South of the Blue Mountains and east of Bend lies a part of Oregon not well known to outsiders, a vast inland desert that extends into Nevada. Only along the Malheur (French for "bad hour," or misfortune) River flowing east toward Idaho did railroad builders find any potential for business. The result of their efforts was UP's Oregon Eastern Branch, 157 miles of railroad that traverses the barren, hostile landscape from Ontario to Burns.
There were several plans to build across the desert, though only two were ever attempted. The first was Colonel T. Egenton Hogg's Oregon Pacific, promoted as a line extending from Yaquina Bay on the coast to Prineville, Burns and the Oregon Short Line in Ontario (or a possible connection to the Oregon and Northwestern Railway further east). Hogg managed to build 155 miles of track from the coast to the Cascades and 12 miles of grade in Malheur Canyon by 1889, but the road declared bankruptcy the following year and no further progress was made.
The Malheur Valley Railway commenced construction from the UP main line at Ontario to Vale in 1906. Rails pushed west of Vale in 1912 as part of the Oregon Eastern Railway, a proposed joint UP-SP network which was to extend from Ontario to Eugene and Klamath Falls. The U.S. Supreme Court split up the UP-SP alliance in 1913, and the Oregon Eastern project was subsequently abandoned.
Under UP-Oregon Short Line ownership, the Oregon Eastern reached Burns in 1924 to serve nearby timberlands opened by the U.S. Forest Service. Though no further construction was undertaken, the resulting Oregon Eastern Branch survived on agriculture and connections with the Oregon and Northwestern Railroad at Burns. Business through the desert lands west of Vale gradually became more dependent on the O&NW interchange and the Hines Lumber Company mill in Hines. Railroad operations slowly were decreased to one train a week simply to serve the Oregon and Northwestern Railroad at Burns.
Things were alright until March 1984, when Mother Nature intervened with unusually wet weather, which caused Malheur Lake to flood the surrounding region, including several miles of the Oregon Eastern Branch, which cut off rail service to Burns and the O&NW. UP's last run from Burns was made on March 8th, 1984.
Portions of the line remained submerged until 1987 when the Oregon Eastern Branch was sold to Western Intermountain Industries of Boise. The sale, however, was never consummated and in 1989, the line was acquired by the Wyoming Colorado Railroad, which planned to raise UP's soggy roadbed above flood stage with the help of county, state and federal funds. This never happened and it abandoned the line in 1990.
The tracks were torn up in 1996 as well as the ties and bridges. There still is a short tunnel near Namorf that is open with no barricade. The line is easily traced as you drive highway 20 from Vale to Burns. The grade is still well preserved 15 years later and probably will be forever because of its remoteness. Towns along the abandoned line are Little Valley, Harper, Namorf, Jonesboro, Juntura, Long, Riverside, Dunnean, Venator, Circle Bar, Crane, Albritton, Lawen, Redess, Rodeo, Hines and into Burns.
The section of the line from Malheur Junction to Hope is still operated by the Wyoming Colorado Railroad, connecting with UP at Malheur Junction. A branch from Vale to the NW through Dennis, Lancaster, Jamieson and into Brogan has been abandoned also, see the The Brogan Branch.
Thanks to Brian Edwards for contributing information about this route.