Home

THE WINNING OF THE TRANS-CONTINENTAL

A STORY OF THE PACIFIC COAST

BY WILLIAM MCLEOD RAINE

AS Jim Messiter walked down River Front Avenue and tasted the Salt Chinook which swept across the bay and mingled with the odor of the new sawn fir, it struck him with a sharp glow of pleasure that life had never before held so much of interest for him. He looked over the town which he had done so much to make, and it seemed to him that his work was good. The distinguishing features of the town were its rawness and rustle, but to Jim it had the germ of perfection. Its very newness and crudeness were proof of its vitality and quick life. It was typical of the West - pushing, self-assertive, public-spirited. Fortunes were to be made and lost in a month. Already it was almost cosmopolitan in its citizens, and it was just six months old.

Surely Messiter liked the town no less because it liked him. He had deserved well of the town, had pushed it insistently in season and out of season, and had stood by it manfully when the rival "city" across the bay had been backed by a certain coast railroad company and had almost beaten Willapa Bend out of existence. He had been the spokesman of the delegation which had waited on the president and board of directors of the great Trans-Continental Railroad to show them why Willapa Bend should be the terminus of their line, and he had done his work so well that he had shaken the president's already formed verdict in favor of Inverness. When the committee filed into the room, Willapa Bend had not one chance in a thousand; but before they left, Messiter knew that the matter would not be decided without a more thorough investigation. Partly on acount of what he had done for the town and partly because of his native qualifications, the Board of Trade had asked him to stand for the nomination for State senator.

Jim viewed the town very much as a young father views his first-born. Never was such a town, in Jim's opinion. Every evidence of young and vigorous activity filled him with a sense of personal pride and pleasure.

Up the river, a mile above him, the giant dredger "Anaconda" was working like a thing alive, tearing from the river bottom the accumulated sand and mud of ages and dropping it on flatboats, which were towed by wheezy little tugs across the tide flats to deposit their loads on the flats and thereby snatch from the sea another bit of ground valuable for mills and warehouses. At the water's edge great pile-drivers pounded away with a steady thump - thump - thump on the cedar posts which were to form the groundwork for a big ocean wharf. A hundred men were at work on the "Willapa," a hundred-thousand-dollar hotel in process of erection, and from it drifted the busy hum of hammer and saw. Behind the hotel a big hill was succumbing to hydraulic pressure, and a steady stream of mud and water poured down into the tide flats below.

All around him and up the street, which ran parallel with the river, houses, stores, hotels, and warehouses were going up as fast as their owneers could send them. Some hundred yards below, two saw-mills were running night and day in a vain attempt to supply the needs of the growing town. Below the mills, a salmon-canning factory was already in operation. Some dories just in were unloading at the factory wharf; a ship floating the Union Jack was coming into the harbor two miles out, while a Dutch lumber schooner passed her on the way out to sea.

The town was still in the midst of its first "boom," but every man, woman, and child there took pride in it, and believed loyally that the town was to be a big city in the near future. Men were passing to and fro quietly, buying and selling in a business-like way. Not a man who was not busy; not one who did not believe he was on the high road to fortune; everywhere rustle, life, and hope: a new country in the making. At least that was how Messiter saw it as he turned into the offices of the company, and his opinion went for a good deal among people who knew him.

He was a well-set-up young fellow, and worth a second look, not because he was pretty or handsome - for he was neither. His mouth was too large, and his features were altogether too irregular. The thing that impressed a stranger was his clean-blooded vitality. He showed alertness and vigor in every movement of his healthy, athletic body. There was something about the lines of his mouth and the expression of his shrewd, humorous eyes that showed determination and fertility of resource. Altogether, the kind of fellow who is never more dangerous than when he is apparently beaten.

On his desk were a dozen letters from people in the East who wanted to know all about Willapa Bend, from the average summer temperature to the altitude of the bay at that point. But Jim Messiter tossed these aside and settled himself expectantly to read a letter in a square envelope bearing the monogram "E. D." on the seal. One paragraph he read over several times. Like its writer, it was as direct and frank as a man:

If I seem to put the case brutally, you will pardon me, and will remember that you have insisted on my speaking frankly. I do not see how the situation has changed since I answered you before. I cannot help feeling that you deliberately ran away from your responsibilities and duties when you buried yourself in the West. You had an honorable career awaiting you here, and you threw it up to go wandering. I do not see any reason to modify my previous judgment in regard to your present course. Leaving out entirely the morality of it, speculating in "boom" towns cannot be regarded as a serious business in life, worthy of a man who has the opportunities that you have had and still have. So far as I can judge, your philosophy of life seems to be about the same that it used to be when you were at college, and then you regarded it as a huge joke.

Believe me, I do not intend to hurt you needlessly, but frankness is better for us both, as you say. Unless you can convince me that you are honestly and seriously grappling with the work of life, my resolution must remain unchanged. If you can show me I am mistaken, none of your friends will be so quick to rejoice with you as I.

Sincerely, EDITH DELAFIELD.

Messiter strolled to the door, an anxious, harassed look on his square-jawed, boyish face. Again his eye wandered over the place, and again it seemed to him that he was doing something worth while. He was in the thick of life - in the heart of a big thing, he admitted to himself impartially, with an air of satisfaction. He had an American's appreciation of the man who does things, and he did not attempt to deny to himself that he was proud of what he was doing. He had got to make Edith see it in that way, even if he had to go to New York to do so. Through the lines of the letter he could read the admission that she cared for him, if only her conscience would approve of him and his course of life.

He sat down at his desk, and wrote an immediate answer. First he told her of what he was doing and of the busy life around him. Then he read over what he had written, and proceeded to justify himself. In conclusion he wrote:

The world is not bounded by the State lines of New York, and a man can get as much work to do in the West as he can well handle, notwithstanding the prevailing impression in the Empire State that a resident of the West is practically out of the world.

I certainly am not "booming" this town for the money there is to be made in fleecing innocent buyers. You know me better than that. If I were following the career you suggest for me, I should be at the present time a member of a firm of corporation lawyers. To open up a new and rich country is a more serviceable work in my opinion. The country out here is rough and raw, but it contains wonderful possibilities, and I do not think that the pioneers who are giving themselves to its development can be said to be skulkers in life's battle. I believe in this country and this town. I intend to stay here, and I am not trying to induce working people to invest their money in what I know to be a cheat and a lie.

I cannot hope to make you feel about this as I who am in the thick of it do; but if you could see the progress we have made, the tide flats that have been reclaimed, the forests that have been cleared, and the homes that are being built, I feel sure that you would not think it useless and futile. It is, of course, rank, material progress; but may it not also be that we are founding another great State for the nation? I have been asked to stand for the State senate. For the next week we shall be straining every nerve to get the terminus of the Trans-Continental for our town. Whatever else I am doing, I am not trifling. It is the work I am best fitted for. Yet if I do not get one little girl in New York to believe in it and me - You have got to believe in me and the town, for we are both tremendously in earnest. I cannot leave my work now, but may I not come later, say next month? May I not, dear?

 JAMES MESSITER.

He was just finishing the address when two visitors dropped into the office. One of them was the man who wanted to be governor. He introduced his companion as "Mr. Roberts, looking for a site for some mills. Thought he ought to see your town, Mr. Messiter."

"It's the only town he needs to see. A lumberman has a better chance here than in any other place in the State, and that means in the world," retorted Messiter promptly and as a matter of course.

"Aren't you too modest about your town?" asked the politician dryly. Throughout the day he continued to speak of Willapa Bend as "your town," and Messiter accepted the compliment as an evidence of the politician's discernment.

Presently, as they bowled over the planked roads in a surrey, Messiter found himself reeling out by the yard facts, figures, and prophecies as to the town and surrounding country. The politician occasionally helped him out with a remark, for he wanted Messiter's help in a political way at the coming convention; but the mill-owner smoked his cigar stolidly, except for an occasional sharp, pertinent question.

"I tell you, sir, this town is bound to grow; nothing can keep it back. The proposition is just this: we have practically the only good harbor between 'Frisco and Puget Sound. Why, sir, the 'City of Panama' got caught in that February storm just at the mouth of the Columbia River; tried to cross the bar, and was nearly beaten to pieces; beat her way up to the bay here, and came in handy as you please. No, sir, Portland isn't in it as a seaport town. Then we tap one of the richest lumber districts in the world - and practically untouched. The lumber is easy of access, and can be floated down the river. You saw it right on the water's edge, load it from your own wharves, and send it all over the world. The supply of lumber is practically unlimited, too. I don't need to talk to you about the salmon industry or our farming resources, because they talk for themselves. And the climate"

"I am not coming for my health," laughed Roberts. Then he flicked the ashes from his cigar and said tentatively: "I think of locating at Inverness."

"Inverness! Well, if you're looking for a quiet, healthful sort of sanitarium, where your nerves will get a chance to rest, that's the place for you. It's dead-dead and buried. The only live things they have there are mills and promoters."

Roberts eyed him with an amused smile as he said slowly:" Willapa Bend's got a few promoters too.

Messiter laughed quietly at the hit. "Oh, yes, I'm a promoter all right; but it happens I've got something to promote. This town will be a city of 50,000 inhabitants in five years. I may be a promoter, but I am the kind that means to stay by the town. Generally speaking, the difference between us and Inverness is that they believe in their town because they are pushing it, and we push ours because we believe in it."

"Well, if I decide to locate here I hope your town will grow," said Roberts doubtfully.

"I don't think there is any doubt about that," answered Messiter. "Inverness is going to grow, too, but nothing like as fast as Willapa Bend. If I told you what I really

thought, I should say one hundred thousand would be about our size in five years."

"That's the advantage of having an imagination. You can prophesy without being hampered by facts," said the other dryly.

"That's all right. The facts are going to justify me. You wait and see. Six months ago this town consisted of one lone cabin and a cow-path leading to it through the timber. That was the whole outfit. You see it now - two saw-mills, canning factory, ten-thousand-dollar school projected, hundred-thousand hotel being built, lots anywhere from two hundred to a thousand apiece. If we can do that in six months, what can we do in ten years?"

"Well! I confess I like the outlook. I believe you'll make a town out of it. But I want to go slow. I've seen boom towns before. They're all right for the promoter, but they're pretty rough on the settler."

"I hope you are not going to liken us to those mushroom prairie towns on the rainless desert. This Washington immigration movement has come to stay. We've got here the finest country on the face of God's green earth, and people have just begun to find it out. The development of Washington has just started, and we are in on the ground floor. I think Willapa Bend and Seattle are going to be the cities on the northern coast. I've got a big slice in this town, and I don't mind admitting that I think I'm a rich man, as men go in the West. All I have got to do is to hold on and rustle. It takes two things to make a town - one is natural advantages, and the other is git-up-and-git, and we have got them both."

They were back in the office by this time, and the President of the Willapa Bend Land and Development Company leaned forward persuasively, and touched the other man's knee with his lead pencil.

"See here, Mr. Roberts, I don't usually talk about private affairs, but I'll tell you one thing: our company has taken in more than twelve hundred dollars a day this summer on an average - in cash, that is."

"That's more apt to mean inflated values than legitimate development. I'd rather hear that the Trans-Continental was coming this way."

The two men looked at each other for a moment, and both smiled a little. They had got to the controlling lever at last. President Eaton of the Trans-Continental was married to a sister of Roberts, and it was beyond doubt that the latter would locate in the town selected by the railroad company for its terminus. What Messiter hoped for was that the mill-owner would be impressed with the advantages of Willapa Bend and throw the weight of his influence in favor of that town. Presently Messiter asked boldly: "Which way is the Trans-Continental going?"

"I don't think the matter is officially decided," answered Roberts cautiously, "but I guess Inverness has it pretty well corralled."

Messiter knew quite well that at present Inverness was a better town than Willapa Bend. It was a larger, older town, and to the Michigan man, fresh from the neat towns of his own State, presented a much more attractive appearance than Willapa Bend, rich in charred stumps and blackened hillsides where the forest fires had run not three months before. To him the whole town looked terribly bleak and crude. But Messiter saw it with the eyes of faith, and he meant that the other man should also see it so. Messiter's point of view was that there ought to be a good town here; therefore it was his business to make one. He reopened the attack from another side.

"Inverness is an older town than this, and it looks a good deal prettier just now. It's getting past the stump age. They are getting the timber cleared out of there pretty fast. But that isn't what you want, I take it. You are after a place that has a big stumpage yet."

The Michigan man smiled a little in appreciation of the pun, and said, "There's lots of timber round Inverness yet."

"Yes, there is a lot of timber there, but there are a dozen big mills, and they either own or have an option on the most desirable timber lands. If you go there, you take your chances, and they won't be of the best, because you are last in the field."

It was Messiter's one valid point, and he knew it had scored. The mill man smoked in silence for a minute before he spoke again. "And if I come here?"

"If you come here you are practically first in the field. I don't count these two mills already here, because they are small, single-barreled affairs, running without much capital. There is plenty of timber all round here. What's the matter with your sending agents out to buy up big quantities of the most desirable timber land? You can get it almost at your own price now."

Messiter waited for the other to speak; but as he did not appear to intend to make a beginning, Jim continued:

"There is a lot of timber yet in the Sound country, but they have to go back from salt water to get it now. You will not find a place on earth where timber is handier than here. Assuming that we get the Trans-Continental" - Roberts smiled at the calmness with which Messiter assumed the point at issue - "the bulk of your carrying will be done by water on account of the saving in expense. If ships from Sydney and Calcutta can drop in here and get their lumber, it does not stand to reason that they will try to make the difficult Straits passage into Puget Sound. Those tramp schooners aren't taking extra risks for the pleasure there is in adventure."

Again the president of the W. B. L. & D. Company had scored a hit. He knew the arguments that counted most with Roberts, and no matter how much he might diverge, he always came back in the end to the fine harbor and the abundance of timber within easy reach.

When Roberts left for Seattle a few days later, Messiter knew that what influence the mill man had with his brother-in-law would be exerted in favor of Willapa Bend, but that whichever town was selected by the railroad company for its terminus would also be the town to get the large mills of the Michigan man.

It was two or three days later that Jim got his answer from New York. It bade him come to her after he had secured the Trans-Continental for his town.

"Guess I bragged too much about what I was doing," reflected Jim with a grin; "but I've got to get the railroad now, if I have to hold up the president for it."

As events turned out, that was about what he did, though the president never suspected it. When Messiter got the telegram in cipher from Chicago announcing the departure of President Eaton for Inverness, he tossed it over to his partner with the remark, "Gay outlook, isn't it?"

"I should remark. Lets us out good and plenty," answered Barry after he had read it.

Messiter sat drumming with his fingers on the desk in front of him, a thoughtful frown on his abstracted face. He knew very well that, if Inverness got hold of the president first, it would be all up with his chances. At all cost, Eaton must be kept away from Inverness for a time. He thought about it quite a while, casting over various plans in his mind, and the immediate result of his thinking was that he rose with a smile on his face, and said easily, "Oh, I don't know. We'll see about that. Send for Heaton, and let's have a pow-wow.

There had been heavy rain in western Washington for weeks, and temporary, but vicious, rivers were running all over the land seeking what they could devour. It was one of these that ditched the express. Still, it is a little strange that the track had held for miles against a heavy pressure and should finally be swept away by a stream not six inches deep nor ten feet wide. That is, it would be strange if it were not so easily explainable.

President Eaton felt the train slow down. Then it stopped with a jar that sent him forward heavily against the chair in front of him. He looked out of the window, and saw the train hands gathered round the engine. He divined at once that there had been a washout, and strolled forward to see the extent of the damage. The engineer was explaining excitedly how it had happened. "I slowed down pretty slow at the curve here, knowin' there was a bad place jest this side. Soon as I got round, I seen there was a washout, and threw on the mergency brakes; but the' wa'ant time to stop, and she waltzed right in."

The damage was very slight, but it would be impossible to proceed for many hours; in fact, until after the arrival of a wrecking crew. The railroad magnate was not in a particular hurry; still, he did not view with particular equanimity the prospect of a long wait in the dreary forest. At this opportune moment, Jim Messiter and his surrey came in sight. The engineer saw him first, and deliberately winked at Jim.

"Most harmless accident you ever saw, Mr. Messiter," suggested the conductor with a grin.

Messiter was, of course, surprised to meet Mr. Eaton, but had a way to suggest out of the difficulty. "Jump into my surrey, Mr. Eaton, and I'll take you to Willapa Bend. You can look over our town, and to-morrow I'll take you across the bay to Inverness in my launch."

The railroad president reflected that this would save him from making a special trip to Willapa Bend. He could take it in on his way to Inverness, and then he could tell Roberts that he had seen the town, which the latter gentleman had strongly urged him to do.

The Belt Line passed fully eight miles from Willapa Bend, so that Messiter had plenty of time to size up his man before they reached town. During the past few weeks he had omitted no opportunity to find out all he could about the man who held the fate of Willapa Bend in his hand. As a result of his inquiries, he had learned that Eaton was a quiet, reserved man, who hated above all things fuss and pompous display. He dressed quietly, but well, and liked a good dinner as well as most men, though he sometimes suffered from it afterward.

Messiter knew too much to consign his guest to the tender mercies of any of the hotels in the young town. He drove straight to the office, where Barry met them and insisted on their dining with him. Mrs. Barry was a housekeeper among a thousand, but that day she fairly outdid herself. Eaton admitted to himself that a town six months old able to furnish an impromptu dinner like the one he was eating wasn't so far out of the world after all.

After dinner, Barry and Messiter took him round to the club, and again the railroad man opened his eyes. The appointments and service were in excellent taste, and the few men he met were altogether different from the men he had expected to meet. Presently he found himself at whist with three men who knew the game as well as he did himself. They attended strictly to their game, and seemed to have forgotten that there was such a railroad in existence as the Trans-Continental. He was very fond of whist, and it was a genuine pleasure to meet people in this dropping-off place who knew enough to play by rule.

Messiter's fine hand was in evidence throughout the evening. Of the dozen men who knew thaat the president of the Trans-Continental was in town, not one of them mentioned the town except incidentally, and then not by way of business. One of them grumbled about it to Heaton of the "Journal": "Seems to me we're losing valuable time. We ought to talk the town up when we have the chance," he said.

"Jim Messiter is running this show. He'll pull us through if anybody can, I guess. All we have to do is to take our cue and play up to him. There's lots of time to talk business to-morrow. What we want to do to-night is to give Eaton a good time," replied the journalist.

When Eaton left with Messiter in the launch next day, he was surprised to find that he left the town with some regret. Instead of the anticipated bore, his visit had been quite a pleasure. He didn't care much for the town itself, but there were some nice people in it, he thought.

The rain began about the time the launch reached Inverness, and continued in torrents for several days. Eaton and Messiter put up at the nearest hotel, where the rain kept them pretty close prisoners. The cooking was wretched, and at the end of the second day Eaton was suffering badly from dyspepsia.

About this time the mayor of Inverness, a large, effusive man with a bad manner, who had been haunting the depot for a day or two in a vain search for Mr. Eaton, discovered their presence at the hotel. Without the knowledge of the railroad president, he ordained for him a public reception. The railroad owner was dragged off to meet a few friends, and three hours later found himself still limply shaking hands with men he never expected to meet again and listening to inane banalities.

The mayor of Inverness, good, amiable man, was in his element, and believed he was making an impression. He certainly made one at the close of the reception, when he attempted a confidential whisper and trod heavily on Eaton's gouty toe. Messiter, in a far corner, smiled blandly, and repeated to himself softly, " He's digging a grave - he's digging a grave - and I think Inverness is going to be the corpse."

Very few men can judge dispassionately and apart from their individual likes and dislikes. As President Eaton, after a wretched night's rest, looked out of the hotel window at the rain still streaming down, he contrasted the pleasure he had had at Willapa Bend with the dismalness of Inverness and the thoroughly disagreeable experience the place had given him. At that moment he would not have voted to give Inverness a wayside depot, far less to make it the terminus of his line. He felt he could not stand the place another hour. Suddenly he turned to Messiter and announced his intention of leaving that morning for Chicago. The young man asked when he might expect to hear what the decision of the company was in regard to the terminus.

"You can hear now," answered the President abruptly. Then he asked quickly: "How about a bridge across the Willapa, if we run in from the north - will you guarantee to raise the money from the town?"

"Yes, sir, - if I pay every cent myself."

"You will give us a right of way into your town, and plenty of room for yards and shops?" he asked sharply.

"All the room you want."

"And a good site for an ocean wharf?"

"Wherever you want it."

"Then. Mr. Messiter, the terminus of the Trans-Continental is yours."

The room grew altogether too small for Messiter. He wanted to hug his portly vis- a'-vis; he had a desire to improvise the highland fling with variations; he bethought him of his college yell, and wondered what Eaton would think if he were to let out a "Hi-O-Hi." He did none of these things. He waited a moment till his voice was under control, then said quietly: "We'll try to be worthy of the chance you have given us."

Half an hour later two telegrams went over the wires from Messiter. The one to Barry was in cipher, but interpreted it read:

Willapa Bend gets the Trans-Continental. Letter follows. Wake things up to-night. JIM.

The other was to New York. To the girl who opened it the message said:

I hand you the Trans-Continental on a silver platter with my best bow. Start East to-night. J. M.

RailroadStories, 2001.

Home
Prev     Next
Site Map