Steaming into Sumpter

May 25, 2001 12:00 am
Paul VanNess of The Dalles was at the controls of the Stump Dodger during preparations to board passengers before a run to Sumpter. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
Paul VanNess of The Dalles was at the controls of the Stump Dodger during preparations to board passengers before a run to Sumpter. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).

By CHRISTINA WOOD

Of the Baker City Herald

Seventy preschool children and their adult caregivers from the local Head Start program were given a trip back into the past Wednesday on the Sumpter Valley Railroad.

The delighted children joined a number of other passengers on the historic railroad as old Number Three, one of the SVRRs two steam locomotives, pulled out of McEwen Station on the trip to the depot at the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area in Sumpter.

Theres nothing like this in the Portland area, said Dan Denham, conductor for the run. We believe this is the only fully functioning steam train left in Oregon. Denham, from Newberg, said many of the SVRR volunteers are from the Willamette Valley and Portland area.

They come over to Baker County several times a year to enjoy the ultimate in the train lovers hobby: operating a full 1:1 sized model train.

Denham said that just two members of the train crew and volunteers Thursday were from Baker City Jim Grigsby, the engineer; and Jerry Huck, fireman. The others were from The Dalles, Huntington and Granite. On Tuesday, volunteers included a couple from Palmer, Alaska. Many are from Boise and there are some from California and Washington as well.

They have in common a love of trains, especially old steam trains. Somewhere in the past theyve gotten hooked on railroading and model trains, Denham said.

Volunteer all have the opportunity to actually run the train as engineer after they have spent time learning all the aspects of operating the equipment. On average this takes about five to six years of volunteering at least three weekends a year.

The caboose, locomotive and coach car are original equipment from the train line built by the Wm. H. Eccles Lumber Company. Affectionately nicknamed the Stump Dodger, construction of the line began in 1890 in Baker City, reaching McEwen (22 miles) by 1891, and Sumpter by May 1897. The line was extended to Prairie City, 80 miles to the west, in 1910.

The train hauled timber and gold mining equipment, and many new towns sprang up along its route. The Sumpter-to-Prairie City run hauled cattle, seed and supplies for the farmers and ranchers in the John Day River Valley.

The mainline from Prairie City and Bates was abandoned in 1933. In 1937, formal passenger service was discontinued. The entire railroad was abandoned in 1947, and the tracks were removed by 1952.

Old Number Three was taken to Idaho and used at a lumber mill there to haul logs in and out of the mill pond.

In 1970 a group of volunteers and historic train buffs formed the Sumpter Valley Railroad Restoration. Using grants, donations and volunteer labor as well as work crews from Powder River Corrections Facility, the group has restored the two locomotives, including Number Three, the caboose and several other train cars. They reconstructed the narrow-gauge train tracks and are in operation from mid-May through October.

The group recently completed restoration work on the 1882 coach used on the train. The coach was built for the Utah Northern line, but by the time it was delivered, that railroad had changed gage sizes on the tracks. They sold the coach to Eccles.

The Eccles family remains interested in the SVRR and has been a generous contributor to the organizations efforts to preserve the train line.

The train operation begins in May to accommodate the many schoolchildren who are treated to a ride on the train. SVRR offers a $1 discount on childrens fares for the two weeks prior to Memorial Day.

According to Head Start Parent Club President Teresa Mann, her organization this year helped buy tickets for many of the parents of the children in the Head Start program so they could join their kids on the outing.

Children arent the only passengers interested in the train. Edwin and Ermine Gertz of Newberg were also passengers on the train. They are 88 and 89, respectively. The couple comes to Baker City every year to visit relatives, and Edwin has an interest in a gold mine at Whitney. This was Ermines first trip on the train.

Engineer Grigsby became involved in the organization in 1976. I was interested in model trains since I was two years old, he said, often going to the train yards in his hometown of Aberdeen, Wash., to watch the trains.

We enjoy having the school kids here, said Steve Christy, a conductor trainee and brakeman from Huntington. We like telling them about the history of the line. He and his wife, Cindy, are active volunteers.

Steve Christy said a friend told him about SVRR and encouraged him to have a look at the operation.

Kids who are born today will not have the opportunity to see this kind of equipment in operation if we dont do something about it, he said.

Christys interest in model railroading led in a natural progression to the restored Stump Dodger.

The train has three runs per day on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. It leaves McEwen Station, just off Highway 7, at 10 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. The train turns around at the Sumpter Depot in the Dredge Park and leaves Sumpter at 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Fares are one-way or round trip and are $6 and $9 for adults; $4.50 and $6.50 for children 6-16; and $15 and $22 for families.

Educational group rates and information are available by calling 894-2268.