History of the Sumpter Valley Railroad Restoration Inc.
In 1971, a small group of volunteers set out to rebuild the narrow gauge Sumpter Valley Railway in Eastern Oregon.
Nearly all of today's excursion and museum railroads operate on abandoned rights-of-way. The Sumpter Valley Railway, located 22 miles southwest of Baker City Oregon, on U.S. Highway 7, has a unique characteristic over all of these railroads. We have built the railroad ourselves. Although the road bed and track is mostly on original Sumpter Valley Railway right-of-way, the original track was scrapped in 1947, and nearly all of the original road bed had eroded away. With an a;most all volunteer work force, the SVRy has rebuilt over 7 miles of track, and is still growing.
The restoration railroad began on January 4, 1971, when the Sumpter Valley Railroad Restoration was incorporated under the laws of Oregon as a non-profit operating tourist railroad. This was only 24 years after the original railway had stopped operations. The people in Baker County never could quite forget the "Stump Dodger". Later the Sumpter Valley Railway district was nominated and accepted for the National Register of Historic Places and the little railroad made a come back.
The new organization made arrangements with the Edward Hines Lumber Company for leasing the old right-of-way westward from the county road near McEwen to Sumpter. The right-of-way was acquired under a ten year lease. Another urgent order of business was to retrieve any part of the old rolling stock. Old locomotive boilers were pulled in from where they had been used as industrial boilers or furnaces. Some cattle cars were found rotting in pastures. These were rescued for restoration. An obvious conclusion was that in order to run a railroad it takes a locomotive of some kind. This being true, the group looked about for a vintage narrow gauge locomotive, hopefully from the Sumpter Valley Railroad. The Boise Cascade Corporation had an old W.H. Eccles Lumber Company locomotive located at its Cascade, Idaho, sawmill. This was the two truck Heisler number 3, purchased new by the Eccles Lumber Company in 1915, and operated on the Sumpter Valley Railroad as a logging engine. Boise Cascade sold the locomotive to the Restoration group. For many years Boise Cascade had steamed it up from time to time for use as a stand-by boiler for the sawmill at Cascade. At the time of the sale, the dejected engine sat aging in a shed, waiting for its renewed glory. In faded lettering on the tender was the name of its old boss, "W. H. Eccles Lbr. Co.".
In the fall of 1971, Union Pacific Railroad transported the 40 ton Heisler from Cascade to Baker Oregon, free of charge. This was the first of many feats of generosity the Union Pacific Railroad would show to our small railroad. The Union Pacific Railroad and its employees of the Portland Division have always been there for us when help was needed. But after many years of disuse the old #3 was not in running condition. Ellingson Lumber Company in Baker City loaned property in town for a repair shed. Keep in mind that the volunteer work crew had very little work experience on a steam locomotive, especially one born in 1915. A Heisler technical manual was obtained from Floyd Carpenter, SVRR member and former general superintendent on the original Sumpter Valley Railway. After four years of sweat and tears, rehabilitating was completed.
In 1975, volunteer bulldozing leveled two thousand feet of road bed making it ready for track laying. A location for the Dredge Depot (later renamed McEwen Depot) and parking lot was scraped and leveled. The Union Pacific Railroad donated 2000 feet of rail, ties, spikes, and plates. The first track was laid at the depot, and then the wye and tail track to the future site of the locomotive shed was laid. April of 1976 the Oregon National Guard moved a weather-battered SVRy water tower, tank housing and base, from Bates Oregon to the McEwen depot site.
In June 1976 the Heisler turned her wheels for the first time under steam, onto a low-boy trailer for her ride from Baker to its new home on the Sumpter Valley Railroad Restoration. After a six year struggle the Sumpter Valley Railroad Restoration was in business. The official ribbon cutting ceremony opening the railroad was July 4, 1976.
During the next several years, the railroad operated on a small stretch of rail of a few thousand feet. But great advances were being made by the all volunteer, poorly funded group. It was learned in 1977 that two original SVRy 2-8-2 Mikado class locomotives were available from the White Pass and Yukon Railroad in Skagway, Alaska.
Locomotive numbers 19 and 20 had been purchased new in 1920 by the SVRy. They were sold to the White Pass and Yukon in 1940, and operated there under road numbers 80 and 81 until their retirement in 1960. The SVRR was able to purchase the two locomotives for a dollar each. But the freight costs to haul this equipment from Skagway to Seattle would exceed $25,000. Funds were raised all over the Baker and Sumpter Valleys. The Union Pacific Railroad once again would provide a generous donation, providing transportation from Seattle to Baker City, and the locomotives were home again.
Another big donation from the Union Pacific Railroad came to us in 1977 when the track materials on a 20 mile branch line from Vale to Brogan, Oregon, were donated to the SVRR. The only conditions attached, the removal of the materials had a deadline and they were "as is, where is". It took many months of volunteer work to haul as much of the rail, ties, spikes and plates to the Sumpter Valley as possible.
During the 1980's the laying of track continued, albeit slowly, toward Sumpter. More equipment was obtained including the SVRy's only tank car and two cabooses that were built in the SVRy's Baker City shops in 1926, road numbers 3 and 5.
In 1985, a Union Pacific branch line between Athena and Weston in northeast Oregon ceased operation. The UPRR offered the rails to our organization if we would dismantle and transport the two and one-half miles of 80 pound rails including spikes, bars, plates, nuts, bolts and ties.
In 1988 the railroad received a big boost from the only surviving family member of railroad founder David Eccles. His daughter Emma Eccles Jones, 93, made a generous donation to fund expansion efforts. She wrote the railroad a letter reminiscing about taking a private train to the end of line with her mother to pick huckleberries. Her grant enabled the purchase of a SVRy wooden clerestory coach #20.
Built in 1890, this coach had been in revenue service for many years. When the SVRy ceased mainline operations it ended up in the hands of a private individual in western Oregon. After painstaking interior restoration work by SVRR member Eric Wunz the car was placed back into service in 1991. Coach #20 was named "Em Eccles Jones" in her honor.
In 1991, the railroad finally arrived in the town of Sumpter and in 2007 moved into its reproduction of the original station.
Today the railroad is just over 5.2 miles long, not counting sidings, spurs, and the McEwen Yard. Oregon State Parks operates the Dredge Heritage Area in Sumpter. The #3 YUBA dredge is visible from the SVRR right-of-way and a short walk from the Sumpter Depot. A steam train ride and tour of the dredge is an enjoyable step "back in time" day trip.
...and because the work is never ending, this story will be continued...