg of the race. While the S.P. had agreed to run a regular schedule, this night was far from regular. First off with the right-of-way given to the Limited instead of the freighter, then at Yoncalla, a scheduled stop, the Limited thundered through without even slowing.

When the Roseburg Depot came into view Brindenstine kept the throttle open and rolled into the Roseburg station at 2:55 a.m. It was the first and only time the Limited had arrived on schedule.

Johnny Spencer also rode the final leg of the race on a horse named Dobbin and came in to the Roseburg Depot at 3:02 a.m., seven minutes behind the Limited.

Even if the horses had won the race, the S.P. Rouge River route would have ultimately been discontinued. Times had changed; there were 7.9 million new cars on the road. In less than a decade most families would have two cars in their driveways and two televisions in their homes. There was no longer time for leisurely train rides through breathtakingly beautiful countryside when we could get from here to there at 60 mph behind the wheel of our own personal automobile.

On Aug. 8, 1955 the Southern Pacific Railroad terminated the Rogue River Limited. The Iron Horse of progress had won. But, did we lose more than just a race?

M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. Contact Tim via email at acrossthefence2day@gmail.com

 

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