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Then and now: Spokane’s railroad history

Robert Strahorn was a businessman, writer and promoter who was 25 when he was hired by Jay Gould of the Union Pacific Railroad as a publicist. For several years, Strahorn, along with wife Dell, roamed the Idaho territory by stagecoach and wrote about the beauty and promise of the Western frontier. He helped plan rail routes and invested in townsites by the new tracks.

In 1888, Strahorn joined the developers of Fairhaven, a town south of Bellingham that they hoped would be the western terminus of James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad. The deal fell apart when Hill chose Seattle instead. He created a thriving trading business in Boston in the 1890s but decided to move back to Spokane in 1898 to start his own railroad.

Rail building was going at a furious pace and Strahorn mused in his unpublished biography, “Where in all our country is there another community that can match this marvelous display of public spirit and accomplishment by a group of men meagerly equipped with capital and altogether having had no previous railroad experience?”

He and his wife, now comfortably wealthy, bought a Spokane mansion and remodeled it for lavish entertaining. Strahorn made an alliance with the Union Pacific’s Edward Harriman, a bitter nemesis of Hill’s, that in exchange for anonymity, Harriman would provide the capital for Strahorn’s North Coast Railroad. Strahorn built the Union Depot in downtown Spokane at a cost of $500,000 and persuaded the Chicago, Milwaukee & Puget Sound Railroad, known as the Milwaukee Road, to use the depot.

Strahorn kept adding short lines to the North Coast, connecting to Seattle in 1914.  He continued to build his network of lines and outmaneuver Hill’s Great Northern, but the Great Depression was a catastrophe. Overextended on credit, Strahorn signed everything over to creditors and died a poor man in 1944.

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