Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Ole Hedlund, Photographer of the Central Oregon Railroad Era, 1909-1911

Academic journal article Oregon Historical Quarterly

Ole Hedlund, Photographer of the Central Oregon Railroad Era, 1909-1911

Article excerpt

ONE HUNDRED AND ONE YEARS ago, in 1909, a young Swedish immigrant named John Olof ("Ole") Hedlund arrived in Madras, Oregon, and began systematically photographing the epic work just begun along the west side of the Deschutes River near its mouth at the Columbia: the building of James J. Hill's "Oregon Trunk" railway south into central Oregon. On the east side of the Deschutes, a similar army of engineers and laborers was toiling to build the Deschutes Railroad (officially, the Oregon-Washington Railway and Navigation Co., or OWRN) for Hill's rival, Edward Harriman of the Union Pacific. This race between railroad titans--or, as in the title of Leon Speroff's recent book, The Deschutes River Railroad War--changed central Oregon history irrevocably.

Ole Hedlund may have been working under some sort of commission from Hill and the Oregon Trunk (OT). He rarely photographed the efforts of Harriman's crews on the other side of the river, but he thoroughly covered the advance of the Oregon Trunk from his base in Madras; he numbered his photographs negative by negative, and the numbers on extant prints run well over one thousand between 1909 and 1912 (some of Hedlund's numbers have been lost over time). Probably because of his location, he concentrated mainly on OT construction north and south of Madras, roughly from Maupin to the project's ultimate destination, Bend.

What is odd is that despite the extent and quality of his photographic coverage of the railroad boom era in central Oregon, his practice of boldly inscribing all of his prints "O. Hedlund," and the fact that his photos have been widely reproduced for over a century, he remains virtually unknown today, even in central Oregon. One of Hedlund's best-known, most widely circulated photos (Figure 1), showing the OT bridge over the Crooked River Gorge nearly finished in late summer 1911, as five men walk a plank thrown over the missing center section, itself 320 feet above the river, was widely distributed by the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) in the 1980s as a promotional poster--but Hedlund's name does not appear, nor is he specifically identified as the photographer of numerous photos in Speroff's book. His name, furthermore, is not systematically listed in the catalogues of the Oregon Historical Society Research Library photo collection, although the collection contains numerous photos by him. So it is good in 2010, the year before the centennial of the arrival of the Hill and Harriman railroads in central Oregon, to offer this modest portfolio of his photography, to briefly identify the man behind the work, and to reflect on its significance a century later.


HEDLUND WAS BORN ON MARCH 27, 1882, in Forsbacka, Sweden, the eldest of thirteen children. He and five of his siblings emigrated to America.

Two brothers became successful and wealthy--Ernest, who became a mink farmer in Minnesota and bred a valuable strain of white mink that is named after him, and "Swan" (Svante), whose Hedlund Manufacturing Co. in Wisconsin was prominent in the American wooden ski, water ski, sled, and toboggan business after World War II. (1)

Ole Hedlund himself arrived in the United States in 1904, at age twenty-two, and between that event and his appearance in Madras five years later, very little is known about where he was and what he was doing. He seems to have visited a sister in Chicago and spent some time in St. Paul, Minnesota, where a formal photo portrait of him was made; and it is possible that while in St. Paul, headquarters of James J. Hill's Great Northern empire, he learned about the impending "railroad war" into central Oregon and reached some sort of agreement with the company to cover its side of the campaign photographically. But this possibility has not been confirmed, and likewise the main question about Hedlund's career--where and how did he acquire his mastery of photography--cannot at present be answered, either. …

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