Mary Montgomery’s Astonishing Ride

Stories From the Prairie Line 1873


Mary Montgomery was 92 years old in 1939. That year Tacoma was the center of Washington’s Golden Jubilee celebration marking fifty year of statehood.1939-jubilee-program-cover The city was festooned with banners, fully booked with historical pageants and plays and just a bit over the top with completely unironic bearded businessmen and gingham bonnetted school teachers.  A particular effort was made to honor early pioneers and collect their stories. And Mary had a story.

Its easy to imaging the old timer’s tales about epic journeys and heroic deeds, about shooting buffalo and fighting off outlaws and horse thieves, about lives lost and bonanzas found. Mary probably waited politely when she talked about her great adventure but once she started its safe to assume she was not interrupted.

Mary and her husband James Boyce Montgomery came west to Portland and then Olympia in 1870, she in her mid twenties and him in his late 30’s, both excited about the business of building a start up railroad. They both knew Jay Cooke, the banker for the Northern Pacific Transcontinental Railway and were enamored by the beauty and adventure of Puget Sound. By April of 1871 they had a baby and a contract for building the first 25 miles of the NP line headed from the Columbia River at Kalama to three miles beyond the Toutle River crossing.

Montgomery’s men, as they became known, would move a million cubic yards of rock and earth, build several miles of trestles and four major river bridges as they laid the first railroad built in Washington Territory. Mary and the baby lived in a 40 foot by 25 foot tent with Jim at the rail camp along with 750 to 1000 Chinese contract laborers and 250 to 400 roughneck miners, fortune seekers and ex soldiers. Around the fringes of the camp were itinerant merchants of everything from boots to books along with a floating business district of barbers, tailors, blacksmiths, preachers, canvas restaurants and saloons. There was even a portable red light district.  It was one of the largest towns in the territory, served by a railroad, telegraph station and general store but from one month to another it was continually somewhere else.

In her spare time Mary built a home for the family in Portland, was aboard the first steamboat to navigate the Cowlitz River, and traveled extensively on horseback, buckboard and canoe along the corridor between Portland and Puget Sound. Her life was a continual adventure for two years and then things got really exciting.

When the decision was announced in July 1873 to locate the terminal of the Northern Pacific at Tacoma, Mary and Jim were two of the least surprised people in the world. Although Montgomery had received a contract extension to push the line 100 miles past Tenino, where the railhead was that summer, he knew it was a ruse to keep Seattle and the other hopeful locations on the hook. In fact, he also knew that the financial condition of the NP was shaky along with the rest of the nation, and getting the transcontinental completed as soon as possible was an imperative if the company and its investors were to survive. Commencement Bay was the obvious destination for the transcontinental but once the secret was out it was his job to build the last section and do it fast.

james-montgomeryWithin days after the announcement of Tacoma as the terminus, Montgomery’s life and work got very complicated. The men working for him knew immediately that building of the Prairie Line to Commencement Bay meant much less work and pay. Most of the clearing and grading was across open prairie and the rails were laid over mostly level ground. Word also leaked out that the NP expected the line to reach tidewater by December 19th meaning most of the workers would be unemployed by Christmas. Then there were the rumors and disgruntled reports from the Seattle and Olympia newspapers that made no effort at all to disguise their anger at not being chosen as the terminus. They accused the NP of being a complete fraud to secure western land for eastern banks and profiteers (which was partly accurate) and of hiding the true financial condition of the transcontinental enterprise (also mostly accurate). The upshot was that the workers were dupes and would never get paid.

Late one Thursday afternoon in July 1873 Jim stepping into the home tent and sat down with Mary for a conversation. He explained that the mood in camp and turned dark and the news from the railroad was that they would be delaying payment on his contract. He faced a payday on Sunday and to make payroll he was cashing in everything they owned and then borrowing a small fortune. It got better.

There was no one he could trust to pick up the money in Portland and bring it back to camp and he was sure that if he left camp himself the whole place would blow up. He needed Mary to go.

On Friday morning Mary swung into a saddle and accompanied by a trusted chief clerk, Ed Bingham, rode the ten miles south to the railhead where she took a seat next to the engineer of a construction locomotive. At the Toutle  River she transferred to a regular train which got her to Kalama and onto the Astoria boat headed for Portland. She arrived in Portland at 6 that evening having traveled more than 100 miles via four different means of transportation. She headed straight to the home of James Steele, cashier for the First National Bank of Portland where she presented him with a check and a letter requesting further funds on credit.

columbia-steamboatsThe next morning Mary met Mr. Steele at the Stark Street landing where he was accompanied by two armed carriers and several heavy leather satchels. Mary was about to receive $60,000 in gold and silver coin. In today’s value, 1.15 million dollars in cash. About the time the receipts and paperwork were signed the whistle on the returning Astoria boat blew as the vessel pulled away from the landing. She had missed the boat headed back.

Still close enough to be heard, the Captain yelled at her to take the Dalles boat that was just leaving and she could transfer to his boat at the mouth of the river. And so it happened that Mary found herself staring at a narrow gangplank between two rolling boats at the churning confluence of two powerful rivers, the Willamette and Columbia . Mary’s recollection almost 60 years later was that she strolled across easily and “had a most delightful journey in the Pilot House to Kalama”. The two burly agents went along to get the money bags to the Wells Fargo office in Kalama where Mary waited for the train headed north. The valuable cargo was loaded into a strongbox for the 25 mile long afternoon ride which ended with Mary and the money being loaded on the little construction locomotive. Again she sat next to the engineer behind the firebox of a racing steam engine.. At the end of that leg, Mary met Ed Bingham again waiting with her horse at the railhead. It took another horse to carry the heavy bags of gold and silver. At nine that Saturday night Mary rode into camp and the next morning Jim made payroll and launched the Prairie Line.

Mary Phelps Montgomery, 1939

Mary’s last sentence in the journal telling of the story was:

“A full moon was shining overhead.”


Montgomery did not complete the Prairie Line and the bankruptcy of the Northern Pacific later in 1873 left him deep in debt. But in time, Jim and Mary rode out the hard times. Their shares in the Northern Pacific recovered once Tacoma developed and they prospered on the tracts of timberland they took in exchange for what they were owed by the railroad. James Boyce Montogomery died January 24, 1900. Mary went on to be a cultural force, leading women’s suffrage efforts in Portland, starting schools and building social organizations. She passed away on March 22, 1943 at 97 years of age.


See: Building a State, Washington 1889-1939, Washington State Historical Society, 1940



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: