Old Detroit’s Fight to Retain the Southern Pacific Railroad

From the founding of Old Detroit in 1889, the Southern Pacific Railroad embodied the economic and social lifeblood of this community. Residents relied on the railway to transport their goods and connect their town with the greater Willamette Valley. However, in 1945, the United States Government and the Southern Pacific Company almost decimated Old Detroit’s economic prosperity when they decided to abandon the Mill City Branch Railroad. However, Detroit’s business community resisted and ultimately petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission to rule that the U.S. should relocate the rail line.

Built along the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1889, residents of Old Detroit relied on this railway to transport them and their lumber to the rest of the Willamette Valley.[1] Detroit’s business owners, such as Edna Mattoon, recognized that their community depended “upon the railroad for its existence.”[2] However, between 1945 and 1946, the United States Government purchased the Mill City Branch Railroad from the Southern Pacific Company and refused to relocate the line, citing financial concerns.[3] This refusal and Detroit’s subsequent petitions to have the railway moved ultimately became one of the catalysts that determined the economic future of this community after its inundation.[4]

  Beginning in 1945, the Federal Government sought to buy the sections of the Mill City Branch Railroad that would be flooded by the new Detroit Reservoir but opposed relocating these soon-to-be submerged railways.[5] In a purchase agreement with the Southern Pacific Company, the United States argued that the “relocation of the said portion of the” railroad would “involve a large expenditure of public funds” that could not be “economically justified.”[6] Instead, American government officials believed businesses and residents who relied on the rail line should use the newly constructed North Santiam Highway to transport their goods and access other markets in the Willamette Valley.[7] By refusing to relocate the railroad, the United States prioritized fiscal responsibility above the economic and financial welfare of Detroit’s residents.[8] This decision ultimately led to many citizens petitioning the Federal Government and the Southern Pacific Company to move the railway, culminating in a court case before the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC).[9]

Old Detroit’s business community responded to the Federal Government’s refusal to relocate the Mill City Branch Railroad by employing Attorney Walter H. Bell to represent them at the 1946 ICC hearing.[10] Bell reasoned that the United States would pay around $1,366,709.00 to purchase the abandoned railway from the Southern Pacific Company and construct a new “forest road” near Blowout Creek “along the southside of the reservoir” that would be connected to the “main road on the north bank.”[11] However, he also suggested that if the American government relocated the railroad, they would save an estimated $12,790,750 and allow Detroit’s business community to retain access to a valuable transportation system.[12] Bell implied that the Federal Government could economically justify spending around $1,500,000.00 to move the Mill City Branch railway.[13] One question remains: did the Interstate Commerce Commission order the United States to relocate the railroad?[14]

 Based on the evidence presented by Walter H. Bell, the ICC ruled that the Federal Government and the Southern Pacific Company must move the Mill City Branch railway and not discontinue operations at the current site until the relocation process is completed.[15] It seemed like Detroit’s business community would ultimately retain access to the railroad.[16] However, an August 1949 Mill City Enterprise newspaper suggested otherwise, stating that neither the U.S. nor the Southern Pacific Company would move the railway.[17] Instead, they expected that Detroit’s business community would use the new North Santiam Highway to transport their goods.[18]


[1] Bob H. Reinhardt, “Drowned Towns in the Cold War West: Small Communities and Federal Water Projects,” Western Historical Quarterly 42, no.2 (Summer 2011), 162-163; Bob Reinhardt, “City of Detroit,” Oregon Historical Society, last modified September 12, 2022, https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/city_of_detroit/

[2] Edna Mattoon to The District Engineer, April 18, 1946, National Archives and Records Administration.

[3] United States Army Corps of Engineers, Option to United States of America from Southern Pacific Company, 1945-1946, 2.

[4] Edna Mattoon to The District Engineer, April 18, 1946, National Archives and Records Administration; United States Army Corps of Engineers, Option to United States of America from Southern Pacific Company, 1945-1946, 2.

[5] United States Army Corps of Engineers, Option to United States of America from Southern Pacific Company, 1945-1946, 2.

[6] United States Army Corps of Engineers, Option to United States of America from Southern Pacific Company, 1945-1946, 2.

[7] United States Army Corps of Engineers, Option to United States of America from Southern Pacific Company, 1945-1946, 2.

[8] United States Army Corps of Engineers, Option to United States of America from Southern Pacific Company, 1945-1946, 2.

[9] Interstate Commerce Commission, Finance Docket No. 15233, 1946, 11-12.

[10] Interstate Commerce Commission, Finance Docket No. 15233, 1946, 11-12.

[11] Interstate Commerce Commission, Finance Docket No. 15233, 1946, 8, 11.

[12] Interstate Commerce Commission, Finance Docket No. 15233, 1946, 16-17.

[13] Interstate Commerce Commission, Finance Docket No. 15233, 1946, 19.

[14] Interstate Commerce Commission, Finance Docket No. 15233: Southern Pacific Company Abandonment, 10.

[15] Interstate Commerce Commission, Finance Docket No. 15233: Southern Pacific Company Abandonment, 10.

[16] Interstate Commerce Commission, Finance Docket No. 15233: Southern Pacific Company Abandonment, 10.

[17] “Railroad Above Gates Draws Toward Its Logging Finale,” The Mill City Enterprise, August 11, 1949.

[18]  “Railroad Above Gates Draws Toward Its Logging Finale,” The Mill City Enterprise, August 11, 1949.


Old Detroit Split By Railroad. Courtesy of the North Santiam Historical Society.
Old Detroit Railroad Before 1900. Courtesy of the North Santiam Historical Society.
Railroad Through Detroit. Courtesy of North Santiam Historical Society.

Location


Further Reading

  • Reinhardt, Bob H., “Drowned Towns in the Cold War West: Small Communities and Federal Water Projects,” Western Historical Quarterly 42, no.2 (Summer 2011): 149-172.
  • Reinhardt, Bob. “City of Detroit,” Oregon Historical Society. Last Modified September 12, 2022. https://www.oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/city_of_detroit/
  • Edna Mattoon to The District Engineer, April 18, 1946, National Archives and Records Administration.
  • United States Army Corps of Engineers. Option to United States of America from Southern Pacific Company, 1945-1946.
  • Interstate Commerce Commission. Finance Docket No. 15233, 1946.
  • Interstate Commerce Commission. Finance Docket No. 15233: Southern Pacific Company Abandonment.
  • “Railroad Above Gates Draws Toward Its Logging Finale,” The Mill City Enterprise, August 11, 1949.

Citation Info

Mills, Rebecca. “Old Detroit’s Fight to Retain the Southern Pacific Railroad.” The Atlas of Drowned Towns (blog). November 6, 2023.

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