the amazing Transcontinental Excursion of 1912 in the Coulee

(above: The Transcontinental Excursion pauses at Inspiration Point)

There was once a Harvard professor named William Davis who had the idea to host what he called a Transcontinental Excursion in the year 1912. Based on a model of the learning tours done in Europe, Davis planned to get a group of various types of scientists and dignitaries on a transcontinental train tour of the United States. Starting in 1910, around the world he sent out word, written, telegraphed, wired, word spread aboard ships to distant shores. By 1912 William Davis had it all arranged, at the cost of between 700 and 800 dollars a passenger would travel from New York to Ithaca, Niagara Falls, Chicago, St. Paul, Yellowstone Park, Butte, Spokane, Coulee City, Yakima Valley, Seattle, San Francisco, Yosemite Valley, Los Angeles, Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Albuquerque, Pueblo, Salida, Colorado Springs, Rio Grande, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Memphis, Greenville, Mississippi, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Washington D.C., Harrisburg, Delaware, and finally back to New York. Along the way they planned daily stops where they could personally examine the many and varied landmarks and cultures that make up the United States. When it was time to finally board the first train out of New York the guest list was filled with Europeans that had already traveled across the Atlantic ocean on long sea voyages, for most of them it was there first time in America. Among the guests were scientists, artists, photographers, geologists, agricultural specialists and dignitaries to name a few. The guests list included people from Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, The Netherlands, Norway, Russia, Sweden and Switzerland. All in all about 75 passengers with people coming and going during the course of the Excursion. It was to be a whirl wind 50 day tour of the United States of America from cost to cost. William Davis later wrote in his 1914 memoirs:

“The Transcontinental Excursion began at 8:30 on the morning of Thursday, August 22, at the Grand Central Terminal. The special train was made up of two standard Pullman cars, two Pullman observation cars, a dining car and a baggage car. The ‘Circassia’ and the ‘Wildmere,’ the ‘Huelma’ and the ‘Oronso,’ will always be pleasant names to members of the excursion, and to see one of these cars in future travel would be somewhat like a glimpse of a former home. A buffet car of the New York Central Lines accompanied the train to Chicago.” — W. Davis, Memorial of the Transcontinental Excursion of 1912 of the American Geographical Society.

After winding its way through a spectacular tour of the States, the train left Butte Montana on September, 10th, 1912, at 10:00 am, headed for Spokane. Earlier that morning the passengers had been advised to get up and observe the Continental Divide before breakfast. At 8:30pm the train pulled into Spokane. They were met by the Spokane Chamber of Commerce who showed them a display of local agricultural and mining, a lite dinner was served and the train pulled out at midnight. Early in the morning before the sun rose the Transcontinental Excursion pulled into the small station at Almira, Washington. After breakfast on the train they were greeted with a parade of old cars by Mister E.F. Bensen of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Each car was numbered on the side to make it easier for the passengers, who were warned about bumpy, dusty, dilapidated roads in the travel log.

As the caravan made its way down the old wagon road in the distance dust clouds could seen rising up into the sky. When they approached it they were surprised to see endless fields of wheat and a mechanized combine powered with a tractor engine kicking up the dust as it worked the fields. The fields of wheat seemed to go on forever, a virtual ocean of yellow under a blinding hot September sun. The caravan stopped and visited with the farmers while photographers rushed to get their equipment out and pictures taken. Later in memoirs of the Excursion William Davis wrote about the photographers: ” In the work of the excursion, photography, as was to be expected, played a conspicuous part. No firing of artillery in battle is more continuous than was the exposure of films and plates when a brief stop gave opportunity to record a mining operation, a reaping machine, an apple orchard, a physiographic form, or a beaver dam. One of the most strenuous of the French geographers took at least one thousand pictures, and it was ascertained by one who vied with him in devotion to the camera (Professor Chaix) that about twelve thousand photographs were made by the party as a whole.” – W. Davis, Memorial of the Transcontinental Excursion of 1912 of the American Geographical Society.

After leaving the farmers in Almira the caravan of global scientists made their way to the lip of the coulee following the old wagon road. Back in 1912 there were a lot more wagons in the coulee region than cars. In fact, cars were scarce and E.F. Bensen had to pull many strings and go many miles to gather up enough to taxi the elite tourists down into the coulee to see the Columbia River and onto Coulee City where they would catch their next train and continue on the Excursion. Now all cars came to a stop at the top of the coulee. Way down below the Columbia river could be seen, and as the drivers looked over the road and the possibilities of making it down safely, their passengers went about taking pictures, making sketches, taking notes and gathering samples. After everyone was safely loaded up again with their equipment down the switchback hills they all went. Needless to say they didn’t stop until they had almost reached the bottom, and then it was a much less festive occasion as most just wished the descent was over.

When they reached the bottom the caravan turned west heading down the dusty old coulee road to the farm of George Baldwin. George was one of the founders of the Steamboat Rock Stock Company which was arguably the biggest feed and stock company in the coulee at the time, it was certainly one of the most well known, and employed stock hands from up and down the coulee. The Steamboat Rock Stock Co. ran like well oiled machine most of the time. Comprised of three ranches, Baldwin had a huge pump at Devils Lake and irrigated his land by what is now Barkers Canyon with it. Dry land farming is what they called it and it was a real topic back in 1912 as more and more people moved into the desert regions, irrigation became a big focus.

“In the Grand Coulee the party were entertained at an outdoor lunch on the ranch of Mr. Baldwin, a graduate of the University of Michigan, and learned then, as they learn many times in the west, that the graduates of our greatest universities are likely to be found wielding hardhands and wearing a pair of overalls. The after-dinner feature of this day was a good sample of bronco “busting” by the trained cowboys of the ranch. That particular day was finished by a visit to an irrigated fruit farm where all the ladies of the region had apparently gathered, and the Europeans got a new treat in the shape of a hundred-foot table of sliced watermelon.” – W. Davis, Memorial of the Transcontinental Excursion of 1912 of the American Geographical Society.

After spending time on the Baldwin ranch the cars were once more loaded and the passengers of the excursion climbed aboard and once more they headed down dusty old wagon road towards Coulee City. In 1912 Coulee City was in its prime. Not only was the surrounding area furtle wheat country, but also the railroad had made it a boom town and anyway it was the only real city in the whole Grand Coulee at the time. The group had a brief stop at the farm of Mr. A. L. Tucker to examine his fruit producing orchard of 3 years old and then off to Dry Falls. There was some event planned for Dry Falls, which Davis refers to as ‘the Park’ in his notes, but it was called off due to lack of time and a tight travel schedule. Back in Coulee City dinner was served and at 7:00 the train pulled out for it’s next stop on the amazing Transcontinental Excursion: the orchards of Yakima.

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