Benton County Pioneer Life

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Pioneer life in the Benton Co. WA area

Thieves Were Active Too/Steep Pull on ‘Relief Hill’

Tri-City Pioneer
Tri-City Herald, Sunday, February 12, 1961, page 23

In the late 1880’s and early 1890’s the steepest grade in the Northern Pacific Railroad’s main line was located about five miles west of the west portal of the N.P’s bridge that spanned the Columbia. The railroad track curved south and westerly, for about a quarter of a mile from the west portal of the bridge, then made a bee-line for the foot of a plateau, then veering easterly, climbed to the top of the plateau now known as Kennewick Highlands.

At the top a siding was put in paralleling the main line. This siding was called Relief because from this point west the terrain was quite level. The tired, coal shoveling fireman also received a relief for a few minutes. The hill that had been climbed was called Relief Hill. It could also have been appropriately called Fuel Hill, as many of the early settlers supplemented their sage-brush fuel supply with lump coal, which oddly enough, somehow or other, got out of the gondola coal cars and rolled down the embankment, off the railroad right of way. Where it would be seen today and gone tomorrow.

Because of the steepness of the hill the speed of all trains traveling west were reduced to a few miles per hour. They were easily boarded by anyone on foot. This was well known to all hobos and tramps. Many of them “hit the rods” at this location. The train crew were always so busy keeping up steam to avoid stalling that they were unable to kick off the free riders. About 1898 the Northern Pacific Railway was losing a tremendous amount of freight in transit. Its freight cars would be boarded, broken open and looted while the trains were traveling. The special agents of the N.P. were confident that the trains were looted at Relief Siding. They tried many ways to trap the robbers without success. The thieves would cease when the special agents put pressure on their operations but would resume when it was released.

The gang had many hideouts. The whole bleak area near Relief was dotted with empty cabins of the early homesteaders. They used pack horses to carry their belongings and loot, never a horse-drawn vehicle which would leave a tell-tale trace that might be followed. In the daytime they would travel in pairs, thus avoiding suspicion. All of them wore beards trimmed in the prevailing style. These beards left little of the face to be recognized. The beards could be shaved off anytime in a few minutes, thereby altering the description of the wearer.

The Northern Pacific had sought the aid of all the US Marshals and local sheriffs. One day an alert Yakima County sheriff saw three bearded riders leading heavily loaded pack animals enter Yakima. They stopped and tied their animals at a hitching post in front of a saloon, and went in for a drink. The deputy examined one of the packs and found reported N.P. stolen goods. When they came out of the saloon, he got the drop on them, disarmed them, marched them three blocks to the old Yakima County wooden court house and put them in its basement jail. He then notified Northern Pacific. Its officers came and examined the contents of all the packs in which more stolen goods were found. A warrant was issued and the men held in jail. The law enforcing agencies of the entire northwest were contacted. A thorough search was made for other members of the gang without success. These three men were tried, convicted and sent to prison.

A year or two afterwards, the warden of the prison notified the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office that one of the trio had died of tuberculosis. The only confession he made before his death was that they had planned a Yakima jail break. They had stolen pepper from the pepper shaker while they were being fed. They had made a paper tube out of a newspaper, placed the pepper in the tube. They intended to blow the pepper in the jailor’s face but he had never given them a chance.

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