Get to Know Oregon Sumpter Valley Railroad

Author: Grant McOmie

The beauty of traveling Oregon’s back roads and byways is the unexpected treasure that you may find along the way – not just the scenery, but interesting lessons about Oregon’s past. When the whistle blows near Sumpter, Oregon one thing’s for sure: adventure isn’t far behind!

“Last call! Train Number One to Sumpter departing in five minutes!” said Sumpter Railroad conductor Daniel Bentz. The young man strolled across the wooden planks of the McEwen Depot and played his part well in a period costume and a full on character performance.

He continued: “So hurry and buy a ticket – then step aboard the Stump Dodger, because even a century later, this railroad is always on time.”

Up to four times a day, Baker County’s Sumpter Valley Railroad makes the twelve mile round trip run from McEwen Depot to Sumpter. It’s a railroad that reaches back to the early days of settlement in northeastern Oregon, according to the railroad’s operations manager, Taylor Rush. “The railway meandered in and out of every canyon throughout the Sumpter Valley as it followed the timber line in the 1880’s. In those days they said the railroad engine would dodge the stumps as it crawled up into the mountains and that name just stuck.”

Conductor Bentz added, “The original purpose of the railroad was to haul logs down to mills in Baker City where they were cut and hauled out across the nation. But the railroad also hauled regular goods, passengers and during cattle season there would be long stock trains heading down to the valley.”

These days, tourists have replaced the cattle and timber. Folks travel here from all over the country to escape city hubbub and settle in for a slower pace and also learn more about Baker County‘s past — especially the county’s gold mining past, when giant gold mining dredges turned the Powder River and greater Sumpter area upside down for miles around. Decades later, the tailing’s piles undulate like snakes across the valley floor.

Bentz noted, “They (dredges) chewed up the rock, sifted out the gold and then shot the rock out the back end of the floating dredge. It was amazing but it also damaged the valley’s environment. Remember, this was long before major environmental laws were passed and no one was really concerned about it.”

When you reach the town of Sumpter, stroll a couple of blocks and go aboard a unique Oregon State Park. The Sumpter Dredge offers you a chance to learn more about the area’s golden past.

Square-bowed and built of steel and wood and iron, three giant dredges lifted and sifted the terrain, reaping a golden harvest worth $12 million during the peak of the depression era. Today, it is a park that holds on to history and takes visitors aboard to see and touch the past at the Sumpter Valley Dredge State Heritage Area.

“Each bucket (there are 72 total) on this dredge would pick up about 9 cubic feet of material. It would wash the gold off the rocks and would drop thru into some sluice boxes and then out the back,” said park ranger Garret Nelson.

Inside the heart of the dredge – big as a barn and filled with gears and belts, winches and pumps –the rock passed through steel cylinders, separating rocks by size before water and sluices separated the gold from the dirt — nine tons of gold in twenty years!

Rella Pfleeger-Brown is the assistant park ranger and guides visitors aboard the dredge. She pointed out how the buckets moved like the chain links of a chainsaw, bored into the riverbank and carried loose rock back into the dredge’s hulking interior. Water and sluices separated the gold from the sediment and the spoils from this process were discharged behind the behemoth as it moved across the valley.

Miners removed nine tons of gold in nineteen years! If you are lucky, you may meet some of the men who lived the history; like brothers Wes and Paul Dickison – they grew up in nearby Baker City. In 1947, the two teens worked on the dredge for highest wages around: $1.35 an hour. “OSHA would have shut this thing down the very first day they stepped on it,” noted Paul. “There were all kinds of hazards; cables, open gears that weren’t guarded. And if the power went out – watch out!”

Wes recalled that happened twice. When the electric power that ran the dredge failed and everything stopped on the night shift. “We didn’t have lights,” said Paul. “We had nothing for light and it was the spookiest place you’d ever been in your life. All these pumps running, pipes running, water running, mud everywhere and boom – power went off and it was coal black. You’d hear a splash over here, splash over there – something there – real spooky!”

But the lure of golden profit was strong and repairs were made quickly so operations could continue. It’s the noise the brothers remembered the most. The dredge operations were so loud you couldn’t talk, so a bell system was the only way to communicate. Signals were written on the wall – long and short rings – that helped the three-men crew communicate across the massive floating machine.

Jerry Howard’s father was a winch-man in the 1930s who operated the dredge from three stories up in the winch room. He had a commanding view of the entire operation. Inside the room, handles moved cables that moved the buckets down below that gouged out the ground. “I can still hear the rocks hitting the tailings,” noted Howard. He recalled bringing lunch to his father and said it was a real boyhood adventure to go aboard the dredge. “The digging of the bucket line was something – 72 buckets going round and round 24 hours a day. It dug up a lot of land.”

They are lasting reminders of a bygone era for sure, yet time has a way of healing the land: trees and other vegetation are slowly coming back along the river. Ranger Garrett Nelson added that it remains an important Oregon story that he enjoys sharing with park visitors. “It’s rich with history! The dredge is a piece of that and it’s got a lot of interesting history that’s fun to dig into.”

Railroad engineer Dale Olsen added that a ride on the “Sumpter Stump Dodger” is a direct link with Oregon’s past and from where he sits, the railroad and the dredge are living museums that are worth a visit. “It’s important to keep in touch with our past. Both – in their own ways – are machines of beauty that are worth a visit and an understanding of their place in Oregon’s mining history.”

“The telling of Oregon history is an important mission for Oregon State Parks,” added Ranger Brown. “By virtue of the dredge’s presence in the valley, many visitors ask those questions and then you can teach them about that time. It really does provide the opportunity to share that chapter of Oregon’s past – and it’s really fun – it’s really fun.”

The Sumpter Valley Railroad continues operations on weekends through September. The Sumpter Dredge State Park is open through October.


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