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Oregon \ Sumpter Valley Railway

Sumpter Valley Railway.

By Andrew Brandon

P rominent Mormon businessman David C. Eccles first came to Oregon in 1867 searching for opportunity in the far west. He started his first sawmill in Oregon City and struggled to make a living before returning to Ogden in 1869 shortly after the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Hoping to find more financial success there he ultimately worked as a carpenter and freighter, hauling coal for the Union Pacific. He re-entered the lumber business in 1872 and was in control of sawmills in Ogden and Scofield by 1881. Charles W. Nibley, an associate of David Eccles, alerted him to the virgin stands of timber available in the Blue Ridge mountains south of Baker City. Recognizing their value, both men incorporated the Oregon Lumber Company in Baker City, OR and constructed a sawmill in early 1889. They incorporated the Sumpter Valley Railway on August 15, 1890 to connect Baker City with Sumpter and and the intervening timberlands.

Equipment was purchased second-hand from the Utah Northern Railway which had been converted to standard gauge three years prior by its parent, the Union Pacific Railroad. The first locomotive arrived late in the summer of 1890, a small 4-4-0 numbered #285. Construction progressed slowly and the line reached milepost 19 in July 1891. On August 1st, the first load of logs was shipped to the new Oregon Lumber Company mill on the south side of Baker City. Rails reached McEwen on October 1st , enabling local mines in the Sumpter area to prosper. A Sampling Works was quickly constructed in Baker during the spring of 1892, allowing for even more efficient mining. Four years later (October 3rd, 1896), the railroad reached Sumpter; triggering a mining boom. The boom peaked in 1899-1900; not even a new smelter built by the Oregon Smelting & Refining Co in 1904 was enough to turn the tide. Mining continued around Sumpter intermittently until the smelter closed for good in 1908.

After reaching Sumpter the railroad continued expanding and completed trackage to Whitney in June 1901. Tipton was reached in 1904 and a depot was built to provide service for the Greenhorn mines to the north. In November 1905, track reached Austin, formerly a stagecoach stop and later home to the W. H. Eccles Lumber Co. As the rails pushed further south the railroad opened new timberlands and several logging operations fed traffic on the line. Management planned to expand further through Seneca and on to Burns. Hearing of the progress of the Nevada-California-Oregon Railway, which had reached Alturas, CA in 1908, it was decided to expand the mainline to connect with the N-C-O at John Day. The first leg of this expansion would be built through Prairie City starting in 1909. This new line would require a switchback at Dixie Summit and several hairpin curves. Prairie City would be reached on July 4, 1910 and the mainline now crossed three summits and stretched 80 miles from Baker City.

Business was booming along the line. In 1911 C. W. Nibley established the Nibley Lumber Company and built a sawmill in Whitney. Frank Gardinier started the Baker White Pine Lumber Co at White Pine. Mining in the Sumpter area resumed in the form of dredging in 1913. Despite the growing business, further expansion of the rails would never come. In January 1912 the N-C-O reached Lakeview Oregon, but would not expand their line any further. On December 6, 1912 David Eccles died of a heart attack at the age of 63 and plans to expand the railroad would come to an end. His heirs assumed operation the railroad and began a modernization program to upgrade the aging equipment. In 1915 they began purchasing 2-8-2 locomotives to replace the older 2-6-0s and a set of distinctive arch roof passenger cars was purchased from American Car and Foundry in 1917. Fire destroyed most of Sumpter and the remaining mining industry there in August of 1917 and lumber would once again be the primary freight over the railroad.

The Oregon Lumber Co. founded the town of Bates(ville), a mile southeast from Austin in 1919 further establishing the logging traffic over the Sumpter Valley. While timber continued to be a valued commodity, competition from busses and trucking cut into the profitability of passenger service. Motor cars were then used to replace regular passenger operations. Shipment of cattle by truck brought a decline in freight revenue from Prairie City and the section between Bates and Prairie City was abandoned in January 1933. Scheduled passenger service was discontinued over the remaining line on July 31, 1937 and the railroad shifted focus to lumber traffic. In 1939 a pair of 2-6-6-2T mallet locomotives were purchased from the defunct Uintah Railway. As the traffic on the line decreased, the mallets would prove sufficient for the freight requirements on the line and excess equipment was sold off.

The Sumpter Valley struggled against competing trucking and barely survived WWII. The final regular revenue trip over the line occurred on April 11, 1947. At the close of regular operations, many pieces of equipment were sold around the western hemisphere. The distinct arched roof passenger cars, two locomotives and several freight cars wound up on the White Pass & Yukon. The two mallets were sold to International Railways of Central America and operated there until the 1960s before being scrapped in the 1970s. A final 1.5 mile segment of the line remained intact as a switching operation for the Oregon Lumber Co. mill in Baker. As a purely industrial operation, this segment would remain in operation until 1961.

Since 1971 a group of Volunteers has been hard at work rebuilding a stretch of former mainline and operates it as the Sumpter Valley Railway. In 1976 the group purchased the former W.H. Eccles Lumber Co Heisler #3 from the Boise Cascade Corporation, which had been using it as a stationary boiler in Cascade, Idaho. In June 1976 #3 returned to operation on former Sumpter Valley right of way leased from the Edward Hines Lumber Co. In the 1980s 2-8-2s #19 and #20 returned from Alaska and several pieces of original equipment were rescued. #19 was restored to operation and along with W.H. Eccles #3 they operate between McEwen and Sumpter on the restored railroad.


Revised: December 21, 2015.
Bibliography
Farrell, Mallory Hope. Rails Sagebrush and Pine. San Marino: Golden West Books, 1967.
Hilton, George W. American Narrow Gauge Railroads. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Reference Material Available Online:

Maps.

The route of the Sumpter Valley Railway for Google Earth
By Andrew Brandon.

Professional Papers.

The Malheur National Forest: an ethnographic history by Jerry L. Mosgrove, United States Forest Service - Pacific Northwest Region. Google Books Icon

The Forests of Oregon by Henry Gannett. USGS Professional Paper #4, 1902.

Articles.

Dr. L. T. Brock appointed assistant surgeon. The Railway Surgeon, Volume 7, No. 18. Chicago, January 22, 1901. Google Books Icon

Photographs.

Collected Sumpter Valley Railway Photographs.
Images collected from private collections, libraries and historical societies.

Transportation & Forest Industry Gallery at the Baker County Library.

Organizations.

Sumpter Valley Railroad.
Begun by volunteers in 1971, the Sumpter Valley Railroad operates steam powered trains over the original right of way between McEwen, OR. and Sumpter, OR.

Western Railway Preservation Society.
Based in McEwen, OR. Dedicated to the preservation and restoration of western narrow gauge equipment.

Oregon \ Sumpter Valley Railway
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