The Sumpter Valley Railroad

Heritage lines in the United States come in a variety of shapes and sizes, all with their own individual history. Andrew Rapacz reports on an excellent weekend of steam in Oregon.

Mention Oregon in the USA to railway enthusiasts and you might draw a blank. Some may know that the Daylight, a Southern Pacific express passenger steam locomotive resides in Portland, however, not many will know of the Sumpter Valley Railroad located in the north-eastern part of the state. It deserves to be better known, both for its interesting history and also its present day inspiring heritage operation using equipment original to the line.

This was, at its peak, an 80-mile, three foot gauge railway that ran from Baker City to Prairie City with numerous and lengthy logging lines tied to its route. Principally built to extract timber from the area through which is passed, it also ran a regular passenger service. Up until 1940 the line was powered solely by wood-burning locomotives, one of the last in the US, and its logging lines continued with wood burners albeit only for shunting until closure in 1947.

Stalwarts of the SVRR service, Heisler No. 3 and Alco- built Mikado No. 19 are seen raising steam outside the shed at McEwen on October 12, 2017. An untypical for the time of year snow shower adds some drama to the scene. The yellow Plymouth gas mechanical ‘yard goat’ or shunting locomotive on the left, isn’t much of a youngster and dates from 1928.

The heritage operation runs along six miles of trackbed alongside the Powder River (not to be confused with the Powder River in Wyoming and Montana) between McEwen and Sumpter in Oregon. To the north the backdrop is the impressive Elkhorn Ridge, however viewed from above, the river flood plain is scored with predominantly north/south deep furrows filled with water. This is the result of gold dredging over a number of years which has yielded a unique landscape for a heritage steam railway.

A visit to meet a long-time friend and rail enthusiast in the US was long overdue and taking advantage of this we decided to visit the Sumpter Valley Railroads’ signature event of the year, its Photographer’s Weekend. We were not disappointed.

Before I delve into some history, a note about abbreviations. Most railway companies in the US had or have the word railroad in the title, some but not many used the term railway. I have used SVRy to denote the Sumpter Valley Railway as originally built and titled and the SVRR, the Sumpter Valley Railroad as the present day, heritage operation is known. Also the US refers to stations as depots.

The story starts with one person, David Eccles. With his brother W H Eccles and three other business partners he formed the Oregon Lumber Company in Baker City, Oregon. A sawmill was established there which over the years grew to a substantial complex.

It was immediately apparent that a railway was needed to transport timber from the richly-forested slopes along the Powder River area. A deal was struck with the Union Pacific Railroad which involved the exchange of bonds in the new Sumpter Valley Railway and a contract to supply them with railway ties (sleepers).

Also included were second-hand equipment and rails from the Utah & Northern which the Union Pacific had recently purchased and was converting to standard gauge.

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