Federally Owned Acreage Granted To The Railroad, Oregon/Washington


The O&C Railroad moved timber to mills.

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Adapted from Gerald W. Williams, Ph.D. – USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region

The Oregon and California Railroad grant lands, commonly called the O&C lands, came into existence shortly after the Civil War. Congress provided subsidies, in the form of land grants from the Public Domain (Federally owned land), to the various States for the purpose of aiding the construction of rail and wagon roads and to encourage westward expansion.

The Oregon O&C California Railroad Land Grant

Congress granted specific lands to the State of Oregon in 1866 for the construction of a railroad from Portland, Oregon, southward to the California border near Ashland. (Another land grant was given to the State of California for that portion of the railroad.) The O&C land grant gave both States the authority to designate a company to construct the railroad and receive the land grant as a subsidy to offset construction costs. The intent of the land grant was for the private company or corporation to sell the land so that it could recover its “up-front” expenses in the construction of the rail line. After the sale of the land, the company would profit, as any business would, through the services that it offered to the public in the form of passenger travel and freight hauling.

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The O&C Railroad land grant included all odd-numbered sections of Public-Domain land, non mineral in character, within 20 miles of each side of the proposed railroad line. If land within the grant land was already homesteaded or otherwise claimed, then the company was allowed to extend the strip to 30 miles from the rail line. The total acreage of the Oregon portion of the land grant was 4,220,000 acres. However, no company came forward with a proposal within the time set by the Act for the land grant.

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In 1869, Congress amended the granting Act to permit the Oregon and California Railroad Company to meet a new deadline. By this time, enough land had already gone into private ownership that the grant contained only 3,728,000 acres. The amended legislation also placed three conditions on the disposal of the lands granted to the company:The land had to be sold to bona fide settlers. No more than 160 acres could be sold to one individual. The land could not be sold for more than $2.50 per acre.

The rail line started by Oregon and California Railroad Company and completed by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, which acquired the O&C Railroad in 1887, violated all three conditions of the land-disposition rules. These actions went uncontested until 1903, when the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to discontinue the sales of the railroad grant land so that it could retain ownership of the increasingly valuable timber and land. This lead to the O&C Re vestment Act on June 9, 1916, returning 2.4 million acres of unsold O&C grant lands in Oregon, but not in California, to Federal ownership. Management of these lands fell under the jurisdiction of the General Land Office in the Department of the Interior (DOI), although several hundred-thousand acres were within the National Forest boundaries under the management of the Department of Agriculture (USDA), at that time. more>>

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