This three-foot narrow gauge line was organized to build west from Baker (now Baker City) southwest into the beautiful Blue Mountains. Its primary purpose was to tap into the rich strands of timber and profitable mines in the region.
The guiding light of the Sumpter Valley Railway was David C. Eccles, a Scot born in Paisley, Renfrewshire in 1849. His family joined a group of latter day saints and migrated to Salt Lake City in 1863. Young Eccles soon started into the lumber business, and it was his obsession with the great virgin stands of pine that led him to Oregon.
In addition to the narrow gauge railroad, Eccles formed the Oregon Lumber Company to handle the timber. Since Eccles and most of his associates from Utah were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons, it was natural that this railroad was dubbed by some to be the "Polygamy Central." This proved to be a very offensive insult to the management and it was soon nicknamed a more realistic slogan, the "Stump Dodger." This was an appropriate name because it wound around the valley in long horseshoes and seemed to dodge the stumps of previous logging operations.
Construction started at Baker in 1890 and the railroad acquired a second-hand locomotive from the Utah Northern to handle the work train. The new grade connected Baker with Salisbury, where it turned and headed up the Powder River Canyon. The track was laid into McEwan in 1892 and soon train-fulls of logs were rumbling down to the Oregon Lumber Company mill in Baker.
in 1895, an extension was started that reached Sumpter in late 1897. The Oregon Lumber Company erected a sawmill at Sumpter, and loads of fresh cut pine-lumber was soon reaching Baker by rail. In addition, the Sumpter Valley carried an ever increasing operation of passengers and general freight. Gold mines were numerous and the Sumpter Smelter flourished in Sumpter to reduce the precious Ore into Bars of Bullion.
In 1901, the Sumpter Valley Railway began construction again on a line toward Prairie City. They reached the small outpost of Whitney. The new track climbed steep grades and wound around sharp curves to Larch, then dropped down to the North Fork of the Burnt River.
A later extension in 1904 saw the railroad extend its reach to Tipton and down the steep slopes to Austin and the nearby town of Bates, where the Oregon Lumber Company established another sawmill. Terminal facilities for the railroad were erected along with the four-stall engine house at Bates.
The final construction of the Sumpter Valley Railroad was begun in 1909 and completed in 1910. It connected Bates to Prairie City. Along this new route was a station called Dixie. It was the highest rail line in Oregon for a while, at elevation 5,238 feet above sea level at Dixie. Although the timber abruptly ended and turned into sagebrush west of Dixie, there was a concealed plan that Eccles kept secret. It is known that Eccles hoped on connecting with the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad, then in operation between Reno, NV and Lakeview, OR.
While David Eccles traced his projected maps over Oregon's great cattle ranges, his narrow gauge railroad continued to boost tonnage over the hills and passes between Prairie City and Baker. Slab-wood from the mills was used in the fireboxes of the locomotives. The earlier rails were light and soon became badly worn and derailments became a common problem. One crash near the outpost of Whitney allowed nearly 70 cows to escape into the woods. The rails were upgraded on an as-needed basis.
When the prohibition age imprisoned the land, the railroad aided a moonshiner who shipped his "white mule" over the railroad in 10 gallon milk cans.
Then in the 1930s, operations slowed to a trickle. This was because the resources supplying the railroad were getting severely depleted. in 1933, the line from Bates to Prairie City was abandoned. That section rarely saw traffic, as it was built only for a possible connection with the Nevada-California-Oregon Railroad. Passenger service over the entire line ceased sometime in 1937. Then in 1947, all operations ceased and the rolling stock was sold.
Today, deer and elk browse under the pines, undisturbed by the thundering of the Sumpter Valley Railway trains. The clear atmosphere of the Blue Mountains are no longer perfumed by a pungent smell of wood smoke and exhaust steam. Just recently, a short section near Sumpter has been rebuilt and has a limited tourist train in operation by the Sumpter Valley Railroad. Also, near the crest of the hill at Dixie, there is a maintained trail that is built on the old grade, though it is not labeled as a rail-trail. It is even named the Sumpter Valley Trail.
Thanks to Brian Edwards for contributing information about this route.