Early settlers claimed the land that became Portland in 1843 and by 1849, the town had grown large enough to establish a Post Office. New settlers sailed up the coast from California to the Columbia River and then up the Willamette River for a short way to get to Portland. The other alternative for getting to and from Portland was to brave the elements and travel overland by wagon train.
Ben Holladay, who was born in Kentucky in 1819, moved from Missouri to California in 1852 to operate 2,670 miles of stage lines. In 1861, he won a postal contract to Salt Lake City, Utah and he established the Overland Stage Route. He acquired the Pony Express in 1862. The “Stagecoach King” as he became known, added six more routes and eventually sold them to Wells Fargo in 1866 for $1.5 million. He built a transportation empire that included steamships and railroads.
Railroad History in Oregon began when Ben Holladay turned his attention to building railroads and moved to Portland in 1868. Holladay started building the Oregon Central Railroad in 1869 along the Willamette River from Portland south for 20 miles. This qualified the Railroad for land grants in California, whereupon the name soon changed to the Oregon & California Railroad. After winning a federal subsidy, he was able to extend the railroad as far south as Roseburg, Oregon. After the stock market collapsed in the financial panic of 1873, Holladay lost his fortune and struggled to continue operating. It took eight years for construction to resume.
In 1874, Henry Villard, who represented German bondholders, traveled to America and took control of the line in 1876 after Holladay was behind on bond interest payments. Villard resumed construction several years later. In 1887, the line was completed over the Siskiyou Summit where it connected with the Southern Pacific Railroad and they assumed control of operation of the railroad. Politics and legal wrangling delayed the actual sale to Southern Pacific until January 3, 1927.
After leaving the railroad, Holladay moved back to Portland, where he began operating Oregon’s first horse-drawn streetcars along First Street in 1872. His streetcars became very popular and his operation expanded and grew, adding more lines and streetcars as well as fresh horses. Other operators and competitors began building lines to other parts of the city, making the foundation for one of America’s most successful streetcar systems. Holladay died in 1887, and two years later Portland’s first electric streetcar began operation across the Steel Bridge to the town of Albina in 1889. The last horsecar run was on June 20, 1892 when all the city’s lines were electrified.
Rail service from Portland to the east opened in 1883 when the Oregon Railroad and Navigation Company, which went east of Portland along the Columbia River, connected with the Northern Pacific Railroad at Wallula Junction, which is south of Tri-Cities, Washington.
A second transcontinental railroad opened in 1884 when the OR&N connected with the Oregon Short Line and the Union Pacific at Huntington, Oregon.
Railroads grew in popularity and eventually they became the preferred method of travel, in the days before airplanes and busses. Northern Pacific, Union Pacific, Great Northern and Southern Pacific all served Portland with passenger and freight service.