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Wallowa Union Railroad

Wallowa Union Railroad



The yards of the Wallowa-Union Railroad at Elgin. Tim Stricker



History

In late March 1996, declining business and storm damage forced the Idaho Northern & Pacific to suspend all operations on its Joseph branch beyond Elgin. Local politicians and tourist officials had been hoping to one day start tourist railroad operations on the line, but their opposition proved insufficient to prevent the Surface Transportation Board from granting IN&P permission to abandon the railroad on March 3, 1998. Negotiations between those trying to save the railroad and IN&P continued on for several years, until IN&P ran out of patience and started salvage work in 2001. This finally forced action on the issue; Union and Wallowa counties formed the Wallowa-Union Rail Authority, which quickly secured funding from various state and federal sources. In May 2002, the authority paid IN&P $6.5 million dollars, for which it received 63 miles of railroad extending from Elgin to Joseph, two locomotives, three passenger cars, a baggage and generator car, a flatcar, a snowplow, and some maintenance equipment. IN&P agreed to restore the line to service and conduct operations for the first year.

Repair work began after the sale closed, while the new authority and others built support for the new venture. Supporters of the branch formed Friends of the Joseph Branch as a non-profit organization to help promote and preserve the line. Continued work by IN&P forces got the line back in service by mid-summer, and on Monday, 5 August 2002, the Wallowa Union Railroad operated its first train, delivering 93,600 board feet of lumber produced by the Wallowa Forest Products mill near Wallowa to the IN&P interchange in Elgin. The train broke through a yellow ribbon upon its arrival to Elgin.




WURR #2085 switching a company service tank car in Elgin. Tim Stricker



The Wallowa Union Railroad settled down to an initial existence of moving what little freight the line generated. Wallowa Forest Products was the largest customer, shipping 12-15 carloads of lumber each week out over the railroad. Wallowa Forest Products imported most of their raw logs from the Yakima, Washington, area, but efforts to shift this traffic from trucks to rail proved unsuccessful.

The Wallowa Union Railroad established independent operations in 2003, as IN&P's initial operating agreement ended. Wallowa Union made several important changes early in its tenure, including trading its two locomotives to an equipment dealer in Colorado in exchange for three older locomotives and launching passenger train operations under the Eagle Cap Excursion Train banner.

Operations continued with no major changes until 2008, when the Wallowa Forest Products sawmill closed, a victim of both poor log supply compounded by the recession. The Wallowa Union Railroad lost its entire freight business, though passenger operations continued. By 2009 the railroad found a new revenue source, specifically storing 700 idled centerbeam lumber cars for Union Pacific. These cars brought the railroad and its parent authority some much needed cash flow and allowed them to pay down some accumulated debt, but at the same time the presence of the cars upset many people living near the tracks. The cars disappeared off the line after a few years as the economy improved.




A former UP caboose and track equipment next to an old warehouse in the Elgin yards. Tim Stricker



By 2010, the Wallowa-Union Railroad Authority faced difficult financial straights. Ridership on the Eagle Cap excursions remained low, averaging less than 1,500 people per year. No prospects for new freight business appeared on the horizon. The Authority was reluctant to scrap the railroad, given the amount of time and other investments made in the property. The railroad did expand its equipment fleet with the purchase of three self propelled Budd RDC cars, most recently used on the Lewis & Clark Explorer excursion trains that had operated along a stretch of the lower Columbia River as part of the 200th Anniversay celebrations of the original Lewis and Clark Expedition. Also, the authority and others secured a Connect Oregon III grant to build a multi-modal transit hub building in Elgin that would serve as both a depot and offices for Wallowa-Union Railroad and local bus service.

Contracting operations to an outside party emerged as a real possibility for keeping the Wallowa Union Railroad intact, and in late 2011 the agency found a potential vendor. Court Hammond, owner of the Yreka Western Railroad in California, advanced a proposal to take over operations of the railroad, and quickly found a receptive ear at the WURA board. The two parties had a contract in place by the early months of 2012, and Hammond incorporated the Sierra Nevada & Pacific to operate the railroad. Centerpiece to Hammond's plans included substantially increasing the number of offered trips and bringing to the railroad equipment from the Yreka Western, including YW's #19, a 1915-built Baldwin 2-8-2. Hammond's crews started operations using WURR's equipment, but legal entanglements and financial problems on the Yreka Western limited the movement of YW's equipment north to one half open caboose of Great Northern and McCloud River heritage. In September, excursion operations abruptly ended due to high fire danger along the line. Wallowa Union Railroad Authority grew concerned as the end of the year approached over growing indebtedness to the agency and various area vendors and Sierra Nevada & Pacific's failure to consistently pay for insurance coverage. On December 21, 2012, the WURA board terminated Hammond's operating agreement for these and other breach of contract issues and resumed operations of their railroad.




WURR #2085 and #2083 in Elgin. Tim Stricker



The Wallowa Union Railroad resumed passenger excursion operations under its own banner in 2013. Trains are operated in conjunction with the Friends of the Joseph Branch organization and typcially cover the line from Elgin to Minam. The line beyond Minam is currently out of service save for a "rail biking" operation based out of Joseph that uses several miles of the line under a special arrangement with the railroad. The railroad did determine its RDC cars served no useful purpose and sold them in 2013 to the Idaho Northern & Pacific for use in their tourist railroad operations out of Horseshoe Bend, Idaho.

As this is being written, the Friends of the Joseph Branch is exploring reopening the railroad to Wallowa, with the goal of expanding operations into Wallowa County. Several local groups are also actively working on establishing a "rail with trail" recreational trail alongside a substantial portion of the grade. Any return of freight business appears dubious at best at the moment and would likely require a substantial increase is raw log supplies for any sawmills to reopen or development of new industry. The Wallowa Union Railroad continues providing one of the more scenic railroad operations in Oregon along the Grande Ronde and Wallowa rivers.


Map



Current Locomotive Roster

Underlined numbers indicate a link to a page of pictures of that locomotive.

#2083- EMD GP-7u, 1500 Horsepower, c/n 18900, built 1953. Originally Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe #2883, then #2083; to Central Kansas Railway #2083; to Omnitrax; to Wallowa Union Railroad 2004.

#2085- EMD GP-7u, 1500 Horsepower, c/n 17647, built 1952. Originally Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe #2836, then #2085; to Central Kansas Railway #2085; to Omnitrax; to Wallowa Union Railroad 2004.

#2087- EMD GP-7u, 1500 Horsepower, c/n 17700, built 1952. Originally Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe #2839, then #2087; to Central Kansas Railway #2087; to Omnitrax; to Wallowa Union Railroad 2004.

#4507- EMD GP-35, 2500 Horsepower, c/n 29911, built 1965. Originally Southern Railroad #2656; to Norfolk Southern #2656; to Wheeling & Lake Erie #2656; to INPR #4507. Sold to Wallowa Union Railroad #4507 2002; to Omnitrax 2004; to Kettle Falls International Railroad #2500.

#4508- EMD GP-35, 2500 Horsepower, c/n 29912, built 1965. Originally Southern Railroad #2657; to Norfolk Southern #2657; to Wheeling & Lake Erie #2657; to INPR #4508. Sold to Wallowa Union Railroad #4508 2002; to Omnitrax 2004; to Kettle Falls International Railroad #4508.



Photos of the Wallowa Union Railroad

WURR Excursion

Equipment Pictures



References

"Shortlines of the Pacific Northwest" by Jim Shaw, Four Ways West Publications, La Miranda, CA, 2011.

News items from the following:

The Bend Bulletin

Flimsies NorthWest

North/West Railfan

Various newspapers


More on the Web

Eagle Cap Train Rides homepage

Joseph Branch Rail Riders

Western Shortline Rosters page for Wallowa Union Railroad