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Offbeat Oregon History

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

Continued From Last Week

At one point, Oregon Trunk Railroad president John Stevens (Hill’s top lieutenant on the job) learned the Twohy Brothers had built a wagon road across a 230-acre parcel of private land to access the nearest water supply. Stevens promptly bought the land — actually, he just bought an option on it, but it came with some property rights, which gave him the right to fence it off and hang “No Trespassing” signs everywhere, and station armed guards.

The Twohy Brothers complained to the sheriff, who came out to the scene with a county judge and some other notables to try to negotiate peace. But some of the Porter Brothers’ workers got excited and started a big knock-down-drag-out in which the battling crews jumped the sheriff and judge and chased their horses off into the hills. This, naturally, did not help their cause in court a little later; the Des Chutes crews ended up getting their access restored.

Another memorable event happened when the Porter Brothers learned that a “blind pig” (illegal saloon) had gone into business with a huge barrel of alcohol close by their workers’ camp, and consequently, everyone was blind drunk all the time and no work was getting done.

Johnson Porter told the subcontractor to get all his men away from the blind pig for the next few hours. Then, calling for Jim Morrell, the “bubble skinner,” he asked if the bubble was ready.

It was.

Morrell drove Porter out to a rocky outcropping just behind the blind pig, which was located in a tent near the canyon wall. Some distance away, they could see the tents where the moonshiners slept. Porter got three sticks of dynamite which he had tied together, lit the fuse, and threw it into the tent with the blind pig in it. Then he hurried back to the car and they drove away. Behind them, a nice satisfying explosion shook the canyon walls.

Later that day, Morrell saw the bootleggers trudging out of the canyon to the stage station, carrying their bags. The explosion had burst their barrel and spilled all the booze; they were out of business.

The Railroad War burned hot and fierce for most of that year, but then something happened to change things:

Harriman died. He succumbed to stomach cancer at the age of 61 in mid-September of 1909.

After that, the two crews mostly stopped feuding. They even helped each other out from time to time and agreed to share some bits of right-of-way. With the drama out of the picture, the two crews were able to focus on their work, and passenger service to Bend on the new railroad lines started in November 1911.

(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.


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