Branson / Cook Genealogy
Sandra Branson Young
All Rights Reserved
THE SUMPTER VALLEY RAILROAD -
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.
Click on a Photo for a
|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
Click on an image for a larger view
made of old boxcars that sat on the hill across the tracks
(Courtesy of Kay and Bill Wilson)
Sumpter Valley Railway
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
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
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
The Sumpter Valley Railway was no more.
site maintained by Sandra Branson Young