Friday, October 21, 2016

Cattlemen Chided for Missing Opportunities, Railroad Optimism on Camas Prairie [otd 10/21]

The October 21, 1879 issue of the Idaho Statesman (Boise, then the Idaho Tri-Weekly Statesman) editorialized about the opportunities being neglected by many Idaho stockmen: “During the present summer several large herds of cattle have been sold in this section of Idaho to Eastern dealers and driven to Cheyenne and other points on the railroad... There is nothing whatever to prevent our cattle raisers from marketing their own stock and pocketing all that can be made in the business … ”
Cattle on the move. National Park Service.
He went on, “Another mistake which stock raisers make in this country is in keeping cattle of marketable age over the winter...  If cattle raisers would adopt the plan of driving and shipping their own stock and disposing each season of all the cattle ready for market they would not only save all that the outside dealer makes by the buying and driving, but they would also save all that is liable to be lost by keeping too many cattle over winter.”

Still, while they might not be maximizing their opportunity (and income), this and other reports made a key point: During the 1870’s, Idaho Territory experienced substantial growth in its stock raising industry. A net importer of cattle in 1870, by 1880 the Territory was exporting 50 to 70 thousand head annually.

Those 1880 numbers were not huge, but they suggested a trend: In the new century, Idaho shipped cattle, and sheep especially, far in excess of what could be expected for its small population. Today, it is ranked in the top ten in livestock sales and dairy products, despite being 39th in population.

On October 21, 1887, the Idaho County Free Press (Grangeville) reported, “The O. R. & N. Co. has filed articles of incorporation for the building of two more railroads from Lewiston to Camas Prairie. One of them is to end here and the other is to go on to Salmon River and up to the mouth of Little Salmon. When all three projected roads are built there won't be room enough for us fellows with big feet to turn around without falling over the rails.”

The article refers to the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company, which locals hoped would soon lay tracks into Grangeville. Of course, Lewiston itself had no railroad connection at the time. However, citizens believed that would come soon. After all, OR&N survey teams were busy checking routes along the Clearwater River and its tributaries. Moreover, one team had penetrated deep into the Bitterroots, searching for a usable pass into Montana.
Train leaving Lewiston, 1898.
“Archive” photo posted by Lewiston High School.

Unfortunately, the report was wildly too optimistic. It’s not clear that the OR&N ever laid any track in Idaho, although it may have run trains there many years later. But “hope springs eternal,” and through the early 1890s, people in Lewiston and on the prairie waited expectantly for construction to begin. But the first passenger train did not arrive in Lewiston until September 1898, over a decade after the hopeful Free Press announcement. 

Another decade would pass before rail lines actually surmounted the Camas Prairie, the first train arriving in Grangeville in December 1908. Only then could the area make a substantial transition from stock raising – products that could “walk to market” – to farming.

Today, the Prairie is a major producer of grain and other farm products.

[To learn more about the history of stock raising in Idaho, check out my book, Before the Spud: Indians, Buckaroos, and Sheepherders in Pioneer Idaho.]
                                                                                                                                     
References: [Illust-North]
M. Alfreda Elsensohn, Eugene F. Hoy (ed.), Pioneer Days in Idaho County, Caxton Printers, Caldwell, Idaho (1951).
J. Orin Oliphant, On the Cattle Ranges of the Oregon Country, University of Washington Press, Seattle (1968).

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