In Baker County, history groans, clatters, bangs

By Jayson Jacoby December 20, 2013 09:31 am

The train pulled out of the depot in a grudging way, building speed with a series of jerks and pulls that few modern machines can mimic.

Not that they’re intended to.

The engineers still rely largely on internal combustion to move us around, of course, but they’ve pretty much sheltered from us the explosive nature of the technology.

Cars, for instance, don’t rumble much anymore.

Most models emit instead an inoffensive whir, rather like a sewing machine.

The carmakers’ holy trinity, as it were, goes by the acronym “NVH” — Noise, Vibration, Harshness — and they spend tens of millions of dollars to banish all three.

When our vehicles shake, as though in the throes of a seizure, we take them to a mechanic to figure out what’s gone wrong.

(And hope the warranty is still in effect.)

The Sumpter Valley Railroad’s No. 19 locomotive might have come with a warranty from the American Locomotive Company’s factory in Schenectady, N.Y., but as that happened in 1920 it seems improbable that free repairs would yet be available, almost a century later.

Fortunately the massive machine performed flawlessly on Saturday when we rode the old Stump Dodger from McEwen to Sumpter and back.

But the locomotive does not go about its business in the smooth, unobtrusive manner which we expect not only from our automobiles, but from our airplanes and trains and ships.

(We demand plush rides even from our bicycles, many of which nowadays are equipped with shock absorbers that shame the suspension system in a Model A.)

When you stand beside a new car that’s idling you might not know the engine is running, so effective is the noise suppression.

The No. 19 locomotive lacks a shred of subtlety.

It groans and clatters and bangs.

Water drips from its myriad valves, and steam and smoke belch from various orifices.

The purity of its mechanical purpose is not diluted by any concession to comfort or convenience. Take one look at the thing and you know there’s no place to plug in an iPod or a smartphone.

It is an artifact.

But one that still works precisely as it was designed to do by draftsmen and engineers long dead.

In this sense the locomotive, and the Sumpter Valley Railroad as an entity, is the ideal attraction for Baker County, a place that embraces its history.

I had my appreciation for this rich legacy refreshed last weekend while my parents were in town.

They live in Salem. They drove my older son, Alexander, home from Corvallis for Christmas break.

Although they’ve visited me at least a couple times per year for the past 22 years my parents had never gone on the historic homes tour put on each December by Historic Baker City.

This year they doubled up on their historical tourism by preceding the tour with a ride on the Stump Dodger.

They enjoyed both immensely.

Their enthusiasm reminded me that Baker County’s boasts about its past are the genuine article, not chamber of commerce puffery.

Moreover, much of our history is tangible in a way that documents such as old newspapers and photographs are not.

The patina on the brass levers in the No. 19 locomotive’s cab are not the result of artificial aging but the work of many hands over many decades.

When you stand in the parlor of a 19th century home you are, quite literally, surrounded by history. Your feet ply the same beams that were in place when the Wright Brothers skimmed over the sand at Kitty Hawk, when the Japanese surrendered on the USS Missouri.

And although we are fortunate in Baker County to have several museums that preserve and display important pieces of the past, I think we’re luckier still that so much of our history survives not as exhibits, which are looked at but not used, but as buildings. Our neighborhoods are a wealth of stout structures of wood and stone inside which families are raised and children are educated and where the penitent come to worship.

The Sumpter Valley Railroad no longer hauls logs to a sawmill, of course, nor does it run its full span between Baker City and Prairie City. But at least it still carries passengers for several miles.

It is a fine thing that the days of yore persist and that they do so not solely in our faulty and faded memories.

Here we can still savor the piercing whistle of a steam locomotive, still hear the solid thunk of a front door sliding into its latch, and feel the wood smoothed by the hands of those we will never meet.

Jayson Jacoby is editor 
of the Baker City Herald.