They Called Him The Sphinx

Robert E. Strahorn, Builder of the North Coast Railroad

During construction of the North Coast Railroad, Robert E Strahorn adopted a persona of mystery in order to keep competitors from learning the secret of his funding.

In the house that once sat on this corner of 1st and Hemlock lived Robert E Strahorn. Few men can be said to have as much influence developing the west as Strahorn. Throughout the 1870s and 80s, he traveled across the Pacific Northwest as the publicist for Union Pacific Railroads, writing books and articles to entice potential settlers to the opportunities available in the territories. He became known as a town builder when he used his familiarity with the future railroad routes to fund the development of towns along those routes, a prominent example being Caldwell Idaho. These endeavors weren't always successful, and after financial strains in 1890 Strahorn left the west to work as an investment banker in Boston.

Strahorn wasn't gone long however as he returned to the Northwest in 1898 settling in Spokane. In 1900 he purchased a home from JJ Browne at 2216 w 1st Avenue, and soon after began the most ambitious undertaking of his career. Strahorn decided to construct a railroad to connect Spokane and Walla Walla to Seattle and Tacoma.

Known as the North Coast Railroad the project was incredibly audacious, as while Strahorn was wealthy he didn't have the type of money necessary to build such a long set of rail lines. Despite this, Strahorn was paying for the multi-million dollar project using personal checks. Competitors knew that Strahorn must have received funding from an external source, but Strahorn never revealed who the source was throughout the construction.

Due to the mystery wrapped around Strahorn, his competitors began to refer to him as The Sphinx and The Man of Mystery, yet investigations into the source turned up nothing. It wasn't until after completion of the railroad that it was revealed that Strahorn had received his funding directly from Edward Harriman, the President of Union Pacific. Union Pacific then assumed control of the North Coast Railroad, this had been Strahorn's plan all along to bring Spokane into the Union Pacific Railroads expansion system.