COUNTIES' TRAIN MAKES FIRST FREIGHT RUN

August 05, 2002 11:00 pm
ELGIN WELCOMES TRAIN: A freight train hauling 93,600 board feet of 2-by-4s from Wallowa Forest Products broke through a large yellow ribbon that was stretched across the tracks in Elgin Monday evening. The ribbon, balloons and refreshments were part of a celebration to mark the reopening of the rail line between Elgin and Wallowa. About 50 people, including Union and Wallowa county dignitaries, attended the event. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).
ELGIN WELCOMES TRAIN: A freight train hauling 93,600 board feet of 2-by-4s from Wallowa Forest Products broke through a large yellow ribbon that was stretched across the tracks in Elgin Monday evening. The ribbon, balloons and refreshments were part of a celebration to mark the reopening of the rail line between Elgin and Wallowa. About 50 people, including Union and Wallowa county dignitaries, attended the event. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

WALLOWA — Some 80 people enjoyed a lunch on lumber Monday.

The menu was simple: burgers and pop. But the lunch was delicious and free, barbecued by mill manager John Redfield. And the 93,600 board feet of 2-by-4s were the first carload of lumber shipped by rail from Wallowa Forest Products since the Idaho Northern and Pacific Railroad ceased operations on its Joseph to Elgin line in 1996.

A group of Union and Wallowa county business and government leaders greeted the train upon its arrival in Elgin.

Wallowa Forest Products, which has 63 employees, will ship 12 to 15 carloads by train each week, Redfield said at the mill's loading dock celebration. It's cheaper than trucking, but Redfield is hoping that further increased mill operations will also benefit the trucking industry to offset its freight loss to the railroad. As trucks arrived hauling logs from Yakima, Redfield said he's still working on details of importing logs by rail.

At the sendoff party were Union and Wallowa county commissioners, which had worked out a deal for the counties to purchase the Joseph branch line from Idaho Northern.

At Monday morning's Wallowa County Commissioners' meeting, officials discussed forming the Wallowa-Union Railroad Authority to receive the $2 million in lottery bonds from the state.

Commissioners plan to have a proposed ordinance drafted and advertised so they can take action on creating the rail authority and appointing directors at a meeting at 9 a.m. Aug. 19.

The rail board will have nine members. Two will be commissioners from each of the two counties, which in May purchased the abandoned line for $6.5 million with state and federal funding.

The board will also include at least one person from each county, representing the combined cities.

There will be five members at large, two from each county and one jointly appointed by the two counties. The commissioners want people with business or railroad backgrounds who together could bring a collective expertise to the table.

Wallowa County Public Transit Committee member Tim Nitz reported that the federal Transportation Efficiency Act for the 21st Century is coming up for reauthorization. It hopefully will be completed by February, he said. It includes two short-line railroad funding packages, that might provide an opportunity for funding the Joseph Branch line.

The funding now available for the new railroad is $140,000 earmarked for start-up costs, part of a $5 million line of credit that is being provided by the state.

A funding priority is to hire a manager, officials said. During the first year, Idaho Northern and Pacific will operate the railroad.

"Idaho Northern has been most responsive to the (Wallowa) mill and us. (They've) done a very good job of getting the line opened up and active to the mill," Wallowa County Commission chairman Mike Hayward said.

Hayward will meet with someone interested in buying the now closed Joseph Timber Products mill, he said. If the line is activated to Joseph, a next step is to erect stop signs at the numerous private road crossings between Wallowa and Joseph.

By month's end, Idaho Northern is expected to deliver three passenger cars to the counties. Hayward wants to arrange for passenger runs this fall.

Bob Casey, president of Friends of the Joseph Branch, will try to arrange for the Lewistown, Mont., Chamber of Commerce president to tour the line.

There are similarities between Wallowa County's rail line and the one in Lewistown and Casey thinks it could be a model for the Joseph Branch.

Some 40 people attended a July 23 Friends meeting. Topics discussed included grant writing, fund raising and the development of train depots.

Friends of the Joseph Branch is a newly formed non-profit foundation to promote and assist in the preservation, enhancement and operation of the line. So far the foundation has 50 members.

"We'll need a lot of people with imagination and energy to help," said member Ralph Swinehart of Enterprise.

Interested citizens of Union and Wallowa counties are holding a 6 p.m. meeting Aug. 28 at Elgin City Hall to provide an open forum and updated information on the railroad. People wanting to join the Friends foundation are encouraged to attend. Member-ship runs $20 per year.

For information contact the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce at 426-4622, Casey at 426-4420 or Marc Stauffer at 437-8972.