Sumpter Valley Railway Passenger Station, Prairie City Oregon

Date added: October 11, 2022 Categories: Oregon Train Station

The Sumpter Valley Railway Passenger Station was completed in 1910 at what became the western terminus of an 80-mile narrow gauge line connecting with the Union Pacific at Baker. It is significant to Grant County and the state as the only substantial building now standing which is associated with the historic enterprise which played an important role in the development of the timber industry and hard rock mining in northeastern Oregon. The Sumpter Valley Railway was chartered in 1890, and construction was carried out between 1891 and 1910. Passenger service on Oregon's longest narrow gauge line was discontinued in 1937 in the midst of the Great Depression, but freight hauling carried on through another decade before the line was abandoned. As an unaltered building on its original site in Prairie City, it possesses integrity of location, design, setting, material, workmanship, feeling, and association. Now the focal point of a County-owned park which is maintained under a lease agreement by the City of Prairie City, the station was nearly demolished for lack of funds for refurbishment in recent years. In 1979 a citizens action group known as the Sumpter Valley Depot Restoration Committee raised funds and volunteered services in a successful effort to preserve the building. Ultimate plans call for use of the ground story as a historical museum and exhibit area and use the second-story living quarters as a community hall.

As initially projected, the Sumpter Valley Railway was to continue south from Prairie City in the Blue Mountains to Burns and across southeastern Oregon desert country to Lakeview. Original investment was over $1,500,000. If it had been completed as planned, it would have been northernmost in a potential network of narrow gauge railroads connecting Oregon, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Although its primary purpose was to exploit untapped pine forests in the Blue Mountains, it also was a factor in mining and agricultural development. As the Dictionary of Oregon History entry explains, "...Engines burned wood for most of the line's existence, gulping prodigious quantities, locally cut and piled along the right-of-way. Steam was hard to raise and the grades were steep. But the trains went through, hauling the commerce of mining town, farmland, and logging operation..." Because a large body of folklore built up around it, the line had become legendary long before its demise. Its existence was vital to settlement and development of a large and often inaccessible area of northeastern Oregon, and at times it provided the only transportation and communications link to major centers of population. While the main line was only 80 miles in length, it crossed several mountain ranges that were otherwise impassable during much of the year, and there were many additional miles of spur track.

The home office of the Sumpter Valley Railway was in Baker. The railway was chartered on August 15, 1890, with Utah industrialist David Eccles as president. Eccles, the owner of the Oregon Lumber Company, had arranged with Union Pacific to build a narrow gauge line that would provide access to the stands of virgin timber south and west of Baker. Track was laid to McEwen in the Sumpter Valley by October 1, 1891, and the first logs were hauled to the Oregon Lumber Company's mill in Baker at that time. Regularly scheduled passenger service was inaugurated on May 31, 1893.

The railroad arrived at Sumpter on October 3, 1896, and contributed substantially to a famous gold mining boom that lasted until 1908. At the height of the boom, between 1899 and 1901, there were two regularly scheduled passenger round trips daily, two regularly scheduled freights daily, and occasional extra service.

The line reached Whitney, a sawmill town, on June 1, 1901. It arrived at Tipton, a station serving the Greenhorn mines, in June, 1904. Track was laid to Austin and Bates, another sawmill site, in the fall of 1905.

In 1909 construction was resumed, and the line was completed as far as Prairie City in 1910. The Sumpter Valley Railway contemplated building southward and eventually linking up with Nevada Central, but these dreams were not realized. Prairie City remained the western terminus of the line and served as an important shipping point for cattle and farm products from the John Day Valley, as well as a depot for inbound shipments of feed, seed, and equipment.

The gold boom at Sumpter was over by 1908, and the town declined. The town burned in 1917 and was not rebuilt. Rail traffic to and from Prairie City gradually decreased after the First World War, and in January 1933, the line from Austin and Bates to Prairie City was abandoned. Formal passenger service on the Sumpter Valley Railway ceased on July 31, 1937, although those who wanted to do so were allowed to ride the caboose until the summer of 1947, when freight traffic also ceased. At this time the rails were pulled up and all remaining steam locomotives and rolling stock were disposed of.

Several factors contributed to the demise of the Sumpter Valley Railway and similar lines, including depletion of natural resources the lines were built to exploit, improved highways and motor vehicles, economic depression, and changing patterns in society and industry. Of the several settlements along the Sumpter Valley right-of-way, only Baker and Prairie City continue to flourish as active small towns. The population of Baker is 9,500; that of Prairie City, 1,000.

The Sumpter Valley Railway always enjoyed a warm place in the hearts of people who knew it, and it was regarded with equal fondness by those it served and those it employed, most of who referred to it affectionately as "the Stump Dodger" or "Polygamy Central" (the latter in acknowledgment of its Mormon ownership).

A pioneer western industrialist and Utah's first multi-millionaire, David Eccles (1849-1912) owned a great many businesses and corporations. His operations in Oregon, in addition to the Sumpter Valley Railway, included the extensive Oregon Lumber Company, which in 1893 listed principal mills at Hood River, Meacham, North Powder, Baker, and Pleasant Valley. He was involved in other mills in La Grande and elsewhere, and he built a sugar factory in La Grande at the turn of the century. Although his many firms were never discriminatory in their hiring practices, he was in large measure responsible for the relatively high number of Mormon families who settled permanently in eastern Oregon. He was in several respects a key figure in the development of the region.

Preservation

Although community sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of preserving and restoring the station when the development of the station grounds for park purposes was undertaken in 1975, no restoration funds had been raised by June of 1979, and demolition was being considered by City and County governments. A number of interested persons responded to the challenge by forming a committee to save the endangered building. Several local fund-raising projects have been undertaken by the Sumpter Valley Depot Restoration Committee and, as a result, preservation of the building has been ensured and restoration is well underway. CETA employees have been made available by the County. Local groups are sponsoring the restoration of individual interior spaces, and other forms of volunteer assistance have been provided. The park is owned by Grant County, which has assumed the responsibility for the restoration of the building's exterior and providing a foundation. The park is maintained by Prairie City under a lease agreement with the County.

Building Description

The Sumpter Valley Railway Passenger Station is a two-story building of balloon frame construction, cruciform in plan, measuring 60x32 feet. It has shiplap, or drop siding, jerkin-headed cross-axial gable roofs, and bracketed, wrap-around canopies which shelter ground story openings of east and west wings containing freight storage and waiting rooms, respectively. No additions or major structural alterations have been made to the building since its construction in 1910. It is situated in the northeast corner of the 3.96-acre Depot Park in the small agricultural community of Prairie City (population: 1,000). It is oriented to the south, with its long axis lying east to west. The tracks which once extended the full length of the station front are no longer in place. The site, bordered on the north by bottom land of the John Day River, is planted with lawn and is dotted with willows. Strawberry Creek flows through the southwest corner of the park.

Exterior finish is drop siding with modified Stick Style trim consisting of base panels of diagonally-laid tongue and groove boards. Trim elements which have deteriorated are being reduplicated in the current restoration effort. The original overall paint color is original treatment; a brownish red typical of railroad freight cars, railway and mill buildings. Door and window trim is black. Lettering on the building was white, and enough lettering remains to provide the basis for its restoration. Each of the three chimney stacks with corbelled caps have been rebuilt following their original configuration.

The original foundation consisted of 8x8-inch timber "sleepers" laid directly on the ground. The perimeter was enclosed by narrow boards laid horizontally. The foundation has been replaced with a six-inch concrete pad.

The original roofing material was wood shingles. Patterned shingles clad the canopies. All roof surfaces were overlaid with composition shingles with Boston hips and ridges in the recent restoration. It is planned that wood shingles may be replaced at some future date, and toward that end a careful record was made of the shingle pattern of the canopies.

With one exception (a leaded window lighting the original stairwell area), all windows are double-hung sash with one light over one. Replacement glazing and sash have been installed as necessary. Window trim is simple and includes molded lintels.

With the exception of a sliding freight door, all doors are of the standard five-panel type typical of the period. The majority of doorways have transoms.

The ground story contains the waiting room, office, baggage and express room, and freight room. The waiting room and office are wainscotted, and walls and ceilings are finished in center-matched lumber. The boards are standard ceiling stock, or beaded tongue and groove type. Wall boards are laid horizontally. Pine flooring is used throughout. Door and window trim is plain. Restoration of waiting room and office is essentially complete. All surfaces have been stripped, repaired, and painted in colors approximating the original scheme.

The baggage and express room is finished, in part, in the same manner as the waiting room and office. Some of the walls, however, are covered with shiplap to which muslin-backed paper was applied. The original staircase was removed sometime after the station's closure to passenger travel in 1937, and this constitutes the building's only real structural change prior to the replacement of the foundation. The east end of the baggage and express room was at one time partitioned to contain a small bathroom. Restoration of this area has been deferred for further study.

The freight room was equipped with a six-foot sliding door in the south wall giving access to the tracks. The door is missing and will be reconstructed on the basis of historic views. The room has not been altered. It is lined with plain, center-matched lumber.

Access to the second story is currently provided by a temporary stair. The upper story contained living quarters for the station agent. The spaces are arranged around a central hall conforming to the building's long axis. Dining and sewing rooms and pantry are in the west wing over the waiting room. The space over the east wing freight room is divided into three bedrooms. The kitchen and parlor are contained in the core of the building on either side of the hall. The second story was never plumbed for a bathroom. A large closet near the head of the stairway may have been intended for this purpose, as it is directly above the ground floor space in which a bathroom was installed.

Second-story walls are finished with shiplap to which muslin and wallpaper were applied. Window and door trim is plain, similar to that of the ground story. All surfaces have been either cleaned or stripped, and new muslin is being applied in preparation for wallpaper similar to that of the 1910 period in spirit. No sheetrock has been used.in the interior.

The only other structure in the park grounds is the toilet and shower building of concrete block construction erected in 1975. It is situated 60 feet to the west of the station and is relatively unobtrusive. Original restroom facilities for the public consisted of two outdoor privies, which no longer exist.