The Oregon Ponies

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The "Oregon Ponies" were three small four-wheeled locomotives built by the Vulcan Foundry of San Francisco in 1861-1862, matching the design of similar "locomotives" built for San Francisco's Market Street Railroad. The three locomotives were shipped north to Oregon and their new home along the Columbia River lashed to the deck of steamships.

The "locomotives" for the Market Street Railroad were known as steam cars, and were built in 1860-61 using a design by C. W. Stevens, the railroad's superintendent. Each had the "locomotive" portion completely enclosed inside its car body, making it similar to the railroad's mule-powered street cars.

(C. W. Stevens' brother, A. J. Stevens, was master mechanic of the Market Street Railroad.)

The design of the Oregon portage locomotives used a return flue boiler (with the stack projecting up from the cab roof), an outside frame, and four coupled driving wheels. At least one of the engines of the Market Street Railroad used a near-identical design. The major difference was that the San Francisco designs were steam engines masked to look like street cars, usually known as steam dummies, and the Oregon engines had wooden cabs and flatcar-style bodies, a feature that may or may not have been the original design. Photos from 1867 show the flatcar style bodies.

The Vulcan Foundry, located on Natoma Street in San Francisco, burned on August 25, 1863. Evidence suggests that the foundry was rebuilt and continued in business until at least the late 1880s. At about the same time in the late 1880s the foundry moved to its later location across the bay in Oakland.

The first of the Oregon Ponies arrived in Oregon on the Oregon Portage Railroad in May 1862. It had been ordered to replace the mule-power then being used on the wooden plank railroad that had been built in early 1861. (Research in early Portland newspapers will likely reveal the circumstances of the arrival of the locomotives in Oregon.)

The Oregon Portage Railroad had its start as a wooden-planked toll road on the Oregon side of the Lower Portage in the Columbia River, at a point known as The Cascades, at today's Bonneville Dam and Cascade Locks. The wooden toll road had been built by Joseph S. Ruckel as early as 1856. In 1859 Ruckel joined forces with his cross-river competition Daniel F. Bradford who owned the portage on the Washington side of the same impassable section of the river. Along with steamship operators on the river, Ruckel and Bradford formed the Oregon Steam Navigation in 1860 to control transportation on the river both above and below The Cascades, and all the way to Portland.

Both portages remained as mule-powered wooden-planked toll roads until May 1861 when the Oregon Portage Railroad Company was organized by Ruckel and Harrison Olmstead to rebuild the Ruckel portage on the Oregon side as a railroad using strap iron fastened to wooden rails. The better engineered and more durable Oregon Portage Railroad soon became the dominant company, and its fortunes continued to improve with the arrival of the first (and smallest) of the Oregon Ponies in May 1962. This first Pony was the first steam locomotive in the Northwest.

There is no record of when the two larger Oregon Ponies arrived, or which of the three portage railroads they were initially assigned to, the Oregon side at The Cascades, the Washington side at The Cascades, or the 14-mile section on the Oregon side 41 miles upriver, between The Dalles and Celilo Falls. The various accounts all show April 1863 as the completion date for all three railroads.

This date in 1863 can also be assumed to be the delivery date for the two 4-4-0 locomotives built by Danforth, Cooke, although the specific build date for these two locomotives is not available in any of the several builder lists of Danforth, Cooke locomotives. Exactly how the operation of the three Oregon Ponies fit in with the operation of the two larger 4-4-0 Danforth, Cooke locomotives, all in 1863, still needs to be researched. (Research in early Portland newspapers will likely answer these questions.)

William Kratville and Harold Ranks wrote the following in their "Motive Power of the Union Pacific" in 1959:

One of these groups were the "Oregon Ponies" which ran on the five foot gauge Oregon Portage Railroad circa 1860-61. This railroad was built along the south shore of the Columbia River around Celilo Falls and The Dalles. Mules were the first power on this railroad, but were soon replaced by three of the 0-4-0 "Oregon Ponies."

These three "Ponies" were built by the Vulcan Iron Works in San Francisco and had 34" drivers, 6"x12" cylinders and weighed 9700 lbs. These three engines were only used a short time when larger power was purchased.

When the Oregon Steam Navigation bought out the Portage RR and the Cascade Railroad, the "Ponies" started operating on the north shore of the Columbia. When the "Bicycle" engines arrived, one of the "Pony" engines was sold to a paving contractor who shipped it to San Francisco. Later it was returned to Portland for the 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition.

The Bonneville-Cascade Locks Portage Railroad was built in 1858 by Joseph S. Ruckel, Harrison Olmstead and John Brazee. It connected with the steamboats at both ends of the unnavigatable portion of the Columbia River. The railroad was known as "The Ruckel Railroad" or the Oregon Portage Railroad. The latter name was to distinguish it from a similar portage railroad on the Washington Territory bank of the Columbia (The Cascade Railroad).

The railroad was five miles long and 5' wide. The rails were of wood and the first motive power were mules. In May of 1862, the original Oregon Pony was installed on these rails as the first locomotive in the Pacific Northwest. Two more of these little Ponies were added to the railroad later the same year.

The Pony had a small boiler (with the stack on the cab end) and a unique drive system. The cylinders were located at the cab end of the boiler and the pistons were attached by means of eccentric cranks to a transverse shaft which ran under the front of the boiler and which had a very wide gear wheel on it. This gear wheel meshed with a second gear wheel mounted on the front driving axle. The valve motion is unique and the inventor is unknown to the author.

This wood burner was the very first locomotive on any of the lines which now constitute the UP system.

What Happened To The Oregon Ponies?

The little locomotive known as "The Oregon Pony" was only used on the Oregon Portage Railroad for a period of a single year, until the new locomotive-powered Bradford portage was opened on the Washington side in April 1863. On May 11, 1863 the Pony was shipped to The Dalles for use on that portage along with the two larger Oregon Ponies, but sat mostly unused until 1866 when OSN purchased two additional larger steam locomotives. In 1866, the smallest of the three Oregon Ponies was sold to David Hewes in San Francisco, and used in his construction business, Steam Paddy Company. It returned to Oregon in 1905 and was stored on Union Pacific property until 1926 when it was placed on display in Portland Union Station. In 1970, it was moved 43 miles east and put on display at the Cascade Locks Museum in Cascade Locks, Oregon.

The other two larger Ponies were sold in Portland and were used in the construction of the Oregon Central Rail Road, organized in April 1867 to build south and west from Portland. Construction began in April 1868 and was completed to St. Joseph in December 1869. The Oregon Central was later reorganized as the Oregon & California Railroad, and the two little engines became O&C 'A' and O&C 'B'.

William Kratville and Harold Ranks wrote:

Fortunately [the] original Oregon Pony has survived both time and the torch and is now on exhibition at Portland Union Station.

The remaining two "Ponies" were rebuilt and the crank and gear driving arrangement was discarded in favor of larger inclined cylinders located in the conventional place -- ahead of the drivers. One of the two engines was built into a flat car in place of one truck, an enclosed cab was added and lo -- a useful piece of work equipment was created. This piece of equipment and the remaining "Pony" were sold to Ben Holladay and the Oregon Central Railroad by the Oregon Steam Navigation Co. when they bought the Cascade Railroad.

Later on, the Oregon Central was taken over by the Oregon & California and the two Ponies became the "A" and the "B" on the O&C. While on the O&C, they were equipped with oil headlights, a four wheeled tender, a keg-shaped sand box, larger wheels and a whistle!

The "A" lasted until about 1916 and was used by the SP (successor to the O&C) Maintenance of Way Department, with a pile driver for years.

Roster Listings

Vulcan 0-4-0 -- 1 locomotive
9x18 cylinders; 34-inch drivers; 8-tons; 5-foot gauge

Name/Number Builder Builder
Date Sold
OSN "Pony" Vulcan May 1861 Oct 1866

General Notes:

  1. Built by Vulcan Foundry in San Francisco, California in May 1861; shipped to Oregon; first ran on May 10, 1862
  2. Sold in 1866 to David Hewes (Steam Paddy Co.), San Francisco, California; Hewes' company built many of the roads in early San Francisco, and filled in parts of the orginal harbor where most of downtown San Francisco sits today. (The Daily Alta California newspaper of October 24, 1866 carried a news item that a locomotive from Oregon was unloaded at San Francisco from the steamship 'Montana' on October 23rd.)
  3. Donated by David Hewes to State of Oregon in 1905; stored at UP Albina shops in Portland, Oregon until placed on display in 1905 at Portland Union Station in 1926; moved for display in 1970 to the Cascade Locks Museum, Cascade Locks, Oregon.
  4. (Some sources show that this smallest of the Oregon Ponies was sold to Duncan Brothers for their lumber operation at the mouth of the Russian River, north of San Francisco. But research in newspapers of the period, 1860-1870, furnished by Kyle Wyatt, suggests that what was known as "Mrs. Duncan's Teakettle" was a separate, but very similar machine.)

Vulcan 0-4-0 -- 2 locomotives
5-foot gauge

Name/Number Builder Builder
OSN "Ann" Vulcan 1862? Later known as Oregon & California 'A'
OSN "Betsy" Vulcan 1862? Later known as Oregon & California 'B'

General Notes:

  1. Built by Vulcan Foundry in San Francisco, California in (1862?)


Oregon Ponies -- A UtahRails photo album of the Oregon Ponies.


Asay, Jeff. Union Pacific Northwest (Pacific Fast Mail, 1991)

Gilette, P. W., "A Brief History of Oregon Steam Navigation Company" Oregon Historical Quarterly, Volume V, 1904, pages 120-132

Kratville, William, and Harold E. Ranks Motive Power of the Union Pacific, 1959

Robertson, Donald B. Encyclopedia of Western Railroad History, Volume III, Oregon and Washington, 1995

Daniel Bradford and the Washington Portage (broken link)

Joseph Ruckel and the Oregon Portage (broken link)

Oregon Steam Navigation Company -- The Oregon Steam Navigation Company and its Related Portage Tramways, at Pacific Northwest Chapter of National Railway Historical Society

Oregon Steam Navigation Company -- Wikipedia article

Carleton Watkins Stereoviews -- Images 1201-1337 in the 1861-1874 time period show his photograhs of the Columbia River and vicinity. Start with Image #1251, then use the Search box to continue with numbers 1255, 1263, 1264, 1266, 1270, 1288, 1294, 1297, 1298, 1299, 1312, and 1329.

More Information

Oregon Encyclopedia article about the Oregon Pony

Oregon Pony at Cascade Locks -- Display of the Oregon Pony at Cascade Locks, Oregon, at Steam

Jeff Terry's article in May 2009 issue of Railfan & Railroad magazine.