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A Journey Aboard the Mount Hood Railroad in Oregon
When the sky’s impenetrable misty white and gray quilt, draping the silver Columbia River, had torn apart and revealed an illustrious blue, the daily excursion train from Hood River to Odell, operated by the Mount Hood Railroad, began to accept passengers from its historic depot.
The Oregon and Washington Railroad and Navigation Company (OWR & NC) Craftsman-style railroad depot itself, constructed in 1911 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, had replaced the original 1882 Queen Anne-style building and facilitated growth of the town’s thriving fruit, timber, and tourism industries. The 120-passenger waiting room, considerably larger than most concurrent public facilities, had featured a men’s smoking room and both ladies’ and men’s toilets. Since 1987, it has served as the Mount Hood Railroad’s headquarters.
Pulled by the dark red, yellow, and turquoise-painted diesel-electric engine #02, today’s train complement had included open-air car 1056 designated “Lookout Mountain,” snack car 1080, passenger coach 1070 “Katharine,” and caboose 1040.
An initial jolt, signaling car coupling tension, preceded the almost imperceptible backward glide of the train from the Hood River station, as it inched up the shallowly-inclining track past the dining car rolling stock and over the black, wrought iron Hood River-spanning bridge. The river, once the location of the Lewis and Clark expedition, appeared a dark green flow of life whose white-exploding rock divisions, characteristic of life’s own necessary path deviations and a person’s protests as a result of them, had been sun-glinted.
Penetrating denser vegetation, the track paralleled the river whose small rapids metamorphosed the water into turbulent white fury. The Mt. Hood National Forest formed the density in the distance.
It is from this forest, in essence, that the Mount Hood Railroad had emanated. The Lost Lake Lumber Company, whose Columbia and Hood River location had initially provided significant economic and employment contribution to the Hood River community, had begun to decline when log transfer from the forest to the actual sawmill had become increasingly difficult, and an ultimate sale of it seemed the only lucrative exit. Utah lumberman David Eccles, who had purchased the failing concern, had remedially advocated the construction of a dam, which would have facilitated lumber transport by means of log flotation, but three local businessmen thwarted the effort by quickly obtaining a 99-year lease on the intended site and announced construction of their own 35-foot, power-generating facility.
Eccles, who had equally used short-line logging railroads to transfer lumber to his other sawmills, circumvented the countermove by relocating the mill 16 miles up river and laying track to connect the two sites by rail.
Construction of an east side route, which would channel the pending railroad through area fruit orchards, would ensure its viability as both a passenger and freight line, and the 150-strong workforce, living in six, strategically-positioned camps, drove the first stake in April of 1905. Seven months later, in November, the first locomotive had traveled as far as the Hood River Bridge, and by February of the following year, the Japanese track-laying crew had extended the line as far as Odell, destination of today’s excursion train, 8.5 miles from its origin. Dee, location of the new sawmill, had been reached one month later, although the eventual 22-mile stretch to Parkdale, gateway to Mt. Hood, had only been opened to the public in 1910.
The present diesel-electric engine had been the ultimate in design technology to have plied these rails, the first two locomotives having been 37-year-old, Union Pacific-acquired Baldwin Consolidation 2-8-0 units which had been retired in 1916 and 1917, respectively, and had been intermittently replaced by two similarly second-hand powerplants until the first newly-acquired Baldwin 2-8-2 had arrived.
Reducing speed and still moving in a backward direction, the Mount Hood train operating the May 2008 run approached the dual-tracked switchback, which would ultimately allow it to pull its meager chain of cars in a forward direction. One of only five remaining US switchbacks, it had originated as a turntable. Because the initial steam engines had to trail their steam emissions behind them over their cab boxes and therefore always had to pull their cars in a forward direction, the turntable had facilitated this earlier technology until the 1950 diesel engine replacements had obviated its need. The original, 13-car switchback had been expanded to encompass 18 cars with the Union Pacific’s 1968 acquisition of the railroad.
Backing on to the single spur, and clearing the switchback “fork,” engine 02, now poised to commence its climb in a forward, car-pulling direction, reinitiated movement, penetrating the dense lodgepole pine of the Hood River Valley. Approaching Highway 35, the train followed the 14-degree-curved track, the line’s sharpest, traversing the wooden railroad trestle and paralleling Whiskey Creek, once the location of applejack production. Moving in a southerly direction, it ate a considerably steep gradient.
The concession car, featuring an arched ceiling with periodic light fixtures; old fashioned, wallpaper-adorned wooden sidewalls; brass lamps; and two- and four-seat wooden tables, sported a center snack bar and counter. My purchased continental breakfast on the 10:00 a.m. run included hot cinnamon rolls dipped in vanilla frosting and cranberry juice.
During the ten-year period between 1906 and 1916, the current tracks had supported intermodel service when conventional rail cars had been linked to a White-designed rail-bus whose original wheels and tires had been retrofitted with flanged steel units to accept the rails. After the acquisition of a second, newly purchased sightseeing vehicle, the railroad had operated four daily round-trips between Hood River and Parkdale. The succeeding, 30-passenger Mack jitney, with an upholstered, Pullman-resembling interior, had provided 13 years of service until its 1935 fire destruction at Summit Station. Extensive refurbishment ultimately earned it a place on the National Historic Register.
Threading its way through peach and cherry orchards, the present-day, four-car train moved past carpeted hills whose bases had been woven with brown and green tapestries proudly guarded on either of their sides by tall, dark green needle pine sentinels. Periodically piercing the late-morning with its metallic, hair-raising whistle, the vintage train lumbered through the town of Pine Grove, now 5.6 miles from Hood River at a 608-foot elevation, lurching and clanking on its longitudinal axis. The sky, barely marred by a few cotton puffs, had transformed into an intense blue.
The smooth, inverted, bowl-shaped Van Horn Butte, beyond Pine Grove, had been one of the small volcanic vents from which lava had flowed to form Mt. Hood, forcing the Columbia River to move to its present more northerly location in the Hood River Valley. Mt. Hood itself, wearing its silky, glistening white shawl of snow, loomed in front of the locomotive.
Views from the cupola of the caboose, which trailed the three passenger cars, revealed their locomotive-mimicked, spring-loaded reactions, as if they had comprised a long, iron tail, penetrating the sometimes thick pine and orchard vegetation on the single track toward the snow-draped mountain silhouette. The air, although crystal clear, exuded the aroma of distantly burning firewood. New Creek, which had been used to power the Hood River Valley’s first sawmill and served in that capacity for a quarter of a century, passed under the track. Mohr, 6.8 miles from Hood River, had been named after the family which had planted the area’s first orchard.
Pursuing the single track, which presently multiplied into three, the Mount Hood train crept into Lentz Station, which had originally been called “Sherman Spur,” and disconnected its diesel engine. Moving past the now motionless cars on the side line, it reattached itself behind the caboose. So configured, it would push the train the final mile to Odell, its destination.
Gently prodded forward, the dark green coaches almost imperceptibly inched over the silver rails horizontally supported by the dry, wooden crossbeams, passing the track switch and reintegrating themselves on the single spur. Re-establishing speed, the train clanked past the wood-scented lumber yard in the crystal, pine-laced Pacific Northwest air toward the multiply-shaded green tapestry covering the mountains ahead and Odell, the end of today’s run and once almost the end of the line’s track.
When the Diamond Fruit Growers had centralized their operation in Odell, eliminating the Dee-to-Parkdale stretch of track, the Union Pacific Railroad had estimated that it could garner a $150,000 profit in exchange for its smelted steel, a decision consistent with its 1986-1987 strategy of divesting itself of 87 of its feeder line railroads. But Hood River County saw the move as nothing short of a loss due to the railroad’s inability to continue to make its economic contribution.
A newly created rail company, the Mount Hood Railroad, had been touted as the Union Pacific’s successor and shares were purchased by the fruit and lumber companies lining its route, which had significant stakes in its continued operation. Bus transfer from Parkdale, its terminus, had equally facilitated passenger travel to Timberline Lodge, a National Historic Landmark, thus enabling the railroad to link two of Oregon’s most major tourist attractions: Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.
The Union Pacific acquisition, however, carried one stipulation with it: the local Hood River Group, eager to retain service at the end of the line from Dee to Parkdale, would either have to buy the entire 22-mile track from Hood River or forfeit the opportunity to retain the railroad’s economic contribution to the valley.
After significant effort, agreement, and capital, the purchase transaction had been consummated on November 2, 1947, and the Mount Hood Railroad, the very concern on which I rode today, had been born. Rotating its wheels with ever-decreasing power, engine 02 nudged its short, historic passenger coach chain into Odell parallel to the concrete strip serving as its platform at 11:15 a.m., now 8.5 miles from its origin at a 712-foot elevation, and screeched its brakes only yards short of the main road-imbedded track.
Named after William S. Odell, who had settled here in 1861 after traveling from California, the current, single-street town, featuring a small supermarket, church, and gas station, had initially served as a gathering place for Native Americans and had later been used as a Hudson’s Bay Company trail between the Dalles and Ft. Vancouver.
Descending the three steps from coach 1070 to the street-level, I looked back at the short train of open and enclosed cars and cabooses which had transported me from the Columbia River today and somehow knew that the journey had represented its more than a century of geographical journeys and rail line evolutions. The tracks, having been operated by the Oregon and Washington Railroad and Navigation Company, the Union Pacific Railroad, and the present Mount Hood Railroad, had transported lumber, freight, passengers, and tourists. The line had been short, but its history had been long. Like life, it would continue, as long as a purpose had been found for it. Unlike life, it had been able to determine what that purpose had been.
Walking from the platform toward the tiny town of Odell, above whose surrounding pine tree tops the majestic, snow-covered peak of Mt. Hood triumphantly rose, I disappeared into the train-deposited crowd.
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