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La Grande Observer 12/22/14

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Home arrow News arrow Local News arrow Remembering the rails

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Remembering the rails

A steam locomotive arrives at the switch for the sidetrack in Cove around 1909 or 1910. Richard Roth has written a new book, “The Central Railroad of Oregon, Oregon’s Blue Mountain Route,” which focuses on the story of a short line railroad that provided passenger and produce shipping service between Union and Cove for about 20 years through 1927.
A steam locomotive arrives at the switch for the sidetrack in Cove around 1909 or 1910. Richard Roth has written a new book, “The Central Railroad of Oregon, Oregon’s Blue Mountain Route,” which focuses on the story of a short line railroad that provided passenger and produce shipping service between Union and Cove for about 20 years through 1927.

Richard Roth book examines area’s railroad history  

Richard Roth did not know what to expect when he began conducting research more than a year ago for a book about the Central Railroad of Oregon, which operated in Union County for about two decades. 

“I had no idea where it would lead. I didn’t know what direction it would take me,” Roth said.

His journey took him down fascinating historical paths and, he jokes, put him on the road to the office of an optometrist.

“I read so much microfilm, that I’m going to need a new set of glasses,” said Roth, who lives in Orting, Wash.

Roth’s new book, “The Central Railroad of Oregon, Oregon’s Blue Mountain Route,” focuses on the story of a short line railroad that provided passenger and produce shipping service between Union and Cove for about 20 years through 1927. It was linked to the transcontinental railroad running through the Grande Ronde Valley and had a profound influence of the lives of people living in the Union and Cove area. 

“It meant they finally had access to the outside world by rail,” Roth said. 

The book also focuses on local railroad personalities in the early 1900s, the most interesting of which is one J.B. Mahana, a railroad designer and one of the most intriguing people to have lived in Union. 

“He was just a fascinating guy,” Roth said.

Mahana moved to Union from Vermont in 1890, where he worked on a plan for a train that would run on a single rail. Mahana said this system would cut the cost of building a rail line in half. He spent thousands of dollars of investors’ money trying to develop a single rail system. Mahana was awarded several patents for a single-rail train system but, unfortunately for Union, a working model was never developed.

“The design, if successful, would have caused a revolution in railroading,” Roth wrote. “The town of Union would have been recognized as the center for railroad innovation.”

Roth devotes a chapter of his book to Mahana. It is titled “J.B. Mahana, Visionary Genius or Con Artist?” Roth believes the answer to the question he poses is a combination of the two. 

“He was both,” Roth said.

The author’s new book also looks at a number of intriguing rail projects that were proposed for Union County but were never started or completed. One was a plan for a trolley or streetcar system that would have run throughout the Grande Ronde Valley. The plan for this system was submitted to the La Grande Commercial Club by C.A. Harps of San Francisco. Apparently the plan was not well received.

“Nothing more was heard concerning this proposal,” Roth said.

A trolley or streetcar system would have provided a big boost in the Grande Ronde Valley a century ago because the rail beds it would have run on would have been higher than the roads used for auto travel. This would have been particularly advantageous in the spring when the Grande Ronde Valley was prone to flooding caused by spring runoffs, Roth said. Flooding was more common then before extensive drainage work was done. 

Roth’s new book also looks at the many rail projects that were proposed or started which would have brought rail lines into Union and would have made it a prominent railroad station.

“If not for a few accidents of history, Union would have been a major railroad stop,” Roth said. “It would have been part of a transcontinental railroad route.”

Roth stressed that his book, which has more than 170 color and black and white photographs, could not have been written without extensive help of many people throughout Northeast Oregon and the west. 

“It was a community effort to pull the materials together,” he said.

Roth lives in Washington but has strong ties to the Grande Ronde Valley. His family moved to Hot Lake in 1942 when he was 3 months old after his parents purchased it. Roth lived at Hot Lake the next 32 years and helped manage it.

After leaving the Grande Ronde Valley, Roth went on to earn a master’s of public health degree in health administration and policy at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City. 


Contact Dick Mason at 541-786-5386 or This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it Follow Dick on Twitter @lgoMason.

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