New use for very old trail

January 16, 2013 10:06 am

It’s no small feat to get a trail built in the woods these days.

Unless, of course, the trail is pretty much built already.

Just such a situation exists in Baker and Grant counties. And all the heavy work happened more than a century ago.

The Sumpter Valley Railway Mainline Trail is a worthwhile proposal that we hope happens, and as soon as this spring when the snow melts.

The project’s main advantage, as we alluded to, is that the 42-mile route connecting the Sumpter Valley Dredge and Bates state parks is no mere concept, existing only on paper.

Rather, the proposed route follows the grade built for the Sumpter Valley Railroad, the famous “Stump Dodger” narrow-gauge line that hauled gold ore and ponderosa pine logs from the Blue Mountains to Baker City.

The 42-mile section was built between 1896, when the railroad reached Sumpter, and 1910, when the rails got to their final terminus at Prairie City.

Karen Spencer, director of the Baker County Parks Department and one of the trail’s proponents, said that relatively little trail building would be needed, as the grade remains in remarkably good shape considering its age.

The biggest task, she said, would be to clear trees and brush, and to install signs.

Spencer said the Powder River Correctional Facility has offered the use of inmate crews at the rate of $70 per crew per day, a significant savings over the regular charge of $590 per day.

About 90 percent of the proposed route is on public land, including parts of the Wallowa-Whitman and Malheur national forests.

As for the 10 percent that’s privately owned, Spencer said trail promoters intend to try to negotiate easements or other agreements with landowners that would allow the trail to cross their properties.

However, if any property owners decline to participate, the trail would be re-routed around their land, probably by way of one of the many spur lines that branched off the Sumpter Valley Railroad mainline.

Some sections of that mainline were turned into roads many decades ago.

Those roads would remain as they are, with motor vehicles allowed on sections that are open now, Spencer said.

Other sections, where the original railroad grade remains, would be open for non-motorized travel, including hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and, in the winter, cross country skiing and snowshoeing.

Besides adding to the recreational opportunities in the area, the Sumpter Valley Railroad trail would draw attention to a fascinating part of the region’s history.

That these two goals can be accomplished for relatively little cost, and without displacing existing recreationists or affecting private property, adds to our enthusiasm for this project. Finally, the trail will be a fitting tribute to the men who toiled to build the railroad, all of them decades in their graves.