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THE SUMPTER VALLEY RAILROAD - OREGON

Several of Iva Cook's brothers (and perhaps her father - James Robert Cook) participated in the building of the Sumpter Valley Railroad near Baker, OR.

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Everett Jennings with co-workers in or near Baker County, Oregon Train stuck in the snow In or near Baker County, Oregon

Interview with Geneva (Campbell) Cook
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Page One

Page Two

 

House made of old boxcars that sat on the hill across the tracks
Austin, Oregon
(Courtesy of Kay and Bill Wilson)

 

Yesterday's Sumpter Valley Railway

The Sumpter Valley Railway Company was incorporated in the state of Oregon, August 18, 1890. To capitalize the proposed railroad each shareholder of the Oregon Lumber Company took an equivalent number of shares in the new organization, with David Eccles named president of the original incorporators. The enthusiastic citizens of Baker City ensured Eccles 10 acres of land in Baker City for a right-of-way and a depot.

Joseph A. West, the engineer responsible for the railway's design and construction recommended narrow gauge rails over standard gauge, influenced by three factors:

The mountainous terrain the railway had to cross. The narrow gauge permitted tighter curves than standard gauge. The special requirements of the lumber companies who were to be the largest shippers.

A narrow gauge line has its rails set 36" apart in contrast to the standard separation of 56.5". The mainline had to maintain roadbed grades no greater than 5%.

Construction began at South Baker in 1890 with an old Grant 8- wheeler from the Utah Northern to handle the work train. The first grade followed the Powder River through Bowen Valley to Salisbury, 9 miles south of Baker. After the Boulder Gorge passage and a few more mountain curves, the line was fairly straight down the open meadows. Curry was a logging camp set up in a wide flat meadow on the way to McEwen. This once serene pasture land is now under the waters of Phillips reservoir. The track followed the river canyon to McEwen. This small travelers' stage stop was named for Thomas McEwen, a stage driver, who operated a stage and freight line to Sumpter and Canyon City. The track was completed on October 1, 1891, and a depot was built. Within a year, two stores, two blacksmiths shops, a saloon, Odd Fellow's hall, and a Methodist church surrounded the Sumpter Valley Railway stop.

By 1893, limited passenger service was established to McEwen, a two hour train ride from Baker City. For four years McEwen was the end of the line for the SVR.

Back in 1862, five Confederate veterans discovered gold near Sumpter. These men of history constructed a log cabin with a stone fireplace and rock chimney. They named it "Fort Sumter," after the National Garrison at Charleston, South Carolina, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861. By 1883, the name was not acceptable to the U.S. Post Office. So the word "Fort" was dropped and a "p" added to the spelling, making Sumpter. How Sumpter was divined is anyone's story. From 1862 to 1884 not much activity stirred in the small town hidden amid the Elkhorn range of the Blue Mountains. Then in the 1892, a major gold strike was found, and the real gold boom began.

The Sumpter Valley Railway whistled into Sumpter on October 31, 1896. Joseph Barton was hired to locate a new right-of-way and directed the grading and track laying for the six miles from McEwen to Sumpter. When the railroad came to Sumpter the population was 200 people. The railroad opened the gates of Sumpter. The population mushroomed almost overnight to 1,500. In less than a year, an unofficial count was tallied at 9,000. There was a floating population of approximately 2,000 per day.

The railroad primarily hauled people, logs and lumber. By 1905- 06, the gold mines began to lose their yield and closed down. The town's glitter faded too. The population declined. Though the gold deposits emptied, the railway continued to hauling logs and lumber. In 1900, the track gangs were laying rail again, over Larch summit, an altitude of 5094, and down the west side of Huckleberry Mountain. By June 1, 1901, the tracks reached a Ponderosa populated flat land, where the Oregon Lumber Company surveyed the Whitney Townsite Company, later to be known as Whitney. Tracks were constructed from Whitney in all directions. Some spur lines went 14 miles into the woods. It was not long before a depot was built, and in 1911, Charles W. Nibley constructed a sawmill at the edge of town.

During the summer of 1903, the track crews were extending the rails across the Whitney Valley, over the North Fork of the Burnt River, and up the pass of the Greenhorn Mountains to the Tipton summit, at 5127 feet. The rail reached Tipton in 1904. A station was built in Tipton and a wye constructed to turn the helper engines. From Tipton the SVR entered Grant County, traveling down the mountain to what later became White Pine. Soon the rails were reaching down the mountain side 8 miles from White Pine, arriving at the stage stop of Austin, in November 1905. In 1909 the track crews began constructing the final segment of the railway 21 miles south of Austin. By June 1910, the tracks descended to the John Day Valley, crossed the John Day River and were completed to Prairie City. The railway was now 80.1 miles from Baker City.

David Eccles had the ambition to extend the line south to Lakeview, Oregon, near the northern Nevada border. The plans were to link with the narrow gauge Nevada-California-Oregon Railway steaming from Reno, Nevada. He had hoped to couple the lines all the way to San Francisco.

The following paragraph is in error, but we are trying to gather information to correct it correctly. See the second paragraph following this for what we know so far

In 1920, the Sumpter Valley Railway bought two new rod engines. These were 2-8-2 Mikados from the Baldwin Locomotive Works, in Schenectady, New York. These were the only engines built to the railway's specifications. These engines were numbered 19 and 20, and are still with us today.

The SVRy bought 3 Baldwin Mikados - possibly built to standard specs or from a cancelled order. These were numbered 16-18 and were bought new. They also bought Alco Mikados 19-20 which were probably built to the railroads specs. The Alco Mikes were bigger than the Baldwin Mikes.

The daily passenger train from Baker City was called the Stump Dodger. This varnish made its daily run from Baker to Sumpter, then over the hills to Austin, Bates, Prairie City, and returned by the same route. David Baird was the conductor on the run for several decades. Dave would collect his tickets, then inquire who wished to eat in Austin. Austin was a timber town, in which was located Mrs. Austin's Boarding House. "Ma" Austin served a hot meal to passengers and area residents. After determining who wished to eat, Conductor Baird would wire the agent in Austin, who in turn would pass the head count to Ma Austin.

The beginning of the end came in 1933, the depth of the Great Depression, when the SVR abandoned its mainline from Bates to Prairie City. By July 1937, passenger service along the line was discontinued. For the next 10 years a paying passenger could ride the caboose of the daily freight train.

With the coming of the new rod locomotives, the SVR started scrapping its older and smaller engines. In the fall of 1939, the SVR management bought the largest locomotives ever built for an American narrow gauge railroad. These were the 2-6-6-2 Mallets, designed by Lucien Sprague for the Uintah Railway. From 1940 to 1947, these articulated Mallets pulled the loads of logs and lumber from the sawmills to South Baker.

But the end of the line was in sight. The last freight train steamed into South Baker on June 12, 1947. Shortly thereafter the rails were pulled, the lines completely dismantled, and the land on which the tracks were laid was sold or abandoned. The Oregon Lumber Company operated a sawmill in South Baker until the middle 1950's, when the company was sold to Edward Hines Lumber Company. The SVR chugged back and forth in the lumber yards until 1961. The last of its tracks were pulled from the earth, and returned to the Union Pacific Railroad, where David Eccles had only leased them.

The Sumpter Valley Railway was no more.

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