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~ Kathy M.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Horace and Aurilla Putnam: "The Affair at the Dynamite House"

This week's theme for Sepia Saturday has to do with trains.  This is a long post, but it goes by quickly because most of it is an entertaining and historical story from a book called Tin Pot Alley by Wilfred Brown.  The first part of the post explains who the folks in the story are.  The second part tells about the thwarted railroad plans from Drain to the coast and the danger that remained.  I hope that you will enjoy it and much as I did.   When you are done with this post, please make sure to check out my second one for this week, Sepia Saturday "Building Railroads in Oregon".

Wilfred Brown was my Mom's second cousin. His grandmother, Aurilla Hedrick Putnam was also Mom's great-aunt, sister to her grandfather, Ben Hedrick.  Wilfred's mother was Ethel. Wilfred wrote a book about the Putnam Ranch and it's neighbors in the community of Tin Pot, located three miles west of Drain, Oregon.

"Horace and Aurilla Hedrick Putnam"

 HORACE PUTNAM  Pass Creek Precinct, Douglas Count
The son of Charles Frederick Putnam Sr., Horace Greeley Putnam is listed as 48 OR KY MO, born April 26, 1852, a farmer who has been married for 22 years.  Horace was born in Benton, Oregon April 26, 1852 and will die in Putnam Valley, Oregon December 24, 1936. 

AURILLA  PUTNAM, Pass Creek Precinct, Douglas Count
His wife Aurilla Maria Hedrick is 45 OR TN IN, born December 11 1854, who has had three children born to her, of which all survive.  Aurilla Maria Hedrick was daughter of John Hedrick and Louisa Jane Jackson. She was born in Drain, Douglas County Oregon on December 11, 1854 and died there May 28, 1935.  

John and Louisa Hedrick remembered the United Bretheren Church when Phiomath College, near Corvallis, was founded in 1865. They had little money, but their gift of $400 was quite substantial for those days. Their eldest daughter, Aurilla, later attended Philomath, and became the first Drain teacher.

Horace and Aurilla were married here July 11, 1878.  Their children are: Chester H. 19 OR, born in June of 1880, Ethel 17 OR, born in September of 1882, and Louisa 12 OR, born June 27, 1887. 

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy ~ Kathy Matthews
Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy ~ Kathy Matthews

Tin Pot Valley, Chapter XIX 

Wilfred Brown

"The Affair at the Dynamite House"

Grandpa Putnam and I were fixing fence across Elk Creek when he paused, hammer in mid-air, and listened.  We heard voices -- shouting and loud laughter.

"It sounds like," he said, "there's someone down at the Dynamite House."

The Dynamite House -- which Grandpa repeatedly warned the children to never go near to -- was an amazing relic of an amazing debacle of engineering and fairly high finance.  It stood, a little unpainted structure with door ajar, a few yards from the Tin Pot road a quarter mile or so down-stream from where we were working.

"If you so much as stomp on the ground outside," Grandpa had warned us, "the whole thing might blow up and blow us to smithereens!"

Once when I crossed the swinging bridge to get the mail, I cautiously tip-toed up to the Dynamite House and peered inside, in the half-darkness I saw piled-up wooden boxes, the ones closest to the door half-filled with sawdust and round, brownish sticks that looked like giant candles.  One glimpse, and I tip-toed away, then ran for my life, fearful that the Dynamite House might blow up at any minute.

It dated from a period of intense activity that had swept down along Elk Creek through Tin Pot Valley a few years earlier.  The Oregon Western Railroad, a Southern Pacific subsidiary, bought right-of-way for a short-line to connect the interior of Oregon with the rich but isolated Coos Bay region.

The route was the easiest possible, considering that no railroad building in Oregon could be easy -- from Drain down Elk Creek to its union with the Umpqua at Elkton, then down the Umpqua to its mouth at Reedsport, and south along the ocean to Coos Bay -- a water-grade route all the way, with no mountains to climb.

Horse-drawn scrapers moved down Elk Creek by the score, and men in various work crews by the hundreds, as the grade for the railroad took shape.  Concrete was poured into wooden forms for piers for bridges and trestles.  They still may be seen, here and there, almost hidden by brush and blackberry vines.

The right-of-way skirted the hills at the edge of the Putnam Ranch.  Near the Jack Creek crossing Horace Putnam and George Hedrick deeded the site for a siding and station to be called Putnam.  They hardly expected a town to grow up around it, as occurred after Charles Drain donated the site for another station and siding years earlier.  But it was a nice prospect -- a railroad station bearing the family name.

Source: Drain, Oregon History
Ahead of the other workers went the dynamite men, with supplies from the little warehouse at the Putnam Ranch.  Their tremendous earth-shaking blasts shattered rocks and ripped out enormous tree stumps from the right-of-way.  At Hancock Mountain, which rises steeply from Elk Creek near Elkton, they started blasting through a tunnel.

And then, after more than a year of construction and destruction, and several million dollars in spending, all work on the railroad abruptly ceased.  The scrapers and the cement crews and all the outside workers departed.  The roadway-scar down the valley became the base for a county road that exists today as State Highway 38.  Some 40 years after it was started and abandoned, the tunnel was blasted the rest of the way through Hancock Mountain for the passage of automobile traffic.  The site of the Putnam siding and railroad station returned to field and pasture.

But the Dynamite House, and its contents, remained.  A foreman Horace Putnam talked with during the removal of the construction equipment said a special crew would come later to remove the explosives.  But months -- and years -- passed, and no one came, in spite of numerous reminders to the S.P. station agent at Drain.

And the reason for abandoning the railroad after such an extensive beginning?  The Southern Pacific, through its subsidiary, promptly started another line to the coast from Eugene, 40 miles north.  This line was much more of a project, for it had to cross the rugged Coast Range of mountains.  It reached the ocean at Florence, at the mouth of the Siuslaw River, then followed the coastline south through the Lower Umpqua country to Coos Bay.

One story was that the S.P. changed its route to the coast to forestall the building of a line west by a Union Pacific subsidiary.  The S.P. doubtlessly found ways to absorb the costs of the Drain-Tin Pot fiasco, in those days when the railroad was said to operate the states of Oregon and California as two other of its subsidiaries.

Around Drain there also was talk that some pretty big money raised in Eugene changed hands to help bring about the route change.  With dreams of greater days fading, the town scored a victory, of sorts, over the S.P.  Quick action by the town council extended the city limits to include land where a million dollars worth of steel rails were piled up to await laying o ties of the railroad that never happened.  The maneuver put them on the Drain city tax roll for the next fiscal year.

The Dynamite House bore two formidable signs, both long-weathered and so faded that they could hardly be read.  One warned of the deadly nature of the building's contents.  The other cautioned that it was railroad property, and that trespassers would be prosecuted to the full extent of law -- whatever that was. Someone, some time, had pried off the clasp of the padlocked door, and in defiance of the double warnings perhaps taken a few sticks of dynamite.  Incredible as it may seem, the rest remained as the railroad builders left it.  The main reason, probably, was that most people were afraid of the stuff -- though perhaps few feared it the extent of Grandma Putnam.  Folks also probably feared the railroad detectives, who, like the Mounties of Canada, were said to always get their men.  And in those days there might not have been much pilfering.

When we heard shouting and loud laughter from the Dynamite House, Grandpa and I left our fence job and went to investigate.  What we saw was amazing.  The door of the little building was wide open.  Inside, Luke Morrison and Tillie, his bride of a few months, both laughing hysterically, were pelting each other with sticks of dynamite from the open boxes.

Grandpa turned quickly to me.  "Get out of here!" he shouted. "Run -- and keep running!"

I took off at top speed, and didn't check to see how closely he was following until I was over a fence and up the county road, nearly a quarter a mile away.  Then I turned and saw Grandpa and the Morrisons walking toward me.  Behind them, the Dynamite House still stood, its door closed.

Tillie was telling Grandpa how it started, as they came into hearing:  "We was out for a walk.  I'd wondered about that little house -- and we went down there to look around.  I -- I dunno why, but I just suddenly felt and urge -- and I picked up one of them big sticks and tossed it toward Luke.  I thought he'd catch it!"

"I was flabbergasted," said Luke.  I ducked and it bounced off my shoulder.  And I guess I just done what come nactherly.  I picked up another stick and heaved it back.  And then we was really at it!"

"Didn't you know that you were apt to blow everything to Kingdom Come?"  Grandpa asked Tillie, "So there wouldn't even be a grease spot in the grass left of you?"

Tillie blushed.  She was a bit more than plump in build.  "Gosh, no, Mr. Putnam, we never though of anything like that!"

"We you better find your fun somewhere else!"  He winked at Luke and suggested, "Like in bed."  Tillie's face was beet-red when we parted.

It was quite a story we had to tell Grandma, when we came in to dinner.  She scowled and her mouth firmed in a tight line as she listened.

"That does it!" she declared.  "We've fooled around all we're going to with those people up there in Drain.  We're going all the way to the top!"  And Grandma marched over to the telephone on the sitting room wall and rang Central.

"I want to talk to the President of the Southern Pacific Railroad," she said.  "Where is he?  Well -- I don't know, for sure, but I'm sure he's got a telephone and he'd better listen, because I've got a lot to say to him.  It's about his dynamite ... Well, you might try Eugene to start."

I was astonished.  I new it cost extra money to talk long-distance, and I'd never heard Grandma do that before.  But I could see that she was plenty mad.

She repeated to the railroad offices in Eugene her demand to talk to the President about his dynamite, and got passed around from office to office to office without getting past the start of her story.  Finally they connected her with some sort of an assistant superintendent who listened.

"We've kept your dynamite long enough!" Grandma declared.  "We've been put off and put off and put off by your people in Drain, and we want it taked off our place -- right away!"

From the other end of the line came questions, Grandma told us later, about just where was the dynamite and how it got there.  And then the statement that the explosives didn't belong to the S.P. but to the Oregon Western Railroad, which started and abandoned the line from Drain -- and that a letter would be written from that office to someone in an O.W. office to ask that someone look into the matter.

"Listen!" said Grandma, "We've been getting that sort of talk for years, and we've had enough of it!  I understand you own the Oregon Western Railroad.  I've heard tell that you own the State House at Salem and everybody in it.  But you don't own the Putnam Ranch, and we're through with keeping your dynamite!"

By this time Grandma was really getting warmed up.

"Someone broke into your house and stole some of it, and children are carrying off sticks of your dynamite to all over the valley and using them for playthings!"  I gasped.  So far as I know, that was the first and only time she ever tampered with the truth.

The railroad man obviously was trying to say something.  "You keep quite and listen to me!" said Grandma.  "You get someone down here to take that dynamite away!  Tomorrow! Or my husband and brother are going to haul it to Drain and pile it up right in the middle of your station house!"

Grandpa tried to interrupt, alarmed by the prospect Grandma was cutting out for him.  But it was too late.  Grandma said "Good-bye!" and hung up.  Then she added:  "And now let's eat dinner before it get's cold."  Grandpa wasn't one to let the morrow's prospect spoil today's dinner.

Just after breakfast the next morning a man in a one-horse buggy rented at Drain drove up to the front gate.

"I'm Mr. Stephens of the Southern Pacific," he said.  "I'm here to see about that dynamite you folks are getting tired of keeping.

Grandma stared at the light buggy.  "You're not going to haul it away in that?"

Stephens laughed.  "Oh, no.  Dynamite becomes very unstable when it gets old, so even a small jar could set if off."

I thought about Luke and Tillie, merrily pelting each other with sticks of the stuff in the Dynamite House the day before.

"It wouldn't be safe to try to move it," Stephens continued, "so I'm just going to blow it up."

Grandma held onto the door frame for support.  That was a possibility she hadn't considered. "And blow up our house, too?" she said, weakly.

"Oh, no!"  Stephens told her.  "It may make quite a jolt, but you're far enough off so you're not likely to have any damage if you take precautions.

The precautions, he explained, included opening every window at top and bottom, so that the glass wouldn't be broken by the shock-waves, and moving any dishes or other breakables that might be shaken off tables or shelves.  He had a cup of coffee on the front porch with Grandpa, while Grandma and I went about each room taking precautions.

Mr. Stephens, look at this watch when we'd finished.  "Listen for a big bang in exactly one hour," he said as he left, "and you'll be rid of our dynamite.  thanks for keeping it for us."  He declined Grandpa's offer to go along with him.

Fifty minutes later Grandma took me into her bedroom and made me get under the bed, while she lay down on top of the covers.  Grandpa refused to join us, and waited in a front-porch rocking chair.

Exactly one hour after Mr. Stephens left the biggest bang I ever heard rattled the windows, shook the house and set roosters to crowing in the chicken yard.  We had no damage.

Mr. Stephen had removed his fence-rail roadblocks and departed by the time Grandpa and I crossed the swinging bridge to look at the place where the Dynamite House had stood.  A hole in the ground, a foot or so deep, and scattered bits of charred boards and shakes were all that remained, along with a strange, sweetish-acrid smell.  Down the road we saw Luke and Tillie, hand-in-hand to take a look.

"Quite a change in scenery!" said Luke, as they stared in awe.

"And you can see now what you came close to being right in the middle of," said Grandpa.

"I sure wouldn't be a grease spot on the grass," said Tillie, "cause there ain't any grass left!" And she giggled.

(Pages 119 - 127)

I can't believe that I found this You Tube video.  It shows what the area looks like now and talks about the railroad line that was never completed:

So, there you are, my friends.  If you enjoyed this story, please visit my Sepia Saturday friends by "CLICKING HERE" to find other neat photos and stories.  To read more about my family and other stories featuring old photos, memories and more, please look for this picture of me and my dad on the left-hand sidebar and read whatever else catches your fancy.  Thanks so much for visiting!

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy ~ Kathy Matthews

At Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy, if you miss a day, you miss a lot!  All material on this post is copyrighted and not for use without my permission ...Please click here to go to my home page and see what is happening in Mayberry today.  Protected by Copyscape Duplicate Content Check


Little Nell said...

‘Explosive’ stuff Kathy! I’m constantly amazed at the way you pull such an interesting post from all the family documents.

Bob Scotney said...

Kathy, you keep coming up with amazing stories about your family. Very interesting read.

(Queenmothermamaw) Peggy said...

What luck to find that video. A wonderful story. My town was once the mid stop between the north and south. Thank goodness the town has worked very hard to grow and take advantage of all the history and not be a product of the bypass phenominum.

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

What an amazing story, interesting from start to finish!

Anonymous said...

All I can say is WOW! That is a great story!

barbara and nancy said...

That was fascinating! I thought it was going to be too long for the amount of time I had but pretty soon I was hooked. You've gotta love Grandma. Sometimes it takes a woman to get things done when the men have given up! Sorry, guys, but I'm just sayin'.

barbara and nancy said...

I left a comment but the place to log in was in an odd spot and I don't know whether it worked or not. I usually don't have to log in. I'm confused. Loved the story and especially loved Grandma.

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

Thanks, everybody! I am so glad that you read all the way through. Nancy, I don't know why it made you do that, I didn't change anything on my end.


Alan Burnett said...

My first comment seems to have got blown off course, so here's a second try! What I did say was that this is a wonderful story and fully deserves being given the kind of world-wide audience only the internet can provide, the scale of which Wilfred Brown would have found astonishing.

Teresa Wilson Rogers said...

"Dynamite" story! I know you were just waiting for a train/railroad theme to tell this one! I loved the part where they were pelting each other with the dynamite sticks - crazy stuff. Thanks for sharing.

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