TAKE A RIDE ON THE STUMP DODGER
By Mark Highberger
For The Observer
Step aboard the Stump Dodger, eavesdrop as the crew swaps recipes for fried-green-tomato pie, and then brace yourself against the shriek of a whistle and the lurch of a locomotive as you settle in for a ride that takes you back to the last century.
To accomplish this time-travel, the Stump Dodger, a steam locomotive named during its turn-of-the-century log-hauling days, spends summer weekends carrying passengers on 10-mile round trips through the tailings spewed out and piled high by the gold-digging dredges that once ate their way through the Sumpter Valley of Northeast Oregon. Its only a half-hour journey each way, yet that hour of train travel will show you a place that few have seen before.
So that you understand the land through which youll travel, board the train at the Sumpter Depot, part of the state park located on the outskirts of Sumpter, a once-bustling railroad and gold town located 30 miles west of Baker City. This park is the home of Oregons last gold dredge, a machine so efficient in its earth-chewing and rock-spewing that just before it retired in 1954, a story in The Oregonian reported that Experts say the land will be useless for many generations unless (the) rubble is leveled.
Now a tour through the dredge shows you how it worked, and a ride on the train shows you what it left miles and piles of rubble that has kept visitors on the perimeter until the Sumpter Valley Railroad laid its five miles of track. So all aboard.
A bell clangs. Steam chugs. And the Stump Dodger rumbles forward with a bounce and a hiss. It pulls five cars: a caboose, a coal car, a Pullman coach, and two observation cars converted from old flatcars. All this, as well as the locomotive and the tracks, are here today because of what happened after a group of Baker County residents met in 1970 to discuss the idea of restoring the train.
Soon they were at work searching for their train and the means to operate it. They got their locomotives from an Idaho sawmill and an Alaskan railway, their flatcars from the Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad, their Pullman coach from the daughter of one of the railroads 1890 founders, their right-of-way from Baker County, and their labor and energy from volunteers.
Everyone who works here, except for the station master, is a volunteer, says Jim Ross of Boise, who serves as the trains conductor every other weekend of the operating season. This is my relief valve, he says, explaining his devotion to the train. It gives me a chance to be with people and have fun.
As the train edges up next to the road, a motor home honks, the train whistles, and everyone waves as the Stump Dodger bumps along on its narrow gauge tracks, clacking and squeaking beneath the shade of pine trees and past tailing piles sprouting cottonwoods and willows. Ross explains that the width of the narrow-gauge tracks 36 inches rather than the 48.5 inches of standard gauge had advantages in the mountains, for it used a narrower right of way, cleared stumps more easily, and turned corners more tightly.
(He also explains that the width of standard gauge comes from Europe, where the ruts made by Roman chariots determined the subsequent width of wheels on wagons and then on trains. The rails, he says, went where the ruts went.)
The first of this areas narrow gauge tracks started near Baker City in 1890, reached Sumpter in 1896, and then began climbing the mountains to the southwest, crossing three almost mile-high summits before reaching Prairie City in 1910. But when the 1920s saw cars carrying people and trucks hauling freight, the railroad withered; soon the tracks as well as the towns that had grown up alongside them were abandoned.
It was one of the most colorful and longest-lived narrow gauge railroads in the nation, say the folks who restored the Stump Dodger and its five miles of tracks.
Now as the train wobbles along those narrow tracks ever deeper into the cobbled landscape, there awaits a world of breeze and sun, of rock and water, of potholes and cattails. Here and there the Powder River slides through the rock and curls off into the distance. It doesnt take long to see that in spite of what the experts said more than 40 years ago, nature is re-claiming this valley, sprouting thickets that draw mule deer and cottontail rabbits, and treating dredge-dug ponds as puddles and sloughs that serve as habitat for ducks and geese, even occasional Sandhill Cranes.
Its hard to believe what those rock piles hide, one of the passengers says, nodding toward a mound as high as the train. From the highway this looks like a wasteland, but up close like this, you can see how much wildlife there is.
One reason for this is that of the 2,600 acres more than four square miles of tailings in the valley, almost 1,600 acres of it is owned by Baker County and managed by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife as the Sumpter Valley Wildlife Area. The easiest non-train access to the area is up ahead at McEwen Station, one end of the tracks and the mid-point of the ride.
Here at the site of an old stage stop is the beginning of a three-mile loop trail that leads along the Powder River as well as past several of the dredge ponds. Even a short stroll to a nearby viewpoint while the locomotive fills with water can show you the valley from a different perspective. But when you hear the toot of a horn and the oomph-oomph of the engine, its time to load up for the return trip.
This journey back is a 30-minute ride that took almost 30 years to build: 30 years of work putting steel tracks back in the Sumpter Valley and a steam locomotive back on those tracks. Now the Stump Dodger once again rolls through the valley, this time carrying people back into history.
WHO TO CONTACT
For more information about the Stump Dodger, call the Sumpter Valley Railway at 541-894-2268, or check their Web site at www.svry.com.
WHERE TO GO
The train travels between stations at Sumpter and McEwen, both located southwest of Baker City, just off Highway 7 in the Sumpter Valley.
WHEN TO GO
From Memorial Day weekend through September, the train makes three runs per day on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. It will, however, run daily from July 4-8, including a moonlight ride on July 7.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Round trip fares are $6.50 kids, $9 adults, or $20 families.
Campgrounds are available at nearby Phillips Lake, while RV facilities and motels are located at Sumpter.
THINGS TO KNOW
The original Stump Dodger operated for 57 years, from 1890 until 1947.
Some of Mark Highbergers travel articles are collected in his book Exploring Oregon, which is available at local bookstores.