The Wallowa Union Railroad Authority board of directors is working with the Friends of the Joseph Branch and members of the public to develop a long-range plan for the excursion train line.
by BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH / The Observer
Green light given to 10 train runs through Wallowa Canyon in 2013
ELGIN — The Wallowa Union Railroad Authority board of directors zeroed in on short-term and long-term operations Monday, adopting an excursion schedule for the coming season and gathering public comment on proposals for future operations.
In a well-attended meeting at Elgin City Hall, the board decided on a shortened excursion season for 2013, 10 runs through the scenic Wallowa River canyon, from Elgin to Vincent and back, beginning with the annual Mothers Day trip May 12.
Mark Davidson, a board member and the railroad’s general manager, said WURA will make investments in equipment, maintenance and insurance, while members of the volunteer group Friends of the Joseph Branch will provide the manpower needed to run the trains.
Friends of the Joseph Branch has supported railroad operations ever since Wallowa and Union counties jointly purchased the 61-mile line that extends from Elgin in Union County to Joseph in Wallowa County 10 years ago.
Currently, Friends membership includes three or four people who are certified engineers. Other volunteers will staff trains in the coming season as conductors, tour guides and in other roles as needed.
The 10-run schedule was proposed during discussions with Friends members, and approved unanimously by the WURA board during Monday’s meeting. In answer to a question before the vote, Friends board member David Arnold said the group needs more volunteers to sustain the effort to run the trains.
“It does often fall on a few to do a lot, and we need to get away from that,” Arnold said.
Last season, Sierra Nevada Pacific owned by Court Hammond ,contracted to run WURA excursions. Before coming to Northeast Oregon, Hammond ran the Yreka Western Railroad, an eight-mile excursion line between Yreka and Montague, Calif. The Yreka Western featured a 1915 Baldwin steam locomotive known in the railroad world as the Blue Goose or Locomotive Number 19.
Hammond said he would use the vintage car on the Wallowa-Union Railroad line, which is jointly owned by Union and Wallowa counties.
The Yreka Western property, including the locomotive, turned out to be encumbered by various liens. Hammond ran some excursions last summer using WURA equipment. Then in early September the season was cut short because of fire danger in the woods.
The board terminated Hammond’s contract in January, ruling that he had breached the agreement on several points. Hammond left owing money to the railroad and to vendors on the line. Also, he had failed to pay for insurance as required.
Now, the board is working with the Friends group and members of the public to develop a long-range plan for the line. Arnold said Monday that an ad hoc committee within Friends of the Joseph Branch is exploring possibilities including living history exhibits and an interpretive center and museum set up in the newly-constructed multi-modal station at Elgin.
Arnold said Friends of the Joseph Branch hopes to enlist help from someone with grant-writing expertise.
“Moving into this kind of model opens up funding for us,” he said.
The Elgin terminal was built with a $1.1 million ConnectOregon grant.
Steve McClure, WURA co-chair, said the railroad needs to find suitable uses for the building.
“I think it’s a beautiful facility and I’d like to see it utilized,” McClure said.
Other proposals for long-range operations have included construction of a bike and hiking trail adjacent to the railroads tracks, or a “rails to trails” model where the tracks would be removed and replaced with a trail.
The latter option does not have the support of the WURA board, but a “rails with trail” system, built possibly with help from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, does. McClure noted that OPRD representatives toured the line a couple of years ago and said the project has potential.
“The discussion from the state was that you could possibly do that in that corridor,” he said.
Arnold, a member of a committee that is updating Oregon’s rail plan, said the state Department of Transportation wants to see railroads, including short lines, preserved.
People offering comments during Monday’s meeting included Mary Rose Nichols of Elgin, who said she is excited about the possibility of adding a trail. She said she has hiked such trails in other states, and has seen their economic benefits.
“There’s lot of people stopping and spending time in the communities they pass through,” she said.
Most others giving input Monday said they favored keeping the rails and adding a trail, though opinion wasn’t unanimous. Kim Metlin, who with his wife, Anita, advocates for attractions for cyclists in the region, said he likes either approach but thinks it would cheaper and more cost effective for the railroad to remove the rails and build a trail over the bed.
Cove resident Doug Kaigler told the board that he hopes “all voices will be heard” as talk about the future of the railroad continues. McClure answered that the board is committed to gathering public input.
“I would assure you this is not short term. There will be a lot of public discussion whatever we do,” McClure said.