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Offbeat Oregon History

“Automo-bubble” played a part in last great railroad war

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.

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.

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.”

The Porter brothers had bought one of the contraptions in hopes that it would enable them to skip around the country quickly, negotiating land sales and rights-of-way and running other errands along the route. They’d taken delivery of a 1908 Studebaker-Garford touring car, a great big specimen with space for four passengers plus the driver, powered by an enormous four-cylinder engine (372 cubic inches, or roughly 6.1 liters).

But nobody on their crews knew how to “skin” it.

Luckily for the Porters and for young Mr. Morrell, he did. So they hired him on the spot.

As you can imagine, “automo-bubbling” was a much more arduous job in 1909 than it is today, especially in a monster like that one. That flathead engine — which, although it was rated at less than 40 horsepower, was about the size of what you’d find in a modern Ford F-350 — had to be started with a hand crank. It was a tough enough job that the crank regularly got bent and had to be straightened with a blacksmith’s hammer, and famously, would break the driver’s arm if he didn’t do it just right. The spark timing had to be advanced to just the right spot, the mixture had to be managed on the go by the driver, and the throttle was hand-operated like on an old farm tractor; all these inputs had to be juggled in real-time while managing the clutch and brake and steering the car.

The car had no electrical system; the headlights were carbide lamps and the ignition used a magneto, which was prone to conking out if it got even slightly damp.

It was also fairly top-heavy, so tipping it over was a constant hazard; it had brakes, but only on the back axle, and they were very weak. Morrell had to mostly use engine compression to slow the car on steep grades, like heavy truck drivers do today when descending long highway grades like Cabbage Hill on Interstate 84 between LaGrande and Pendleton.

When Morrell first set out along the rutted and rocky wagon roads along the railroad right-of-way, the Porter brothers stood on the running boards, ready to jump off if it should look like Morrell was about to crash. They soon got comfortable, though, as he demonstrated his skill with the machine.

The Porter boys were working for the Hill railroad, so their crews were racing to lay their tracks down on one side of the river while the Harriman railroad’s contractors, the Twohy Brothers, raced up the other. There was not much love lost between the two sets of crews. They fought pitched battles with each other with fists and sometimes pick handles when they got the chance.

Harriman and Hill had been business rivals for decades, but in their later years, the rivalry had turned into a real bitter personal feud. It mostly stemmed from an incident in 1901 when Harriman basically tried to pull off a hostile takeover of Hill’s railroad while Hill’s biggest financial backer, J. Pierpoint Morgan, was away on vacation. He nearly succeeded, partially crashing the stock market in the process. After that, the two men cordially hated each other.

Most locals were rooting for Hill; Harriman had earned a reputation in Oregon for doing as little as possible in terms of railroad building. There wasn’t much in the way of business in Oregon beyond timber and agriculture, so once Portland and the Willamette Valley had been taken care of, Harriman had always found other locations more worthwhile to invest in.

What he did do, though, several times, was keep a close eye on any small railroad projects that looked like they might develop into real competition, and scare them off by announcing with great fanfare that the mighty Union Pacific (or Southern Pacific, which he also owned) was about to go into direct competition with them. This happened in 1902 with a planned rail connection to Coos Bay when Harriman went so far as to start construction — including a tunnel near Elkton — before abandoning the project the minute the competition gave up. It had sort of happened in the Deschutes River line, too — Harriman had formed his company, the Des Chutes Railroad, three years before, and announced grand plans to start construction any day. But then nothing had happened until Hill started building his line.

When that happened, Harriman sent his usual contractors, the Twohy Brothers, to start the job; and Hill, who had incorporated his line as the Oregon Trunk, contracted with the Porter Brothers. The rival gangs of men, working sometimes within sight of each other, did everything they could to slow one another down. There were incidents of men taking potshots at the “enemy camp,” not trying to hit anyone but just to make them nervous; if a blasting project could be arranged to throw rocks across the river at the other side’s camp and gear, it would be. (There was a lot of blasting done on both lines, and some of it was truly spectacular; the crews would dig “coyote holes” in the rock, big enough for a man to crawl inside and fill them all the way to the top with blasting powder.) Both crews also snuck around at night trying to stampede one another’s herds of cattle and blow up their reserves of blasting powder — anything to slow the competition down.

(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.)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon, was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.

The lyrics to “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” the song that started people calling cars “bubbles” in the early 1910s:

Young Johnny Steele has an Oldsmobile

He loves his dear little girl

She is the queen of his gas machine

She has his heart in a whirl

Now when they go for a spin, you know,

She tries to learn the auto, so

He lets her steer, while he gets her ear

And whispers soft and low...


Come away with me, Lucille

In my merry Oldsmobile

Down the road of life we’ll fly

Automobubbling, you and I

To the church we’ll swiftly steal

Then our wedding bells will peal

You can go as far as you like with me

In my merry Oldsmobile.

Verse 2:

They love to “spark” in the dark old park

As they go flying along

She says she knows why the motor goes

The “sparker” is awfully strong

Each day they “spoon” to the engine’s tune

Their honeymoon will happen soon

He’ll win Lucille with his Oldsmobile

And then he’ll fondly croon...



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