History, Department of


Date of this Version



Sean Kammer, "The Railroads Must Have Ties: A Legal History of Forest Conservation and the Oregon & California Railroad Land Grant, 1887-1916," 23 Western Legal History 1 (2010).


Copyright ©2010 The Ninth Judicial Circuit Historical Society.


Historians have! for the most part! left unchallenged a similar negative view of Edward H. Harriman, who headed both the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific and was perhaps the most powerful of the railroad tycoons during the first decade of the twentieth century.4 Prior to Harriman's takeover of the Southern Pacific in 1901, that railroad's long-standing policy had been to subdivide and sell lands to farmers, miners, and loggers, the purpose being lito encourage long-term settlement, economic growth, and rail traffic," but Harriman questioned and ultimately rejected this policy.s In January 1903, he ordered the termination of sales of the remaining Southern Pacific land grant, including the heavily timbered lands of the Oregon and California Railroad, which had been a Southern Pacificsubsidiary since 1887. It remains unclear whether Harriman initially intended for this suspension to be temporary in order to allow his men to ascertain fully the nature of his extensive land holdings, or whether this move in fact represented a permanent shift in pohcy.6 What is clear is that by 1905 virtually sales ceased. Local Oregonians, as well as prominent lumber companies and politicians in the state, accused Harriman of undermining Oregon's development, and a political movement there ultimately led the federal government in 1908 to sue Harriman's Oregon & California Railroad for the forfeiture of its unsold lands. At the culmination of a seven-year legal battle, the Supreme Court gave Congress the legal authority to seize the land and to provide for its disposition "in accordance with such policy as it may deem fitting "-and Congress quickly passed the Chamberlain-Ferris Act of 1916, which revested the remaining 2.3 million acres of the grant to the United States. Although historians have, for the most part, accepted the view that Harriman's land policies in Oregon were motivated by his apparently unrivaled speculative spirit, his policies were in fact consistent with utilitarian notions of conservation that he recognized as in keeping with his long-term profit motive.